Culture

Diana Gabaldon on the 'Outlander' Casting of Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser

The newly cast Sam Heughan

Editor's Note: Diana Gabaldon is the New York Times bestselling author of the wildly popular Outlander novels - Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, and A Breath of Snow and Ashes (for which she won a Quill Award and the Corine International Book Prize) - and one work of nonfiction, The Outlandish Companion, as well as the bestselling series featuring Lord John Grey, a character she introduced in Voyager. Here, Gabaldon shares with Signature her true thoughts on the casting of Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser in the upcoming television series adaptation of Outlander.

A few thoughts. <cough>

Do you, um, know what it is that an actor does?

No, really. Do you? They do what I do -- they make magic happen. They do it with their faces and bodies, while I do it with words, but it's essentially the same thing. They create something that wasn't there before.

Granted, sometimes it helps if you have the rough physical outline for a particular role. MOST of a physical resemblance, though, is really not necessary, and for two reasons:

1) Physical appearance is very mutable. Hair and eye color are so simple to change that I'm amazed anyone is carrying on about what color Mr. [Sam] Heughan's hair is. (For the record, he's blond. Like any other actor, he dyes his hair as needed. It's dark in these photos; it could be red within half an hour.)

2) Much more importantly -- beyond very basic things like height and general build, physical aspects are just not that important, provided that an actor can act.

As one of the producers said to me -- anent the auditioning process -- "We were hoping that somebody would just walk in and be Jamie."

Okay. Now, I got the word about Sam Heughan (I asked him how to pronounce it: "HEW-an is good or, if you can, insert the Scottish throat clearing/spitting sound in the middle ... HewCH-an. Hard to get right first time without spraying close friends with saliva.") while I was driving to Santa Fe with my husband; they thought they'd found Jamie and were sending me the audition videos a little later. Well, naturally, I spent the next hour Googling "Sam Heughan" on my iPhone.

Now -- I think this point may just possibly have escaped a few thousand of you, so let me restate it: Jamie is TWENTY-TWO in OUTLANDER, and a virgin. And as the producers do understand and respect the story very much, they wanted a guy who could believably be a twenty-two-year-old virgin. (Yes, I know half of you are thinking of him as he is in the later books and thus "see" him in his fifties. That doesn't mean the producers should cast someone in his late forties and ask him to play a twenty-two-year-old virgin. Am I right? Yes, I am. Now that that's settled ...)

So I'm lookin' at some of Sam's photos and sayin' to my husband, "Yeah, I buy him as a virgin ... but I think Claire's going to get done for statutory rape!" You know, a bit apprehensive. He's quite big, but a very chiseled face that makes him look a good bit younger than he is, at least in stills.

(Husband approved of the stills from "First Light," btw (where Sam is playing a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain) -- "He looks good beat up," he said. "A good thing for playing Jamie.").

So anyway ... we get to Santa Fe, let the dogs out, air the house, go have dinner ... And then, I sit down at my computer, in a lather of trepidation and excitement, to watch the audition tapes.

First five seconds, I'm interested -- he looks totally different than he did in any of the stills -- and five seconds later, Sam Heughan's GONE, and so am I. It's Jamie Fraser, right there in front of me, moving, talking. One of the biggest thrills ever.

And that's what actors do. Good ones. They can "be" someone else, totally.

[SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN'T READ THE SERIES YET]

Now, I saw him do two scenes: the confrontation between Jamie and Dougal, after Dougal exposes Jamie's back in a tavern. Ferocious, explosive, a glimpse of the warrior. And he ... freakin' exploded.

And then ... the scene in which Jamie explains to Claire exactly why he intends to punish her for disobeying his orders to stay hidden, thus nearly getting them all killed.

1) This is arguably the most controversial scene in all the books. And I'm not about to go into the scene itself -- not the point here. The point is that that's one heck of a complex scene, emotionally, and could be read/performed in a lot of different ways. Now, I happen to know exactly how Jamie acted and spoke during that scene ... and that's ... exactly what Sam did. Thoughtfulness, intimacy, fair-mindedness, annoyance, firmness -- and quite a lot of humor. One of Jamie's hallmarks is the ability to be threatening and funny at the same time -- and Sam pulled that off.

So, yeah. I've watched those videos a couple dozen times, just to be sure I wasn't imagining things. I wasn't.

Now, fwiw -- the necessary physical aspects are all there. Sam's big -- my head would hit about the middle of his chest (he's only an inch shorter than my husband) -- and very well-built, in terms of what Jamie actually looks like. Tall, lean (not burly), rangy (not bulgy), broad-shouldered, muscular (but a young muscular. Young athletes look way different from gnarly middle-aged ones). Face ... chiseled, striking -- but looks different in every single role.

And the bottom line is simply this: He showed up and he was Jamie.

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