Sam Heughan was 34 years old and broke.
The actor had just completed a global tour of the arena show Batman Live, in the title role no less, but playing Batman in an arena show and playing Batman in a movie are two very different things, as your bank manager and your agent will both attest. Heughan had a stark, simple choice: find another bar job or sign on the dole.
Perhaps acting wasn’t for him. Perhaps the stars would never quite align. “Can I keep doing this? Is this really sustainable?”
And then he landed another audition. Another lead role – in a show called Outlander.
The intervening seven years have seen Outlander become one of the hottest properties on screen – in every sense – and Heughan amass a fanbase of millions for his portrayal of its strapping protagonist Jamie Fraser, a Highlander who sets hearts astir and loins aflame whenever he draws breath (let alone his sword).
“It changed my life,” says Heughan, although he admits his relatively late success may also have been a blessing. Land Outlander straight out of drama school and “I would have been awful. I would have been such a megalomaniac.”
Instead, the actor has built up a reputation as one of the nicest guys in the industry. One of the busiest, too: Valentine’s Day saw the release of Men In Kilts, a travelogue filmed with fellow Scottish thespian Graham McTavish and a love-letter to all things tartan. Expect more fisticuffs in the upcoming SAS: Red Notice, an Andy McNab adaptation in which Heughan’s ex-Special Forces soldier attempts to prevent the destruction of the Channel tunnel. Brexit really escalated, huh?
Whom do you sit opposite the star of one of the biggest shows on TV, a global heartthrob and proud Scotsman? Well, how about the star of one of the biggest shows on TV, a global heartthrob and proud… Welshman. Speak of the devil and he shall appear: Lucifer himself Tom Ellis takes on his most prestigious role yet as Square Mile trainee reporter. (Well, we’ve already had him on the front cover, and he wouldn’t leave us alone.)
Ellis and Heughan are old friends, studying drama together at the Royal Scottish Academy. "I’m so thrilled for him that things have gone the way they have," Ellis told us last September. "He’s such a lovely man”
As well as a prodigiously gifted actor, flawless physical specimen and all-round good egg – check his Instagram – Ellis turns out to be a natural interviewer, mining his mate for a trove of brilliant anecdotes and fascinating insights into their shared craft. It’s a conversation to cherish, part Inside the Actor’s Studio, part fireside chinwag down the local pub.
Pour yourself a glass of Sassenach – Heughan’s personal whisky brand – and enjoy this meeting of minds. You'll find both audio and print versions below, as well as Charlie Gray's magnificent photoshoot.
Tom, Sam – over to you…
Tom Ellis: Hello, everyone. I have been given the great privilege to interview my old buddy, Mr Sam Heughan. How are you, mate? You’re looking awesome, as always.
Sam Heughan: Alright, buddy? You’re looking just as suave yourself. It’s been a while. I haven’t seen you in person for a decade, if not longer.
It’s been at least ten years; it must be. These days everyone knows you from Outlander but I’ve known you for a lot longer than that. I want to go right, right back – and talk about, first off, where you’re from and where you were born. Let’s get some specifics…
Specifically I am from the south-west of Scotland – called New Galloway. I was born in a place called Balmaclellan. It’s very rural. There is practically nothing there apart from sheep and the odd castle.
I actually was born in the grounds of an old castle, a derelict castle called Kenmure Castle. It was pretty idyllic I suppose if you imagine a Scottish child growing up playing in the grounds of this castle. I think probably that’s where the love of acting came from, imagining being Robert the Bruce or King Arthur or whatever.
How come you were in the grounds of a castle? Is that just where your folks were?
My mum moved up there just before I was born and she was working there. It’s a very creative area. I never really knew this as a kid, but we were surrounded by these people that were craftsmen.
My uncle is a craftsman. He makes a lot of things out of wicker, which we’ve used on Outlander and we used in other movies as well. He made the wicker man for The Wicker Man 2006 remake. It was a very creative place.
Then I moved to Edinburgh when I was 14 and found myself eventually going to drama school in Glasgow.
Did you always want to act from when you were at school?
I was fascinated by it but I didn’t think I could do it. Actually when I was 16 and we got encouraged to go and do work experience, I went to the Traverse Theatre during the festival and worked as a stagehand during the Edinburgh Festival. Traverse was known for new writing. There would be four or five plays in the day.
I was only the stagehand but I was so obsessed by the actors and not the behind-the-scenes work. During one of these days when I was moving a set, I was staring, a bit like a stalker, at the actors and I dropped a bit of set on the stage manager and he got taken to hospital. He had to have stitches in his hand. I realised it wasn’t really for me and thought maybe I should go and try to pursue the other side of acting.
Well, that’s really weird because one of my early memories of being friends with you was you did a play called Outlying Islands at the Traverse. Were you still at the Royal Scottish Academy then?
That’s right, yes. I was in my second year at drama school. They didn’t really encourage you to go off and get work but I was very lucky and we were doing a production of Romeo and Juliet. This director saw it and asked me to audition. I was very lucky. I went to go and do Outlying Islands for a year and a half. I didn’t really do much drama school after that, but it’s great. As you know, you learn on the job, don’t you?
Wandering the streets of Glasgow, it didn’t really feel like I would ever be in a big TV show
Your third year was almost null and void of being a drama student because you were actually doing what you were training to do, which was amazing.
As you say, you learn when you’re on the job. It gives you a great understanding of what the real world is like. It was fantastic. We went to London with it. We went to the Royal Court. We went to Canada and all over the UK. We did a tour. It was brilliant. I really enjoyed it.
That would be in the realms of what we would call ‘early success’, being a drama student and starting to work already. What were your expectations when you started at drama school?
I grew up going to the Lyceum Theatre and the Traverse, and I was obsessed with Scottish theatre. That, for me, was it. It’s theatre. At drama school I was just trying to learn about theatre and who the practitioners were in the UK and in Scotland. But that, in my mind, was what was going to happen. I was going to go out afterwards and hopefully work, and be known as a reasonably good actor, a reasonably employable actor. Then I guess you start to dream a little bit about America and American TV shows.
I remember my flatmates and I at drama school were obsessed with Band of Brothers which our mutual friend James McAvoy was in – along with many now-famous actors. For me, being in a TV show like that was a bit of a pipe dream but it was something that was very enticing. But wandering the streets of Glasgow, it didn’t really feel like I would ever be in a big TV show.
After Outlying Islands, did you do some more theatre or did you find yourself doing a TV job? What was the moment that took you on to a TV set for the first time?
After that, I moved to London – following in your footsteps. I did actually; I looked up to you and I saw you at auditions, yourself and James McAvoy. I saw you guys getting out there and being successful and I thought, “God. OK, that’s the path I want to take,” and quickly got cast in an ITV drama called Islands at War – yet more islands. It was quite a big production. We were over on the Isle of Man for that one.
I remember the first day on set, I had this big scene with my father. The actor playing my father was James Wilby who was quite a big actor at the time. I’d never been on camera; I’d been reading books about acting for camera. The big take came along with a closeup. I’d read that you’re not meant to blink so I tried to do this four-minute take without blinking.
By the end of it, I literally couldn’t see because my eyes were streaming and I was trying to not blink. The director came up to me, and he said, “If you blink, it lets me into your soul.” I was like, “Oh OK, great so I’m allowed to blink.” Then the rest hopefully was a lot better.
How to be a better actor 101…
Acting school, day one: you’re allowed to blink.
While we’re talking about it, do you feel that there is a tangible difference between acting for theatre and acting for the screen?
That’s a good question. I honestly don’t know any more because it’s been so long since I’ve been on the stage. Like you, we’ve both been in our respective TV shows for a long time now.
I don’t know about you, but I would love to do that challenge and go back on stage. I imagine it’s probably not dissimilar, though there is definitely a different technique of course, but I think the process is still the same.
I think the execution is different in terms of being smaller for camera and bigger for stage, but preparing a character and the thought process and all of that is the same. You just don’t have the luxury of rehearsal which is the thing that I really miss from theatre.
I shouldn’t say this, but I think plays are probably better written than some television.
You can’t say that!
Well, I just think the rhythm is there, especially Pinter or whatever, I mean they’re so precise. All you’d have to do is not get in the way of what the writer has written.
But sometimes television, you have to work quite hard to make it feel natural. I’d love to go back to theatre. Would you? Is that something that you’re yearning for?
Oh my God, yes. All the time. It’s so funny. You spend a bit of time over here [in the US] and you work in TV for a bit and then you talk to your agents and managers about doing theatre and they’re like, “Yes, maybe at some point in the future.” And then it’s forgotten about, because obviously there is no money involved in theatre.
But I love it. It’s the essence of why I really loved acting in the first place. I miss the live aspect.
But listen, let’s talk about Outlander. You’d been doing Outlying Islands and then you start breaking into TV. When did Outlander happen?
Around 2014. I had a long period of auditioning successfully or mostly unsuccessfully in London and getting to know the casting directors. I had varying success but I was also a jobbing actor so I was working in bars as well, trying to support myself. My first taste of Hollywood was I did a self-tape for Tron and at the time of the movie, I was living in a really crappy apartment on the outskirts of London. There were drug dealers on my street.
I remember having very little money to my name and this beautiful car turned up to pick me up first class, flown to Hollywood, staying in this amazing hotel. I remember being terrified that I had to tip the driver when I got to LA because I’d read about tipping in Los Angeles. I only had $20 or whatever so I gave him my last $20. I’m like, “Shit, I’m staying in this amazing hotel but I can’t touch anything. I can’t touch the minibar because I won’t be able to pay for it.”
But it was an amazing process to go on set and be part of this huge production. I was there for three days of tests. It was my first taste. But I remember walking down Hollywood Boulevard and my phone rang and it was the local pub in London where I was working at the time. They were like, “Hey mate, you’re five minutes late. Are you going to be here?” I was like, “No. I’m afraid I’m in Hollywood.” That didn’t go down too well.
They’re like, “What are you doing in Northern Ireland?” and you’re like, “No, mate. I’m in LA…” Did you get that job?
When we started doing auditions for America, I remember going to the casting director Suzanne Smith’s office and then never hearing anything ever again about the thing I just spent hours learning lines for.
That happened for a good couple of years until I had that very moment that you’re talking about – I suddenly got a call going, “They want to fly you out and test you.” I was like, “What? This doesn’t happen to people like me.”
I didn’t get the job. It was a hugely disappointing experience in the end, but it was also incredibly exciting. It was enough to reinforce some belief in myself again.
You’ve touched on it there exactly. I didn’t feel that welcome in London – but in America I got a manager and an agent quickly. There was suddenly a positivity to it and I felt, ‘Oh, in LA things can happen. It’s a very can-do place.’ I spent quite a bit of time there, pilot seasons, and tried to get work.
It’s interesting you mentioned Suzanne Smith because eventually she cast me in Outlander. For years I’d been going to see her like yourself. She was quite intimidating at first. She would always be like, “That was terrible. Just do it again but faster.” You’re like, “Oh God. Oh God. I’m so rubbish!” Then suddenly she cast me in Outlander and everything changed.
Outlander has changed your career. Is that fair to say?
Oh yes. Absolutely.
Outlander was a quick process, two weeks from the first audition to the screentest to getting offered the part
Finally giving the opportunity to see Sam Heughan in the light he needed to be seen. He’s a fantastic actor and an incredibly beautiful man.
In a ginger wig.
In a ginger wig. He looks great in a kilt. Do you ever get an audition and you think, “Oh. I think I’ve got a really good chance of getting this one. This one is for me”?
Yes, I do. It’s so funny because when you’re auditioning, it’s always the one you think you’re so right for that you don’t get. Then the one you think went badly and you get the call back. You’re like, “What is going on?” But for this one, yes.
I also think all the time I spent in Los Angeles – pilot seasons, auditioning – you get into a rhythm. I’d just come back from LA from that point and so I was feeling, I guess, more in the zone or something. But I read the part and I knew this guy. I knew this Highlander and I just felt like, “Yes, I can make it work.”
It was a pretty quick process, I think about two weeks from the first audition to the screentest to getting offered the part. It was a whirlwind.
I’m going to let you into a little secret. I auditioned for Outlander, not for Jamie Fraser but for Tobias Menzies’ part, ‘Black Jack’ Randall.
I remember reading the script thinking, “This is really good.” Did you think that it had the legs to go as far and be as successful as it is now?
Firstly, dude, I’m not sure how I’d have felt having you, I don’t know, assault me shall we say.
Exactly. That sort of thing would have been quite tricky.
That would have been quite tricky, but I know we would have had a great time. Actually, you would have been brilliant at that because Frank Randall is this charming, loveable character and then Black Jack, the other part you would have had to play, is just violent.
It’s a great part. Tobias, of course, does an amazing job but that would have been so different. But yes, I never imagined… I remember the first day being driven in by my driver. He asked, “How long do you think it’s going to go for?” I was like, “Two years max, that will be it.” We’re into our eighth year and we’re still going.
What’s the plan? Is this something you want to do for a long, long, long time? Do you know when it’s finishing? Are you going to spill the beans and let us know?
I think I do. I can see the direction it’s going. Obviously everything has to come to an end. I don’t want it to end prematurely. I love the character. I love the part. I love my job. It’s changed my life. But I’m ready for other things. It’s just been perfect. Outlander has given me the opportunity to do other stuff.
No matter how long you are in a job, you start to think, “Is this the only thing I can do?” It’s nice to stretch yourself in other ways. But Outlander constantly gives us things to play with. Each season there are new challenges. It’s not like a procedural or a show that’s in one place. Outlander is always moving. The story is always changing. It’s a bit of a gift.
New people come in and you form a bond and then they all get killed off
Who’s your favourite person on Outlander?
My makeup artist, Wendy Kemp Forbes. There is stiff competition. There are a great number of people. We have a really strong bond, especially with the original Highlanders in season one and two. Then they all died and new people come in and you form a bond and then they all get killed off.
At the moment it’s practically just myself and Caitriona Balfe, but we have new people come to Fraser’s Ridge now. It’s just so fun. Each actor comes on with their own energy and new life. It’s so important to have great actors surrounding you. We’re very lucky. Suzanne Smith does a great job in casting. We’re still waiting for you, though.
Well, I’m nearly finished [filming Lucifer]. If Covid ever lets us finish this job, then yes.
Maybe when we’re both done with our shows we can work together.
Why don’t we do Outlander: The Musical on stage?
Great. Yes, perfect. I can’t sing but that’s alright, you can sing.
In the last few years, I’ve seen you break into the movie world. Talk to me a bit about that. What’s the biggest, craziest movie moment you’ve had yet?
I’ve been lucky. I did Bloodshot last year; The Spy Who Dumped Me a couple of years before. I just did a two films recently, too. [SAS: Red Notice is out 16 March.] But Bloodshot was probably the craziest, the most Hollywood.
Confession: I haven’t watched Bloodshot yet, but I have watched the trailer. It looks like one of those movies where as an actor, you had to use a lot of your imagination for lots of things that are happening. How was that?
We were shooting in South Africa and all the sets were vast and incredible. In many of the fights, there was a lot of wire work. It wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t literally just green screen the whole time. I loved it. I play a bad guy and I get to kick some ass and punch Vin Diesel in the face. It was pretty awesome. (I didn’t punch him in the face.)
I’m sure if you had, he probably would have punched you back.
Punched me right back, yes. I didn’t want that. He’s brilliant. He’s created this huge franchise – several franchises. The man knows what he’s doing. To be honest, it felt like a bit of time off.
Every movie I’ve done since Outlander feels easy by comparison to Outlander in that Outlander is so all-consuming. We work in really difficult conditions, obviously outside a lot in Scotland which at the moment it’s snow and ice and pretty cold and dark most of the time.
They are long days, really long days. It’s just such a big production. It’s unwieldy. When I go on to these other movies, it just feels easy because it’s only three or four months and you’re done.
Do you feel a sense of pressure or expectation on your shoulders being the lead of a show compared to when you do a movie?
Yes. I’m not sure how you feel, but something is very different, not just you’re on set all day every day – which sometimes is a blessing because it means you get in the rhythm and you get a shorthand with the crew very quickly. In a way, you control the pace of things and the energy on set. That can be very beneficial.
But yes, it is nice to just slip in for a day here and there and then get to go home early. You don’t have that pressure of having to carry the whole thing.
Do you think you’ll ever have a job as intense as Outlander?
I don’t know. For Outlander, yes, I don’t think I’ll ever have anything as intense again. What about you, what do you think for yours?
Certainly season five of Lucifer because I play two characters in it; I can’t imagine ever having a busier schedule than that. It was all day every day for months. But to be on that sort of hamster wheel is a bit of a privilege because there are so many people that come in and they feel nervous and the pressure of being on camera. Guest actors that come in all the time, even regular cast that are in once a week or whatever, they feel like every moment has to count.
When you’re always on set and you’re consumed by it, you’re just doing it and living it. You don’t think about those things. That is a massive privilege because you’ll walk away from this job onto other sets and feel so much more comfortable than you used to.
When I was auditioning, I was always quite nervous and just wanted to be like one of those guys that walk in and they’re all just like, “Hey, what’s going on?” They don’t care. I cared so much. I wanted to get this job. I wanted to impress, which puts so much pressure on you. Going into other jobs now I feel like there is a confidence and there is an ease.
I still get nervous upon starting a new job but it’s now like, ‘OK, I’ve done this. I know what I’m doing.’ Very quickly you fall into the pattern of the work schedule of the day. Again, that’s what Outlander has given me. It’s given me this confidence, which is fantastic.
Confidence is huge in all parts of life, but in acting there is such a ridiculous amount of rejection that you have to get used to. It’s very easy to lose confidence altogether, certainly in yourself. Believing in yourself is the most fundamental thing that you have to do – because if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, no one else will. You’ve just reminded me of a eureka moment in my career where auditions used to be about, ‘What do they want from me?’
They give you a big list of, ‘This character is like this.’ You’ve got all these reference points. I used to spend all my time trying to be like those things, which meant that there was no authenticity or truth to the choices I was making.
They have this whole list of what they want to find or what they want to see, but it’s because they haven’t got it yet. You go in and just be yourself and then they go, ‘That’s it!’
What you’re looking for is me. That sounds like an arrogant comment and I don’t mean it to sound arrogant. You have to have an element of self-belief, like a boxer does when they go, ‘I’m going to win. I’m going to take him down.’ If they don’t think that then there is no chance. You have to have that belief. That isn’t a very British quality.
Yes. Actually, I’d like to question you on that – the celebrity side of it. You’re expected to appear on TV shows or talk shows or be photographed outdoors and whatever. With that, you need confidence. There needs to be an ownership of it. For me, that was always slightly concerning, because I didn’t want the spotlight to be on me as the person. I wanted the spotlight to be on the work. Therefore, you get into this weird situation where you’re promoting yourself as an actor, but also the character.
It’s a strange headspace because as British actors, culturally, we don’t want to be seen as arrogant. You don’t want to talk yourself up, either. You want to let your work do the talking. But coming out to the States, you have to bang your own drum. That was a mental shift for me where I felt a bit of a fraud to be honest when I first started coming out here.
I had to go, ‘I’ve been in this show and it was a real success on the BBC. I feel like I’ve got more to offer so that’s why I’ve come out here. I can do this part for you or that part for you.’ That’s the kind of headspace you have to be in and it’s so alien.
That’s British folk – we’re like, ‘I’m terribly sorry.’ The first thing we do is apologise. I think I still feel that, especially in interviews and things. I’d rather sit back than be the person that gets up in the front and starts to talk about your merits or how good you’ve been in something.
It is a strange one. I guess some people deal with it differently. I look at someone like Matt Damon who is very private or there are other people who are just out there. It is an interesting path that we have to lead in Hollywood and in that world.
You can’t be successful or lead a show for this long and be an arsehole
Well, the nice thing is that you have always been a very lovely and kind man…
I’ll pay you later.
All the nice qualities you don’t always see in this industry. But you have led a hugely successful show for eight years now and you’re still that same person…
You don’t know about all the dead bodies I have piled up behind me.
Everyone speaks so highly of you – and I think that’s a huge testament, mate.
Well, likewise, mate. I feel like you can’t be successful or lead a show for this long and be an arsehole. Maybe I am an arsehole, though. You know when they say that if you can’t see the arsehole in the room, you are it.
I think people aren’t quite as scared to speak up when they’re feeling uncomfortable by what someone is doing or the way that someone is behaving. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of people who feel like they can’t speak up because a star is a star, and we’re all the underlings. I don’t think that’s very fair, either.
Do you think the reason that you’ve maintained your groundedness is because of the experiences you had leading up to getting your big break?
Yes, probably. To be honest, I struggled the first quarter or half of my career: I worked occasionally, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Just before I got Outlander I’d been in America, I’d played Batman in this arena show that went all around the world. I earned some good money on that. I spent a lot of time in LA getting close on stuff, but came back to the UK and I didn’t have any money to show for it or any job.
I remember I had to sign on again or look for another bar job – and I was 34. I just thought, ‘Can I keep doing this? Is this really sustainable?’ I did start to think, ‘OK, I’m going to have to put a time cap on this and then really rethink everything.’At that point I auditioned for Outlander and then my life changed.
But I think it has grounded me. I’m very thankful for what it’s done. I can see my life could have been something completely different so yes, I do feel very fortunate.
Imagine if Outlander had been your first or second job out of drama school. Can you imagine having that sense of pressure and expectation on your shoulders at that age and what that might do to someone’s psyche?
I would have been awful. I would have been such a megalomaniac. But also, imagine if I had had that success early on and then come out of it just knowing success. The fall would have been even bigger. I think I’m ready for anything now. It certainly has made me more resilient.
Well the other thing that’s made you incredibly resilient of course is your physique, Mr Heughan. Your love of exercise and walking and being outdoors. Talk to me a bit about that and your charity, My Peak Challenge.
Well that’s kind of you, mate, yes. Coming from you that’s good to hear because I’ve seen your videos on Instagram and you’re pumping iron. You’re doing the full Arnold.
My Peak Challenge is my charity fundraiser. It’s an online fitness programme, but while you’re helping yourself, you’re helping other people so 50% of the profit goes to our chosen charities. We’ve raised over $5.5m now for our charities.
We have around 14,000 members all around the world. Every day you get a particular workout and it’s in a series. You get a support group. There is a community group online. There is a meal plan. There are exercise plans and guides.
It’s incredible because all these peakers, as we call them, all our members, they’ve created their own communities. We have ambassador groups from different countries. They’ve made friends. They’ve found confidence. They’ve lost weight. They’ve changed their health. I think it’s really important that people take control of that but also do it whilst helping other people.
I’m not sure I want to hold your hand while climbing a mountain
I love walking. As a kid, that was my holiday. I didn’t get on aeroplane until I was 21. We used to tow a caravan around the UK or across Europe and then we’d go walking. I love the outdoors. I’d love to go on a hike with you one day somewhere in Scotland.
Let’s do it! I’d rather do it in Los Angeles where it’s warmer, though.
We could do it in LA. It’s a bit dry and crispy here. There is something about Scotland I just find incredibly romantic. I don’t want romance with you, Sam, but the romantic notion of walking in the hills with you.
I’m not sure I want to hold your hand while climbing a mountain. It just doesn’t…
I’ll be double drinking your Sassenach whisky. A little plug there for you.
Thank you very much. Yes, I must get you that bottle. Hill walking is what My Peak Challenge was inspired by. I came back to Scotland for Outlander and was hiking at the weekends. It’s so accessible here in Scotland. You get to the mountains so easily.
Even today I went for a run and I was looking at the snow on the mountains in the distance. It is so exhilarating and romantic and captivating. I wanted to share my love of the outdoors with people and that’s how My Peak Challenge came about.
Certainly this year I would suggest to anybody that it’s a great thing to get involved in because it’s also Covid friendly in that regard. Going out and walking and talking is something that is hugely overlooked by people. I’ve had the most amazing conversations with people while I’m on hikes. It’s a very Zen place to be.
Yes. There is a sense of achievement as well when you’ve finished or when you get to the top and you get rewarded with a view. Then when you come down, you feel like you’ve achieved something. It gives you a perspective as well. It gives you another horizon to look at. I think that’s really important, especially right now with politics and everything that’s going on. It’s important that we look elsewhere and we look outside of our own comfort zone.
Nature is a huge healer. It’s something that we all need to turn to at the moment when there is despair in humanity everywhere. Spending a little bit of time in nature is good for everyone’s soul right now.
A hundred percent. Even if you have to hold hands with Tom Ellis.
Even if you have to hold hands with me.
You’re very good at this, by the way. When I interviewed you for another publication, I was quite nervous because I wanted to do you justice. You were fantastic, obviously. But I realised being an interviewer, there is quite a bit of work you have to do beforehand. You have to really swot up.
It is a slightly dysfunctional relationship. We bicker quite a lot
It is cheating a bit, because I know a lot about you and I’ve got this personal connection with you so it’s just like having a nice chat really. Another person I have a personal connection with – segues, that’s great for this sort of thing…
That’s good! You’re a pro at this!
A person we have a personal connection with is Mr Graham McTavish who obviously guest-starred on Lucifer. But he was a big part of Outlander and you guys are great friends and have brought out a book and have done a show together. Please do tell me about Men in Kilts.
Yes! I’d been looking in the last couple of years to create my own material and have been doing that. I know that a lot of people are obsessed with Scotland and the Scottish culture. At the time I was speaking to Graham, I think we were in Los Angeles. I was drinking a beer and he was drinking café latte as usual.
He also told me he wanted to make a documentary show about the history of Scotland. I came back to Scotland last year and was shooting Outlander and I just thought, ‘Why not? Why don’t we just do this?’ I pulled a crew together and some contacts and Graham flew over and we shot over a number of weekends and made a pilot episode of Men in Kilts that we managed to sell to Starz and Sony. Thus it was born. It’s great fun. It came out on Valentine’s Day. Again, another romantic theme.
The book is also available. The book is the story of the original road trip we went on when shooting the pilot. It’s a lot more in-depth than maybe the show is. We go into a lot more of the history, but also I guess more about ourselves as actors and also our personal relationship. It is a slightly dysfunctional relationship. We bicker quite a lot but I think that’s the joy.
I mean Graham is such great company and he’s got so many stories. I do love his Sylvester Stallone impression as well, it’s very funny.
There is a whole segment of Graham’s impressions: I had to listen to them every single day.
Graham plays these characters who are quite masculine, quite aggressive. He’s a character. He’s well built. But in real life Graham is a total teddy bear and extremely nervous around dangerous things. The joy of Men in Kilts was getting him to do things that he didn’t want to do.
Go on, give me one thing! Is he scared of heights and stuff like that?
Oh yes. He’s terrified of heights. I got him to abseil. He refused point blank to get in a kayak with me despite trying to bribe him in every way. I got him on a tandem bicycle but he complained about that incessantly.
There are a number of other things. A near death experience on a motorbike, but we’ll leave that for another time.
I imagine Graham’s language probably gets quite colourful when he’s scared.
Yes. But it’s a lot of fun. Every episode features a different theme so there is song and dance, there is food and drink, there is clans and tartans, there is natural beauty.
We’re driving around Scotland in this campervan that I decked out with lots of kitsch Scottish memorabilia. It’s great fun, great banter.
Why are people so drawn to Scotland?
There is still this romantic idea of Scotland and the Highlanders, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Rebellion.
The draw is that it’s so tangible. You can literally drive or walk anywhere around Scotland and history is there. There is a castle. There is an ancient ruin or, I don’t know, a standing stone where hundreds of years ago people were living and had a life here.
You feel very, very close to the past here and I think that’s the draw of Scotland.
I remember taking my American wife to Edinburgh for the first time. She’s a huge Harry Potter fan. Coming on the train to Edinburgh is the closest experience you have to arriving at Hogwarts. It’s crazy how beautiful that city is.
Yes. We shot there the first couple of days of Men in Kilts and as you said, it’s like Harry Potter world. There are all these closes and alleyways that feel like, is it, Diagon Alley or whatever.
It feels like you’re shopping for wands and stuff, doesn’t it?
Yes. I mean, JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter I think in the Elephant House Café which is on George IV Bridge. It was inspired a lot by Edinburgh. It’s a great city.
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Awesome, mate. Although Glasgow might top it for me. I had three of the best years of my life in Glasgow. I absolutely love the city.
For people outside that don’t know: there is this rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the two big cities in the central belt. I’m an Edinburgher I guess you call them. I’m from there. I lived there when I was a teenager.
But having said that, I think I’m now a Weegie. I love Glasgow. I have lived here now almost 10 years. It’s such a great city. They like salt and vinegar on their chips where Edinburgh like salt and sauce.
Salt and sauce? What’s that all about?
It’s like a vinegar brown sauce mix that you get in chip shops in Edinburgh. It’s either your thing or it’s not. I’m a traditionalist.
Is Trader Joe’s still there, the bar where we used to drink at round the corner from college?
The bar that used to be round the corner from our drama school, which is next to the Theatre Royal? The bar is still there. It’s not called Trader Joe’s, it’s something else. But I walked past there the other day and had this vivid recollection of one of my good friends at drama school.
We were all in there on a Friday night drinking cheap beer and he decided he’d put on a show for us. He went outside and ran up the street and pretended he was jogging and jogged up to the Theatre Royal and ran right into one of the lamp posts there as people were coming out of the Theatre Royal. Then there was this big hubbub where they thought he’d knocked himself out and he was acting.
But it was ridiculous. Drama students! Ridiculous.
Listen, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you again. I’m hoping to be in the UK later this year. When do you guys wrap?
Some time this year, I hope. Covid is pretty intense right now so anything could happen. We’re just trying to see if we can get through it.
Will you be in the UK for most of this year?
I’m here and you’re very welcome to come up, mate. It would be great to see you finally in person. It will be so nice.
Well once I’ve isolated and all that, I might take a little trip up to Scotland with the kids.
Do that! We could go for a hike and I won’t hold your hand. It would be awesome to see you. It would be really cool.
Yes, man, it would be lovely. Good luck with the rest of shooting.
Thank you, mate.
Sam is an Audi Ambassador. Men in Kilts is currently available on Starz. SAS: Red Notice is released 12 March on Sky and Now TV.
Want more? Read our interview with Tom Ellis here. Lucifer 5B returns soon to Netflix.