Sam Heughan

Outlander's Sam Heughan Is Ready for What's Next

The star and entrepreneur on life beyond Jamie Fraser and how he put a stop to his recurring naked-on-stage nightmares.
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The sight of Sam Heughan, the actor best-known for his role as Jamie Fraser on Outlander, seated before me in a black leather moto jacket feels almost impossible at first — a testament to his show's world-building ability, and its tendency to shift seamlessly between continents and centuries. Not that I expected him to show up in a kilt and say, "Ah dinna ken, Sassenach." But maybe I kind of did? 

In addition to the jacket, which fits snugly across miles-long shoulders, the actor wears dark jeans, black lace-up boots, and a button down shirt. He folds his lean, 6-foot-2 frame into the dressing room couch for our interview, his massive wingspan sprawling over the backrest. 

"I think actors before social media were pretty elusive," he says reflecting on his relationship with celebrity today and the expectation to share intimate details of his life. "I love to people watch. I don't like standing out in the crowd … I love sitting in a cafe or a bar and just watching people." 

While he's no longer sporting Jamie's red curls in real life ("[my hair] got dyed so many times it eventually just wouldn't hold the color and it turned purple," he remembers), it's hard to imagine Sam Heughan ever blended in with common folk, or at least those of us who aren't above-average height with a jawline to rival a Disney prince. Nonetheless. "I think if you stand out and people recognize you, then you can't [observe]. You're no longer anonymous."

For many fans of the long-running Starz show based on Diana Gabaldon's book series of the same name, Outlander is an escape — a fully contained alternate universe where "passing through," to use Gabaldon's parlance for traveling to different time periods, starts to feel less like magic realism and more like the natural order of the world — on par with the shifting of the tides or the formation of mountains. Time as the fifth element. 

Heughan carefully tends to his role, working with writers to ensure that Jamie's dialogue remains consistent as the show enters its ninth year in production, and crafting subtle changes to mark the passing of time, like Jamie's use of reading glasses. Heughan's love for the character he's crafted transcends the small screen and has its intended effect: The 41-year-old has endeared the world to Jamie, the sprightly Scotsman who falls in love with a time-traveling nurse, Caitriona Balfe's Claire. Six seasons later, we see how Jamie has grown from a brawny, attentive lover with a youthful spontaneity into a brawny, attentive lover approaching middle age. 

Sam Heughan
Jean Jacket: Citizens of Humanity. Sweater: Thom Browne. | Credit: David Urbanke

"I think he's just, he's still the same guy, obviously," says Heughan of aging Jamie 25 years in the most recent seasons. "It's just that he's more grounded — sturdier. Maybe he doesn't operate as hot. It's an internal feeling, as opposed to doing 'old man' acting." 

To reduce the show to its TVMA content is to deny the love story at the heart of Outlander. That said, the much-discussed steaminess is not not part of the show's appeal. One of the network's most-watched dramas, the series has earned a bit of a reputation for its sexier scenes. It wasn't until filming the sixth season, however, that Heughan suggested bringing on intimacy coordinator Vanessa Coffey, a leader in the relatively new field, to navigate any potential awkwardness and also recommend "new ways to convey passion or love, or how a character responds in those intimate situations," he says.

Intimacy coordinators have become the norm on sets requiring any kind of nudity or sex scenes, a luxury Heughan says would have been helpful in the earlier seasons of Outlander, when he and Balfe were still relatively green actors. "The industry changed since we started, and I just kind of realized how Caitriona and I, from the beginning, really had to sort of find our way through it," he continues. "A lot of pressure was on us to make these scenes work." 

Sam Heughan
Jean Jacket: Citizens of Humanity. Shirt: Brunello Cucinelli. Jeans: Brunello. Shoes: Converse. Aviators: Thom Browne | Credit: David Urbanke

If his jovial onscreen counterpart, the beloved Jamie Fraser, is an extrovert, inclined to take the lead both in battle and in conversation, Heughan is more considered, taking his time to answer thoughtfully — and never revealing too much. 

"I just think it's who I am," he says of keeping his private life close to the chest.

This is probably a consequence of nearly eight years of media training and Outlander interviews, but it's also a concerted effort on Heughan's part to keep a little bit of the mystery alive. "I think an actor should disappear behind the character," he says. "You shouldn't be like, 'Oh, there's Sam Heughan on stage playing a character.'"

On the set of InStyle's photoshoot, Heughan is quiet, taking direction agreeably. He's also the funniest person in the room, chiming in occasionally with the kind of joke that causes an eruption of giggles. He smirks at the response, pleased.

The evening before our interview, I refreshed the Google results for his name. A slew of new stories populated the news queue — he'd just given an interview with Men's Health and appeared on the British program This Morning, making the rounds in what seems like every English-speaking country to promote the latest season of Outlander. Likewise, the New York leg of his press tour is booked back-to-back-to-back, with costume changes and repetitive interviews at every turn. And yet he is exceptionally polite, even as his publicist informs us that time is of the essence: Heughan needs to be uptown exactly 30 minutes after our chat wraps, almost an impossibility without time travel.  

Sam Heughan Polaroids
Credit: Sam Heughan

Despite his guarded nature, Heughan has plenty to talk about: After several filming delays due to pandemic restrictions, the hyphenated sixth season of Outlander premiered on Starz on Mar. 6 — much to the delight of the series's notoriously insatiable fans — and the extended Season 7 will begin filming later this year. Heughan's travel docuseries, Men in Kilts, which he co-hosts with former Outlander castmate Graham McTavish (who played the memorably bearded Dougal Mackenzie), wrapped filming of its second season in February; in its latest iteration, the co-hosts investigate the Scottish influence in New Zealand. The pair also co-wrote the best-selling book Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other.

Later this year, a rom-com co-starring Priyanka Chopra titled Text for You will bring the actor to the big screen (and the 21st century.) "It's funny, I never thought I'd be in comedy," says Heughan, appreciating the pun. "I would do more [comedies] definitely, but I don't know, I'm also ready to do something else." 

Outlander's stunning success, which has only skyrocketed since early seasons of the series were picked up by Netflix in 2019, has allowed Heughan ample opportunity to pursue passions for travel, fine spirits, and Scotland, where the actor spent his youth. Though, moving forward, he seems keen to leverage his newfound Hollywood capital toward more artistic pursuits. In a recent interview, he toyed with the idea of moving beyond acting, perhaps directing or focusing his time on documentaries. 

Sam Heughan
Jean Jacket: Citizens of Humanity. Shirt: Brunello Cucinelli. | Credit: David Urbanke

In the meantime, he's kept busy with his whiskey label, called Sassenach Spirits after his Outlander character's nickname for his English wife. In partnership with Tequileño, the brand just released its first tequila, Sassenach Select, a small-batch limited-edition reposado which Heughan humbly notes has already won a few awards. Finally, there's his global charity, My Peak Challenge, a health and fitness endeavor that has raised $6 million for a mix of causes, including hunger relief, blood-cancer research, end-of-life care, and environmental protection efforts.

Speaking on these topics, Heughan adopts a professional tone, almost as though we were engaged in a business proposal as opposed to an interview. He rattles off the technical differences between delivering lines in comedy versus drama, the pains of acquiring licenses across varying international liquor laws, the health benefits of yoga. The same philosophy seeps through when he discusses the dynamics of drama.

"I think actors are sometimes now asked to almost write an essay about their character," he says. "And I think that should be for us to have as our secret, and the audience to work it out. It forces the audience to make their own decisions about a character as opposed to the actor telling them what they should think."

Sam Heughan
Jean Jacket: Citizens of Humanity. Sweater: Thom Browne. | Credit: David Urbanke

Heughan refers to the Greek theater, a time before press tours and Instagram captions and Reddit AMAs, as the ideal experience. "That ambiguity is interesting as well," he adds. Without distractions, performances were "about asking the audience to watch the situation, and then have their own opinions and debate it." 

Read on to learn how Heughan cured his recurring nightmare, how he falls asleep at night, and his favorite Hollywood Chris (it's a good one). 

What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?

It's normally going over my lines.

Favorite villain?

I don't know why this is at the top of my head right now, it just came up. I keep thinking about Arnold Schwarzenegger [as the Terminator] — I don't know why. Because he's a bad guy, but then he's on the side of the good guys.

Describe a memorable dream.

I don't know if I've dreamt for quite a while.

Really? Are you one of those people who forgets them immediately?

No, I say, as an actor, anxiety dreams were a really big part of my life. I had a couple recurring ones for a long time. They've kind of gone, but I think it's because I'm always so tired when I go to bed right now. I'm just out.

What was the recurring one?

There was one that was, like, I was naked on stage. Or I would arrive at the theater and I was running late. I didn't know the lines. I hadn't rehearsed, but they wanted me to go on and I was literally on stage like I don't know what I'm doing here. But then I actually had to be naked on stage for a show and then never had that dream again.

Favorite cheesy pickup line?

Cheesy pickup line. Oh, I used to know some good ones. I don't know them anymore. I can't think of one. Give me a good one.

You want me to?

A really cheesy one.

This is specifically an American one, but are you from the South? Because you're the only 10 I see. Tennessee. I didn't say that correctly.

Wow. That's great.

Sam Heughan Polaroids
Credit: Sam Heughan

If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?

My God … It would be something like "peace and love." Or would it be like, "free dram with every vote."

It could be both.

Free whiskey with every vote.

They go hand-in-hand. 

Yes. Freedom, love, and whiskey.

Describe your first kiss.

Well, I don't know how old I was, I probably wasn't that old. Probably seven, nine, I suppose, with my best friend who was also my next door neighbor. 

If you were required to spend a thousand dollars today, what would you buy and why?

What can you get for a thousand dollars these days? You get something pretty reasonable right? But not something crazy. At the moment I'm traveling so much and I don't have any room in my bag. And I don't want to put down [that I'd] probably donate to charity … I'd buy another leather jacket.

What's your bagel order?

I had one today. I've never had it before. It's called an egg bagel. Is that right?

Yeah. Like they're kind of yellowy.

It's not my favorite, but I enjoyed it.

Did you have anything on it?

Yeah. Everything. It was quite a lot. It was bacon, cheese and egg. But I think my favorite would be salmon and cream cheese and capers. Slice of tomato and then probably an everything bagel.

Favorite Hollywood Chris?

Hollywood curse?

Chris.

Christina Aguilera.

Lead image: Thom Browne sweater. Citizens of Humanity jeans.

Photographs: David Urbanke, assisted by Sam Lee. Grooming: Melissa DeZarate. Polaroids by Sam Heughan. Special thanks to Polaroid. Booking: Isabel Jones. Creative Direction & Styling : Jenna Brillhart and Danielle Fox. Social Direction: Ana Osorno. Visuals Editor: Kelly Chiello. Associate Photo Editor: Amanda Lauro. Video Director: Justine Del Gaudio. Executive Producer: Bree Green. Producer: Sahara Pagan.