By Luaine Lee
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
PASADENA, Calif. — You’d never guess by watching Scottish actor Sam Heughan as the dashing highlander in “Outlander” that he’s painfully shy in person.
“I have no interest in the celebrity side or people knowing who I am, to be perfectly honest,” he says, seated in a darkened pub in a hotel here.
“I think it’s more about the characters you tell. And you can hide behind them. . . it feels very odd to have to be yourself. I’d much rather be someone different and ‘Outlander’ is wonderful. . . But it happens with each character. You take on board their life to live like they do. I think that’s the joy of it, being other people.”
He certainly earned his wish with Starz’s mystical series. A married combat nurse in 1945 is suddenly hurled back in time to the 18th century where she meets an intrepid warrior, Jamie Fraser, played by Heughan.
“In that time period people had to grow up fast,” he says. “There were a lot of hard trials. A man around 40 was an old person. And Jamie’s had the history: he’s been flogged, beaten, a tough childhood, taught to be disciplined, he got beaten by his father. But it’s just rough justice. So I think I can bring that side to it. It’s really interesting to see what parts of your life you take to each character.”
Heughan (pronounced HEW-an) brought his own trials to the role. His father left the family when Sam was 3. His mother was a student and worked odd jobs, including a stint as a clog shoemaker to care for her two sons. Later she taught and now works in the art of print and paper making.
Though he spent his life without his father, Heughan, 34, was finally able to reconnect. “My father passed away a couple weeks ago . . . So I didn’t really know him a lot but I was very lucky. I got to spend some time with him just before he died,” he says softly.
“I obviously hadn’t had any contact and knew very little about him, barely knew his name. I flew to Canada where he was living. He was very ill. I was lucky that we had this week, which was quite magical and tense and strange. My brother came with me. It was very rewarding,” says Heughan.
“He’d built a cabin in Canada in the mountains and I went to visit it. It was beautiful, and I walked around and I saw a model Spitfire airplane, and I’d done a film about Spitfire pilots called ‘First Light.’ That made me realize that he loved airplanes and loved Spitfires. He’d gone to the library a couple of times, got books, and I realized he’d been following my life – from a distance – but he’d been following it.”
That life didn’t land a direct hit on acting, though Heughan was fascinated by the plays he saw as a teenager. “When I’d finished school I went traveling for two years,” he recalls.
“Initially I flew to San Francisco. I was 18 and didn’t know quite where I was going and I got buses all the way down the west coast to Mexico. I went to the Grand Canyon, went to Texas, to Vegas. I couldn’t really afford it. I got enough money for buses and I had, like $300 in my pocket. I got to New York and had enough money to check into a hostel and I remember I had $20 left.”
His flight was due to leave in two weeks and he had no idea how he would make the fare. Fortunately a friend contacted his mother and learned he was staying in some hostel in New York. “He phoned up hostels, found out where I’d checked in, and he was there and helped me out. In that time traveling I came to the conclusion — I wanted to become an actor. And I was giving it a go.”
Heughan studied three years at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow where one tutor told him his first year that he couldn’t act. His second year he was cast as Romeo. “And something just clicked,” he snaps his fingers.
“I think it was the language. I just let go. I was controlling and I let go and his words were just so wonderful that if you relax and trust in the text, it does it all for you.”
Like his character in “Outlander,” Heughan is no stranger to castles and broadswords and rallying cries. “When I was a kid we lived in the countryside in the southwest of Scotland. We lived in old converted stables of castle grounds. So I lived in castle grounds as a child and I used to pretend I was Robert the Bruce or King Arthur and run around this old Kenmure Castle. It’s still there.
“I had four people in my class at school. You don’t have many friends because there’s just no one there in the borders of Scotland. So you have to make up stories. I think I still do.”