Sam Heughan on fans and fame, his relationship with Caitriona Balfe and Outlander series 2
“I think if me and Caitriona were together we wouldn’t say. Why would you? In this industry we give away so much of ourselves anyway"
To the casual observer, the striking tall man in the blue shirt sipping a simple black coffee by the fire in the conservatory of a central London hotel could be any other 35-year-old.
But this is Sam Heughan, a Scottish boy from Dumfries done good with a fanbase of millions online, whom he can rally to any cause in less than 140 characters.
“They love a vote, don’t they?”, chuckles Heughan when we talk about Clan Outlander, the self-titled ‘Heughligans’ who voted the actor to victory in a mammoth Radio Times TV Champion poll just last summer.
And it was all testament to the power of Facebook and Twitter.
“In the early days of social media, you’d have a programme like Firefly, and when it was going to get cancelled, there was this great uproar by the fans”, Heughan muses.
“Fans are getting more power now aren’t they? To sway how a programme goes. They certainly seem to take on board what fans say and feel about the show.”
120 million votes – and one very nearly broken website – later we found ourselves in Glasgow, on the Cumbernauld set of the fantasy drama series, presenting Heughan with a silver TV Champion cup.
If that’s not testament to the growing importance of internet fandom, I'm not sure what is.
Heughan hasn’t let the power he wields over a legion of Outlander loving lads and lassies go to his head though. In fact, he seems humbled by his new found fame.
“It’s something you dream about, working in Scotland, working in Glasgow, walking down the same streets I used to walk down when I was a drama student, daydreaming about being in an American TV show or doing something that was well known. I guess I sort of pinch myself,” says Heughan.
“Even the last two days I’ve been having fittings for all my clothing for the premieres and all the press functions. Y’know, and there’s tons of clothes sent to the hotel."
"And I’m staying like in the Soho Hotel, which is just an incredible hotel, and I used to be a sort of jobbing actor around there and sort of. I dunno, yeah, it’s amazing, I feel very fortunate.”
And why wouldn’t he? He’s gone from jobbing actor to international superstar, almost overnight.
But it was during the 12 years he spent taking little acting jobs here and there that prepared him for what was to come. His big break, being cast as the male lead in US premium cable drama Outlander at the age of 33.
“I tested on a lot of TV shows and films after I finished drama school. I mean getting something that was so big at a younger age, it might have probably changed me,” he says. “Now I think maybe I appreciate it more.”
That’s the thing that strikes you about Heughan: He’s refreshingly grounded and doesn’t take fame for granted. During our chat he never once complains when the waiter repeatedly forgets to bring the water he ordered along with his coffee.
“It’s a very tough life, and it is really tough” he says of his profession. “It’s taken many years of struggling as an actor. And I’m also very aware that when this fantastic show has ridden its course there could be a point where I go back to some sort of obscurity.”
That’s not going to happen any time soon, though. Outlander, a show some might dismiss as the same old time-travelling-girl-meets-boy guff, is riding the crest of an on demand wave and blazing a trail while it’s at it.
Launched on US TV channel Starz, the show – based on the books series of the same name by bestselling author Diana Gabaldon – was one of the most watched series on Amazon Prime Video in the UK when it debuted last year.
Heughan’s co-stars Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies nabbed Golden Globe nominations for their efforts, and the show won almost every popular vote going – including a Peoples’ Choice Award and the Radio Times’ TV Show Champion tournament.
As highlander Jamie Frazer, Heughan finally got his teeth into a meaty lead role. For a man whose dream role is Shakespeare’s Macbeth “probably on stage to be honest,” it’s been something of a dream come true.
The series won almost universal praise for its treatment of a grueling sexual assault scene, which saw Tobias Menzies’ Black Jack Randall asserting his power and authority over the imprisoned Highlander.
“I relished the challenge,” says Heughan. “To be honest, you rarely get an opportunity to play something as dramatic or as intense as that. Every actor wants to, in our own sort of weird sort of way, we really want to push ourselves and test ourselves.”
While Game of Thrones was being lambasted for THAT rape scene involving Sansa Stark, Outlander was being applauded for its dark yet truthful depiction of a sexual power struggle.
“I know it is intense, I think we dealt with it with the right amount of taste. Everyone’s limits are different but I absolutely loved being given something quite so intense,” Heughan explains. “I want more. I want more dark stuff!”
You don’t have to look far to find darkness in Gabaldon’s highlands.
From whippings and beatings to bloody battles, there’s something for everyone – but it’s not violence for the sake of violence, Heughan stresses.
“We wanted it to be useful. It’s not just gratuitous violence, it’s there for a reason so that the character is forced to change.”
And that same philosophy applies to the show’s sex scenes – of which there are many. From the very first episode of series one it’s been clear that Outlander isn’t afraid to be a bit risqué.
“There are so many sex scenes or intimate scenes [in other shows] that are there just for that, with a soft focus or the camera pans off as they go to bed,” Heughan sighs, “and we’re very aware that if you see it, you’re going to see it for a reason.”
“It’s about showing the progression of their relationship, how they discover each other through intimacy. And we’ve continued that in series 2. If [series 1] was the honeymoon and the getting to know each other, and young love, then series 2 is going to be the grown up, adult ‘no, it’s not always shiny and pristine.’”
Heughan’s physique, however, always seems shiny and pristine on screen, and he’s well aware that there’s some serious competition out there: “I think Aidan [Turner] did really well, he looked great, didn’t he?” he laughs. “That’s an amazing photo.”
But while he may not seem too worried about shedding his clothes for scenes, Heughan admits that the more intimate moments are incredibly awkward to film.
“It is weird. I don’t think you could ever get used to those scenes,” he says. “They’re just so awkward. And they’re just so un-sexy. You’ve got a whole room of people and then you have to do it like a hundred times.”
“Literally?” I cheekily chide. “Exactly,” he laughs.
But if there’s anyone who can help him survive those awkward scenes it’s his co-star and off-screen friend, Balfe. “Caitriona is amazing, she’s very grounded, we’ve got each other,” he says.
Heughan speaks warmly of the actress, who he has developed an easy rapport with both on and off set. The pair’s chemistry is often the subject of discussion among fans online, but they’ve both been baffled by the obsession with their real-life relationship status.
“It was a weird one, we were asked in an interview and we were honest about it - and I really sort of felt we shouldn’t really discuss it,” Heughan begins, “having said that, I guess we’re aware of it, and we’re aware that some fans were upset, they felt they’d been duped or something, which is really strange because we’re just doing our job.”
“I think if me and Caitriona were together we wouldn’t say. Why would you?” he says. “In this industry we give away so much of ourselves anyway. We talk about ourselves and we tell people stuff.”
He does find the speculation at least a little flattering, though: “I guess it’s nice that we’ve done our job well enough to convince them.”
While fans speculate about his love life, William Shatner regularly engages in Twitter banter with him and Entertainment Weekly emblazons his half naked torso across the front page of one of America’s biggest magazines - how does Heughan keep his feet firmly on the ground?
“The [Outlander] crew, because they’re a Scottish crew, they don’t let you get above your station,” he explains. “I still remember I was doing a TV show in Scotland years ago, I was walking down the street. Some guy hung out his window and he’s like, ‘hey it’s you’ and I was like “hey” and he was like “wanker”, and then drove off. It just made me laugh, I was like ‘that’s brilliant.’”
“There’s not much reverence, or that sort of, y’know, maybe in America celebrity is a bit more on a pedestal. In Scotland, I think it’s the opposite.”
There is one element of fame that is somewhat universal though: “I think actors can be perceived as being quite selfish,” Heughan admits. “I must look like such a prissy actor.”
His extracurricular activities, however, would suggest otherwise. In the past year alone, Heughan and the supporters of his My Peak Challenge health and fitness programme have helped raise more than $170,000 for charity.
“Last year I decided I wanted to just share my love of the outdoors, I was doing a lot of walking and climbing with my trainer,” says Heughan, explaining how the My Peak Challenge programme came about. “I wanted to make it a sort of programme that people could get behind, that would help them but also help raise money for charity.”
Most of the proceeds go to UK blood cancer charity Bloodwise, whose running team Heughan has a long-standing association with.
“It’s incredible that we get this opportunity. And they’re coming to us , the charity and asking us, ‘would you like to choose how you help?’”, he smiles excitedly. “Being able to make a difference is incredible.”
And considering it’s thanks in no small part to the success and reach of Outlander, it’s little wonder that Heughan’s nervous about how the second series will be received.
“I was chatting to Caitriona last night, we went for dinner, and we’re sort nervous about series 2 because it’s different. It’s very different,” he admits.
“But it’s the book, y’know, and we have to follow the book. And the first half of series 2 is very much a different world and a different kind of enemy. And in the second half, it’s very much back to where we were, sort of familiar Scotland and familiar enemies. But it’s great, it’s a great sort of two sides to the story.”
Is he worried about Outlander newcomers, like the recently cast Richard Rankin – who boasts his own troop of Twitter warriors – stealing his online fandom crown? “Oh Rankin. Damn him,” Heughan laughs. “I’ll have to put him in his place somehow, I’ll find a way.”
But for now Heughan’s priority is finding his way to the next London hotel where a four week Outlander press tour will begin in earnest.
“I think I’d like to walk,” he says when offered a chauffer driven car to make the short trip across Soho.
And as I spy him ambling up Shaftesbury Avenue minutes later, almost simultaneously blending in and standing out from the crowd, I understand why this charming man has no trouble rallying his Clan.
Outlander series 2 streams exclusively in the UK on Amazon Prime Video from Sunday April 10th