Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of Outlander.
Laura Donnelly first appeared on Outlander as Jenny in a flashback scene earlier this season, when it appeared Black Jack Randall was dragging her into her home to rape her. So when Jamie is finally reunited with his sister and discovers that she’s both had a child and gotten pregnant again since he last saw her, he goes berserk, believing the first child is the product of rape. Not so fast, Jenny tells him, and fills us in on what really happened on that horrible day. Vulture chatted with Donnelly about going to drama school with Sam Heughan (Jamie), breast-feeding in public, and the attempted-rape scene.
How did going to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama with Sam Heughan help you play his sister?
He was the year above me, but we hung out a bit and stayed in touch over the years. And then he and I did a film together that was shooting in Norway, Heart of Lightness, about six months before Outlander began filming, and I was there when it got announced he was going to be playing Jamie. I was already familiar with Outlander. And then after we got back from Norway, I went in and read with him. It’s very rare in the auditioning stages that actors would have any say about who comes in as what, but I’d like to think that once I came in and read, he put in a good word for me. [Laughs.] He’s really good like that.
I think we’re kinder to each other than Jamie and Jenny! We do have a jovial, slightly siblinglike friendship, and we’re comfortable with each other. That’s the result of being friends rather than brother and sister, because you can be a lot meaner to your family! But we both have a love for Scotch whiskey, and we both like climbing hills, so there was one moment where we’d have enough whiskey to believe we could climb one of the hills. Thankfully, we came to our senses before it was too late!
I know he carries a flask because he showed me at the premiere.
Of course he did. [Laughs.] I like anything from the north of Scotland, anything that’s quite peaty, which is something he and I ended up bonding over, but I can’t remember what his favorite was.
One of the things that happens in this episode is we get the story about what happened between Black Jack Randall and Jenny, the attempted rape, which must have been pretty harrowing to shoot.
Well, we shot the previous flashback at the time when episode one and two was being shot, but shooting both of them were quite difficult. It’s never an easy day on set to do something like that. It’s certainly as tough for Tobias [Menzies] as it was for me, because he doesn’t enjoy being violent. We had a closed set that day, and our director was fantastic. It had to be very clearly choreographed, in a very safe way, so we had a lot of rehearsal and a lot of time to discuss it. And then you form trust, and you just go for it. And you try to tell the story as best as you can.
Not that this would necessarily work with every rapist, but laughing helps prevent it.
I’m not claiming that as a method of how to escape an attack! This is entirely fiction. But I did do some reading, to see how women felt in those moments, if they were unfortunate enough to experience a moment like that. And it’s often said that if you can do something unexpected, it helps. It’s often recommended that you talk about yourself, to give your attacker details about yourself, and your family, and make yourself a very real human being in the their eyes. So it made sense to me that this would shake Jack Randall, and unsettle him, and be a plausible way to make him leave her alone. I mean, he’s a sadist, and he was able to quite easily physically overpower her, so she doesn’t have a hope with trying to fight back. She tries. She whacks him with the candlestick. But that doesn’t work. And it’s not like she has a rape whistle or anything!
If you could go back in time to give advice to someone in 1743, what would you tell them?
That’s a good question. It would probably be along the lines of the struggle women are going to face. I would want to tell any woman to fight for what they want, and for anything that makes them equal to a man, because in the future, it will get better. If the feminist movement got kick-started a little earlier, we’d be even further on now!
Do you think Jenny is a feminist?
She certainly is! She’s ahead of her time, there’s no doubt. She runs her own estate. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s a businesswoman. She’s very, very capable, and she doesn’t need a man around in order to get on with her life.
I don’t know if you know this, maybe you do, but the scene where Jenny talks about what it’s like to be pregnant is the very first thing Diane Gabaldon wrote for the Outlander series.
I didn’t know that! It’s beautifully written. It really stood out in the book when I was preparing for the part. It’s a very mysterious and magical moment, and I hadn’t seen in the script at first, the part where that exists, so I really hoped that they would keep it in the series, what she says there, so I was very glad it made it in. It comes from such a real place.
What’s it like playing pregnant, then? Especially in period costume?
Physically, pretty uncomfortable! There’s this heavy, very warm baby bump, and then a corset over the top, which is very restrictive, and all sorts of under skirts and outer skirts, and very heavy outer clothes. I think it’s great for the character, because it tires me more easily. It’s very cumbersome. Obviously, you see pregnant women, and they’re just getting on with it all the time. It’s not like it’s something that I had to think about at every moment of playing Jenny, because pregnant women don’t go around thinking about it every moment of their day. But the costume really helped.
Without spoiling what happens when and how, we can pretty much assume that if someone’s pregnant, certain things are going to happen, such as the going-into-labor scene. But you have an additional scene coming up that we don’t always see, where your character has to express milk. Just on a technical level, that’s fascinating — like how did you even make that happen? But it’s also interesting because it’s so rare.
We have a genius props department that managed to make a contraption that did the job, and it was incredible. I was quite blown away myself with how they were able to make that work! I was really up for it as soon as it was mentioned, because I just thought it was such a wonderful way of being able to show the truth and the reality of a post-pregnancy body. I thought that was probably a first on TV. We’re very used to seeing breasts displayed sexually on-screen, and I thought this was an opportunity to show breasts for what they’re really there for, in a completely nonsexual manner, that really turns the tables. It’s an absolute necessity at that point for her, and she doesn’t think twice about it. It’s not something that should be hidden away in any sense, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
Did you happen to see The Slap by any chance? Because that also helped raise a discussion about breast-feeding and breast-feeding in public.
It’s a discussion that gets raised every so often on a fairly regular basis, isn’t it? I don’t see anything wrong with it. I don’t think people should be weirded out by that. But the good thing about what we do on TV with a show like The Slap or what we’ve done with Outlander, the whole purpose of why we make art in the first place, is to hopefully provoke a conversation, so if that’s happening, we’re doing our job. In the states where it’s illegal to be topless in public, is it also illegal to breast-feed in public? I don’t think women should be made to feel uncomfortable about it. The physical discomfort of needing to express milk is something only a woman who’s been through that would know, and women should be allowed to relieve themselves of that pain.
There’s a whole documentary about that those kinds of issues, or just being able to be topless in general, Free the Nipple.
Men are allowed to take their tops off in public, so women should be allowed, if they want to!