On Set With the 'Outlander' Cast: An 'Even Sexier' Claire and Jamie, a New Big Bad & 'Dangerous' America
A dark Scottish forest of towering pines stands in for the untamed woods of colonial North Carolina on the set of Outlander, Starz’s sexy, suspenseful time-travel romance. Huddled beside a small campfire on this chilly late-autumn night are Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, who play soulmates Claire and Jamie Fraser. The bonnie pair are shooting a tender scene from the third episode of Season 4. “I want us to make a home together, a place that’s ours,” she says. They gaze into each other’s eyes. He kisses her gently. Swoon.
“This season is about Claire and Jamie finding and building a life in America,” Balfe says of the couple, who reunited in the middle of Season 3 after a two-decade separation during which Claire returned to the 20th century to give birth and raise their daughter, Brianna (Sophie Skelton). “We explore domesticity, but there’s also drama — and passion,” she adds during a break, her words turning to frosty clouds in the cold air. Laughing, she says, “They ain’t hung up the old boots just yet!”
In fact, reaching middle age has only enhanced the couple’s already scorching relationship. “It’s going to be even sexier because they’re in their 40s,” Heughan says. “There’s passion, always. They have great love, trust, understanding. And they rely on each other. America is a dangerous place.”
The 13 episodes about the Frasers’ new life in the New World are based on Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling Outlander series about an outspoken 20th-century surgeon and her honorable Scottish Highlander husband. The story picks up a few months after the Season 3 finale, when the couple left Jamaica — where they had traveled to rescue Jamie’s nephew, Young Ian (John Bell) — only to see their ship go down off the Georgia coast.
It’s now 1767, and the Frasers are in the bustling, muddy frontier town of Wilmington, North Carolina (the set was built in a Scottish field). They’re planning a return to Scotland with a tight-knit group of companions: Young Ian plus newlyweds Fergus (César Domboy), loyal to them since they found him as a wayward pickpocket in Paris, and willful lass Marsali (Lauren Lyle).
But some terrible events soon lead the group to change their minds about heading home. “We start off with a bang — a hanging,” executive producer Matthew B. Roberts says. “Then we meet the new villain: Stephen Bonnet, a pure psychopath.”
Bonnet (Ed Speleers, aka Downton Abbey’s handsome footman James Kent) is a worthy successor to baddie “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies), the British army captain who terrorized the Frasers and met his demise at Jamie’s hands in Season 3’s Battle of Culloden. Bonnet’s first sinister move is partially to blame for the group’s decision to stay in the Colonies. “Bonnet is worse than Black Jack,” Heughan says. “He goes to the dark places Randall did and worse, but he’s also charming. When they meet him, he fools them all. He’s a nasty piece of work.”
By now, devotees of the Outlander books should be clapping their hands with glee at the familiar storylines — even the dark ones. As with every season, producers feel pressure to deliver reader favorites. “We know fans are looking forward to the ‘slippery rock’ scene where it’s a humid day and Claire is bathing by the river,” teases executive producer Maril Davis. “But we can’t do it exactly like the book.” To keep the surprises coming, iconic moments are told in fresh ways or out of order. Plus, characters from past seasons resurface unexpectedly. Writers even added some new plotlines, including a run-in with a real historical figure.
The Frasers’ American adventure soon sees Claire, Jamie and Young Ian journeying along the Cape Fear River to River Run, a lush plantation owned by Jamie’s rich aunt, Jocasta Cameron (Orphan Black’s Maria Doyle Kennedy). This is no pleasure cruise but one marked by tragedy and terror. The trio barely have time to breathe a sigh of relief when they dock safely at their fancy new waterside digs before another conflict arises, this time between Claire and Aunt Jocasta.
The clash is born of Claire’s disgust at slave labor, and producers took care to not shy away from that shameful aspect of U.S. history. “Being complicit in slavery is the antithesis of Claire’s values,” Balfe says, and she won’t just stand by. After all, this is the woman who broke Jamie out of an 18th-century prison and in 1950s Boston befriended the only African-American student in her med school class. She and Jocasta argue and, after a horrible incident, the Frasers move on.
The day after shooting the campfire scene, Heughan is on location at Newhailes House, a 17th-century Scottish country home set on 84 acres that doubles as the mansion of North Carolina’s British governor William Tryon (Tim Downie), who served in that position from 1765 to 1771. At the gate stand five devoted fans, one with a baby in a stroller, all hoping to get a peek at the action — or, more likely, the tall, ginger-haired leading man. Heughan, in full costume, treks over and spends a good part of his lunch break chatting amiably with them.
Then he’s back to 18th-century wheeling and dealing. “Jamie’s making a deal with the devil,” says Heughan of the scene in which Tryon grants the newcomer 10,000 acres of land in exchange for a promise to fill it with settlers loyal to the British Empire. “The contract [will probably] come back to bite him,” previews Heughan. Tryon also warns Jamie to watch out for the Regulators, colonists fighting unjust taxes.
This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine's cover story. For more on the Frasers and the action still to come on Outlander, pick up the latest issue, on newsstands Thursday, October 25.
Outlander, Season 4 Premiere, Sunday, November 4, 8/7c, Starz