Outlander, which begins Sunday night at 10 p.m. on Showcase, is the latest big-budget historical epic to be shot in Europe. Vikings, Penny Dreadful and Game of Thrones shoots next door in Ireland. The Borgias was shot in Hungary, as is the upcoming CBC spy drama Camp X.
There’s one actor on Outlander who has traveled through time on three big historical epics: Tobias Menzies. He plays two roles on Outlander; ‘WWII spy Frank Randall and his nasty ancestor, 18th century highlander hunter Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall.
Menzies was previously on both Rome–the granddaddy of modern TV historical epics–and, through the third season, on Game of Thrones. “This experience reminds me of both Thrones and Rome,” he said the day I visited the set last February. “I think Thrones happened [to me] because of Rome.”
Rome was crazy expensive when it came and went a decade ago. HBO blew its brains out with a reported $100M budget for 10 episodes that first season. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the lavish sets–including reproducing the Roman Forum!–proved way too costly, and would likely not be attempted again in this post-recession era.
Still, Menzies praises Rome, especially the production design. The HBO series added plenty of colour to what had been a very sanitized, white togas, white pillars, style of storytelling that dated back to the biblical epics of the 1950s.
Menzies feels the folks behind Outlander, while also ambitious, are making the most of the money they are spending on this series. For one thing, there is very little “green screen” used in Outlander. Producers are using actual castles in Scotland and taking advantage of the rugged countryside instead of relying on digital special effects. As Menzes says of Rome, “those sets were off the chain.”
I asked several of the Outlander cast members if they thought they had “Period Faces”—a look that places them first in line for these historical epics. Caitriona Balfe, who plays lead heroine Claire Randall, says she’s been told she has “a class face, whatever that means.”
Lotte Verbeek, an actress from Amsterdam previously seen on The Borgias, says she often gets calls for shows set during the Renaissance. “You can say there’s a bit of a forehead on my face, which they like,” she says of casting directors. Verbeek plays mysterious Geillis Duncan on the series and didn’t think she’d get the part since producers were looking for “a tall, green-eyed Scottish woman,” she says. Nevertheless producers told her she had exactly the look they wanted and knew it the moment they saw her photograph. She had to adopt what she calls a soft Scottish accent–tricky considering English isn’t even her first language.
Graham McTavish, seen in the Hobbit movies, plays Clan Mackenzie war chieftain Dougal MacKenzie. The Scot has the pedigree but has also been told he has the face (helped, no doubt, by his beard). He believes that “if you do thee things often enough, people will start to say you have a period look.”
As for Menzies, he’s fine with being singled out as a historical hire. “I enjoy it, the stories are often quite rich,” he says. “Besides, I’d rather be doing this than another police drama.”
Read more about Outlander stars Balfe and Heughan here at this feature I wrote for The Canadian Press.