On the day of Sophie Skelton’s final Outlander audition, nothing went as planned. “You know how people say bad things come in threes?” the actress remembers. She had caught a cold on the flight from the UK to L.A. that left a ringing in her ears; her Uber got into an accident; and on top of everything else, it was pouring down rain.
“Everyone kept saying, ‘It never rains in L.A.’ But that seems to be my thing now. Anytime I go to Los Angeles it rains. I always bring that with me,” she says.
Skelton doesn’t recall much about the meeting, just that it was a chemistry test with actress Caitriona Balfe, who was already starring in the show as Claire Randall Fraser, a WWII-era nurse who had traveled back in time to 18th-century Scotland. Skelton was up for the role of her daughter Brianna, and the audition felt natural, “which is funny because in audition rooms, things never feel natural,” she says.
“Often when you do a take and you can't remember it, when it’s a blur, that's when it's the best performance because you're just in it. I can't really remember too much about that day, only that my trip to L.A. had been a bit of a mess."
But she kept telling herself, “Everything that goes wrong, something right has to come out of it.” And by the time Skelton returned to the UK just a few days later, she had the part.
The news was especially sweet for Skelton, who had first auditioned for the show years before, but didn't hear back.
“I think the first time I auditioned for Brianna was about 2014, and then I didn't hear anything for a year. There aren't many times where you really feel protective over the role. For some reason, I really did for Brianna. You go on so many auditions and often you don't hear anything, and that's fine, but this one actually really hurt,” she says.
Turns out, producers weren't ignoring her—they had just decided not to bring Brianna into the story until a later season. It was a huge relief for Skelton to learn that. "I was like, ‘Oh. Sometimes it can be as simple as that.’ You have to have such a thick skin because there are so many cogs turning that you don't know about.”
In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, which serve as the source material for the Starz series, Brianna is described as being exceptionally tall, almost Amazon-like, with "thick red hair" and "deep blue eyes"—a physical reminder of her father, a fiery 18th-century Highlander named Jamie Fraser (played on the show by Sam Heughan).
But sitting across from me in a conference room in Town & Country’s New York City office, Skelton couldn’t be more than 5' 8''. She's wrapped up in a robe, her brown eyes adorned with glossy charcoal-colored shadow, and her almost-black hair slicked back for her impending photoshoot. Today, she's trading in her 1770s-era dresses (and the sheer floral turtleneck and high-waisted jeans she arrived on set in) for bold styles from Chanel, Prada, and Olivier Theyskens.
In terms of her physical appearance, she isn't a perfect match for Gabaldon's Brianna, but that was far a dealbreaker for Outlander's executive producer Maril Davis.
"There just aren't a lot of 6-foot-tall redheads. We sent the book description along [to casting director Suzanne Smith], but at the end of the day we wanted the best actor for the role," Davis tells me over the phone. After a difficult search, Skelton emerged as the clear choice.
"Obviously, Sophie's not 6 feet tall and doesn't have red hair, but Sam Heughan doesn't have red hair either, and that's a hurdle we overcame," Davis says. "And we were really blown away by her performance. There was a strength to her and a steeliness, but she was also able to bring some warmth to Brianna that I think is necessary because Brianna is a very strong character, but you want that strength to come across in a way that you're rooting for her."
So the Outlander hair and makeup team set out to turn Skelton's brown hair red. At first, they tried to dye her strands—to somewhat disastrous results.
“They had to bleach it, but then it got bad. It became like straw and then it just kind of fell out,” she says. “I remember one of the first days when we went to the salon and the head of hair and makeup was in there. They put all that foil on, and I never really dyed my hair, so I had the foil, and then they took it off and all I could hear was someone behind me go, ‘Oh my God.’”
These days a wig gives Bree her iconic red hair, while a practiced American accent hides Skelton’s English roots. Skelton was raised near Manchester in a village called Woodford, the youngest child in a family with two older brothers. “I was always running around the fields and going on lots of walks and horse riding. I think all that came in handy for Outlander,” she remembers.
A classically trained dancer, Skelton had started ballet lessons by the age of three, and her love of performing eventually led to an interest in acting. “You get a wonderful rush when you go on stage, but you have to make everything really, really big,” she says. “I love the truth to screen. You somehow feel more in the room with someone when you're watching them on TV than you do in a theater. And I just went into the acting world from there.”
Skelton's parents, independent toy inventors who have created games for brands like Hasbro and Disney, have always been cautiously supportive of their daughter's pursuit of the arts. They even let her defer university a year to try acting full time. “There’s one thing my parents really warned me about when I said that I was interested in acting. They were like, ‘Being self-employed is not easy,’” she says. “I think they're just proud and relieved that it worked.”
The risk paid off. Less than a year after deferring her acceptance to school, Skelton booked Outlander, and the show has been a real turning point in her career, spring-boarding her from small parts in long-running British TV series like Casualty and Doctors to the kind of fame that only comes from starring in a show with a large, incredibly passionate fanbase.
While at times she says it feels like her life hasn’t changed that much (in Glasgow, where the show films for the bulk of the year, “it's not a big deal”), in certain circles in the States and corners of the internet, Outlander is a very big deal. As in, people are willing to sleep on the streets of New York City in order to meet the stars kind of big deal.
Skelton, like the rest of the Outlander cast, only has kind things to say about the show’s legion of adoring fans, who discuss every detail of the series on social media, though she did admit that the community can sometimes be “intense.” Still, she says, "the intensity is what's driven the show.”
“Without those fans, we wouldn't be where we are. I think it's brilliant. I love how passionate they are about something. I don't think there was ever a show where I was that sort of fanatic about it.” Some women in the community even feel protective of the character of Brianna, and at times, of Skelton herself.
But Skelton has also faced criticism from Outlander fans, perhaps more so than other actors on the series. Her character, Brianna, isn’t as universally admired as Skelton’s on-screen parents, Jamie and Claire. And Bree’s relationship with her now-husband Roger MacKenzie (played by Richard Rankin) is rockier and less idyllic (and some might say more realistic) than the aspirational time-and-space-defying romance at the heart of the series.
“People sometimes equate you to the character, and it's like, ‘Dude, I didn't throw a fire poker through a window,’” she says, referencing a rage-filled scene in Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber book.
For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Outlander plot, Brianna has had something of a rough go of it over the past few seasons. Conceived in the 1740s, but born in the 1960s, she had a difficult relationship with her mother, Claire. Bree, as she's known to friends and family, was closer with the man she believed to be her dad, Frank Randall (played by Tobias Menzies, one of Skelton’s “favorite people to work with”). But when Frank died, Claire revealed the truth about both her time-traveling journey and Brianna's biological father, Jamie.
Claire then returns to the 18th century in hopes of reuniting with Jamie, and Brianna eventually follows after her, attempting to warn her parents about a historic deadly fire. In season four, after traveling through time and across an ocean to pre-Revolutionary North Carolina, Brianna finally meets Jamie for the first time, but not before being brutally raped at the hands of Stephen Bonnet, a sadistic pirate played by Downton Abbey-alum Ed Speleers.
"Just give the girl a break," Skelton says. “I feel very protective of Brianna and I feel like she gets some bad press, but she's really the female Jamie. I think what people think looks very sexy and brooding on an 18th-century 6-foot-whatever Highlander, once you put that on a 16-year-old girl, people just think, oh, she's bratty and mean and rude. But, you know what? She's had a tough life.”
When Outlander first premiered in 2014, it was heralded as a more feminist alternative to Game of Thrones. Both were fantasy shows on premium cable with explicit violence and sex, but unlike Thrones, Outlander didn’t feature gratuitous female nudity. If anything, it played to the female gaze, and celebrated romance and female pleasure. Middle-aged women—long fans of Gabaldon’s books and severely under-served by TV programming for years—flocked to the series, which steadily amassed a sizable audience.
But as the seasons continued, and the #MeToo movement forced Hollywood to take a look at rape culture both on and offscreen, Outlander began to receive criticism for its depictions of sexual violence, and more specifically, how it’s often used as a device to move the action of the show forward. Brianna's sexual assault is a key plot point from Gabaldon's books; to leave it out would completely alter the Outlander story, but it's also one more rape on a show that has already had many.
"Deep into its fourth season, it’s beginning to feel like Outlander is as much a story about sexual violence as it is about anything else, and in spite of that topic’s immense importance, it’s frustrating that Outlander’s characters apparently have few other ways to experience sudden emotional turmoil," Vulture's Kathryn VanAredonk wrote at the time.
But Bonnet's attack on Bree in season four represents a shift in how the show handles sexual violence. The scene is depicted offscreen—heard, but not seen. Davis says the scene wasn't a direct response to criticism, but rather a choice specific to the storyline.
"Unfortunately, there's quite a bit of rape in these books," she says. "We approach each one differently and try to decide what's best for that scene and also what's best for the season and that character."
With Brianna's rape, the showrunners wanted to show that people could hear her struggling and screaming and crying, but they didn't step in to stop Bonnet. "I think people sometimes watch this series from a contemporary viewpoint. [The ask,] 'Why didn't anyone call the police and why didn't anyone do anything?' I think that's what we're trying to show that this is a different time period," says Davis. "Things were different. People's viewpoints of things were different. How they treated women was different. It wasn't right, but it was the reality."
And as with Jamie's rape in season one, the aftermath of sexual trauma continues to affect Brianna; it isn't something that happens one episode and is forgotten the next. “More than in the book we have carried her PTSD through from season four, which is something I fought for,” Skelton tells me. “It's not just like it happens in one episode and we're done with it. We show the brutality of rape and the aftermath, the trauma, and the PTSD. We never glorify it.”
Skelton feels a huge responsibility to rape survivors to get her performance right, and she continues to research both the stories of women who have gone through what her character has, and the biological impact of PTSD. She also recognizes that Outlander’s violent storylines can be hard for some people to watch.
Ahead of the season five premiere, which featured a flashback to her attack, for example, she tweeted a trigger warning about the episode’s content complete with the number for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) helpline.
“It is a shame in a way that that there is so much [sexual violence in the show] because I do think it must be tremendously difficult for some people to watch, but I think the way Outlander handles it is ultimately good,” she says.
She believes the show can function as a cathartic outlet for viewers, and hopes that watching Brianna's journey provides solace to sexual assault survivors in real life. “I think we live our traumas and our joys through characters,” she says. “I just hope that it helps more than hinders people.”
Book readers know that Brianna's healing is far from done, and Bonnet remains a threat both to her and to her son Jemmy. But Davis was tightlipped about what to expect this season from Brianna, saying only that Skelton's performances are “heartbreaking.”
“There are episodes we haven't gotten to yet but she's incredibly powerful,” Davis says.
Skelton, too, was careful not to spoil what's to come for her character. When asked about the possibility of a future confrontation between Brianna and Bonnet, she simply said, “Brianna's work is not done.”
Outlander airs Sunday nights on Starz.
Photographed by Philip Friedman and styled by MaryKate Boylan.
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