With season six of Outlander about to air, it’s time to catch up with Sam Heughan, who has been playing Jamie Fraser since 2014, and find out what fans around the world can expect in the new series and what he’s been up to since the last one aired and fans were plunged into what became known as ‘Droughtlander’.
He joins me on Zoom from New Zealand where he’s busy making another series of the successful Men in Kilts travel show with Outlander co-star and friend Graham McTavish.
It’s late at night and Heughan has spent another busy day with McTavish, who played Dougal MacKenzie until he was despatched by Jamie, but it’s all right because he returned to the series as his own son (it’s a time travel/history/sci-fi drama, it happens). The pair have been looking into the history, landscape and culture of New Zealand in the same way they did in the Scottish series.
“Yeah, I'm here in New Zealand shooting Men in Kilts 2, a road trip,” he says.
So where is McTavish?
“He’s here somewhere probably,” says Heughan. “Probably sleeping. But we’re doing this new season and it’s an adventure, and hopefully there are going to be a lot more. This is definitely a lot more action packed than that last season. But there are so many similarities between New Zealand and Scotland, yet it also has its own unique identity and so it's been fun to explore. And also to torture him some more,” he laughs.
And share some more drams, as they’re both whisky lovers?
“It’s more that he’s been introducing me to New Zealand wine,” says Heughan, taking a sip from an unidentified glass at his side as he gives us a preview of the massively anticipated new Outlander season which launches tomorrow [Sunday March 6].
The STARZ time travel historical drama based on Diana Gabaldon's books (this season mirrors the sixth in the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes) opens with Jamie (Heughan) and Claire (Caitríona Balfe) prospering at Fraser’s Ridge in North Carolina but with America on the brink of the war of Independence.
“We pick up where we left off” says Heughan, “a few months after the end of season five. “Claire had been brutally attacked and she’s dealing with that and I think Jamie is also very aware of what she’s been going through and is understanding, but he’s also distracted because he’s still dealing with his divided loyalty to the Crown.
He knows that they’re going to be on the losing side in the coming war but he’s commissioned to be an Indian agent to work on behalf of the Crown, which he doesn’t want to do. Also he doesn’t know which side the Native Americans will land on so he’s unsure if he should help them or not.”
“We also have the introduction, or the reintroduction of Tom Christie, an old adversary of Jamie’s and his arrival with his family really does signal the decay of the stability at Fraser’s Ridge. We flashback to when they first met at Ardsmuir prison and see how Tom controls all the men through his religious beliefs when Jamie really doesn’t want to be involved - he’s just lost Claire, been through the battle of Culloden and he’s a shadow of himself. But he’s forced into standing up to Tom because he sees the injustice that’s being served out so that explains why he gets such a lukewarm welcome.”
Given that the storm clouds of war are building, we know we’re in for an action packed eight episodes, but Heughan is careful not to give away any spoilers.
“We know the War of Independence is looming and I think this is one of the darkest seasons yet. It’s the beginning of the decay of Fraser’s Ridge. The popularity of Jamie and Claire was high and the Ridge had grown into a very extended, affluent settlement, but this season really does mark the end of that popularity.”
As if the historical setting wasn’t dramatic enough, the device of time travel in Outlander gives some characters foresight of the future, principally Claire and Brionna, who pass their knowledge on to Jamie, which ramps up the suspense.
“Jamie and Claire know that they’re supposed to die in a fire at The Great House, so I guess that’s always playing on the back of their minds,” says Heughan. “I think the time is up for Jamie and Claire in this one and the entrance of Tom Christie really does set all of that in motion. He walks in and this is where things are about to change.”
Does Heughan think his character would make the same choices if he didn’t know what the future held and was working in the dark?
“Probably not. As he’s got older and more experienced he’s a lot more careful in what he does and he’s very considered. He really is a tactician now. He’s been a general, a leader of men, a bit of a politician in some ways. So he really is playing sides. He has prior knowledge but he doesn’t have ALL the information and I think that’s the real problem this time, that he doesn’t know the outcome and details of smaller things, so it’s hard for him to know when to make the moves.”
“Without giving away too much,” says Heughan, “he’s commissioned to become an Indian agent working on behalf of The Crown to encourage the Native American tribes to fight for the British but he doesn’t know from history which side they actually fought for. When the tribes ask him for weapons he doesn’t know whether he should because he may be fighting against them in the future.
“Also, he doesn’t know when is the right time to swap sides from supporting the Crown to supporting the rebels. The reason he has Fraser’s Ridge is because he has been given it by The Crown and he’s done very well, but he knows that they are ultimately going to be the losing side, so at what point does he jump ship?”
Stepping away from Jamie’s dilemmas and Outlander for a moment, what’s the biggest choice Heughan has faced in his 41 years so far?
“You never know until you have hindsight,” he says, “but I guess the biggest one would be me being in this TV show. I didn’t know what it would do and how it would change my life and there was a point where I thought ‘do I want to do this?’ There was a decision between this and another job actually, eight years ago, but it has changed my life and it’s been incredible.”
What was the other job, the one he turned down?
“There were a couple of things but one was a Dracula movie with Evans [Luke Evans - Dracula Untold 2014], and it was quite a big movie, but I decided to go with this.”
The reason for his choice came down to the role of Jamie and the desire to play this particular character.
“Jamie was someone I just seemed to know from the moment I read the script. Probably because he’s a kind of a combination of a lot of characters I’d played. And also it felt like an opportunity to create something new, and to be a lead in an American TV show. There were many things about it that were appealing. And then I guess my love of Scotland,” he says.
With the benefit of hindsight we know Outlander has become a massive international hit with people who have never been to Scotland, but for many of the cast and crew, being based in Scotland is part of the appeal. Throughout the pandemic filming continued at the home studies near Cumbernauld where big new sets were built, and on location around Scotland, meaning Heughan could live at home in Glasgow.
“Everything’s shot in Scotland and we had some huge new sets and a new set designer so it was just incredible. The new Fraser’s Ridge buildings are a reflection of how well the settlers are doing with Jamie as chief in everything but name.”
Heughan was raised in Dumfries and Galloway along with his brother Cirdan by a single parent mum, a Lord of the Rings fan, hence the names.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m Sam but a nickname of mine was Sam Wise. It certainly wasn't on my birth certificate though and it was more of a joke than anything but my brother is named after one of the elves.”
Elves or not, they revelled in the rural environment before they moved to Edinburgh when Heughan was a teenager before he trained at the then RSAMD in Glasgow.
“Moving to Edinburgh was a big influence on me because then I got to go to theatres, The Lyceum and Traverse and that's really inspired me. I definitely feel very fortunate. And I guess that's kind of why I'm trying to help a lot of students now at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland with a scholarship. We’re also running a competition to get them creating new writing and new work and that has been very rewarding for me and hopefully will help them on their journeys.”
A runner up and winner is to be announced, but Heughan is keen to stress that “it's less about winners and runners up, it’s more about just getting students creating work. It's not about trying to just create one play or performance, it's about getting people realising you can create your own work. They don’t have to sit and wait for the phone call, there are other avenues.”
Heughan has been very adept at opening up other avenues such as his spirits brand Sassenach, as well as turning his hand to writing a book. In 2020 he and Men in Kilts collaborator McTavish co-wrote Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other, which topped the New York Times' Best Seller Lists and follows many of their adventures in making the TV show, from hammer throwing to golfing to of course, whisky tasting.
“I love Scotland, and a lot of the business I’ve created myself on the side, the entrepreneur side of me, has been based on Scotland, my life and love of it. I think we have a great landscape and people and great products, so it’s been a great joy to be at home.
“I think that’s also part of Outlander as well, not only for viewers to look at Scotland which is amazing, but for me, to be comfortable and to be at home is part of Jamie Fraser.”
Playing the same character for eight years, with another season in the pipeline, has given Heughan the chance to really get to know the part as his character matures and develops.
“Jamie is definitely more thoughtful now, but I think he’s actually got more to lose. Losing Claire for that period, and because of what happened to her, he’s got a chink in his armour now and doesn’t want to lose her again. He experienced that briefly and I think that would destroy him.”
Heughan has a unique way to get into character as Jamie in terms of costume, and with each season starts at the bottom, with his footwear.
“It’s always been Jamie’s boots, I think they’re very much part of him,” he says. “Terry Dresbach, the first costume designer, created these special boots. First of all I was wearing French military boots, harking back to Jamie’s time in the military, then he got these fancy boots for season two in France and that carried through to America. Then we got a new costume designer, Trisha [Biggar] and Jamie needed a new wardrobe because he lost it all at sea so he has new boots. They’re very heavy, with stirrups so add a weight to you. When I put them on I just feel the character’s a bit more grounded. All of the clothes are so heavy. My riding jacket - I must weigh it some day, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 20kg or something. The costumes are so heavy and you’re wearing them all day. They slow you down but they give you a weight.”
Heughan hasn’t been tempted to take his boots home and strut around Glasgow in spurs, but he does have other items taken from the set.
“I spoke to the armoury a few times and I might have a couple of sharp implements in my house” he says. “A couple of swords and a dirk and a tarj. Every man needs an armoury,” he jokes.
“But I would like some things actually from other seasons. I’ve not really stolen anything. I should. I have things from other jobs; quite a lot of bits of costume. Weird little things, just reminders of the job, such as my gloves from Bloodshot,” he says, referring to the 2020 superhero comic adaptation in which he played the villain Jimmy Dalton opposite Vin Diesel.
“And from Text For You I’ve got my director’s chair name,” he says.
Filming between Outlander seasons, much as co-star Caitriona Balfe worked on Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Heughan made Text for You, a romcom adaptation of Sofie Cramer’s book with Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Celine Dion, and Channel 4’s crime drama, Suspect, with James Nesbitt.
“Text for You is a comedy and I had such a blast on it. Hopefully that will be out soon. It was great because it’s a completely different world to Outlander, and I just had such fun. Priyanka is such a sweetheart and an incredible actress. We had a lot of really good laughs and it was just such an incredible bunch of actors. It was shot in London during lockdown and was a pretty weird time to be shooting but we managed to get it done,” he says.
“And then Suspect will be out later in the year and it has an incredible cast: Richard E Grant, Joely Richardson, Ann Marie Duff and a bunch of great people and a really great director. I think it's a really intriguing story for audiences to really invest in. So I'm excited about that too.”
It’s late for Heughan, and he has another day of filming Men in Kilts tomorrow, so it’s time to discuss nightcaps and the success of his alcohol brand Sassenach Select Spirits, with its award winning whisky, and now tequila, which recently won Master Medal in the Tequila & Mezcal Masters 2022.
“The whisky has won multiple awards and it’s something I’m really proud of,” he says. “We’ve also just launched our tequila in the US and it has won a top award so it’s something I would love to get out in the UK because I don't think people really understand tequila or know how good it is. It’s an incredible product and the people in Mexico making it, their culture and heritage is very similar to the Scots.”
Heughan has visited Mexico a number of times since he turned his hand to distilling, and talks about trips to Jalisco province in the country’s West, and the town of Tequila itself where a collaboration led to the creation of Sassenach Select Double Wood Reposado tequila.
“We met Tony Salles, who’s a third generation master distiller, and it’s in his blood. He’s never made tequila for anyone before but we decided to collaborate because he loved our whisky and we loved his tequila so we’re very lucky. We made something very new, a doublewood reposado, aged for two years in American oak then French oak barrels, so it's quite elegant. There are no additives, no crap put in it and I’m very, very proud of it.”
Heughan is accustomed to winning awards for Outlander and pleased that Clanlands has been nominated for the Audi Book award, but which prize means the most to him?
“To be honest, it’s not acting, it’s the whisky. You know, the whisky is just something I’ve poured all my passion into and a lot of work behind the scenes and it's done so well. We’ve won, I don't know how many awards now. I think it’s seven double golds. It’s done so well.
“I just remember when we got the first one it was such a relief because you're like oh my God, not only is it good, but it's really good, and to know that people like it as well is great, cos you just don’t know do you?”
You don’t, but if the whisky doesn’t work out, there’s always the acting and they don’t go down much better than Outlander.
Sam Heughan stars in Outlander Season 6, airing on Sunday, March 6 on STARZPLAY.