HE is a man who has set millions of hearts a flutter around the world, breathing life into a character that has captivated a legion of loyal fans for almost 25 years.

 

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Scottish actor Sam Heughan has gained cult status for his role as Jamie Fraser in the US television series Outlander, based on the books of Diana Gabaldon, yet at the same time he continues to fly largely under the radar in his homeland.

It's a curious juxtaposition but one which Heughan seems fairly relaxed about. "You are very removed from it in Scotland," he says. "The show has been well received but it is always odd when people recognise you in America or at airports and come up to you. It is very nice but quite strange."

The £50 million first series, which made extensive use of Scottish locations and was screened on the US network Starz last autumn, finally became available here in March through Amazon Prime Instant Video. Shooting on series two started this week.

Heughan, 35, cheerily admits to having no fears of being mobbed on the streets of Cumbernauld where production is based in Wardpark Studios, a former factory which has been converted by Sony Pictures Television.

"In Scotland we are very different, aren't we?" he says. "We do take it with a pinch of salt. Glasgow is certainly a place where they will tell you if they don't think you are anything special." Heughan laughs heartily. "So far people have been really delightful when they do recognise me."

Gabaldon's Outlander novels started appearing in 1991 and the eight-book series has since sold more than 26 million copies. The author drew inspiration from another time-travelling series, Doctor Who. In an episode from the late 1960s, Patrick Troughton encountered a Scotsman from 1745. The young man was wearing a kilt, which Gabaldon thought was "rather fetching."

Heughan plays charismatic Highlander Jamie Fraser in the series which charts the adventures of Claire Randall, a former Second World War nurse played by Irish actor Caitriona Balfe.

Randall is on a second honeymoon to Scotland with her husband Frank in 1945 when she is transported back to 1743 courtesy of a mysterious set of standing stones. It is here, on the cusp of the Jacobite rising, that she meets the dashing Fraser and a mesmerising love story unfolds.

Locations used in the first series include Doune Castle, Rannoch Moor, Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway, Linlithgow Palace, George Square and Pollok Country Park in Glasgow, the Fife town of Falkland and Aberdour Castle.

The New York Times has suggested Outlander is a mix of "ye-olde-time grimy violence and sex of Games of Thrones and a little of the plummy accents and cosy Anglophilia of Downton Abbey".

It is a description that Heughan gives short shrift to. "I think the New York Times should watch it again," he says, dryly. "Absolutely not - it is none of things. It is very hard to pigeon-hole. It is not just a romance drama: it is historical, has time travel and sci-fi aspects.

"It is hard to say exactly what genre it is. It is a very good story with great characters and I think that once people watch the first few episodes they will be hooked."

Born in New Galloway, Dumfries and Galloway, Heughan spent his teenage years in Edinburgh cutting his teeth among the youth ranks of the Royal Lyceum Theatre before going on to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow.

In contrast to the honed, chiselled physique which leaves his fan base drooling, Heughan describes himself as "probably quite fat" as a child. Yet there were portents of his future career. "I spent a lot of time running about outdoors with a wooden stick pretending it was a sword," he says. "I was obsessed with King Arthur legends and Robert the Bruce."

His part in David Greig's Outlying Islands in 2002 saw him nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award as most promising new performer. Other early roles included Midsomer Murders, Island at War and BBC soap opera Doctors, before Heughan landed his break in Outlander in 2013.

It would be easy to view Heughan as an overnight success, but in truth he has more than paid his dues. He played Livingston FC footballer Andrew Murray in River City a decade ago, starred as Hugh Tennent in a series of tongue-in-cheek commercials for the lager brand and was cast as a prince in the schmaltzy TV movie A Princess for Christmas.

Unsurprisingly, Heughan has the air of a man still pinching himself at his turn of good fortune. "There is always a part of me which is waiting for someone to knock on the door and say: 'Get out' or 'you owe us for all those clothes we've been letting you wear,'" he admits. "It is hard to get your head around it and I'm just going with the flow. It is a terrific job and I'm very lucky."

Already the Scot has a growing fandom dubbed the Heughliverse. Devotees include the Heughligans, a group which was 35,000 strong at the last count and continues to grow. "The Heughligans are just one part of it," he interjects. "There are so many fan groups and sub groups. There is the Caitriots and the Menziatics [fans of fellow actors Balfe and Tobias Menzies]."

Others include the Outlandish Bakers who rustle up sweet treats for the cast and crew. "Somehow they manage to find us on set no matter where we are shooting, even if it is in the middle of nowhere, and bring lots of sugary goods which always goes down a treat," says Heughan.

"It is usually peanut butter-based biscuits for me and gluten-free, pseudo healthy things for Cat [Balfe]. When it was my birthday they sent to the studios the most enormous cake that was shaped like Craigh na Dun [standing stones] and had Jamie and Claire on the top."

Heughan shares an electric onscreen chemistry with Balfe and it transpires he had a hand in casting the Dublin-born former model. "I was very lucky to [screen] test with everyone they looked at for the role of Claire," he says. "They did all these chemistry tests and I flew out to Los Angeles a few times and we tested there and in London.

"They couldn't find the right girl and then Caitriona came along and it just seemed to work. She's great fun and there is a high level of trust between us. She is a very good friend and extraordinary in the part."

Some fans are holding out for a real life love story, but Heughan deftly bats the suggestion away. "It is very sweet that they think that and the job has certainly brought us closer," he says. "We didn't want to make any preconceptions about the relationship and where they go in it. We wanted to live each moment and see where that takes us. As the viewers watch the show they will be living each moment with us."

For a snapshot of the weird world of the Outlander superfan, click here

When it comes to gleaning any personal details from Heughan he's about as forthcoming as his onscreen alter ego under interrogation from the Redcoats. You get the feeling you would have a better chance of drawing blood from the stones of Craigh na Dun.

He is coy regarding the status of his love life off-screen ("I might be," is his response when asked whether he's in a relationship). Heughan is clearly happier talking about how the fortunes of the characters evolve. "It gets a lot darker and it doesn't end well for everyone," he says, with cryptic aplomb.

Heughan is equally reticent when pressed about his passions away from work. "I'm a very boring person," he insists. A keen runner and triathlete, he completed the LA Marathon earlier this year. "I ran past one of our billboards on Sunset Boulevard which was quite a special moment," he recalls.

On his time off, Heughan heads into Scotland's mountains to "bag a couple of Munros" or takes to the ski slopes. "I love hillwalking and have been doing a lot of climbing," he says. "I have a couple of challenges coming up this year. Hopefully, if the filming schedule allows, I'll be on some snowy peaks somewhere in the world."

With eight books in Gabaldon's series, Heughan would love to see Jamie's story through to conclusion. "It is terrific to get a character that has that sort of span," he says. "Diana's books do begin to travel all over the world so we would obviously have to start choosing different locations. To live with a character for any period of time is a real gift so fingers crossed."

While Heughan has undoubtedly won a gazillion hearts, a major part of the appeal for many fans is that Claire, played by Balfe, is such a strong female character. "Yeah, definitely," Heughan enthuses. "The whole premise is that she's a modern woman and has a different moral code.

"She goes back in time to where women were almost second-class citizens and there is that clash of wills between her and Jamie. He's a forward thinking character and quite modern-minded but ultimately of a different period. They are in dangerous times and Claire needs to learn that, but equally Jamie needs to learn to treat her as an equal."

Sony has sold Outlander to broadcasters in more than 80 territories around the world, yet Scottish fans were left in limbo until February this year when it was announced that rather than a terrestrial or satellite channel, online streaming service Amazon Prime Instant Video had secured the rights.

The plot thickened when it was revealed last month that the "importance" of Outlander to the political atmosphere of last year's independence referendum was highlighted by key TV executives before a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron.

In a cache of leaked memos from the Sony organisation obtained by Wikileaks, an email written by Keith E. Weaver, executive vice president at Sony Pictures Entertainment, which produces Outlander, discusses a meeting with the Prime Minister last summer.

The email fuelled speculation that the UK Government did not want the show broadcast before the independence vote in September. It specifically referred to Outlander and "the political issues in the UK as Scotland contemplates detachment this Fall".

Heughan admits that the show's brooding historic backdrop - set against the Jacobite Rising of 1745 - has helped stir his own modern-day political leanings. The actor was a vocal pro-independence supporter during the referendum.

"It was an amazing time to be here during the referendum and there was a real sense of opportunity for Scotland," he says. "Personally, it was not the result I wanted but it feels great that people in Scotland are still talking about politics and there doesn't seem to be as much apathy. There are exciting times for Scotland in the future, I think."

Filming on series two is set to begin this month and according to Heughan could take up to a year. This time around, however, not all of it will be shot solely in Scotland as the story of the books moves on and Jamie and Claire find themselves in France.

"We may shoot elsewhere in Prague for exteriors of France. I don't quite know if that's all been worked out yet but we will be shooting abroad a little bit," says Heughan. "The majority will be filmed in Scotland. I believe Edinburgh might be doubling in some places.

"I'm excited to be getting back into it. Where season one ends is an interesting place and a grey area. It deals with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the build-up to Culloden. Ultimately, it is about the demise of the Highland culture and the clan way of life."

The first series of Outlander is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video