IN THE GENERAL MANNER by which Hollywood gauges popularity, Sam Heughan is having a moment. The 39-year-old Scottish actor’s bravura portrayal of Jamie Fraser, the 18th century Highlander hero of the smash Starz time-travel drama Outlander, is one of the prime reasons why the series, now in its sixth season, has become one of those TV phenoms cable networks lust after.
Viewers don’t watch the show passively; they devour it in repeated and sometimes unbroken binges with the same kind of fervor usually attributed to a series like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad; they invade social media to dissect the tiniest detail of any given narrative; they snap up Outlander-related merchandise by the truckload. And to be sure, Heughan is front and center of the hoopla. His every move seems to be traced online by legions of fans who call themselves “Heughligans,” and his autograph appearances at Comic Cons are instant sell-outs, eliciting swoons and screams from selfie-seeking devotees.
“Sometimes I feel as though I’m on a runaway train,” Heughan says while sipping a Bloody Mary inside the bar of Manhattan’s Beekman Hotel. Dressed casually and with his tightly cropped blondish hair a stark contrast to Jamie Frasier’s unruly ginger locks, he’s doing his best to appear unassuming and low-profile; nonetheless, he exudes a high-wattage glow exclusive to megastars, drawing more than occasional stares from New Yorkers usually fatigued by celebrities in their midst. “It’s unbelievable what’s happening, and I’m trying to do as much as I can with the opportunities that are afforded me.” He laughs, then adds, “But believe me, I’m realistic. I’m prepared for all of this to come crumbling down any minute.”
Heughan’s modesty doesn’t ring false, and it’s no doubt due in large part to the fact that his career didn’t achieve true lift-off until he was into his thirties. “I put in my time,” he says. “I was a jobbing actor. I did theater and bit parts in British dramas. I came to America a few times, and I tested for big shows and movies, but I never quite made it.” During one U.S. pilot season that proved fruitless, he returned to the U.K. and considered bagging it altogether. “I was penniless and thought I’d just go work in a bar, but then the Outlander audition came up, and the rest is history.”
Two years ago, Heughan earned strong notices for a supporting role to Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon in the black comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me. This year, he’s stretching out even more, appearing alongside Vin Diesel in the comic book actioner Bloodshot, taking the lead in the upcoming suspense thriller SAS: Red Notice, and in a surprising turn, he’s portraying Paul Newman in the Roald Dahl-Patricia Neal biopic, An Unquiet Life. Lately, Heughan has been heating up online polls while keeping U.K bookies busy regarding one particular possible role.
“Oh, yes – Bond,” he says with a good-natured chuckle. “Let’s take that with a big grain of salt. It’s flattering, of course, but I think it’s part of the ‘Outlander effect’ – people started voting in polls.” He thinks, then leans in. “I mean, look, it would be brilliant if it were to happen. Aside from Sean Connery, no other Scot has played the part, so that would be amazing. Funnily enough, I did audition for it a while back. For Bond 21, they were considering going young, so I read for it. They had the golden gun on the table, which was pretty cool. Were anything to ever happen in the future…we’ll see.”
Whether or not the Bond call comes, Heughan’s dance card is full for the foreseeable future. Along with assuming a production role on Outlander, he’s developing film and TV projects, and he’s even launched a whisky brand called “The Sassenach” through his own Great Glen Company, which promotes authentic Scottish products. (Loyal Outlander viewers will recognize “Sassenach” as the pet name Jamie Fraser, a sometime bootlegger and moonshiner, bestowed upon his wife, Claire, portrayed by Caitriona Balfe.)
“I’m very excited about The Sassenach,” Heughan notes. “I have a longtime passion for whisky, so it’s great to be able to share that with people. But it’s also part of how I’m trying to handle this time in my life. I’m not waiting for things to come to me; I want to be active and lay down a strong foundation. You wait a long time for a moment like this, and you have to make the most of it.”
By Joe Bosso, Portraits by John Russo
Want more? Read the rest of the article in our digital issue of Cigar & Spirits!