Starz’ Outlander, based on the bestselling book series by Diana Gabaldon, is packed with interesting characters two of whom are played by Lotte Verbeek and Graham McTavish. Verbeek takes on the role of Geillis Duncan, a time-traveler considered a witch back in the 1700s and who uses unsavory methods to pass from century to century. McTavish tackles the role of Dougal MacKenzie, War Chieftain of Clan MacKenzie and the right-hand man of his brother, Colum, leader of the clan. For those who haven’t read the books, these are two complicated characters hiding major secrets. Together at the San Diego Comic Con to talk about Outlander and their characters, McTavish and Verbeek discussed how they approached their roles and what life was like on the set of this epic drama.
Lotte Verbeek and Graham McTavish Outlander Interview
You play two characters who are going to be hard to trust. How much fun is it to have that duplicity?
Graham McTavish: “I suppose I don’t see so much duplicity as complication, really. With my character, I believe he has personal interest and personal ambitions which collide and conflict with other people, but he also has responsibilities that he takes very seriously. The responsibility he has towards the clan, but also the responsibility he feels towards the country. I think that’s his overarching guide as a character. And other stuff gets in the way which trips him up, character flaws, ambition, all of those things, impatience. So I guess I’m biased. I don’t see him necessarily as duplicitous as more he’s practical. That’s how he sees it anyway. That’s I guess how I see it.”
Lotte Verbeek: “Yeah, I really like playing Geillis because there are so many different sides to her and it’s not black and white. To even answer the question, is she good or bad, she’s so driven by something she really believes in. She’s a believer basically, and I think that’s something beautiful. On her past she does do some stuff that might not be as correct, but you don’t really know her instantly. You might think you know her but then you get to know her more and better or, you know, see things of her. That’s always going to go on I feel like, so there’s always surprises.”
How far into the books did you read, or do you not want to know what happens?
Graham McTavish: “I’m kind of the ‘don’t want to know too far in’. I mean, people keep telling me which is very annoying.”
Lotte Verbeek: “Stop!”
Graham McTavish: “Yes, but I’ve read the first book and so I left it at that for now. I want to read the second book but I like to primarily work from the material that we’re being given as actors, which is the script and what Ron and Diana together guide us through. Yeah, I haven’t read more than the first one.”
Lotte Verbeek: “Me neither. Yeah, we’re on the same page. There are so many books and there might be many more years to come. Who knows? So we’ll have time I guess.”
You can’t go online and look for Outlander without learning what happens with Geillis.
Lotte Verbeek: “Yeah, there’s this whole fan base online and stuff so people are hinting at it or just blatantly telling me what’s going to happen. But then, because there’s time travel, you don’t know when or how, and we are taking some freedom here and there in the interpretation of the books. So yeah, there’s some room for creativity there.”
Are you bringing any modern sensibilities into the role?
Lotte Verbeek: “I think the way she thinks is naturally she’s ahead of her times. You can say the same thing about Claire. They’re both two ladies in a men’s world in that time and they’re ahead of their times, but they do have to deal with that world. I think, yeah, maybe Geillis even more so than Claire, which I think is really interesting. I guess I bring my own take on things to them. I’m a woman of this day and age and I don’t even think of myself as a feminist or anything because I’m so used to having everything I have and all the freedom I have. So I think we as actors naturally bring stuff to our roles, which is probably also why we’re cast in the role. Because you’re right for it, I guess. And you bring those things.”Has author Diana Gabaldon filled you in on your characters’ motivations or backstories?
Lotte Verbeek: “Not really. I didn’t meet her before I started doing the part. She always has a lot of interesting backstories about why she wrote a certain passage or a certain relationship. When you ask her questions about the book, she always surprises you with like, ‘Wow, okay, that’s even darker than I thought.’ I don’t know about you, but I have not asked any questions before I started working on it.”
Graham McTavish: “No, and it’s great really. She’s very good that way. I think she’s there if you need her. If you wanted to ask her a question about anything at all, she’d be happy to help but she also recognizes that she needs to provide some kind of distance for you to be able to discover and own those characters yourself. So both her and [Ronald D. Moore] work very well together that way.”
You experienced the world of fandoms with The Hobbit. Do you have advice on to handle fandoms?
Graham McTavish: “All the people I encounter at these sort of events and other conventions that I’ve done or whatever, they’re delightful. They really are. It’s rare that you go to anywhere that’s so full of people that are happy to be there and enjoying themselves. That’s it. There’s nobody here wandering around who doesn’t want to be here and isn’t having a great time. It’s fantastic, so no, I don’t give them advice about any of that. Always just they’ll discover any of that for themselves I’m sure, in their own way.”
What was the most impressive thing you experienced being on the set?
Lotte Verbeek: “Well, I was first really impressed by the sets and just how real everything looked, and even us as actors, you go walking onto set and going, ‘No, but this has got to be,’ you knock on the wall and it’s just made out of…it’s a set. But then after that, I started working on location and Scotland is just so extraordinary, so beautiful and then yesterday when we actually saw the first episode on the big screen, the first image of Scotland, I grabbed my friend and I was like, ‘Look!’ and she’s like, ‘Yeah, I see. It’s beautiful.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but look how big.’ This is the first time I saw it on a big screen and it’s just so impressive. It’s almost as if I was touching the stones myself and just falling in that world. It was really, really impressive.”
Graham McTavish: “Well, I’ve been really impressed actually how much care they’ve taken over the show photographically. The DPs that we’ve had have just been incredible. They were quite influenced by I think films like Barry Lyndon, using that sort of ambient light feel so that you get that sense of richness of color and light that contrasts with the 1940s. They very much graded the 1940s in a different way to the way they’ve graded the 1740 stuff. That’s what struck me yesterday watching the screen. It was that lush visual texture that you got.”
Lotte Verbeek: “It’s lush, that’s it.”
Graham McTavish: “And it’s fabulous how it translates onto that size of a screen as well. And this is a TV show, and that was on a 50 foot screen.”
Have you watched any other episodes?
Graham McTavish: “Six, I’ve seen six.”
Lotte Verbeek: “Yeah, the first six.”
Graham McTavish: “Great.”
Lotte Verbeek: “And it does leave you wanting more.”
Graham McTavish: “Oh yeah, yeah. I hadn’t seen anything and I watched the first six back to back, and I found myself becoming a fan of it myself and sort of falling into it and almost forgetting that I’m involved with it. It’s a strange sort of Jedi mind trick when you become interested in what all the other people are doing as well, the things you weren’t privy to, the paths that they’re taking. So that was really great.”
How different is costume drama acting?
Lotte Verbeek: “I was really lucky, again. So yeah, the waistline dropped which isn’t always comfortable.”
Graham McTavish: “Is that right?”
Lotte Verbeek: “Yeah, The Borgias was kind of like empire, and this is lower so less space to breathe. But what I really liked about these costumes, they’re extraordinary. Like, they’re pieces of art really. There’s a rawness to it and especially with the Geillis costumes, I like to think of her as a creature and there’s almost something animal-like about her. So in the costumes, there’s always something that’s just a bit weird, a bit off, a bit like a little squirrel perhaps. That’s in the costumes. Terry [Dresbach] and I, he always gave me something to play with in the costumes, like little details or little things to fidget with. That’s just been lovely and very creative working that way together.”
Anything specific we should look out for?
Lotte Verbeek: “Well, there’s one costume and we call it The Monkey Jacket. It’s kind of hairy almost. It’s almost like I’m wearing an animal’s costume. But then she had me try it on. That was when I first arrived in Glasgow and met the producers and she tried it on me. I was just playing with it. I was like, ‘How about if I turn it around?’ She was like, ‘Okay.’ And then from that moment on, every time she gave me something, I was sort of playing with it and just slightly manipulating it. And she goes, ‘Oh God, she’s doing it again.’ But we always found something just a bit off, a bit weird, a bit different. But that was the Monkey Jacket.”
Graham McTavish: “I didn’t get a Monkey Jacket.”
Lotte Verbeek: “Unfortunately.”
What has been the most fun part of your Comic Con experience?
Graham McTavish: “Oh, I just love the freneticism of it. I do, I do. I mean, I couldn’t do it for long but I do love that the shutting and the moving about and the carving your way through crowds to try to get something. I did the Hobbit panel this morning, came from that to do over here. It’s great. Inhabiting those worlds as well simultaneously is interesting, and today was the first time I saw the hall. It’s just extraordinary. I couldn’t believe it. The poor people that are standing there shouting, ‘Keep moving, keep moving…’ They probably go home weeping themselves to sleep at night because it’s like, ‘Nobody listens to me. They’re all standing still.'”
Is there something you wanted to see on the floor?
Graham McTavish: “Oh, well, I really want to go to the WETA stand because I know a lot of the guys there. Apparently today you can’t get near it, so I’m going to go tomorrow morning. But unlike Peter Jackson who went yesterday, he did the floor yesterday wearing a mask, this extraordinary mask, and he stood at the Outlander panel. He showed me the pictures this morning. He had his photo taken with me in the background in his mask. I won’t be doing anything that ridiculous.”