When he was still in drama school at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Sam Heughan was nominated for a Lawrence Olivier Award, the U.K.’s highest theater honor. The category was “Best New Comer,” and play wasOutlying Islands, which had already won a Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Heughan ultimately lost out to actor, writer, and director Noel Clarke. “I wasn’t expecting to win,” the 34-year-old explains, “though the moment they were about to announce it I was like, ‘Oh my god, I really hope I don’t win.’ You have to make a speech, and I hadn’t written one,” he continues. “I love playing a character, but I hate being myself doing that sort of thing.”
After the ceremony, Heughan changed out of his rented a kilt in a bathroom at Victoria bus station and headed back to school. Still, the nomination itself was impressive—and validating—especially as during his first year at drama school, Heughan’s main instructor had bluntly told him, “you can’t act.”
“It throws you,” the Scottish actor tells us during a visit to New York. “But it’s part of the whole process of breaking you down—it makes you really have to keep looking at your art and how you perform.”
Twelve years later, Heughan, who grew up on the grounds of an old castle in Scotland, is the star of Starz’s most successful show, Outlander. The actor plays Jamie Fraser, the strong yet sensitive love interest of Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in the highlands of 18th-century Scotland. Even though, half way through the first season, Claire and Jamie are married, their love affair is far from simple. Claire is originally from the post-war era of the 1940s, and was transported back in time by accident. Throughout the series, she must constantly choose between her feelings for Jamie, and returning home to her original husband and an age where she is afforded some legal agency.
EMMA BROWN: Do you remember your first visit to New York?
HEUGHAN: My first visit was when I took two years out after school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I was working a lot and I traveled—I flew to San Francisco, and traveled down the West Coast by bus, down to New Orleans, down to Mexico, and back up the East Coast. New York was the end of my journey. I had no money left and I was very lost. I had enough money for one night in a hostel and I didn’t know what to do. I thought, “I’m going to spend that money, I’m going up the Empire State Building.” And that’s what I did. I went up there, saw the views, and I was like, “This is amazing.” Val Kilmer was there, for some reason.
BROWN: That’s so random.
HEUGHAN: Yeah. Then I came back down and I was like, “I really now need to work out what I’m going to do.” I went back to the hostel and there was a note left there for me from one of my best friends back in the U.K. Somehow he had found out I was staying there and was like, “Come and stay with me and my family.” I was like, “Phew.” But I’ve been here a lot. I was here for the marathon; it got canceled. I trained for it and then Sandy happened.
BROWN: When did you decide to apply for drama school?
HEUGHAN: I was always interested in it. I remember I was on a boat in Pensacola and was just feeling very pensive—I thought, when I go back to U.K., I’m going to explore this more. So I went back and I joined the Lyceum Youth Theatre and it was just wonderful. I was there with them for a year. We did workshops. I got put into a couple of productions through the Lyceum in Edinburgh—just as “Spear Carrier Number Two” or whatever—but it really gave me an understanding [of acting]. I’d always gone to the theater as a child every month to see whatever was on. I think that’s where the passion for it came from.
BROWN: Do you come from quite an artistic family?
HEUGHAN: I do, yes. My mum is an artist. I guess that helps; she’s very supportive. She did warn me that this is not an easy career. I think anyone in the arts, you’re self-employed, it’s so difficult.
BROWN: Are you really named after Samwise Gamgee?
HEUGHAN: [laughs] Well, yes. On my birth certificate it’s just Sam, but my brother does have a name from The Lord of the Rings. It’s Cirdan—he was the shipwright at the end ofLord of the Rings that takes them across to wherever it is they all go when the elves leave the earth. My family were pretty big hippies.
BROWN: Did you identify with Samwise when you read the books as a child?
HEUGHAN: It always was like, “I don’t want to be that one!” ‘Cause he’s so nice and honorable and good, and I wanted to be Bilbo. I wanted to be more dangerous, less dependable. It’s funny though, as a child you’re already thinking, “Who do I want to be and how do I see myself portrayed?”
BROWN: We did a piece on Laura Donnelly, who went to drama school with you and plays your sister on Outlander, and she said that she was with you when they announced you were going to play Jamie, and your Twitter followers went up exponentially. Was it that intense?
HEUGHAN: It was because we were in the Arctic Circle, doing this strange little movie. The production base was this old school and we all ate there, drank there, rehearsed there, hung out there. It was a real core group of us. It was really odd to be in the middle of these fjords, in this dramatic landscape in the middle of nowhere, and going on Twitter or Facebook and seeing this excitement and buzz about it. She’s terrific in the show. I’m so lucky because we have that history—we went to drama school together, and we weren’t in the same year, but we knew each other very well and we used to hang out a little bit. Also the guy who plays Ian, my best friend who comes a little bit into the second part of the season, he was a couple of years above me and I knew him.
BROWN: Jamie is quite a good guy, and he has very good intentions. Are you okay with not being the Bilbo now?
HEUGHAN: I try to find as much as possible where he’s not [the good guy]. It would be very boring if he was just this generic good guy. I think in the first part of the season, he can come across that way, but that’s because it’s from Claire’s point of view, the whole thing is Claire’s point of view, and she doesn’t know what’s going on. Then in the second part of the season, we start to see from his point of view what he’s gone through. We see that he’s got these relationships with his family that he hasn’t dealt with; he’s stubborn, he’s proud. He punishes her, which might be considered wrong, so he does start to have failings. Towards the end of the season, we have some really intense stuff with Black Jack Randall and you begin to find out who Jamie really is, and that’s exciting for me as an actor. You can’t let the character stagnate or a relationship stagnate; you have to keep learning about them. That’s why I enjoy this job so much. He’s still surprising me, I don’t know who he is, and I refuse to make any decisions about who he is because I want to be surprised and find out other sides to him.
BROWN: Do you think you can know too much about a character?
HEUGHAN: Yes. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think you need to be surprised. Characters don’t know what they’re doing all the time, you don’t know where you’re going or why you say something. It’s important to try and work them out, but there needs to be a point where you forget all your work and all your preparation and let the character take you over.
BROWN: You’ve done a couple of interviews where you’ve taken people around the Scottish countryside, or done a Scotch tasting to promote the show. How do you feel about that?
HEUGHAN: Those sort of whisky drinking things and talking about Scotland, I love it, and I’m well into it. I certainly don’t want the show, or Scotland, to come across as a cliché—there’s a lot more to the country than that, and I think our show brings out that. But it’s all kind of tongue-in-cheek. Certainly the press is a very different side to acting that I’d never even considered—you never did that in drama school. And I spend more time doing this than I do doing my job, which is really odd. It’s an art form as well, I think. I’m constantly learning about how to do press. This morning, I flew in with about four or five hours of sleep and I’m there answering questions in a quick fire round at 10:00 a.m., trying to be witty and funny and you think, “This isn’t quite what I had in mind for myself.” But it’s a necessary part of the job. Should you be so open with the press? Should you maybe be a bit more reserved? You can maybe hide from them a little bit, but you can’t be someone else, you have to be yourself. So I try to be.
BROWN: I read that you auditioned for Game of Thrones, is that true?
HEUGHAN: It is, yeah. A few times. I met the producers a couple of times and various characters. There was a period where every British actor was going up for something in it. I was so excited about it, I loved it. I felt like it was going to be this huge show—and it certainly is, I’m a huge fan of it. In a funny way, this is a better part—it’s a longer part, it’s a longer run. [In Game of Thrones,] some of their characters are smaller and come in and out and it’s much more part of an ensemble. Whereas Jamie is a character that hopefully I can live with for a bit and really see him develop and become someone different.
BROWN: Have people been offering you more roles because of Outlander?
HEUGHAN: It’s opened a lot of doors. There’s always levels. I’ve become a bit more commercial, I guess. I just did an independent movie, we managed to get funding pretty much from the back of Outlander. It’s a project that I’ve loved for a couple years, we managed to shoot it in a break—a four-week shoot. I think it’s a beautiful little story, completely different from Outlander. I had a lot of meetings recently about other stuff, which is exciting. I’ve been in the industry long enough now—I’ve been a working actor since 2002. I’m very aware that at some point, I won’t be as successful, so I’m enjoying it. I know that there will be points where it’s not going as well, and I’m prepared for that.
BROWN: Is there a lot of pressure to capitalize on your current success?
HEUGHAN: No, I don’t think so. My agent will probably say something different, my publicist will certainly say the opposite. But I don’t need to do this. I don’t need to be successful. I love theater and I love acting so as long as I’m doing that I’m happy and I’m learning. If I end up going back to the U.K. to do some theater, great! Sounds fantastic. My friend was doing some pub theater at the Old Red Lion in Angel [in London]. It was a little play about a Scottish WWF wrestling team—completely insane—in this tiny little space. And I was sitting watching going, “God. I really want to do this.” Then I had an audition yesterday for a really big movie and it was great as well. I’m excited to be given the opportunity to do that.
BROWN: Is there someone whose career you’ve always admired?
HEUGHAN: I have always looked up to James McAvoy, being Scottish. I knew him from drama school as well—he was my mentor. He was leaving when I started drama school. We had the same agent. So I’ve always looked up to him, I think he’s had a great career. He’s a great actor. But growing up, it was actually theater actors in Scotland. There was one guy, [I remember] as a child seeing him in Macbeth and Hamlet. Then I met him and worked with him on one of the productions and I was like, “Oh my god, these are my peers,” and that’s really rewarding. It’s the same on Outlander, we have these great [actors], we’ve got Simon Callow and Bill Paterson. It’s great to hear them talk amongst themselves about the old times and old jobs.