We’re excited for the premiere of Outlander tomorrow! Here’s a column we wrote about Sam Heughan, the lovely actor who plays Jamie Fraser. 

 

I’ve been thinking about the Golden Globes, which followed the Emmys in failing to nominate Sam Heughan for Outlander (the show was nominated for Best Drama, and both Caitriona Balfe as Claire and Tobias Menzies as Black Jack scored acting nominations). In criticizing this omission, most people point to the last few episodes of the season which, without getting spoilery, contain emotional and violent scenes which are the classic route to awards attention.

I would also have liked to have seen Heughan nominated, but for a totally different reason. In fact, I haven’t even seen the last two episodes yet. I thought Heughan did something exceptional long before those episodes – and that was to satisfy female viewers with his depiction of a beloved romantic hero.

People think women are simple. Throw a good-looking man on a screen, take his shirt off a few times, and have him deliver a few lines like “Because I wanted you. More than I had ever wanted anything in my life.” Anybody with a face, a body, and a British accent can do it. Right?

We’ve all heard this before, except instead of about actors, we hear it about our genre. “Romance heroes? So easy to write. Rich, good-looking, great in bed. That’s all women want.” There is a tendency to value “gritty” acting over the ability to win people’s hearts, just as there’s a tendency to weight downer prestige literature over the happy endings of genre romance. And yet the lucrative nature of romantic film means that if anybody could do it, I’m pretty sure a lot more people would.

Shockingly, women (and yes, I’m focusing on straight female readers here) are more complicated than that. If you look at AAR’s Top Ten Heroes poll (last conducted in 2009), we routinely fall for men who violate the stereotypical code. Jamie is a laird, true, but he spends most of the Outlander novels just getting by, and at many points, he’s destitute. Loretta Chase’s Sebastian Ballister (Dain), another Top 10 hero, is described as ugly. Mr. Darcy doesn’t even kiss Elizabeth Bennet, let alone have hot sex with her.

Portraying a romantic hero on screen is also harder than it looks. If it were as simple as scoring the role of a beloved character, then there should have been at least seven outbreaks of Darcymania (IMDB shows at least seven P&P adaptations; more if you count variants like Bride and Prejudice). There weren’t. Although there’s probably a plurality of fans for Timothy Dalton, Jane Eyre is still looking for “the” Rochester (I like Toby Stephens best, myself).

It’s not just what you’re given, it’s what you do with it. And Heughan has done something special. It is not every actor whose fans raise thousands of dollars for his charity of choice (in Heughan’s case, Bloodwise, for fighting leukemia and lymphoma). Or who inspires fans to vote literally millions of times for fan choice awards, upsetting such beloved and established favorites as David Tennant. It’s easy, folks say? Then why aren’t more people doing it?

To talk more specifically about what makes his portrayal a winning one for me, Sam Heughan’s Jamie is a wonderful mix of boyish enthusiasm, youthful awkwardness, and a power and sex appeal that are all adult male. He and Caitriona Balfe create chemistry in even the shortest dialogues – and sometimes in scenes with no dialogue at all. Jamie is strong (even dangerous) and smart, which makes him appealing as a protector and exciting as a fantasy. At the same time, Heughan lets Jamie be more vulnerable than I picture the character in the books, and it’s utterly charming.

What are some difficult romantic scenes in which I think Heughan did something special?

The music performance: in Episode 3 (The Way Out), at a performance of a visiting bard, Jamie lights up at the chance to sit next to Claire and translate for her. Heughan makes Jamie young and the opposite of hero-suave, eager to impress his crush Claire and totally oblivious to Laoghaire’s attempts to win him over. (This is a recurring problem).

Later in that same episode, the gunshot wound. Claire checks Jamie’s healing shoulder by loosening his cravat in the firelit castle surgery, and oh, the stories Sam Heughan tells with his eyes. If there had not been a fire going in the surgery already, one probably would have spontaneously broken out.

Wedding night awkwardness: So much of Episode 7 (The Wedding) is memorable for character-filled sex scenes. Heughan puts personality into every moment, even the ones which last only a second. It adds up to a full characterization of the uncertainty, hope, and passion of a young man on one of the most important nights of his life. Jamie’s are-you-kidding-me laugh when Claire panics and forestalls his kiss by asking about his family. His self-deprecating eyeroll at the endless process of removing Claire’s clothing. His pout when he realizes that he hadn’t done much for Claire. His expressions of pure physical pleasure. It’s rare enough to find authentic sex scenes on paper. On film, it’s the baby of a unicorn and a white whale. (I suppose that makes The Wedding episode some sort of narwhal?)

Thinking with the little brain: In Episode 9, the Reckoning, there is a marvelous moment in which Claire and Jamie discuss Mackenzie clan politics as Claire gets ready for bed. Jamie starts to stumble in his speech, becoming distracted and physically twitchy, as he visibly loses the ability to process anything other than Claire+Bed+Nightdress = Possibility?

Colin Firth’s Darcy is two decades old. Richard Armitage’s Thornton is one decade. We are still recommending these performances to new romance viewers on our forums and blogs. In ten years, and in twenty, we’ll be doing the same for Heughan’s Jamie. And that’s something I just don’t anticipate for any of the performances that were nominated.

Do you think romantic actors suffer the same discrimination as the romance genre? Are you enjoying Sam Heughan in Outlander? If so, what are some of your favorite moments?

Caroline Russomanno