‘Outlander’ could be a game-changer for Starz network

Meredith Blake
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

NEW YORK — Spend a few minutes in the company of Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, and it’s easy to understand why they were cast as Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser, the romantic leads of the Starz series “Outlander,” which premiered Saturday to squeals of joy across the Internet.

The Irish actress and Scottish actor, both clad in black leather, decide to celebrate the end of a long day with a bottle of wine at a SoHo hotel. Without even having to glance at a menu, they place their order in unison: “Sancerre.”

When a reporter remarks on their synchronicity, Balfe gives Heughan an opening: “It’s like we almost finish each other’s …”

“Sentences!” he chimes in playfully.

Trade the fine wine, leather and trendy hotel for a bit of crude Scotch, hand-spun wool and a damp castle in the Highlands, and you could almost be in “Outlander.” Based on the first in a series of bestsellers by professor-turned-author Diana Gabaldon and developed by Ronald D. Moore of “Battlestar Galactica” fame, “Outlander” follows the adventures of Claire Randall, a feisty English combat nurse who, shortly after the end of World War II, takes a second honeymoon to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank, a historian (played by Tobias Menzies).

On a visit to a pagan stone circle, Claire is transported back to 1743, where she is taken in by a clan of Scotsmen, including the strapping young warrior Jamie Fraser. World’s most unnecessary spoiler alert: Their friendship evolves into an unlikely but passionate romance, causing great conflict for the technically still-married Claire.

Though Gabaldon’s novels are perhaps best known for their frequent, blush-inducing love scenes, they defy easy categorization, combining richly detailed historical fiction, time travel, swashbuckling action and mystical themes.

“In the wrong hands it could look like a bad romance,” Heughan says, “but it’s not. It’s gritty. Everyone’s covered in mud and blood constantly.”

Add to that a spirited and unusually capable heroine in Claire, and the result is much more than your average bodice-ripper. “She is such a strong female character,” Balfe says. “She’s so resourceful, and that’s a lot of what attracted me to it.”

Twenty-three years after the first “Outlander” book was published, there are some 26 million copies of the series’ installments in print. When the eighth book, “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” was released in June, it outsold Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new memoir, “Hard Choices,” and dethroned Stephen King from the top of the bestseller list. The novels have spawned countless websites, reams of fan fiction, a cottage industry of Jamie and Claire tours of Scotland — and finally, after languishing in development for decades, a television series.

For Starz, a premium network that has carved out a niche with occasionally gratuitous historical epics like “Spartacus” but struggles for the respect commanded by competitors HBO and Showtime, the series also represents a potential game-changer.

“We have an opportunity here to have Starz be recognized in a completely different way than it has been before,” says Chief Executive Chris Albrecht.

The network made the first episode available to stream online a week ahead of its broadcast premiere, and by Friday it had already logged nearly 900,000 views. Reactions, including those from L.A. Times critics Robert Lloyd and Mary McNamara, have been positive, with BuzzFeed dubbing “Outlander” “the feminist answer to ‘Game of Thrones.’”

The series arrives at a time when Hollywood is acutely aware of the value of female audiences, thanks to “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight” and the upcoming “Fifty Shades of Grey” — projects with passionate, built-in fan bases that have forced the industry to rethink its attitude toward so-called chick lit.

And even though television is thought to be a more female-friendly medium than film, prestige drama remains a realm dominated by male antiheroes. Starz, which last year broadcast “The White Queen,” another sexy period piece featuring a strong heroine and adapted from a popular historical novel, is trying to reach out to this “underserved audience” of female subscribers, according to Albrecht.

The executive, who at HBO helped put the genre adaptations “True Blood” and “Game of Thrones” into development, also sees the benefit of working from popular source material, which provides a successful narrative blueprint and a ready-made audience.

That’s not to say that adapting a hugely popular series of books is without complications — quite the opposite. Luckily, Moore knows a thing or two about passionate fans.

The writer-producer spent nearly the first decade of his career working on incarnations of that ultimate geek franchise, “Star Trek,” including “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.” And his greatest claim to fame may be his reboot of the 1970s TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel (before it was rebranded as Syfy) for four seasons beginning in 2004 and generated a following so obsessive it inspired a “Portlandia” sketch.

“People are always asking me, ‘How do you deal with crazy fans?’” Moore says via telephone from the set of “Outlander” in Scotland. “‘Battlestar,’ ‘Outlander,’ they’re all nuts aren’t they?’ Yeah, you could say that, but it’s coming from such a positive place ... these are people who love what I’m doing.”

It helps that his wife, costume designer Terry Dresbach, happens to be one of those “crazy” “Outlander” fans. Over dinner several years ago, Dresbach and producer Maril Davis bonded over their shared love for the books; Moore quietly sat by and drank his martini as they gushed but eventually gave in and read “Outlander.” He immediately saw its potential and decided to pursue the rights to the book, then being developed as a feature film — a mistake, according to the show runner.

“There’s a lot of interesting texture you would have to strip out if you’re doing the two-hour version,” he says.

Instead, Moore has hewn closely to Gabaldon’s novel, adapting it into an unusually long (for cable) 16-episode season and making only minor adjustments to the narrative.

“This is not like ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ where I came in and said, ‘OK, I’m going to take this apart and put it back together and try to do something different,’” he says. “My job in this instance is to adapt it for television in a way that preserves the spirit and the plot of the book — to make it the realization of the book and not the reinvention.”

Of course, casting the right leads was paramount. Moore had assumed romantic superhero Jamie would be trickier to find than Claire. Instead, Heughan, 34, an actor with a long list of credits in British film and theater, was cast right out of the gate while Claire proved elusive until just days before production began last fall in Scotland.

“The thing I felt most strongly about was that Claire had to be smart,” Moore says. “Her strength, her sexuality, her wit — it all comes from her intelligence.”

Balfe, a former runway model who, like Heughan, is 34, had only a handful of credits, including a small role in the J.J. Abrams film “Super 8.” But by all accounts she possessed an ineffable Claire-ness that was obvious in her audition. She also had a great dress — a vintage tartan number she picked up in L.A. specifically for the audition.

“It was such a cheap shot,” Balfe says of the rather on-the-nose styling choice.

(She certainly seems to share her character’s pluck: In the fashion world documentary “Picture Me,” she does a wicked impression of Nicole Kidman.)

Both actors recall an instant rapport at their first meeting, and their unforced chemistry doubtless came in handy when filming “Outlander’s” many lusty love scenes. For Heughan, who has appeared nude on stage several times, doffing his kilt before an audience is nothing new. “I tell you what,” he says. “It makes you the best actor ever. Every part of your body is so sensitive.”

Balfe is similarly unfazed by the show’s high nudity quotient. “Claire is a very sexually open and comfortable woman,” she says. “And let’s face it, she just has sex with her husbands. It’s not that risque.”

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