EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: “OUTLANDER” ACTORS SOPHIE SKELTON & RICHARD RANKIN
In Season 5 of OUTLANDER, Sunday nights on Starz, twentieth-century time traveler Claire Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) has been reunited with her true love, eighteenth-century Scot Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). They’ve moved from Scotland to the North American colonies.
In Season 4, Claire and Jamie were joined by their daughter Brianna, played by Sophie Skelton. Brianna was born in the twentieth-century United States, but came to the past to warn her mother and the father she’d never before met of impending danger. Roger Wakefield, played by Richard Rankin, a twentieth-century Scotsman who is Brianna’s lover, comes to the past to see to her well-being. Although they’ve both suffered trauma – Brianna was raped, Roger was brutalized – the pair are happy together in Season 5 in the community that Jamie presently runs.
Skelton, from Cheshire, England, has credits that include the British TV series WATERLOO ROAD, DOCTORS, SO AWKWARD, and the title role in REN, as well as the feature films DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE, ANOTHER MOTHER’S SON, and 211.
Rankin, who is from Glasgow, Scotland, changed his professional surname from Harris to avoid any confusion with the late Irish actor Richard Harris. His other TV work includes BURNISTOUN, THE CRIMSON FIELD, AMERICAN ODYSSEY, THE SYNDICATE, FROM DARKNESS and THE LAST KINGDOM.
Skelton and Rankin are together on a Q&A panel for OUTLANDER at the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association press tour. This interview combines statements they gave on the panel with a private follow-up discussion.
First of all, are the two actors happy that their characters have been reunited after all their turmoil in Season 4?
“Yes,” says Rankin. “Very happy. I’m very happy with where Roger and Brianna are in Season 5. They spent a lot of time and thought into how that relationship should be represented, and I’m quite happy with how they went about that.”
Brianna spent a lot of time in Season 4 being angry at her father. Jamie had turned Roger over to the Mohawk tribe, mistakenly believing the young man had attacked Brianna. Skelton says, “For Bri, the way that I wanted to play it, I didn’t feel that she would still be so mad at Jamie. I think deep down she knew that it wasn’t Jamie’s fault. But I feel like sometimes you take things out on the ones you love most when you’re angry and scared, and she was petrified that Roger wasn’t going to come back, and she held that against Jamie. But I think actually, when she had that conversation with Murtagh [Jamie’s kinsman, played by Duncan Lacroix], and she said, ‘I forgave him a long time ago,’ she really had.”
While Roger didn’t enjoy it, Rankin reports he greatly enjoyed playing his character’s time with the Mohawk. “That was great. We had something like a hundred and twenty First Nations actors and S.A.s come over. The set design was just incredible, and it was great, just something very different for us to do, and it was a lot of fun for us to play.”
Do you think it was easier or harder to live back in the 1800s? Fewer people, also less access to medicine …
SKELTON: There’s always two sides to it. Claire really wants to help people in that time, but at the same time, she’s then in a way putting herself and her family in danger. Because if they then stand out as people, not so much from the future, but exercising sort of [what would be seen as] witchcraft, then they are in danger again. And again, those of us from the future feel a responsibility to help people, using our future knowledge. But at the same time, it poses questions of how much can you change, and how much should you? So yeah, there’s a lot of juxtapositioning in thoughts throughout the season.”
As far as playing a twentieth-century woman living in an earlier era, Skelton says, “Well, as Caitriona touched on before, there’s the physical element in terms of the costumes. In Scotland, we are not shy of rain or mud. And as Caitriona said, again, the hems of the skirts get longer and longer by the day as they get dragged through. They get heavier. A corset is difficult for an actor to breath in and talk properly in. They make you quite emotional at times, don’t they? [chuckles] But it’s one thing playing a character in one time period, but taking them into another time period, where they can’t be themselves, that brings new challenges. Claire, Brianna, and Roger all have to monitor themselves one hundred percent of the time when it’s not just the three of them together. Obviously, Jamie knows they’re time travelers, but they have to change their language, their stance, their demeanor, any references they might make. And for the character, that is really difficult, but also as actors, sometimes you just want to be in the character’s head. Say if you’re doing a scene where you’re angry or whatever, you want to just let out the true emotions, but sometimes you still have to be slightly on guard, because, say, for me, I might sometimes slip in an ‘okay’ or something, which Brianna couldn’t say in that time. So you just to be wary of that as an actor, and as the character.
What’s it like playing the character who most wants to return to his own time? Rankin replies, “Obviously, that’s a weight that’s on Roger. I think he always thought that they he would go back to his own time. I think that’s always something that he has assumed, is that they would go back to their own time. They came back because Brianna wanted to save her parents from the fire that’s coming at some point, but I think he got on board with her mission there, and thought that they would inevitably go back to the safety of their own time. There have been a lot of circumstances that have changed. We now have a child. We don’t know if he can travel. And actually, they’re happy there. I think, at the start of Season 5, Roger is happy. The life there is great. He’s been integrated into the Fraser family, and has an extended family here that he very much loves. So I think it just becomes about necessity for him. I think he feels like they’re going to be safer back in their own time, but I’m not even sure if that’s necessarily true. But that is one of the stories that unfolds through Season 5, so that is something that has very much gone on for everyone, really, is whether or not they should go back.”
Rankin then jokes, “I also have to go back for some new material, because I’ve been playing the same three songs over and over and over again.”
Roger has been known to sing the occasional twentieth-century tune. Does Rankin get to select his character’s musical choices? “I wish I got to pick what songs I could sing. No, it’s quite a lot of fun. It brings another element to the show. You’ve got this guy who loves his music and will quite happily sing and serenade people all day. It’s good, because bringing the music from our time, from the time of Claire and Brianna, it’s a little kind of language that we share together. It’s a little bit of our own time that we can bring back.”
Was he familiar with the song “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,” one of Roger’s favorites? “I’m familiar with it as being a very difficult song to sing. I can’t hit that key. They find some really tricky songs and they go, ‘Can you play this?’ And I’m like, ‘No.’ And they say, ‘Well, you’re gonna’,” he laughs. “But I can’t hit that note in ‘Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog.’ I have to drop that like three octaves.”
Did Rankin have to learn how to play the guitar in order to play Roger, or was musical proficiency part of the original requirements for the role? “I was cast only because I could play the guitar,” Rankin quips. “The rest of the talent was absent.” More seriously, he continues, “Yeah, I could already play the guitar. The songs that they’ve given to me aren’t that difficult to play on the guitar. They’re quite simple. There was only one song I really drove everyone mad with, and that was a song that played in Season 4. It was a little Scottish jig. It’s called ‘Devil in the Kitchen.’ I especially drove Sophie absolutely nuts, because I played it at every given moment, because it was really tricky for me to play that style of music.”
What else have the actors had to learn in order to play their characters? “Learning to shoot the old guns,” Skelton replies, “load the gunpowder, the songs that Brianna and Roger sing together this season, so learning those. And dealing with a baby on set. You never know what the baby’s going to bring, so that’s always a challenge. You can’t really prep for it.”
One of the new stars of Season 5 is the extremely cute cat adopted by the Fraser and Wakefield clans. “I think we’ve all been fighting over that cat,” Skelton says. “Caitriona and I quite like to sneak the cat into the scene, and then realize it’s a continuity nightmare, because the cat just kind of moves around. But I also feel like we have sort of zoned out to the animals, because there’s so many on set all the time. I was doing ADR [automated dialogue replacement, also known as ‘looping’ or ‘dubbing’], and it just sounded like a soundtrack of goats. I didn’t even hear it, because I feel like I’m so used to it. They were saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something about this, they’re just so loud.’ It’s like I don’t even notice it anymore.”
Brianna is played at different ages in the twentieth-century scenes, with Skelton as the oldest version. Obviously, no work was done to synch with baby Brianna, but did Skelton work with the any of the younger actresses, including Niamh Elwell, who plays Brianna as a child, so that their performances would seem similar?
“I didn’t actually get to meet them,” Skelton reports, “but I was asked to record the lines for one of the younger actresses. I think she was struggling with the American accent. So that was about as far as I went with the younger ones on this. But I played Bri younger as well, at sixteen through eighteen, and through to where she is now, about twenty-three, twenty-four. So I think there are at least different timeframes for them to be able to watch and base it on, which hopefully helps.”
Neither Skelton nor Rankin has read all of Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER books. “Initially,” Skelton says, “a lot of our audition scenes were from Season 4, because especially for Brianna, I feel like that’s where she comes into her own. That’s the character I couldn’t wait to play. She has a very strange relationship with her mother, she loses her [adoptive] father, she doesn’t know how to handle that Fraser hotheadedness. I feel like she acts out a lot when she’s younger. But she starts to get to know herself, she starts to get to know her mother, and as they come closer, I do think Bri matures a lot, and she becomes a woman. Obviously, she goes through a lot. So I had read books – not 1, but I’d done 2 through 4 in prep for the audition – but from then, we just go book by book.” But she doesn’t read ahead of the storylines in the scripts. “I don’t like to know things that the character doesn’t know, because then you preempt things.”
Rankin agrees. “Yeah. Very similar to what Sophie’s saying. Season 4, Book 4, was the character that I was really looking forward to playing. Obviously, Seasons 2 and 3 were quite an introductory period for our characters, but we really dove into those characters in Season 4 and in Season 5, so that’s what I was most looking forward to playing. I finished reading Book 5. I don’t know how much more I’ll continue reading. I love the books, but the reason that I read up to 5 was to give myself a bit of foundation for Roger. We only had one script when we started, and that was Episode 2:13. That wasn’t a lot to base a character on, so I got really into the books just to get an idea of the flavor of the character, or at least what the planner’s idea of the character was going to be, which I found very helpful, and gave me a platform to build and do what I wanted to do with that character.”
“The characters are quite different from the books, too,” Skelton adds. “Especially Bri now. I feel she’s more mature in the show than she potentially was in the books. So yeah. Like Richard said, once you know your character, the scripts are so different now anyway in terms of the story sometimes, it gets confusing. You’re like, ‘Wait, did that happen in the script or the book? I don’t know.’ So …”
Rankin elaborates, “If you’re reading the book now for pleasure and/or reference, I don’t think it would inform our characters now, because there has been deviation. We know our characters, and we can apply that to the scripts that we’re given without the books. But we have been very grateful to have had the books.”
Skelton says that there have been some invaluable details, even when elements have been altered. “You want to give the fans what they want sometimes, even if it’s just a tiny little nuance, or a tiny little line that you might be able to fight to get in there, you just want to keep true to what the fans love. Because without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
Skelton says she has had wonderful interactions with OUTLANDER fans. “I think there was actually someone saying they were at a convention one time, and there was some of the OUTLANDER cast there, and then there was a LORD OF THE RINGS line as well, and apparently the OUTLANDER line was bigger, which is kind of cool, because some of us are big LORD OF THE RINGS geeks, so it says something. And when there’s such a long break between seasons, they [nicknamed] it DROUGHTLANDER, and fans could very easily lose interest in that time, but they really don’t. They’re still passionate about it, and we’re excited for them to see it. So thanks for the support.”
Rankin observes, “They’ve done some really amazing things for us.”
“They do a lot of artwork,” Skelton notes. “It’s so beautiful. I cannot draw at all, so I usually appreciate it and the time that goes into it. I had a beautiful scrapbook made for me, and it had little envelopes in it with little notes that said, ‘Open this if you’re having a bad day.’ It really touched me. It was very, very sweet. And a lot of really intimate letters, where people tell you about things in their life you feel they might not have told people before, if they’re going through a hard time. And especially with what Bri’s gone through [in terms of surviving sexual assault], I find it really touching that they feel that they can just talk to you about it.”
What would the actors most like people to know about OUTLANDER Season 5?
“That it’s the best season yet,” Rankin replies.
Skelton says, “I think from a Brianna point of view, she’s still going through PTSD, and it’s something I feel very strongly about, and I just really hope women who’ve been through – anyone who’s been through it – I tend to say ‘women,’ which is wrong, but I hope they find some strength in it, because I think Bri’s really strong, and she doesn’t often get enough credit for that, and I hope that people can almost live their healing through her.”