Outlander’s acting…How do they do that with a camera in their face?




I’m amazed.  I’m amazed every time I see a behind the scenes photograph of the actors of Outlander. It amazes me because the reality of filming seems so intrusive.  I am amazed that actors who have microphones hanging over their heads and cameras in their faces can manage to make a scene feel real and intimate.  My understanding of the challenges an actor faces has increased and so has my respect for their skills. You’ve heard me say before that I’m curious and that I am often inspired to look a bit deeper.  Today that inspiration came from this picture. 


It is a simple scene and yet for me it helped clarify what is actually happening during filming and it is far from intimate.  In fact, it appears to take a village to raise a film. Movies take years to plan, months to shoot and thousands of people to create. On average the top films of the past two decades have each had 3.5 writers, 7 producers, 55 people in the art department, 32 in sound, 55 in camera / electrical and 156 in visual effects. There are 19 people listed for hair and makeup alone and 37 in the camera electrical department for Outlander on IMBD. The list of folks working on the show is pretty impressive and worth a look. Suffice it to say, there is a crowd surrounding these actors most of the time.

You are probably aware that the author of the Outlander series of books, Diana Gabaldon, was asked to write scripts for Season 2 and had the experience of filming those episodes.  I was entertained by her less than glamorous pictures of traipsing through mud and her Scottish weather uniform including her pink boots. ( btw, I found a great blog about a typical day on a set. https://www.friendsinfilm.com/typical-day-on-set )

Quite frankly, it looked cold, uncomfortable and sounded like a study in patience when she explained that the same scenes were often filmed over and over. Her day started early and ended late with her falling across her bed sometimes too tired to eat. For the actors who have to get into makeup (I’ve read it takes somewhere near 4 hours to put the prosthetic on Sam’s back) and costume, I can imagine it might even be more time consuming and more exhausting. Despite all this they must be ready to be in character and stay in character on demand and get up and do it all again the next day. Ron Moore talked about the stamina it took for Cait to be in almost every scene, I’m starting to really appreciate what he meant and why Sam and Cait appreciate having a co-star that is a friend.

I’ve  written a bit about how costuming and set design can affect an actor’s performance http://wp.me/p4mtBT-Zo ,  http://wp.me/p4mtBT-Yx . I’ve even written about different schools of thought on acting and a bit about why someone might want to act http://wp.me/p4mtBT-Pd .  I can see how certain acting techniques could work, especially as a stage actor performing the same material night after night, but this acting for a film series seems to be a different animal.  For instance, how does filming out of sequence affect your performance?  I would think that you would need to act in some sort of chronological order to build upon what happens to the character.  The only response I ever got to that question was from Terry Dresbach, Outlander’s costume designer, who told me she has never been part of a production that was any other way.  After following this show’s production for the last couple of years, I’ve come to understand the “why” of filming out of sequence, but I still don’t know how it doesn’t negatively impact actor’s performances.  The fact that Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe and all the others are able to get inside their characters’ heads on cue continues to baffle and as I said….amaze.  How do they tune it all out? How do they make us believe those emotions are real?

images (7)

Outlander has gained a reputation for portraying its story in an honest manner.  The scenes feel like what might actually happen between real people including the sex.  I’m astonished to realize that what appears to us as romantic and passionate and intimate was created in a room with directors, camera people, sound guys, etc.  I found it amusing when Ron Moore said they wanted to give the characters some privacy and so they made the crew skeletal! Skeletal there’s a relative term! LOL!

Yeah, we got to get it right. But the subject matter — Caitrna [Balfe] and I have never done anything like this before, so it was a bit of a learning curve. We were lucky that the director, Anna Foerster, was good. We did a lot of rehearsals. We discussed how we wanted it to work. When you watch the episode there is a progression in the way that Jamie and Claire get to know each other. Their relationship grows quite quickly so by the end of the episode, you can see that they’re basically making love, it’s not just consummating the marriage.    Sam Heughan http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/outlander-sam-heughan-jamie-claires-732878

I’m sorry, but if I’m wearing nothing but a modesty patch simulating sex with an equally naked co-star and people are filming and giving me instructions like hold him here, touch her there, I’m going to have tough time not being embarrassed! Get it right?! Yeah, they got it so right I felt slightly voyeuristic watching!


I found some great insight in an article in the Atlantic.  It took a look at the emerging interest in the psychology of acting and how it could give us insight into the science of why people do the things they do. The article asserts that acting is just a different way of looking at human behavior.  What I discovered is that becoming a character isn’t easy and not without cost, especially when playing scenes like episode 15 and 16.

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I found myself getting a little worried about our actors while reading this article, but I’m happy to say that it ended by concluding that good acting may be less about becoming your character and more about simply concentrating.

“Intensity gets misinterpreted. Not all acting is necessarily extremely intense. But it is concentrated and very much about being here, now.”

The toll of at least temporarily living in a character and world you’ve created is emotionally consuming and an actor needs to cultivate ways to disengage from their work of acting.  I’m happy to say that our actors appear to be aware of the need of self-care and I love that they share that they laugh on set, eat healthy, hike Munros, drink the occasional whiskey, and spend time with family and friends who know who they were before they played Jamie, Claire or Black Jack.  I still don’t understand how they do it, but wow, they are good at it and this fan is grateful! 



48 thoughts on “Outlander’s acting…How do they do that with a camera in their face?

  1. S. A. Young

    Well researched an written essay as usual, Beth. Knowing how many people are actually in the room,and having read on many occasions that filming intimate scenes is really anything but intimate, it gives me even more respect for,and makes me even more in awe of, this cast’s incredibly realistic and emotionally honest performances. It has nothing to do with how they feel about each other IRL, although as you say, being compassionate empathetic friends certainly helps, and everything to do with the fact that they are just that good.

  2. Susan Van Hoven

    I loved reading this and have often felt and thought the same things. You it so well Beth. More than anything, I admire these actors deeply for their wonderful gifts and professional ethic.

  3. Barbara Brown

    I once asked this question because, as you described above, I was also blown away by their abilities to begin “acting” when told to do so. And since they do not film in a straight, linear fashion, I could not fathom how they were able to pick up with a scene which had not just “followed” another scene–and to do it so brilliantly.

    Herself (squee!) actually answered me and gave me a great deal of insight into this process. Among other things, the bottom line is, of course, talent and very hard work! She did share that if one of the actors was a little hesitant (not her word but all I can think of), in resuming a scene, they would simply stand very still for a short time, and then usually go right on! And if they should forget a line, at some point, while standing very still, they would say “Line, please.” And that prompt would usually propel them right back into the scene. (If I can find that response, I’ll copy it for you.)

    But aren’t we all lucky, that this group fo actors are the ones bringing our beloved story to life! And even after it was explained to me, I really still don’t get HOW they do this; magic! truly! Like your writing, dear lady.

  4. Betsy

    I read but don’t often comment and for that I first offer apology. Second I offer congratulations for your frequent eloquence with words! You get it right too just like our wonderful production interpreting our favorite books! I read your blog and feel as if you are in my head thinking my thoughts but they translate so much more gracefully through your pen! Thank you for sharing and keep sharing!

  5. Thanks Beth, that was something I wondered about. How they can stay in character in 1743 with all the 21st century cameras almost in their face. Love your blog. Enjoyed the one about costumes. Then when I saw the picture of Claire in a blue dress that blended into the background I saw it with new eyes.

  6. Excellent. Great insight and touched on things I have often thought of myself. It does take a village. Of amazing and incredibly talented dedicated individuals. And we the fans are so lucky to share in the end result. Leaves this fan in awe. Thanks again for another wonderful blog.

  7. Patricia Hare

    Again, thank you for your insight! I think I might see Outlander in a deeper light now.
    I hope that many fans read your blog to understand and appreciate just what all goes into the production. I also hope that the cast and crew read it too so that they know what they do is appreciated by the fans.

  8. Anne

    I really appreciate your insights, I generally lurk, but after your last post, I am trying to share some of the very positive thoughts I have. Until outlander, I have never wondered how any show or film was put together, now I find myself wanting to know every small detail.” OMG, how do they DO that,” is a frequent thought, I re-read DIA and then Voyager at the end of season one, and kept wondering how they could possibly adapt this scene or that. From the writing, sets, costumes, to the acting, I am totally blown away, especially when I learn another little bit of behind-the-scenes info. Thanks for your blog, I read it regularly.

  9. Mable

    I know this may seem a bit simplistic but I believe the reason they can do what they do is because they are professionals. This is their job (yes, a job exists where one can have fake sex with Sam Heughan!) and all involved are highly professional and have been doing it for years. Terry recently tweeted about the search for Bree and how some fans feel she may not appear as the show is close to wrapping up S2. She said that an actress could be cast one day and be on set the next day. Being able to slip into a role at any given time is what a professional actor does.

  10. Acting is one of the most challenging professions and complex. Every actor is different. Some have had YEARS of training and some none….it is their natural instincts. Many actors need a space to collect themselves, so they can focus on their performance. It is VITAL that you understand your character and what they “want”….the FIRST thing actors learn about in training is to find your “goal” for the scene. That what helps you film out of sequence. You break down a script and figure out your journey and your wants, so when you are filming the last scene first, you know the stakes. In MY opinion, I think rehearsal is a good thing, but if you trust your partner, you can keep it “organic” for shooting. When you film, you ignore all the other stuff, you focus on your scene partner and you do EVERYTHING you can to keep in the moment. For example, when filming the last 2 episodes of Season 1, they actors stayed relatively separate and quiet. It was a respectful space for these people to be vulnerable and stay emotionally focused since when you “go there” physically and emotionally, you can’t just bounce in & out. THIS is why great actors are treasured and fairly rare (when you look at the # of actors that WANT to work vs those that do regularly). They can fully encompass a character and get all the takes done quickly and perfectly. As much as welcome gag reels, you are watching people screw up and sometimes it’s REALLY frustrating to not remember your line or you just want to go home…it’s cute, but still…. There are many days of 12-16 hours (you aren’t REALLY working the whole time, but you are there and have to stay/get ready). Actors that complain get called out quickly, but it can be exhausting and frustrating. The work it’s self is the reward. It’s why EVERYONE says, “don’t do it for $$$ or glory, do it cuz you love it”. Professional actors don’t get time off. You are working you WHOLE life (hopefully) and may NEVER have a “normal” (schedule) life, but the years of struggle make you SO grateful for the opportunities not drying up. Whew! Just some thoughts my darling Beth, but you have made SO many beautiful points.

  11. CarolJannello-Leaman

    Beth, thank you for another well-written and informative post! Each one you write, whether funny or serious, always gives us something to think about.
    This post is so interesting and touches on several things that so many of us think about, and I was esp. interested in the article in the Atlantic – that was fascinating. I’ve often wondered how actors can “turn it off” after and recover from very difficult scenes – e.g. Sam and Tobias after episodes 15 & 16 – and if acting in these types of scenes, if done often enough, could cause harm to the actors. We don’t know what Tobias specifically does to recover from them, but it seems like Sam manages this well, with close friendships, working out, mountain walking, etc.it makes me appreciate all the more the gift that they’re giving us with these amazing performances.
    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with us!

  12. Jacque Schmidt

    Another great article, Beth. Always enjoy your posts. Good to be reminded of what goes into what we only see as a finished product. These folks give and give and give “at the office” then turn around and give even more to the fans. We must never lose sight of their need to escape and decompress. On another note: it’s interesting to ponder the difference between acting for theater and acting for film to which you make some reference in your remarks. I’m sure each has its advantages and disadvantages. Case in point the contrast between acting a production straight through vs disjointed stops and starts. I recall Sam mentioning in at least one interview how his and Tobias’s theater background served them well in some of the longer scenes to which OL lends itself. Ah well, I ramble on. Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

  13. Cara Zuklin

    Excellent read! I fell in love with the book series when I was pregnant with my daughter and on bed rest. I have always loved to read so I went in search of the thickest book I could find and the rest is history! I have waited, like many others, for so long to see my favorite people played out on screen. Mr. Heughan and Ms. Balfe are doing a splendid job!

  14. Excellent article. I remember an actress on a soap opera I used to watch (ok, I STILL watch it), and she had a highly psychological major role. She had to leave the soap because it affected her mentally and emotionally. I can understand that. I think about that often when I see scenes like Ep 15 and 16, or a woman playing a rape scene, or an actor being abused or being abusive. I had read both Sam and Tobias took the two weeks it took to film those scenes and stayed pretty quiet, separate and introspective. Now I don’t think Tobias (who should have won the GG!) Is going to start raping men, nor Sam (who should have been nominated, ffs, and won, a GG) is going to suffer from victimology. But the scenes obviously got under their skin in order to give the performances they did. There must be a fine line of portraying the emotions so well, and then shaking it off. As I said, great article. I want to go back and read the links you gave now.

  15. Beth, thses articles explore the many questions that no one has ever taken the time to explain, thank you. I was in theater acting food years and now my youngest child is a part of it, I look at acting as being able to be someone your not and throw your whole self into another being. My former classmate, Angela became a movie star, when being a woman and that of color was daunting, but she did it and is wonderful at her craft.
    I have done small parts locally and a day gets lost very easily , it is tiring, but its a wonderful life!
    I also have known actors who refuse to be nude and that’s up to the individual, so you have to be comfortable in your own skin and mind to be able to perform these scene’s in from of others and the camera.
    Thank you Elizabeth

  16. I couldn’t agree more – I’ve just stumbled across this show and have been utterly floored by the stellar performances going on. They’re all amazing, but every frame featuring Jamie, Claire, Randall and Dougal in particular are just a masterclass in acting. Jamie and Claire are both extremely complex in the books, but special props has to go to Graham McTavish for elevating Dougal into a true force of nature!

  17. Peigi

    Thanks not just to Beth but to all who comment- what an Outlandish world of spinning concentric and adjacent new worlds both the books and the series have brought to us in the
    Fan Clan!

  18. Love these blogs! Thank you Beth for doing them. I have several saved and several printed out to keep with my Outlander stuff – calendar, DVDs, cut out magazine articles, etc. I don’t suppose you will ever put all your blogs in a booklet/book that I could just buy after each of the seasons ends. Dream on Adele!

  19. Grace

    Hello Beth! I’m new to the Outlandersphere (started watching about 6 weeks ago) and am startled with how quickly I became (dare I say it?) obsessed with the story (haven’t had a chance to get more than a few pages into the first book) and the cast – and frankly, everything about the production (those costumes!!! and that music!!! the writing!!! the camera work!!! and Scotland!!!). I’m equally desirous to find as much information of substance (yes, Sam Heughan & Caitriona Balfe are empirically beautiful, but they present as incredibly intelligent and well-rounded human beings; their talent leaves me speechless) about it all. It’s disturbing, as you have eloquently expressed, the shallow response that too many seem to have to it all. So it’s a delight to find someone who appears to be kindred in that respect (I found you from a link Terry Dresbach posted in HER blog, 18th Century Life, about the character Claire and why readers love her). I’ll just add your blog to my wee collection that includes Terry’s costume blog and My Outlander Purgatory (these three sites alone will be a new hobby that should occupy me, oh, for about the rest of my life ☺️)

    In response to your wonderful post about HOW DOES EVERYBODY DO IT?!??, I have to add my bafflement about the press junkets that the cast all have to do after filming is completed. Now THAT looks like gruelling drudgery, but once again, these cast members do it with energy and a smile that looks genuine. It’s astounding.

    Again, I look forward to reading more from you!

    Yours in respectful admiration of the mastery,

    • Peigi (nom de Twitter)

      Welcome to the Fan Clan, where the vast majority are kind, thoughtful, and smart. (to the others: Have a nice day somewhere ELSE) Be patient reading the 1st book. Just get through he first 100 or so pages. Lifelong rewards await you

      • Grace

        Hi Peigi, thank you for the welcome ☺️ I checked and I’m exactly about to start Ch. 9, “The Gathering” (pg. 159 in my book). I’m not sure about needing encouragement to be patient through the first book, or even the first 100 pgs cos I’m really enjoying it so far!!

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