Outlander’s first season finale went where few TV shows ever go, with the sadistic Captain Jack Randall, a.k.a. Black Jack, torturing heroic Highlander Jamie Fraser to the point of nearly losing his mind. As Jamie’s spirit finally breaks and he begins to lose his sense of self, Randall does the unthinkable: he rapes Jamie again and again, manipulating the Scotsman’s love of Claire into arousing him, then shaming him. Graphic depictions of rape are a dime a dozen on TV these days, but where another show might have ended the storyline with the rape itself (lookin’ at you, Lannister twins), Outlander also dwelled on its effect on the survivor.
Sam Heughan’s nuanced performance as Jamie throughout each torturous scene—and especially in their aftermath, as Jamie deals with the trauma, confusion, and death wish Randall leaves him with—has earned the Scottish actor praise from both critics and audiences. (#EmmyforSamHeughan and #EmmyforOutlander are both active hashtags on Twitter now.)
Production for Season 2 of the Starz series is in full swing, but Heughan took a day off from night shoots (“it’s like The Walking Dead out here, we’re all zombies,” he jokes) to discuss the finale, what to expect next season, and his thoughts on Game of Thrones’ rape of Sansa Stark.
So that was a hell of a season finale! You’ve read the Outlander books, so I assume you saw Jamie’s rape scene coming a long way off.
Oh yeah, absolutely. You never know quite to what extent [we’ll go], but I knew it was coming and I was excited by it. I was also scared, but I think that’s exactly the reason why we do this job, to do those kinds of scenes. It really was a kind of gift for an actor, to play a moment with such large emotions and such big boundaries and big issues to deal with. I think that’s quite rare on TV.
Those scenes looked grueling to shoot, especially on a physical level.
Oh, yeah. It was pretty horrific. (Laughs.) It was probably around 10 days of shooting those scenes, and every day I had around four hours of prosthetic work in the morning and an hour in the evening, and we shot for like 12 to 14 hours. So they were really, really long days and very difficult, not only with the subject matter but with the patience and dexterity to keep going every day. But it was all part of getting into Jamie’s mindset. I think certainly all the prosthetic work was a way to sort of build up into Jamie’s mind. Then at the end of the day, taking it all off was really a good way of relieving myself of the day’s work.
But yeah, we rehearsed the scenes and discussed them with the writers and directors, so we knew kind of what we wanted from it and what we were going to do with it, and that was very important. And then on the day [of shooting], it was pretty much just being locked in a dark room. (Laughs.) I think that all helps toward getting the performances, but it’s also about trust in the writers and director and your fellow actor. Tobias [Menzies, who plays Randall] does a terrific job and it was great to play against him; he’s terrifying and that really helps. It was a challenge and rewarding to get to the end of it.
Outlander notably spends a lot of time examining Jamie’s trauma after the rape, which is a crucial part of that type of storyline that other dramas sometimes gloss over. Did it feel important to you to portray that?
For me, the whole of those episodes wasn’t just about the act that Blackjack performs on Jamie, it was about the process of torture and this chess game that they’re playing. [Blackjack] destroys Jamie physically, but more important and more interestingly, he does it mentally as well. You can pretty much do what you want to Jamie—he’s very resilient physically and he has this strong core to him that is his love for Claire and his belief in her. Blackjack recognizes that and that’s exactly what he wanted to break. He kind of dug down into Jamie’s center and broke down that kernel inside him. That was interesting, then, to see Jamie kind of reprogram and re-learn who he is and deal with this bad memory.
So yeah, it’s very important that we see him deal with the guilt that he feels over the fact that he felt some pleasure at some point [while Randall raped him], the fact that he feels like less of a man, and like he can’t live up to being the husband he thinks [Claire] deserves. He really calls into question everything about who he is. I think that’s really important that we see that. It certainly does carry over into Season 2.
So that trauma is going to carry over to next season; it doesn’t just disappear.
Oh no, definitely. I think the reason we saw so much of it at the end of the season is because it’s a huge turning point for him and his relationship with Claire. Without giving away too much, it’s a very personal thing, dealing with trauma. Time for him is going to be the ultimate healer, but it’s certainly not forgotten and he is certainly plagued by it for a while.
The Outlander finale aired a few weeks after Game of Thrones had its own brutal rape scene, which brought the conversation about rape on TV to kind of a fever pitch. Are you a Game of Thrones fan?
Huge, huge fan. I just watched Episode 8 [“Hardhome”]—oh my god. I started tweeting about it because I was just like, “What?!”
That episode was so good.
Yeah. But I’m well aware that Game of Thrones does [portray rape]. I watched that episode [“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”] recently and enjoyed it. I thought it was clever to play it on someone’s face, to see the horror in someone’s eyes. I guess with any sort of graphic, traumatic scene—whether it’s rape or torture or violence or sex—it needs to be dealt with very carefully. I think if it is dealt with with thought and care and attention, sometimes it has its place. Certainly in our case. It was important we see what happens to Jamie so we know why he is the way he is [in Season 2] and to see him move on with his character and his relationship with Claire. So unfortunately, we had to experience that as a viewer. I think [Outlander executive producer and show runner Ronald D. Moore] really did a magnificent job in the editing of it. We don’t show too much; we show just enough.
The argument sort of comes down to something George R.R. Martin wrote recently about how rape is simply something that happens in times of war, which is why it’s depicted so often in historical dramas like Game of Thrones and Outlander. Then there’s the viewpoint another writer countered with, saying it’s one thing to acknowledge sexual violence as a persistent problem throughout history, and another to dismiss it as inevitable, like weather patterns or something.
Wow, yeah. I guess as people who work in television, we have a responsibility to be accurate and to be truthful and to recreate things, but then again, we’re dealing with fantasy here. I think it all just comes down to taste and “do people want to see that?” I think TV viewers these days want to immerse themselves in a world. We want more complex characters and I think [viewers] are braver than maybe the networks and the studios give them credit for. But it has its time and place as well. I don’t think every show needs it. Certainly if it’s in a show all the time, that becomes gratuitous and unnecessary.
Going back to Outlander, we’re always very aware—whether it’s nudity or violence or anything of that nature—of those moments and we make sure they have an effect, that it’s not just there for mild titillation or whatever. I was very aware, for instance, that the nudity in [this season’s penultimate episode] “Wentworth” was well-placed. It was about, “What do we want the audience to see, if we want them to see anything? What effect does that have on the audience?” I think it’s important that we continue to do that.
What can you tell us about next season? I know you guys are in the middle of shooting at the moment.
Yeah, we’ve already shot a lot, almost three episodes now! There are a lot of new characters and it feels almost like a new world. I would say that our show is always changing and always surprising. You never know where it’s going to go next. At the end of Season 1, Jamie and Claire set off to France to stop the rebelling of the Jacobites and the uprising. We’re now in the French court, which is very different from the Highlands of Scotland. It’s about them finding their place in that world, in that sort of alien environment, and learning to deal with the court and the characters there. It’s really all building up to the end of the book, this great Battle of Culloden, where the whole Highland culture is wiped out.
And now Claire is pregnant, too. Did I detect a look of apprehension on Jamie’s face after he initially tells her he’s happy about it?
(Laughs.) Absolutely, yeah. I think the whole end of Season 1 is about Jamie growing up and becoming a man, so this is a huge moment for him. He’s over the moon and has of course always wanted this, but there has to be apprehension and fear. He’s not dealt with what happened to him, he doesn’t have a home, and they’re going to a new world and a new place. That must play on his mind. But he won’t have long to dwell on it; he’s got lots of other things happening.