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Sam Heughan is a man in demand. Not just from the avid fans of Outlander, or the casting directors of the new Channel 4 prestige murder-mystery series, Suspect, but right now, from us, as we’re struggling to connect with him during his packed filming schedule.
Heughan, 42, is currently preoccupied with the not-so-small matter of the seventh series of his career-defining role in Outlander. He plays the stoic warrior, Jamie Fraser, in the time-travelling historical fantasy series, which has built up a massive global audience since its debut in 2014. But it’s the theatre where Heughan first made a name for himself, cast as an ornithologist, John, in Outlying Islands while still a student at Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama; earning him an Olivier Award nomination in the process.
However, it wasn’t a case of instant fame and success after getting the Olivier nod, and Heughan was a jobbing actor for quite some time before he was cast in the long-running global series. The obligatory drama-graduate gigs followed: Doctors (where he narrowly missed out on the British Soap Awards Villain of the Year) Midsomer Murders, River City and Rebus, but all the time he was keeping his feet on the boards, appearing in Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet; then slightly bizarrely, a long-running Cirque du Soleil-type show about Batman, where he suited up to play the eponymous superhero and launched acrobatically around the stage on high-wires. It was around this time when another hero came calling, who goes by the code name 007…
Heughan keeps his crusading form even when he’s not acting; and has made a whole second career out of his love of extreme sports and philanthropy, setting up My Peak Challenge, a training support organisation that helps people reach their goals for charity, as well as running the odd marathon himself too. He’s also somehow found time to write a couple of books, direct and star in a Scottish travel series and launch his own range of whisky and tequila. In fairness, no wonder he’s busy.
We finally track Sam down on the Jubilee bank holiday, where this Scotsman has wisely dodged all the bunting and coronation chicken pizzas and headed over to Amsterdam for a few days, taking advantage of a break in filming for a few days.
If he’s been sampling the excesses of the ‘dam, he certainly doesn’t show it, as we have an engaging half hour Zoom call; talking about a decade in his most famous role to date, his hatred of karaoke and what exactly happened when he auditioned for Bond...
How deep are you in filming the new series of Outlander?
We’re shooting season seven and it’s flying by. It feels like we started yesterday but already we’re on our sixth episode. This season is going to take a while, it’s an 18-episode bumper mega season, so we probably won’t be finished until March or February of next year. It’s a big one this year as last year we had to reduce it by six episodes because of Covid and my co-star [Caitríona Balfe] was pregnant, so we moved it.
Did you ever expect it to become this big?
In one word: no. Absolutely not. I didn’t know anything of the books when I first started and I remember my first day with my driver and we were driving into work, and he was like ‘How long do you think this will go for?’ and I said: ‘Probably a year, maybe two?’
Next year it’ll be a decade. So it has been quite a journey, but it’s been incredible, it’s changed my life. It’s been hard graft, but really rewarding.
There’s apparently three more books until the end of the saga. Do you know how Jamie and Claire are going to end up?
Diana Gabaldon [the writer-creator] actually revealed to me how the whole thing’s going to end. She emailed me the last few pages of what will be the last book very early on, I think in the first few weeks of shooting and no one else has seen that I think, apart from one other exec producer. Even Caitríona’s not seen it and I’m sworn to secrecy.
What can you tell us about the prequel that’s been announced?
All I can tell you is I’m not in it, as Jamie’s not in it! I believe that it’s a prequel focusing on Jamie’s parents when they were younger, so I guess you might see a young version of him at some point. But I think I may be a little too old to play young Jamie now! I could play his dad maybe, or a flash forward? It is time travel, after all.
You obviously have to go into beast mode when training for the series, but there’s such a big gap between series – the fans call this period ‘Droughtlander’ – do you still hit it hard or do you give yourself a bit of time off?
I think it’s fair to say that I can’t really stop training, I just enjoy it. Before I was more into endurance sports, I did marathons, triathlons, but Outlander really got me interested in more gym-based workouts; cross-fit and free weights. I really enjoy it.
Did you have to work out a historically accurate way of being ripped?
Absolutely. The first conversation I had with the trainer at the start of the series was that Jamie’s obviously not in the gym; he’s a farmer and he’s a warrior, so that’s the type of body we tried to build for Jamie when he was younger. So there were a lot of compound lifts to strengthen and conditioning, but mostly upper body, back and shoulders. It certainly wasn’t about getting a six pack, fortunately for me so I didn’t have to worry about that too much. He’s a very capable man, therefore we had to build a body that reflected that according to the time.
It’s handy then that your next role in Suspect spends a rather large part of a scene topless in the gym, then. Other than that, what attracted you to this role?
It’s such a great cast, when I saw the people that were attached to it, then I read the script, it was really strong and so interesting. Essentially each episode is a two-hander, just one or two scenes, but all continuous; one extended take, which makes for a great challenge.
Your character Ryan, is a bad cop and a bit of a shit. Was that part of the appeal?
They always say bad guys are the more fun parts to play and I loved it - he was so exceptional. He’s a bit of a dark character, who’s got himself into some tricky situations, he’s got a bit of a habit and he’s slightly volatile. It’s fun to not always be the good guy - Jamie Fraser is the king of men, so it’s nice to play something different. My background is theatre so I enjoy stretching myself and playing different roles.
Surely the biggest role you’ve auditioned for to date must be Bond. What was the audition like?
I was called in when they were doing Bond 21, so before they had Daniel [Craig] again. I think they were looking into a younger James Bond, which is what I suspect will happen next. It was such a strange experience, but I enjoyed it. I went in with a script and they were like: “We might get you to read something from this scene” but they don’t tell you what it’s from. After that I was taken upstairs and I met Barbara Broccoli and Martin Campbell, the director at the time. There was a golden gun on the table - I guess from The Man With The Golden Gun? - and we sat around a very large wooden table and talked a bit about Bond. It was strange, as they didn’t want to talk about Bond, but they talked about Bond. It’s all very secret service.
Just about every British actor has had their name attached to it at some point. Do you think they’re worked their way through all the contenders now, and they might need to start going back over them?
I have no idea and I think everyone is always trying to second guess them. But I think the role’s fantastic and I’d love to throw my oversized hat into the ring again if they are! It’d be nice to see a Scottish Bond again.
A rom-com is next in line for you [It’s All Coming Back To Me] was that a conscious decision to dabble in a completely different genre?
It’s a fun, heart-warming script. With comedy, I was like, can I do this? I guess the proof will be in the pudding, but I really enjoy that side of it; a bit of silliness.
The film centres around Celine Dion’s opus - are you a fan? Have you ever belted out one of her songs on karaoke?
I wasn’t a fan before, but now, she’s the queen. As for karaoke, I would never. Never. It’s one of my pet peeves. I used to hate karaoke, I’d go to a karaoke bar with my friends and refuse to sing.
Surely being stage school trained it should be impossible to wrench a microphone from your hand?
I went to drama school and in our singing lessons I sang the same song every time for over a year, then I stopped going. In fact, the teacher even allowed me not to turn up because it just wasn’t my bag.
I guess that counts out any musicals for you in the future.
Never say never, I like a challenge!
The rom-com era is surely going to propel you into bigger heartthrob status. Can you still walk down the street anonymously?
I occasionally get recognised walking down the street. In Scotland, where I normally am, people are a bit more relaxed, they’re not so bothered about people they see in the streets but in America people always want to come and say hi and take a picture.
You’re an actor who manages to draw a distinct line between their public life and their private life really well. Is that something you made a decision about early on in your career?
I think so. Things like social media are probably the least useful tool for actors, obviously it’s a great way to promote yourself and whatever you’re doing, but I always thought an actors job was to remain anonymous so then you can play different roles, so you don’t see the actor, you see the character. But the more popular you get, the more aware you need to be about what you’re releasing, and for me, I’m quite a private person.
There’s always speculation about who you might be dating - is that an off-limits subject for you?
I don’t really talk about who I’m dating, but that’s more for me. I’m sure there have been times when I've been open about it but I think it puts too much pressure mostly on your partner or yourself, but also their families as well, as fans can be pretty…intense.
I hear you’re into antique collecting and have a bit of a collection in your man cave - what’s your newest addition?
I’m obsessed with the River Thames and mudlarking - an expert, Lara Maiklem sent me a couple of pipes which I found fascinating. Finding stuff from the Roman period and before - I just think it reveals so much about human beings and the lives that have been lived in the same area. Even where I’m living now in Scotland is near the Antonine Wall, which I am obsessed with, and obsessed with the history of.
If you could be transported back to any time in the past, when would it be? Or would you rather go into the future?
Future - I’m slightly scared but also fascinated with the future and space has always been a big appeal to me. I’d love to venture into space.
Would you ever be a space tourist? What’s the going rate to jump on Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk’s rockets, like £100,000?
Absolutely, sign me up. There’s still a great deal on Earth that we still don’t know but I would love to go into space, going on the moon would be pretty special.
Alongside acting, your endurance challenges for charity and your spirit brands, what do you do when you take some downtime?
Yeah, when you put it like that, I should probably sleep more! If I watch TV, I actually rarely watch drama, I mostly watch documentaries, I love a good documentary. That Val Kilmer one [Val] was great, especially now with the new Top Gun coming out. I just really enjoy documentaries as I really think that sometimes, life is more interesting than fantasy.
Suspect starts on Channel 4 on June 19 at 9pm.
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