Sophie Skelton and Richard Rankin.
Photo: Getty Images
In Sunday’s episode of Outlander, “The False Bride,” the time-traveling drama swings away from the epic 18th-century romance of Claire and Jamie Fraser to spend time with their daughter, Brianna, who’s living in 1960s Boston. When Brianna and her long-distance boyfriend Roger MacKenzie reunite to attend a Scottish festival in North Carolina, they find themselves growing closer to each other, but the trip ends in a massive, emotionally charged argument after Brianna suggests they sleep together: Instead of agreeing enthusiastically, Roger proposes marriage and tells her to wait so they can do everything “properly.” Brianna, who doesn’t feel ready for marriage yet, is hurt and frustrated. Roger feels equally wounded when she turns him down, and upset that she would be willing to have sex with him before they get married. The episode ends with them separating.
In a joint conversation with Richard Rankin (who plays Roger) and Sophie Skelton (who plays Brianna), the two actors discussed their characters’ slow-building relationship, the weirdness of playing secondary characters in a big romance story, whose character is more mature, what makes Brianna and Roger more “relatable” than Claire and Jamie, and why book four of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is their favorite.
In another interview, you mentioned that Drums of Autumn — the book that’s the basis for Outlander season four — was your favorite in the series. Why?
Sophie Skelton: Because I read them from a Brianna point of view. It’s the one where I felt like she really comes into her own. She’s quite guarded and quite stoic in the first couple, but in this one she lets you see more aspects of her personality. She goes through a horrific amount, but we see her coming into her own and blossoming from the Brianna we’ve seen into this more mature, more open woman.
Richard Rankin: So, purely for selfish reasons.
Skelton: Pretty much, yeah!
Do you also have feelings about the books, Richard?
Rankin: I have lots of feelings about all of the books. Drums of Autumn is also my favorite book in the series so far. For many reasons. It’s not that it’s a better story, it just really opens up. There’s a lot more in it, new characters, new relationships. I like when you get a nice epic fantasy story like that. All of your characters are in peril. There’s a lot of conflict going on. I think Drums of Autumn does that better than any of the other books preceding it.
Unlike the previous books and seasons, which followed Jamie and Claire for most of the story, in this season we start to get simultaneous stories.
Skelton: And it shows a nice range between the two sets of relationships. They’re so different, so there’s more in it for everyone. Jamie and Claire have this epic love story, whereas Roger and Brianna are a bit more real, a bit more relatable.
Rankin: You do hear that a lot, though, don’t you? That [Roger and Brianna] is more of a realistic relationship.
Skelton: Yeah! The way Jamie and Claire fight, it’s sort of like a blip and you know they’re going to come out the end of it because everything they go through, they go together. Whereas Brianna and Roger, it’s very up and down in terms of whether they’re going to be together.
Rankin: They’re much more modern in that respect.
And in this episode, there’s this big fight between them. It’s one of my favorite Brianna moments in the series so far because she’s spent so much time seeming so young, and then suddenly we have this fight where she’s voicing what a modern audience will likely think of as a more mature, more reasonable response. Did it feel that way for you?
Skelton: Absolutely, because as you say, sometimes Brianna’s reactions can be a tad bratty. But with this, she’s justified. People are entitled to their different opinions, but her whole point is that Roger slept with other women. Why shouldn’t I be able to sleep with him when he’s done it before? You can’t just pick and choose your morals for different people, although Roger has obviously done that.
[Glances at Rankin, laughing] I know Richard is going to —
Rankin: No, no, I enjoy you recounting that!
Skelton: But also, she’s put herself in a very vulnerable position, and that’s not Roger’s fault! For a woman to initiate sex, even in this day and age, is quite a thing. Usually, you expect the man to ask for the woman’s number, or for it to be a collaboration. And the fact that she throws off her top, it’s very brave. For Roger to then be like, “No, no, no, this isn’t happening,” is just quite a vulnerable place to be. So the bit where Bree’s on the floor, and Roger, very gentlemanly, gives her her shirt back, I played that moment like, Wow, okay, now I feel like an idiot. When the argument follows from that, it’s heightened because they’re both in such a vulnerable, hurt place.
For viewers, there’s this moment where suddenly Brianna seems like the more mature one —
Rankin: Ahh, what? I’m not going to agree with that! No way I’m going to agree with that! Wait, what was the question?
When you were playing that moment for Roger, how did you try to get into his mind-set?
Rankin: Well, here’s the thing, you have to tackle anything from your character thinking that their point of view is justified. And one of the things that really works for Brianna and Roger is that they’re very opinionated. They are each justified in their own way; it’s just opposite ends of the spectrum. Roger’s quite traditional. I mean, I know that he’s maybe more familiar with women than Brianna is with men —
[Skelton rolls her eyes]
Rankin: But his heart is in the right place because he makes the point that he wasn’t in love with any of them. He doesn’t want to taint that thing that he has with Brianna; he doesn’t want it to feel wrong in any way, shape, or form. So he wants to approach it from a much more traditional place.
Skelton: Bree and Roger are very good at not expressing what they’re thinking or how they feel. What’s nice about this fight scene is that they both lay all their cards on the table. Even if it does tear them apart, they really do voice how they’re feeling in terms of moving forward.
Rankin: I think they’re both right, though! They’re each right in what they’re saying!
Skelton: But Bree does this very mature thing to say, “No, I want to be calculated in getting married. I’ve seen my mother’s marriage unravel. I don’t want to rush into something and have it not work later!”
Rankin: Completely get what you’re saying. I just don’t think that Brianna’s being more mature than Roger.
Skelton: I didn’t say that!
No, that was me.
Rankin: Yeah, I feel that’s the vibe in the room at the moment, and I just want to say that I strongly disagree.
Skelton [laughing]: Let’s not reenact the scene right now, okay!
Rankin: I’m just saying, we need to be open-minded and look at it from both perspectives.
Sure, I can definitely see both mind-sets.
Rankin: It wouldn’t be my approach, I will say. I wouldn’t have sat there and thought, Oh, I know, why don’t I propose to you. That was mistimed. That was massively mistimed. Given that he wasn’t going to propose to her on that particular trip.
Oh, he wasn’t?
Rankin: That was one of Roger’s very, very rare moments of spontaneity. That [bracelet] was intended to be a gift. Otherwise, it’d be a ring! It was just a beautiful night, a beautiful evening, and he thought he would take that opportunity of the connection, of the evening, and the love they’ve shared together.
Skelton: And it didn’t go quite as planned!
Rankin: It did not.
Roger and Brianna’s story takes place at this big Scottish festival, which is really fantastic. You do ceilidh dancing! Is that hard?
Skelton: I mean, it’s hard in the sense that it’s fast. It feels a little bit messy.
It’s not super choreographed?
Rankin: No, it’s very precisely choreographed, but it’s also a riot. It’s supposed to be fun — just have a drink and dive into a ceilidh and get thrown around a room. With precision.
Skelton: But also when you’re filming something like that, obviously they’re not playing the music out loud. We all have these earpieces in, but I have, like, abnormally small earholes? And my thing kept falling out.
Rankin: That’s the headline, right there.
Skelton: My earpiece kept falling out! I couldn’t hear the music, so I was just like, Uhhh. But the ceilidh was really fun to do.
Roger’s also there because he’s invited to perform. Do you play the guitar?
Rankin: Yeah, I do!
How long did they give you to learn the song for this?
Rankin: I’d played the guitar for quite a while, but I’d let it slip for a few years. They had initially suggested to me that I play a fiddle track, and I was like, “Don’t be ridiculous, I can’t play the fiddle.” Roger plays the guitar, so I thought, Why can’t it just be that? But the compromise was that they were going to give me a fiddle track to play on the guitar, and I thought, Why?! They’d given me the first piece of music, “The False Bride,” but then they gave me this other track [that Roger plays briefly before he starts singing], and it was this 160 beats-per-minute thing, and I thought, Are you joking?!
Skelton: I was laughing when you asked him about it because I still dream about that song.
Rankin: That song haunts us. That’s what I did in the greenroom, for weeks.
Skelton: Credit to you, it was amazing. But it did get to the point where I was like, “Richard, I can’t actually be in the same room as you between takes.” Even on lunch, you’d hear him from his trailer. Richard had no friends for a few weeks.
Until now there’s been the sense that Jamie and Claire are Outlander’s main couple, and Roger and Brianna are a corollary, and some of the audience has felt a little frustrated when they have to spend time with the secondary characters. Does it feel weird to play the second-level couple in this show that’s about a grand romance between these two other characters?
Skelton: For us, because we have the books, we know where the story’s going. You want to keep true to the characters, knowing how they progress. Roger and Bree are more simple versions of themselves in seasons two and three. But then obviously, yes, people are only seeing snippets here and there, and because of that, it means people aren’t as invested in them. Hopefully, by the end of this season, people will be just as invested.
Rankin: As a book reader, you understand that they will be principal characters in the story. It’s something we are aware of, as these characters transition into the show. And they had quite a gradual introduction. We’re there because of what they become later.
Is that frustrating to play a character like that, knowing they’ll be more fully formed later but not quite yet?
Skelton: Yeah! And you want to save the good bits for that. Especially with Bree; she matures a lot by book four, but in two and three, it’s a simple version of her. A lot of our audition stuff together was from book four. Good scenes! So we knew where the characters were going, but then you have to go back and play the younger version. You’re waiting two years to get to those scenes, and it’s been a relief to finally get to this season and play the characters we signed up for.
It’s tricky, too, because while Jamie and Claire always seem destined to be together, Roger and Bree are rarely on the same page.
Skelton: Jamie and Claire are very stubborn as individuals, whereas Roger and Bree are really stubborn together.
What do you mean?
Skelton: Claire’s a very stubborn character, and so is Jamie, but when they’re together, their arguments are much shorter. They fight, and it ends up with them having sex or making up. Whereas with Roger and Bree, it always ends with —
Rankin: Someone storming off. The passion usually concludes with a slamming door rather than lovemaking. And their relationship is much more fragile. It’s not a given that Roger and Bree’s relationship is going to work! It will be a will-they-won’t-they.
Skelton: For Jamie and Claire, all of their obstacles are from a third party. With Roger and Bree, they get in the way of themselves! There’s nothing testing their relationship, except they’re testing their relationship.
It gives you more to root for, right?
Rankin: I think so! There’s a scene in the airport [in “The False Bride”] where they’re meeting and it’s like, Should I kiss you? Should I hug? And it’s so awkward. And you’re like, Aww, dude, sort it out! Kiss her!
Skelton: It’s their own insecurity that holds them back. And we hope that because of that, ultimately, people will be even more invested in them.