Starz’ Outlander cast members Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe, Tobias Menzies, Richard Rankin, and Sophie Skelton, as well as executive producers Maril Davis and Ronald D. Moore took part in the 2017 Television Critics Association summer press tour on July 28, 2017. The Outlander cast and crew have been busy promoting the upcoming third season of the series and were fresh off a trip to San Diego where they participated in the 2017 Comic Con in front of a packed crowd.
I was in the room for the TCA panel and jotted down their thoughts as they spoke about what fans of the series can expect from this much-anticipated new season of the romantic drama. Season three is set to premiere on September 10, 2017.
The emotional weight is so heavy in these episodes. Was it intentional or just where the story’s organically going?
Maril Davis: “It was just the journey of the characters. Obviously, Claire and Jamie have lost each other. It’s figuring out into his 20-year absence how they go on and move forward in light of this great loss.”
Ronald D. Moore: “It was the nature of the book, so we translated that to the story on screen. You’re traveling through 20 years of their lives apart. It’s a considerable amount of time to cover so you focus on the heaviest and most impactful moments as you move through that chronology.”
Tobias, you’ve had what seem like difficult scenes, in particular that monologue. How do you approach those scenes?
Tobias Menzies: “You’re talking about the Black Jack stuff where he talks about his sadism, yeah. It’s a weird headspace to try to get into but that’s what’s interesting about acting. You get to explore and think and maybe say and do things you’re not supposed to do in real life, which is good. It’s certainly why I like acting, why I get into it. I relish the opportunities to explore the darker side of things. Obviously, the opportunities for that in this show have been quite extensive. It’s the exploration of a sadist. He’s interested in other people’s pain barriers. That’s interesting territory to explore.”
Ron, will we meet any other Randalls who look like Tobias?
Ronald D. Moore: “The Randall family tree is very broad. (Joking) There’s no plans for that. Tobias has been such a key part of the show from the very beginning. It’s very difficult to imagine he’s not a part of the family moving forward. Never say never, various flashbacks and we do have a time travel show. Various possibilities, but nothing planned.”
Maril Davis: “He might come back as a female member of the Randall family.”
Caitriona Balfe: “Daisy Randall.”
How do you approach his death?
Tobias Menzies: “It’s a difficult storyline to tie up. Where do you go after especially the stuff towards the end of season one. They meet on the battlefield at Culloden. Almost in flashback it’s Jamie’s hallucination as he remembers fragments of this encounter. Jack is buried in there. It’s a nonverbal tying up of the story. As always with their stuff, we try to look for an unusual angle so it’s not such a straightforward fight. There’s something odd going on with them. It’s a strange part fight/part dance/part embrace, and I feel a fitting end to this quasi-love affair.”
Richard and Sophie, how does it feel to get cast where just appearing makes you a sex symbol?
Sophie Skelton: “I think we both read the books beforehand so we knew what was to come with those characters. Bri and Roger have a different type of relationship. They’re geeky and have an awkward stumble of a relationship. I wouldn’t say they’re the sexiest. I think their relationship’s very different. Claire and Jamie are strong characters. That strength and stubbornness brings them together and you see that love grow through time.”
Richard Rankin: “It’s not something I think about. It’s just adding a new dynamic, a new relationship. I don’t think it was particularly sexually objectified. I’ve not felt that.”
Sophie Skelton: “It’s still a deep relationship but it is that beautiful awkwardness of a relationship. It is a very female fan base too, so if there needs to be a sex symbol, it’s this one.”
Richard Rankin: “I’ll take one for the team.”
Were you attracted to the show that appeals to men and women?
Caitriona Balfe: “One thing we’ve always said about our show is the female character of Claire is at the center, but it’s not just her. It’s the fully formed characters of Jamie and Frank and Black Jack as well. Where some shows maybe you have the central male character and surrounding him are two-dimensional female characters. What you get is a balanced look at relationships. I think that’s why so many people relate to it. It’s giving you a realized version of people.”
Did you all read the books prior?
Maril Davis: “I obviously have read all the books, but I’m not cast. I’d be curious.”
Caitriona Balfe: “I’ve read every book that we’ve filmed. I read book 1 before we filmed season 1, same season 2 and 3. I’m currently halfway through four. I like to have read it. It gives you an overview where your characters’ going to go. Obviously once in production, the script is your guide.”
Tobias Menzies: “I’ve read 1.5 books.”
Sophie Skelton: “I read the books when the first casting came through, up to 4. Just because I wanted to get a good sense of Bri, I wanted to slowly seep into the story so you don’t have so much material to work with. You don’t want to read too far because characters change. You don’t want to subconsciously interpret who they become. You want their personality that seep in throughout the books, but you don’t want to play who they are down the line too soon.”
Richard Rankin: “I’ve read through book five much for the same reason. We came later on in season 2, at the end of season 2. We really only had that episode to base our character on. It’s not an awful lot to go on. So I read just to get an idea of Roger, what the fans’ perception of Roger would be. Although I think it’s important to have an awareness for that, it’s also important I bring myself to the part. I find what’s true for me so I can portray that on screen. I tend not to take too much from it.”
Ronald D. Moore: “I’m waiting for the graphic novel. It’s easier with pictures.”
Can you talk about handling the leads being apart 20 years and working in two different worlds?
Ronald D. Moore: “As always, we take our cues from the books first. The book laid out this episodic story of Jamie to begin with. You had five chapters of his life, the battle of Culloden to Lallybroch, to prison to ending up in a print shop. It was clear that’s five episodes right there. We needed to construct a parallel story for Claire. The most interesting thing was her relationship with Frank, dissolution of that marriage… We never varied from that. It felt like the right amount of time. It was enough to build a desire in the audience to want to get Jamie and Claire back together, but it wasn’t dragging it out too long. It’s two decades. To do that justice, you had to give it some time and some space.”
Maril Davis: “From a production perspective, it was difficult. We saw Claire in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s and we don’t shoot linear. There was constant going back and forth in hair style, costume styles. Same with Jamie, he progressed. It was difficult for that season. It’s nice to be in a place where we’re all in the same time zone.”
Voyager is the longest book. How far down the road of splitting the season did you go?
Ronald D. Moore: “We didn’t go too far down that road. We did talk about that before we approached the season. Just in terms of page count it’s the biggest. Once we put the cards up on the board and you saw there’s five episodes right here just in the Jamie story and the reunion of the two characters, now you’re almost halfway through the season. That felt like the right pace. The second half with the sea voyage, story in Jamaica and ending up in the new world, when you boiled it down you realized we could tell this in one season. I don’t think we were tempted to stretch it beyond that. Sometimes just sheer page count in the novel doesn’t translate to pages on screen. …You just never know. Each season we approach with fresh eyes. We’re not bound to do a season a book. We haven’t said we’d combine them or tear them apart.”
Sam, you barely move in episode one. How hard is that?
Sam Heughan: “I think that’s fair enough, yes. The first episode was something we were all looking forward to shooting. The battle of Culloden was something not only the crew and Highlanders were anticipating, it’s a real important part of our history. I think it was a great start to the season. Certainly, Jamie does suffer horrendously. Brendan our director was great and really worked through the journey of Jamie and his loss, coming to terms with having lost Claire and not expecting to survive the battle.”
Can you discuss filming on the ships in South Africa?
Maril Davis: “Scotland can pass as a lot of places but Jamaica is not one of those places. It was necessary to find the right place. With Black Sails having gone down for the moment, it was the perfect time for us to go in. They have such an amazing facility including these ships. John Gary Steele our production designer was able to redesign the ships for our purposes. For the actors to be on real ships so it has the experience of realism, until you’re on there for quite a bit and it gets quite small and the space is quite type. We have gimble sets which move. I got seasick myself. To come out of Scotland and change the entire look of our show adds a whole new dimension to the show.”
Are you planning 8 seasons and out or pass the books like Game of Thrones?
Ronald D. Moore: “I cannot imagine a scenario where we catch up with Diana Gabaldon. She will tell us what the end of the story is.”
Maril Davis: “As long as Starz will have us, we’ll keep doing the show.”
Sam and Caitriona, can you describe working on the ships?
Sam Heughan: “I think we really relished being on these boats. They’re on wheels. You’re in the middle of a plane, a desert but when you get on board those ships, they really transport you somewhere else. With all the sails going in the wind, we had a crew of trained sailors who did the rigging, it really transported you somewhere else. That’s what Voyager does. We also had a gimble on a lot of these boats. I got seasick and Caitriona maybe did as well.”
Caitriona Balfe: “We had one particular sequence of scenes where we were inside the set that’s on a gimble inside the studio. It was about 35, 36 degrees. We had some fake vomit that needed to be made but someone made a decision to make it with milk. It was made on a Friday. We filmed on Monday so it smelt a lot like real vomit. You’re inside indoors, the floor’s going like this and the smell was rather pungent. It was challenging. No acting required.”
Reading one book at a time, did anything make you say, “Oh crap, I never saw that coming?”
Caitriona Balfe: “I think anyone who’s read Diana’s books will say, ‘Oh crap, I never saw that coming.’ It’s just a sequence of twists and turns. I think that’s the great thing about this series of books and the great thing about our show. I’m sure this is the reason Ron and Maril were so hungry to make it. You’re constantly being kept on your toes. Who would’ve thought we’d end up on ships and in Jamaica this season? The great thing about being a time traveling fantasy is the story can go anywhere and frequently does.”
We only see Frank with Claire. Did you imagine what Frank did on his own?
Tobias Menzies: “Yes, you always do that kind of background work, build up the world that you’re inhabiting. A lot of that is done by the sets and the scripts that you have. I would do some work about his work life which we don’t see, colleagues. But the heart of it is this relationship and that was very brilliantly realized in the sequence of scenes we got to play as they continue to tear each other apart.”
Sam, what is your favorite part of playing Jamie?
Sam Heughan: “I think we’re very lucky. As we said, Diana Gabaldon’s created this remarkable world. What makes our show different is it’s constantly moving, constantly changing. It’s not all set in one studio. Not only every season but every episode is surprising. We go somewhere else. This season feels very strong. Each episode has its own individual feeling to it. The characters grow up and change but Jamie’s a lot of fun to play. He is the other side of Claire and they’re a great team together. I’m enjoying growing up with him over the last four years. We’ll see how much longer and further he can go. Keep writing, Diana.”
Caitriona Balfe: “The great gift of doing a series like this is you’re given time to really get to know your character and explore different elements. Being able to create this woman over a certain period of time is really interesting. Especially because of her lost of love to Jamie has shelved a certain side of herself. How does that experience wear on somebody? How does that change how they interact with people in their lives, everything? I loved being able to play that and going forward, when she gets reunited with her love, how do you unravel all that? How do you break down the walls someone’s built around their heart? I don’t know that you get to do that over an extended period of time in many projects.”
How difficult was it playing 20 years older than you are?
Caitriona Balfe: “Yes, I’m going to say Claire is 20 years older than I actually am. I think we all approach this from a place of how does experience and how does time change you? On a certain way, last year, the end of season two, I had to start doing a lot of that work. I watched certain actresses, so I watched an early film and a later film. People don’t change that much but certain things change about them and how they carry themselves. The older they get, a lot of time there’s just a certain gravitas or a certain authority people gain through the fact they’re more comfortable with themselves or they know themselves better. For Claire, I thought someone who’s become a surgeon and all that responsibility, getting to that place professionally would add to this authority to her. That was one of the things I wanted to play with, rather than crow’s feet or a monobrow. We thought about it.”