Sophie Skelton has a slight dilemma. She has returned to London from Glasgow, having recently finished filming the seventh season of Outlander. There are plans to move back to Los Angeles but those plans are yet to be realised. The rental market has yielded nothing. So for the moment, Skelton is “a little bit homeless. I’m flitting around Airbnbs and friends’ couches and hotels.”
Her dog Loka is in pet boarding while she essentially lives out of her car. “All of my belongings are in the car. I’m currently getting changed in my car and I have nowhere to go.” Skelton starts laughing at the situation. She appears remarkably undaunted by having nowhere to go. Besides, she has a gameplan: “I’m trundling along until next week when we go away for press and then I’m gonna deal with life when I get back.”
(Any doubts that Sophie Skelton is my sort of human evaporate into the sunshine with her cheerful, “I’m gonna deal with life when I get back.” Sometimes you just feel seen.)
Tomorrow she plans to return to Edinburgh for a Harry Styles concert (they share a personal trainer). Tonight she has a work dinner and nowhere to crash. Lesser souls might quail; Skelton popped to the osteopath, dropped Loka to his vet appointment, and headed to Regent’s Park for this interview.
“I don’t know where I’m staying tonight,” she says. “I’ll just figure it out later.” Her attitude, we can all agree, is very rock’n’roll.
I doubt Skelton would describe herself as rock’n’roll; “I’m such a nerd” is the expression used when referring to her love of numbers and puzzles. I think it’s possible to be both. She’s had to take a break from guitar playing due to her broken finger and you don’t get much more R’n’R than that. (Did she mope? She did not. She taught herself the piano instead.)
Before we proceed any further, I know you’re worried about the dog. Loka is a Great Dane; a Great Dane with a nasty ear infection, poor thing. Topical steroids must be inserted into his ear thrice daily, otherwise his ear canal will be removed. Loka won’t enjoy the removal of his ear canal; unfortunately he isn’t a massive fan of the topical steroids either. “Trying to wrestle a Great Dane with a broken finger is a whole ordeal,” sighs Skelton.
I’d imagine trying to wrestle a Great Dane with a full set of working fingers isn’t exactly a picnic, although Skelton assures me the breed are basically massive pussycats. “They need the least exercise of all dogs. And they sleep, like, 20 hours of the day. It’s dreamy. Scooby Doo is a Great Dane. They’re just little babies. They’re scared of everything.”
Now, I suppose you’re wondering about the finger. I may tell you about the finger later; the finger is another ordeal. Long story short: she fell into bed and missed. The joint is still very swollen despite the incident happening nine months ago, a painful legacy of misdiagnosis and a doctor who forgot his Hippocratic oath. Intrigued? You’ll have to wait: this introduction has meandered enough.
Conversation with Skelton also meanders, in the best possible sense: anecdotes pile upon anecdotes, tangents sprout from every topic. (Case in point: we get onto her broken finger after I ask about her favourite memory from the Outlander set.) This is of course the way of all good conversations.
Skelton lives a full and fascinating life; her guises have included toy tester, boy scout, whisky connoisseur, ballerina, potential Olympian (hockey; ballet took precedence), Harvard student (neuroscience), musician, actress (obviously) and she only turned 29 in March. Typing out her qualifications, I’m a little surprised that ‘spy’ is missing from the CV but then she wouldn’t be able to tell me if she was one.
“It’s been amazing but I’m ready for the next chapter”
I meet Sophie Skelton in Regent’s Park on the Friday of the May bank holiday, the Friday that summer properly arrives. The sky is almost provocatively blue, the benches outside our allotted café are crammed with people drinking in the sunshine and their lunchtime pints, congratulating themselves on their good sense to be alive on such a glorious afternoon. Inhale the blossom, taste the golden lager on your tongue. Consider the feasibility of manufacturing some form of time loop before Tuesday. Forget Tuesday. Tuesday is years away.
Skelton and I stick to ice coffees. She looks very chic in Ray-Bans and a black shirt and not remotely like someone who got dressed in her car. Style, eh? Some people just possess it. (He remarks, attempting to remove toothpaste from his collar.)
She will shortly embark on the promotional tour for Outlander season seven; a season that Skelton considers to be her favourite to date. For the uninitiated: based on the novel series by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander tells the story of a second world war nurse [Caitríona Balfe] transported back in time to the Scottish Highlands of 1743. There she falls in love with an impossibly handsome Highland warrior [Sam Heughan] and becomes embroiled in the Jacobite Rebellion. Copious sex, violence and intrigue ensues; the show naturally boasts a vast and devoted fanbase who refer to the gap between each season as a ‘Droughtlander’.
Alas! Season eight will be the finale of the central show, even if the commission of a prequel spin-off – Outlander: Blood of My Blood – ensures the subsequent Droughtlander won’t be permanent. The current ensemble, however, will surely depart; Skelton has been on the show since 2016, the vast majority of her twenties, 48 episodes and counting. “It’s been a whirlwind and it’s been amazing. But I’m definitely ready for the next chapter.”
Skelton plays Brianna MacKenzie, daughter to Claire and Jamie Fraser (the nurse and the Highlander). Season seven will see a more contented Brianna, happily married and mother to two children. “She’s had a lot of things happen to her in the last few seasons, a lot of trauma. This felt like the lightest season for a while for me. She’s so settled in her relationship and she seems to have blossomed into this really strong, secure woman.”
My first exposure to Outlander came via my friends Tamara and Hailey; two strong women themselves who relaxed from their Masters studies by projecting episodes onto the living room wall. Appearances of Heughan was greeted with comments too lascivious to be repeated in print. (Judging by the reaction whenever we’ve had Sam on the front cover, my friends were not alone in this regard.)
“Speaking of projectors…” says Skelton, and proceeds to tell me a story that culminates in her attempting to break into the neighbours’ back garden.
So, she split up with her boyfriend at the height of lockdown. Flew back to London from LA, with a surreal detour in Paris. “It was just me and three people in the airport and they were in hazmat suits. I’m there, brokenhearted, with all my belongings.” Her brother Sam worked for a property company at the time; she spent seven weeks isolated in an otherwise empty office block in Vauxhall. “It was nuts. It was like a 20-storey building just to myself. Such a strange experience.” Helped with the breakup, though: there was nothing to do except read and process.
When restrictions eased, she went to her brother’s house in Richmond for a barbecue. Guess which show his neighbours were projecting in the garden? Skelton recognised the episode in question as one that featured quite a lot of nudity for her. Being a considerate sibling, she instructed her sister-in-law to keep Sam indoors until certain scenes had concluded. “Can you just keep him downstairs because there’s shit happening on their garden wall that I don’t really want him to see?” As an older brother myself, I can attest the women were doing God’s work.
The story has a coda: a few weeks later, Skelton stayed at Sam’s house before the wedding of her other brother, Roger. She managed to lock herself in the back garden – “I didn’t know that their back door shuts by itself” – with the rest of the family already departed for the wedding. “My phone was inside; everything was inside. It was just me in my AirPods, standing outside in the garden.”
She resolved to climb into the neighbours’ garden and seek help there. As it transpires, the neighbours weren’t home – so we must imagine the timeline in which their nightly Outlander episode is interrupted by Brianna MacKenzie tumbling over their fence. (Ideally during one of her scenes.) “Brianna breaking into your home on a casual Thursday evening,” says Skelton. I sense she would not have hated to see their reaction.
Initially Brianna was meant to appear in season one. Ahead of her audition, Skelton read the books and fell for the character. “I liked her banter and her wit and her intelligence and her ferocity,” she says. “It’s very rare that you get one that you feel really protective over. A lot of people don’t love her in the books because she’s quite bratty, for want of a better word; but she’s just a teenager struggling with the death of a father.”
Yet Skelton never heard back and she assumed somebody else had landed the role. In fact the writers had decided to hold back the character’s introduction until season two – so Skelton found herself re-auditioning for Brianna a year later. Things moved more quickly this time round. “I had the screen test with Caitríona and the chemistry test with Richard [Rankin – her onscreen husband] and then a couple months later it was cast.”
The initial contract ran for seven years. Was she hesitant to make such a commitment? “At the time, yeah. But I loved the show and the character so much. The nudity aspect was a thing to consider. Seven years didn’t feel so daunting then – but you couldn’t foresee things like Covid or how long some seasons might take. But it’s been a great seven years.”
The cast is very close; Skelton even helped Heughan choose blends for his Sassenach whisky brand. Her family used to holiday in the Highlands every summer: she toured all the distilleries as a kid, became a bit of a connoisseur. On cold mornings, her father would line up whisky shots on the fireplace to give a bit of oomph to their breakfast. “They always treated us like adults,” says Skelton of her parents. “So nothing was ever a taboo.”
Her parents sound very cool and I will shortly tell you about them. But first, an interlude – having finished our iced coffees, Skelton and I decide to go one better and track down an ice cream van. We’ll meet you by those deckchairs in 20 minutes.
“Great story though…”
Now may be the moment to relate the saga of the broken finger. Strictly speaking it belonged in the previous section but there wasn’t room enough for broken finger and brother’s neighbours; I opted for the latter because when in doubt, lead with the funny stuff. Broken fingers can be funny but primarily in farce or cartoons.
Skelton was coming off anaesthetic after an operation to extract three wisdom teeth had removed part of her jawbone. Hadn’t slept properly in, like, ten days. Fell into bed, exhausted, only for the bed to be slightly further away than she’d first assumed. (Lack of sleep plays havoc with your sense of perspective.) Landed on the floor, fucked up her finger.
“I always put a positive spin on things,” says Skelton. “But then I fell, my finger crunched and I literally just cried. “I was like, ‘This is all too much!’” She adopts a faux hysterical tone and laughs.
She took herself to hospital in the middle of the night. Was informed she needed to see a hand surgeon, once a hand surgeon was available to see her – in a week, maybe two. No, the hospital didn’t care about her imminent return to Scotland for Outlander. No, they couldn’t refer her to a Scottish surgeon, the NHS doesn’t communicate across borders. So she found another hospital, a more available surgeon. Intended to drive up to Glasgow straight after the consultation.
“It was a hot day. Loka’s in the car on the side of the road with all of my belongings. I’ve cracked the windows, I’m in the hospital getting the x-rays. I keep having to run out to check the parking metre and check the dog was alive and I’m not being robbed.”
A junior doctor awkwardly awaited her. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” said the junior doctor, “but the surgeon is refusing to see you. He doesn’t like actresses.” (Is that even legal?) Another, more actress-friendly surgeon would arrive in five hours. Skelton was dumbfounded. “I have to do a nine-hour drive to Glasgow. My dog is in the car, all of my belongings are in the car. And I had to wait.”
Cue “nine months of hell and misdiagnosis”. Eventually, a third x-ray in LA revealed that her ligament had been torn in the fall and lodged in the joint of her knuckle: hence why her finger remained swollen up like an overripe strawberry.
“I did a whole season with that,” says Skelton. “It’s cold in Scotland and literally my whole hand was purple.” Temperatures dropped to minus eight degrees over Christmas; naturally, her schedule included a night shoot. “I ended up basically getting pneumonia. I was on steroids and antibiotics over Christmas because Brianna’s never dressed appropriately for the weather.”
Happily, the weather in Regent’s Park is closer to 18 degrees than minus eight. We fail to locate an ice cream van but do come across a very large fountain dedicated to someone called Sigismund Goetze: ‘painter, lover of the arts’ according to the inscription on the stone.
Discussion naturally turns to our memorials: Skelton has a very funny epitaph for hers but unfortunately I'm not recording and cannot remember it when writing up this piece a few days later. Neither can Skelton: 'Wasn’t it something about passing a torch?'
Um... maybe...? She sends over some new suggestions: “Great story though”; “Sorry for the late reply…”; “Here lie the memories, but the stories live on”. Pick your favourite; I like the first.
Oh look – deckchairs! Dozens of deckchairs dispersed across the grass. A detour to the café produces a couple of watermelon lollipops, which are decent but no Calippos. The orange Calippo remains undefeated.
“Calippos are amazing,” says Skelton. “Do you remember Fabs? They were great!”
Let’s spool past the confectionary discourse and pick up with her parents. (Personally, I think the Fab was misnamed but it would have felt rude to mention this at the time.)
“I had to work my little bum off…”
She was raised in the Cheshire village of Woodford, the third and final child of two toy inventors. Ruth and Simon Skelton created a number of games for Disney, including the Cinderella slipper game, the Frozen game, the Cars game. Young Sophie would test out the games in progress – “I was the little Guinea pig for stuff” – and often appear on the box of the finished product, looking delighted to pilot Elsa or whomever round the board.
Her parents took their work home with them. Every room in the house was painted a different colour. Numerous Disney and Marvel characters covered the walls. Toys were naturally everywhere. “There was this one called Dipping Ducks or whatever,” recalls Skelton. “Sometimes in the loft, it would just go off on its own. We’d be trying to sleep and you could hear the ducks going, ‘Quack, quack!’”
Another animal gave Skelton her family nickname. One of her brothers owned a toy bear that growled when turned upside down and Sophie would replicate that growl. So her family began to address her as Bear or Teddy and so she remains to this day.
Woodford is straight out of an Enid Blyton book. There’s a church, a post office, a bridge, a school. An airfield for the Famous Five to investigate. Cristiano Ronaldo and George Best once lived here. Green hills and open countryside rolling off in every direction.“A little feral child” like Sophie could not have wished for a better playground.
She grew up outdoors. “I was the only girl in Boy Scouts. Always running around, climbing trees. Fishing with my brother.” They stored maggots in the fridge; in one instance the maggots escaped the box to the understandable chagrin of their mum.
“I’ve always been the ‘get your hands dirty’ type. I’m OCD clean, my house is super clean, but outside I love being barefoot, mud on hands, eat off the floor, whatever. Just get on with it. At one with the Earth.”
The Earth had to share her with the dancehall: she started ballet aged two. For the first month, Sophie hated it. She cried so much her dad had to stay with her; she sat there in her little ballet skirt and refused to join in. Weeks passed – until one morning Sophie unexpectedly took to the floor. She had the routine down pat. “I apparently didn’t want to join in until I knew that I could do it perfectly. So I was just watching and observing until I knew every little bit and every little beat and then I got up and did it.”
(Her ballet dancer told the class this story for years, without specifying the identity of its young protagonist. “I never knew who she was talking about. Turned out it was me.”)
As she grew older, ballet began to drive her life. She’d practise 70, 80 hours a week. “My feet used to bleed every day. I used to have to pull my school tights out of my feet. It would bleed to the bone. It was pretty bad. Showering was painful.” Her teacher was tough, old school. “Sometimes you can put jellies or lamb’s wool in the bottom of your point shoes to help with padding. She would check and she’d be like, ‘You’re cheating, you’re being lazy.’”
One legacy is Skelton’s high pain threshold – handy considering her physical mishaps and the often gruelling Outlander shoots. “My ballet teacher used to talk about the pain barrier that you go through. Once you power through the pain barrier you almost hit a numbness. It’s quite interesting. I think it’s helped with my work a lot.”
She was a sporty teenager, gifted: she ran long track and cross country for North England. Her hockey game was strong enough to be considered for national selection. Olympics. Could she have competed at London 2012? “Potentially, yeah, I was on the shortlist for the England team.”
After telling her ballet teacher about the trials, she received an ultimatum. You can play national hockey or be a successful ballerina. Not both. Choose. Skelton chose ballet.
The Olympics would have been cool… “It would have been very cool,” she agrees, before listing off the qualities ballet instilled in her. Stamina, composure, patience. Handling criticism. Reserves of strength. “In hockey you’re allowed to look tired but when you’re doing a show you’ve got to look like you’re not in pain. Tied together with a smile! That definitely has helped me in life.”
But ballet was never her passion. She never viewed it as a viable career. Yes, she trained at the Royal Academy, she performed in stage productions, she could even stand on her toes like Kate Winslet in Titanic – I know this because as we walked to the Tube station, me off to Streatham, her to fetch Loka, I asked if she could stand on her toes like Kate Winslet in Titanic and she duly did so in her chunky white shoes on the pavement of Marylebone Road. (“I used to dance there,” she noted as we passed the Royal Academy of Music. )
She wanted to become a surgeon. Her A-levels – “English, biology, chemistry, maths, further maths – were taken with a medical degree in mind. When Roger was studying for his pilot’s licence, she tutored him in Algebra. During Lockdown, she took an online neuroscience module for a degree at Harvard because, “I really miss the knowledge. I really miss stretching those muscles.”
Yet the medical profession was destined to lose Sophie Skelton. As her teenage years progressed, the thrust of her considerable energies were increasingly directed towards acting. She started attending auditions, paying for the train fares through a job at the Clinique counter in John Lewis. “I had to work my little bum off,” says Skelton. One evening shift combined customer service with sneaking glances at her chemistry textbook ahead of a crucial exam the next day. Priorities had shifted; her future was reshaping itself.
The hard part wasn’t the grind; she could handle the grind. The hard part was telling people that she was now an actor. So she didn’t. Even as she started to score TV roles while still at school – DCI Banks, The Dumping Ground – Skelton rarely advertised her chosen profession. “I had to keep myself quiet. Even if there were little things I was proud of, I didn’t say anything. I had to keep the blinkers on, run my own race and just believe in myself – because nobody else did.”
The TV work kept coming in. Episodic appearances in Waterloo Road, Doctors, Casualty; a recurring role in CBBC sitcom So Awkward. She deferred her university place a year. Then another. Then a third. Then she signed a seven-year contract with Outlander and Dr Sophie Skelton went the way of Sophie Skelton, Olympian and Sophie Skelton, prima ballerina – another alternative future fading into imagination, a version of herself that belonged to a different lifetime than this one.
“It’s character building, Bear…”
After fifteen minutes on the deckchairs, long enough to finish the lollies but not the interview, a man wearing a high-vis jacket comes over and says the rental fee is £3 an hour. This is either a massive swizz or actually quite reasonable, depending to what extent the cost of London has ground you down; Skelton needs to pick up Loka soonish so we reconvene to a nearby bench, having stolen £1.50 worth of deckchair between us.
The name Loka, incidentally, has nothing to do with madness or Marvel. “It means world in Sanskrit,” explains Skelton. “The tri-loka is like the three realms of the universe or something.”
He was initially named Loko – “in one language it means fiery sword and in another language it means gentle giant.” However Skelton misspelt a final ‘A’ when messaging her friend Michelle Rose (a former VFX supervisor on Outlander). Michelle thought Loka an amazing name and, once Skelton researched the Sanskrit translation, Loka the dog remained. “That's how we got there. Basically by me being an idiot and typing it wrong.”
We end our conversation on the subject of mental health. Skelton is heartened by the societal trend towards openness and acceptence of vunerabilities, especially among the younger generations. “It's really beautiful that people feel like they can wear the heart on their sleeve and be honest and talk about their struggles. I think that shows such strength.”
She tells me that Outlander fans affected by Brianna’s storylines will sometimes write to her sharing their own private traumas. “I’ve had letters written to me saying that they have never told anyone else in their life what’s happened and they just want to talk it out.”
She has received thousands of messages over the years – and while sustained correspondence would obviously be impossible, she will always strive to reply, offering her best advice and sharing the details of any relevant organisation. “I’m a very empathetic person. There was a time when I used to maybe take that on too much. I’m not qualified to help. But the least I can do is offer my response, put money into mental health and raise awareness.
“That a fan would reach out to you with something that’s so traumatic and life changing for them is a very delicate thing and it’s a very brutally beautiful thing. It’s something that is close to my heart and I want to handle with care and help in any way I can.”
She takes a phlegmatic approach when challenging experiences of her own arrive. “I can acknowledge it, I can recognise that it’s shit. I’ll have a good cry and now I’ll go to fix it. As opposed to feeling like the weight of the world’s on top of you and you can’t climb up.”
The mindset stems from her father: “It’s character building, Bear,” Simon Skelton would remind his daughter after any setback. Tough love? Perhaps – but the adult Sophie is grateful for the lesson.
“Any time something’s going really badly, I’m just like, ‘It’s character building. It’s fine, I’ll learn from this and it’s cool.’ It taught me to put such a good spin on stuff and I would love to pass that torch really to younger generations. There’s a thin line between indulging in your trauma and talking it out. I think it’s a really healthy balance and that’s what I want to help people with.”
Skelton describes music as “kind of my therapy”. She sings, writes, played the guitar until her finger went kaput and she decided to fulfil her childhood dream of learning the piano. As she recalls, a little indignantly: “My parents wouldn’t let me play the piano because my brother quit so naturally it meant I would have, too. Which I wouldn’t have.”
She spent lockdown writing songs with Tom Felton. “He would send me the backing tracks and I would write the lyrics.” Felton is a keen musician, and a former Square Mile cover. (He also played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films for those who can’t place the name.) The pair met at a Comic Con in Utrecht and struck up a firm friendship. It makes sense: both have a touch of magic about them.
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The following week, I catch up with Skelton over the phone. It’s been a character building few days: the delayed arrival of her visa prevented the Edinburgh sojourn. It turned up on the day she was meant to fly to America, only for the flight to be cancelled. Hopefully she will make another one later tonight.
The coach surfing odyssey continues – yesterday a load of suitcases, packed with clothing for the Outlander promotional tour, were delivered to a friend’s house. Skelton ordered a Deliveroo and sat outside, waiting for their return from work.
Despite being trapped in the middle of what sounds like the day from hell, with no idea whether she’ll spend the evening over the Atlantic or curled up on a couch, she takes the time to answer my follow-up questions, speaking insightfully of ballet, generously of the Outlander community. I may be bias but she strikes me as a class act.
Soon, she will enter a new decade. The show that has dominated her twenties will end. There will be new characters, new adventures. New stories to tell.
Sophie Skelton is ready. Good luck finding a horizon big enough to contain her.
Outlander S7 is released June 16 on Starz