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Outlander’s Sophie Skelton on Brianna’s Big Reunion and Even Bigger Trauma

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Since seeing Brianna approach the stones in the season-four trailer, Outlander fans have been waiting for the moment Bree would meet her long-lost biological father, Jamie Fraser. But as actress Sophie Skelton knows, the scene that played out in this week’s episode, “The Birds & The Bees,” may not be the “wonderful father-daughter reunion” many were expecting. That’s because it comes the day after Brianna was raped by Stephen Bonnet, which, in the Starz drama, happened the same night she was handfast and lost her virginity to Roger Wakefield. (In Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn, the sexual assault occurs on Bonnet’s boat two days after her union with Roger, and when she meets Jamie days later, readers aren’t yet aware of it — they learn of the rape when Claire does, after guessing that Brianna is pregnant and hearing that Roger, who used the unreliable withdrawal method of birth control, may not be the father.)

Skelton spoke with Vulture about how she wanted to play Brianna’s first scene with Jamie (Sam Heughan), why Bree’s heart-to-heart with Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is so important, and what she thinks viewers can learn from Brianna’s relationship with Roger (Richard Rankin).

This episode must have been challenging to film: Bree has to continue on her journey to find her parents, but we also have to see moments where we feel the pain of what she’s just experienced. How did you approach her mind-set?

It was actually quite a big thing to think about. Because I know the scene where Brianna meets Jamie is quite a pivotal scene in the book and a quite anticipated scene for the book fans. But I think how it reads on paper and how it plays out onscreen is slightly different. Obviously that [previous] night Brianna’s been such a roller coaster of emotions. She had this beautiful, perfect evening with Roger, she’s been handfast, and then everything did a complete 180 flip. So I wanted to play it more that it’s just sort of a relief finding Jamie. He accepts her in a way that Laoghaire puts in her head that he wouldn’t.

I wanted to make sure it looks as if she had just found her mother and a safe place, as opposed to it being this wonderful reunion. There still is that element, but I think we played it a little bit more thickly in this season than in the books that Bree is a young woman and this man really is a stranger. I know they share blood, but she doesn’t know him. And I think what’s nice about this season, from that time on, we really see them trying to form this bond as opposed to it just being sort of an instantaneous click.

It felt significant that Bree let Jamie touch her face after we saw her, understandably, not want Lizzie to touch her after the assault. As if in that moment, she viewed Jamie as a protective father figure.

Definitely. I think that night [of the attack], it would be almost a reflex. It’s like, “Please just nobody touch me.” But at the beginning of episode nine, when Brianna’s coming down the stairs in the morning, I had asked that there be people milling around so that we could see Bree flinching from people, especially from men. But I think with Jamie, she knows that she can trust him. She knows that she’s safe now. And also, I do think in that moment she’s kind of numb from anything anyway. In that moment, it’s just the wow of meeting her father, and for a brief second, the rape kind of fades away and it’s more just about her and Jamie in that moment. That’s where that [touch] comes from. And then I think the rape comes back into mind when she cries, and feels the relief, and falls into his arms.

Later in the episode, when Bree and Claire finally get to talk alone and Claire guesses that Bree is pregnant and Bree reveals she’d been raped, there’s a moment when Bree says, “I didn’t fight him hard enough. Why the hell didn’t I fight him?” Claire assures her it wasn’t her fault. How important was it for you and Caitriona to get that across in that scene?

That’s something that I did a lot of research on actually, because I do think that’s a reflex response to people when they hear about rape: I think some people say, “Oh, well I would have clawed his eyes out. I would have fought harder. I would have done this, I would have done that.” It’s very easy to objectively say what you would have done, but once you’re there, I think fear takes over and there really is nothing you can do, but obviously the ripple effect of that is guilt.

One thing that I played during the rape, which we don’t fully see now, is a response called tonic immobility, which I didn’t really know about. I did a lot of research on rape victims and on what they go through during rape, and I played Brianna in a way whereby this tonic immobility kicks in and your body goes completely numb and the mind goes blank and everything goes black, so you actually don’t feel anything at the time. Women who go through that then have PTSD, because they then experience the trauma later. So with Bree, I wanted it more that she genuinely thought that she didn’t fight, like this blackout happened and Bree just thought that she gave up. … It’s not her looking back retrospectively with hindsight thinking, “Oh, you know, I could have hit him harder. I could have done this.” It’s actually Bree thinking that she didn’t do enough.

I think that moment with Claire, part of the pain now, too, is the mother’s protectiveness — there’s nothing she can do now. Seeing Brianna beat herself up about it, it’s just as heartbreaking almost as everything else that happened. So that was a really important moment, and I do love that scene. It’s one of my favorite scenes because it shows how far Claire and Brianna have come in terms of their relationship and that they have their own language. It’s not just because Claire is a doctor that she realizes Bree’s pregnant; it’s because she knows Brianna inside out. I think that’s a really special mother-daughter moment.

The majority of the assault happened behind a closed door. Which on one hand, as an audience member, felt merciful, and on the other, it’s even more brutal to hear Brianna struggle and see that no one is helping her — just picking up her boots after tripping on them. What do you know about the decision to play the scene that way, and having it happen on the same night as the handfast? The same night — it somehow makes it even more gut-wrenching. 

We actually did film the whole rape scene. But I think the decision in the end just came from … you know, there has been a fair amount of rape in the show. Obviously in the time period that we’re talking about, it did unfortunately happen a lot. But for a modern-day audience watching it, we didn’t want it to come across as just one of those things that people throw in. Obviously a lot of the [show’s] fans are not book readers. And there was obviously a very prominent [discussion] about #MeToo, and what shows have been having rape in them recently, and I think we wanted to be careful that we weren’t making it seem a little blasé just having rape sort of here, there, and everywhere. But Brianna’s is so important because you do follow her and her PTSD through the rest of the season. I think it was just trying to find a delicate balance between having this harrowing moment but also handling it tastefully in a way whereby actually you see it not from the victim’s point of view, but almost, like you said, from the people around — and it’s made, in a way, even more harrowing just seeing that nobody’s doing anything. That, I think, shows a very good depiction of the time, where people just didn’t do anything. It happened, and nobody said anything, and I think that’s just as gut-wrenching as what’s happening in the room. I think that was quite an interesting move for the writers to make.

And having it happen that same night. … I suppose it does make it hit a little bit harder in that you see Brianna in one of the most poignant moments of her life and then all of the sudden it’s the worst moment of her life. It’s interesting that it does that complete turn in one night.

Going back to the moment where Roger and Bree part ways, after she learned he knew about the fatal fire at Fraser’s Ridge and didn’t tell her … I’ve seen you say before that Roger and Bree get in the way of themselves often. This was a situation where they literally just pledged themselves to each other for as long as they both shall live, and then they immediately have this breakup. How did you see that fight escalating so intensely and so quickly? What was the psychology behind them both baiting each other? Like, “I’ll go if you want me to.” “Well, no one’s stopping you.”

Well, that’s the thing: I think they’re always testing each other. So when he says, “I want to go,” Bree’s hurt by the fact that he wants to leave. So she’s like, “Well, I’m not stopping you. If that’s what you want, then you do that.” They’re both too stubborn to put their heart on their sleeve and say, “No, no, no. I want to stay.” Or, “I want you to stay.” And that’s one thing that I do think is interesting about the rape then happening that evening. People can learn something from both of these relationships: Jamie and Claire teach you a lot about trust and how to be honest in a relationship and be a team, and I think Roger and Bree teach you that communication is key. Because I do think that any time they don’t communicate, it always leaves a stronger effect than you realize. If they’d actually said really what they’re feeling, instead of just lashing out at each other, then the rape might never have happened.

In that moment [of Bree and Roger’s fight], I think Bree just feels a bit betrayed. There’s obviously not time in the season to properly show how long they’ve been apart. But Bree has been traveling now for months and months and she’s exhausted and everything else, and she finally has this moment of finding Roger. … They have the handfast, which we’d seen that Bree had been sort of pushing against. She wanted to be careful about getting married, but she made this big step because Roger’s come back for her and now she can see that he’s not leaving, he’s sort of it in for the long run and she trusts him. Now she feels it’s a bit of a lie. What would you do if you genuinely thought that somebody couldn’t change the past? Would you tell them about the article or would you not? I think it’s one of those things with Roger and Bree where there kind of isn’t a right or a wrong, and it’ll probably start another interesting debate.

A series of frustrating misunderstandings is to blame for the drama at the end of the hour: Lizzie assumes Roger is the man who attacked Bree. Bree doesn’t name Bonnet when she initially tells Claire about the assault. Lizzie identifies Roger as the rapist to Young Ian and Jamie when she sees him approaching Fraser’s Ridge. Roger never gets the chance to tell Jamie who he is before Jamie beats him unconscious and instructs Young Ian to “get rid of him.” That’s all necessary to propel the story forward, but did you ever find yourself saying, “Why couldn’t Bree have just said Bonnet’s name and we could avoid all this?!”

I do think you’re right in that we have this complete honesty between mother and daughter, but I think Bree holding back that information is for her mother’s protection … I think she knows that if she tells her mother about Bonnet, then Claire will feel like she has to tell Jamie. And I don’t think that Brianna wants to be the reason her mother has to withhold information from Jamie, because she knows that they have this complete honesty in their relationship. So I think she really is protecting Jamie by not giving Claire that information, because she knows that Jamie would then go find Bonnet, and obviously Bree is petrified of Bonnet, and she is worried that Bonnet would then hurt or kill Jamie. Holding that information back must be really hard for Bree, but at the same time, there’s nothing that can be done. I think if anything was to be done, Bree would want to do it herself anyway. I think she thinks that if she told Claire that information she would almost be punishing her family, because they would then be beating themselves up thinking it was their own fault for letting him take the ring and everything else … So from an acting point of view, I completely understood why she did that.

To end on a lighter note, costume designer Terry Dresbach told me that the patchwork shirt Brianna wore on her bee-hunting bonding trip with Jamie may be the most time-consuming costume the wardrobe department has ever done for the show. Were you aware of that?

I knew it was beautiful. [Laughs.] I did know that it was all handmade. It was such a lovely father-daughter moment, so having such an intricate garment for that just made that all the more special. I think it’s just very reflective of that time. So it was quite a feat. We didn’t get to see that enough. It was covered on the hunting trip by a cape, but I think we do see it again when she’s having a conversation with Claire.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Outlander’s Sophie Skelton on Brianna’s Big Reunion https://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/vulture/2018/12/28/28-sophie-skelton-chat-room-silo.png