Sam Heughan arrives at The Savoy’s Gucci Suite at midday. Now there’s an opening sentence. Let’s backtrack.
Heughan’s previous Square Mile cover is one of our most successful ever. We wanted to bring him back: the difficulty was creating a shoot that could live up to the previous one. Enter the Royal Suite by Gucci: one of the most remarkable hotel suites in the world, and a fitting host for Sam and photographer Charlie Gray’s 2022 reunion.
So – Sam arrives at midday. He had the Outlander season six premiere the previous night and it was a late one. Obviously: it was the Outlander S6 premiere. Yet his handshake is firm and his bright blue eyes are not even slightly bloodshot – just blue. Very, very blue.
While the crew prepares, I offer to do a shop run – what do people want? “Carbs,” says Heughan with feeling. “Carbs. And a Guinness.”
I return with sandwiches and a four-pack of Guinness cans. Heughan decants his into a martini glass. Not many people can pull off Canned Guinness Martini: Heughan makes the drink look damn aspirational. “Kinda looks like an espresso martini,” he observes. Next shoot, we’ll mix an espresso martini and serve it in a Guinness glass. Or maybe tequila is a better shout – Heughan has brought a bottle of his Sassenach Reposado for everyone to share. It’s a classy touch, and a classy drink – “smooth, right?” he says as I sample a glass.
Actually, I’m not quite doing the moment justice. I’m flanked by these vast indoor plants that quite literally touch the ceiling. Sam is standing in front of a black marble fireplace with flowery panels on either side. He’s wearing a polka-dot smoking jacket and a top hat. He’s smiling, awaiting my verdict on his tequila. It’s one of those Am I Awake? moments that sometimes occurs in this gig.
But yes, the tequila is damn smooth. It slips down with an ease that promises the best kind of trouble after nine o’clock. And the photoshoot might be even smoother, resembling the aftermath of the best party you’ve never attended. Rooftop shot, anyone?
Tom Ellis did a brilliant job exploring his friend’s career in the previous interview so this time we decided to do something a little different – explore Sam Heughan, the human. He’s a pretty fantastic one.
Square Mile: So, first question – what’s your earliest memory?
Sam Heughan: I was born in a cottage in the south of Scotland and we moved to the grounds of an old, derelict castle when I was about three years old. I remember as a kid walking with my mum down to the castle. There’s a big line of trees that my brother used to climb. It was autumn, amazing leaves, amazing scenery and this derelict castle – which at a young age was kinda scary. But it was a great playground as a child.
SM: As a kid, who did you look up to?
SH: Probably my brother. Five years older: we weren’t very close because he was quite a bit older. He was out mountain biking and cycling and swimming. He played rugby, he always beat me at pool and table tennis – so I always wanted to beat him! I think that’s why I become competitive.
But yeah, I looked up to him. Younger brothers always look up to their elders and want to emulate them.
SM: Are you guys close now?
SH: You get closer as you grow older – or we did. I wouldn’t say we’re like best friends but as we’ve both got older, you see them as a human being. There’s a lot more empathy. He’s still a better cyclist than me; I can probably drink better than he can.
SM: When did you realise you might succeed at acting?
SH: I don’t think you ever think you’re going to succeed. Even now. There’s always that question in the back of your head: oh my God, what if I never work again? I certainly never feel like I’m at the top of the game: you always feel like you could be better at something.
I suppose the first time I really thought I can do this was at drama school. I was shit at drama school. I was told I was a bad actor. And then in my second year I played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. I remember one day in rehearsal, before we were onstage, I realised: ah, fuck I can do this.
SM: It just clicked?
SH: I kinda let myself go. Before then, I had an idea of what I wanted to portray but I didn’t portray it. You demonstrate rather than feel it. I was demonstrating.
Then one time, I stopped trying to try: suddenly, you live it, you are it, as opposed to trying to demonstrate it.
SM: What would success have looked like for you aged 20?
SH: So, I’d just started drama school. I’d taken a couple of years out, I’d travelled quite a bit. When I got to drama school, I wanted to be in theatre. I started working really hard on my voice, on my dialogue.
SM: Were you ever tempted to do something else?
SH: I’d just come back from Los Angeles. I’d been there multiple times, had some success, multiple failures. I’d earned quite a bit of money on Batman [the stage show] and then spent all of that living in LA, auditioning. Came back to LA and I’d had to sign on to the dole. Really didn’t want to do that.
So a week later got a job in a bar, started working for a friend of mine who was in the cocktail industry. That piqued my interest in cocktails, actually. But I did start thinking at that point, is this what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life? And then had the audition for Outlander. But there was definitely a point where I was thinking, can I keep doing this?
SM: Were you enjoying the experience?
SH: Well, I did it for 15 years! From the time I graduated drama school until I got Outlander. I was a jobbing actor. You’d go do a production, or a bit part, and the rest of the time you’re working in a bar or doing part time jobs to supplement your life. And of course I had a blast and I really enjoyed but it’s stressful! Financially it’s stressful.
You have to have a thick skin. At some point you start thinking, can I keep doing this? Am I good enough? I started thinking, am I not good enough? But then again, you’ve had success, there’ve been times when things have gone very well.
I just needed to find the right part and as luck would have it, very quickly afterwards I got the audition for Outlander.
SM: Can you think of a moment or experience that influenced who you are as a person today?
SH: I guess when I moved to Edinburgh. I was living in the countryside as a young child, there were four people in my class at school. And then I moved to Edinburgh, which to me felt like a metropolis. I started going to the theatre.
Just being in the city was really inspiring. It opened up the world to me, as a teenager. There’s a whole world out there that I want to explore.
SM: Do you have any rules that you live by?
SH: I’m pretty hard on myself. I have a standard that I would like to maintain and I never do. I’m never quite good enough.
But the main rule that I’ve learned over the years is somewhere along the lines of what will be will be. If you allow it to be. Not trying to hard, pushing things. There’s a key somewhere in relaxing, letting things happen. Sitting in the moment.
SM: Where’s your Happy Place?
SH: It’s a weird one. With my job, I love working, I love travelling, but it’s probably coming back to Scotland. I have a great fondness for Scotland. It has so many good things. So it’s probably hiking in Scotland. Hiking and sharing a dram.
SM: Any favourite bars?
SH: The Western Islands of Scotland. One of the isles on the West Coast – Mull, Skye – and one of the local bars there. One of the real local bars where you’re around the regulars and you’re sharing a dram, after a good hill walk.
SM: Best / worst advice you’ve received?
SH: It’s not quite advice but I’m very sceptical about cryptocurrency. It’s a real buzz at the moment, people are intrigued by it. Making a fast buck. However, I think investing in bricks and mortar is the way.
SM: Do you own any NFTs?
SH: No, I don’t. I would rather own something that is physical rather than something that is digital. Having something that you can hold or read or touch is just so much more valuable. I love pottery, I’m really into antiques.
SM: Do you collect?
SH: I might be collecting little things. There’s a woman called Lara who wrote a book called Mudlarking about people who scavenge in the Thames. I’m fascinated by it – it’s about history and the things that she finds.
One of them was the clay pipes that people smoked back in the day. She sent me four of these clay pipes from the 1400 to the 1600s. You can still see the detail on them!
I’ve always been obsessed with ancient history, particularly with the Romans. I recently bought a very, very small Roman statue. I’ve got a sort of man cave and he’s in there. He looks drunk. He’s leaning over, he’s got a gourd of wine, and he’s slightly drunk.
SM: Have you ever read any Jamie Fraser fanfiction? There’s some good ones…
SH: I may have seen some. When someone’s said, ‘Oh my God, you have to read this.’ They’re very creative. Very good imagination. Usually quite explicit as well.
SM: Can you remember any passages?
SH: From what I remember, it’s usually Jamie Fraser doing very physical things to his wife. The fans are very imaginative. They go into great, great detail. They write scenes for us, the way they think things should have been shot or made. I always find that quite fascinating.
SM: Are there any major roles that you nearly landed?
SH: I’ve auditioned for so many things over the years. Superman – the Brandon Routh one. Tron. I auditioned for Bond. These are just the ones I got close on.
SM: How close were you with Superman?
SH: Oh, I don’t think that close. I had a bunch of meetings for it and met the producers. They wanted me to bulk up because at that point I was pretty slim and didn’t really train. I was a vegetarian – I’d been a vegetarian all my life. So that’s when I started eating meat.
SM: Henry Cavill had to try on Christopher Reeves’ suit for his Superman audition. Apparently it’s very tight…
SH: Cavill’s very big though. I was working on my SAS movie in Budapest and Cavill was working on The Witcher.
We used the same gym; I met him in there and we had a quick chat. He was doing bodybuilding and I was doing all this crazy army stuff.
SM: Weirdest celebrity encounter?
SH: The only celebrity I’ve ever asked for a selfie is Lewis Hamilton. He was on the same flight as me. I’m such a Formula 1 fan and a fan of Hamilton.
SM: What’s the strangest rumour you’ve read about yourself?
SH: Oh, hundreds. And they’re all probably true. I don’t know. There’s a lot of very strange narratives made up about me or whoever. People that they think you’re with or things you’ve done. It’s such a strange world.
If something is written on the internet it sort of becomes fact. But I want more. I want more weird things.
SM: When you read these weird things, how do you react?
SH: I laugh. I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s brilliant. I guess it’s a compliment, right? If someone’s writing something about you, they’re clearly thinking about you. Unless it’s something really horrible. But even then, if they’re taking up their energy and time writing something about you then that’s on them.
Social media is a different one. There was a time when I’d have written about it or spoken out about it. But I think it’s just a very different world we live in, right?
SM: What makes you smile?
SH: Most recently, I was out on a beautiful summer’s day at the weekend. I was on my motorbike in Scotland and that’s just glorious, when you get a good day on the bike.
SM: Biggest career regret?
SH: I don’t think I do have any career regrets. There’ve been jobs that I wish I had got or auditions that I wished I’d been better at…
Biggest career regret was probably auditioning at the Donmar Warehouse, many years ago. They gave me a day or a weekend to prep a Welsh accent. I just failed miserably.
SM: What was the part?
SH: I don’t remember. I think it was Under Milk Wood but I’m not sure.
SM: Do you have any recurring dreams?
SH: I used to – I still do, occasionally. When I was younger, an acting one would be naked onstage – having to be naked onstage, it was terrifying. And then I had to be naked onstage for real and I’ve never had that dream again.
The one I have now, occasionally, and my co-star tells me she’s had it occasionally, too – you’re about to go onstage in a show that you haven’t read the script, you don’t know what it is, and you have to wing it. The curtain is going up, I don’t know what the script is, I don’t know what’s going on, I’ll have to try and work it out.
SM: It’s your birthday in a few days – any plans to mark the occasion?
SH: Yes, I have big plans actually. My fitness charity fundraiser – My Peak Challenge – every year we have a gala event in Scotland. It’s an event where we celebrate with around 1,000 of our members. Over the weekend they do mindfulness, yoga, workouts. We hike, we work with our charity partners.
On the last night we have a big gala event. This year it’s the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It’s just a chance for us to say thank you and for people to learn more about the charities we work with. This year it’s on my birthday!
SM: If Sassenach becomes as big as, say, Aviation Gin – will you quit acting?
SH: I think we will be as big as Aviation Gin and I won’t quit acting, no. Because I love it.
SM: Ryan Reynolds bought a football team after he sold Aviation for $610m. What would you buy if you had that kind of money?
SH: I’d probably donate a lot to charity. It sounds boring, but I probably would. Maybe a nice big house by the sea somewhere. On a coast, with a beach. I like the football team idea! Possibly a rugby team maybe. I love rugby.
SM: What will you miss most about Outlander?
SH: God, it’s a funny one. We’ve been talking about it. What will I miss? I’ll miss the camaraderie, the people, the routine. The routine is pretty tough, pretty full on.
But there’s something wonderful about it, going to work every day, you know you all are going to be fucked but the end. It’s hard work, it’s full on, but you’re all in it together.
So I guess that camaraderie and being around people you enjoy being around.
SM: You’re famously a big motorbike fan. What’s the grail bike for you?
SH: Sometimes it’s good not to get the grail, right? Because I thought it was a BMW R90. Tried one recently in New Zealand and I didn’t love it. I didn’t like it that much. I have a beautiful Harley-Davidson, which I customised, which I love. I think I’ve got a good balance. What I’m saying is I need more than one!
SM: If you could go on a road trip with anyone you haven’t met yet, who would it be?
SH: Oh that’s a good one. Because you’re going to spend a lot of time with this person in a very cramped environment. You’ve got to be able to talk a lot. Hopefully they bring something else to the table like they’re a good chef, cook you food, or they know the country you’re in well.
Ah. I’m going to go with someone who’s been to space. Maybe an astronaut. Tim Peake. Someone who’s been out there and can tell me about space.
SM: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
SH: Hopefully still acting. Don’t know if I’ll still be doing Outlander then! Hopefully healthy, still working out, still loving the outdoors. Acting, riding a bunch of motorbikes with a big house on the beach and people I enjoy doing that with.
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SM: Any career goals you’d love to tick off?
SH: Yeah, I do. I started in theatre, I’d love to go back to theatre. I recently saw James McAvoy in Cyrano and he was brilliant. I know James from drama school and he was my mentor. I saw him onstage at drama school and to see him there is kind of an amazing journey. I feel like I’ve got it in me as well.
I’d love to do some movies. I’ve done some interesting ones but I’d love to do more. Big budget movies and maybe some intimate ones as well.
SM: When you say ‘mentor’, is that an official drama school title?
SH: You’re nominated a mentor. I was a first year and he was a third year and that was pretty much it. Having said that, I kind of knew him before. We have the same agent in the UK and the US. We have a bunch of friends who are familiar.
It’s just nice to have him as a measuring gauge and see how his career has been so fantastic. I guess you always look up to your peers. I always wanted to have a career like him.
SM: It’s amazing that you, Tom Ellis and James McAvoy were all contemporaries at the same drama school…
SH: Tom and James were in the same year, two years above me. When I first auditioned for drama school, it’s a whole day thing – you do different workshops and audition pieces. And at the end of the time, the third year actors take you around and talk to you a bit about it. And the person who did that for my group was Tom Ellis.
Tom and I got chatting, became very friendly. He invited me for a beer. So we went for a beer together and hung out for a bit.
SM: He told me you were known as ‘Handsome Sam’…
SH: Yeah, yeah. There was a small period when they called me that. I’m not sure why. They just couldn’t think of anything better!
SM: There are worse nicknames to have! It’s been great, thank you for your time.
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