LOS ANGELES (February 13, 2020) It is the afternoon of the Outlander Season 5 premiere screening, panel and party. The red carpet is virtually empty, still in set-up phase. Today, Los Angeles is suddenly devoid of rush-hour traffic, and I have arrived at the Hollywood Palladium way too early.
Most of the TV crews have staked out their places, a motley assemblage of still photographers are wandering around, but I see no sign of a check-in table. It seems the right time to seek out a bathroom, but I am not allowed inside the building without a badge or a wristband, even though an Outlander rep is willing to walk me in. We are stopped at the metal detectors. The rep quickly abandons me, and a beefy, unsympathetic security guard points me in the direction of a coffee shop.
There is a line of reporters and camera people outside the single restroom (sorry, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. I like your brew better than Starbucks, honest. I’m not just saying that out of desperation) By the time I return from my field trip, another Outlander rep has arrived with a clipboard. My name is there, and someone escorts me to my position on the line.
I am last in the row of TV/print/ outlets, which is to be expected when you’re not ET or Variety or Glamour. I decide to see myself as the light at the end of the tunnel. In truth, I know the odds I’ll be fighting. Soon the talents’ publicists will be arriving. It’s the reconnaissance phase. They’ll walk up and down the carpet, checking the names of said outlets that have been taped to the carpet in order of importance.
The publicists have a game plan. They will move their clients to the interviewers who will provide the most bang for the buck. They will steer them away from the lesser players. I know that because I used to be on the other side. I was the publicity exec who determined the red carpet pecking order behind the stanchions, who escorted talent with a mapped-out game plan. Some actors are press phobic, some will arrive late, on purpose or because it’s LA. Others only want to do the best of the best, or want to skip print, or just want to do stills, some will think, I’ve done enough and tonight I want to have fun… or…or…or…
I am handed an information packet that includes a tip sheet with Season 5 info and photos of the notable attendees should you happen to be devoid of any Outlander knowledge. Maybe you’ve been assigned by an editor who wants the coverage and you’re the only choice, even though you’ve never seen an episode of the show. It happens. I spend time explaining to those who ask who’s who.
An hour later, the sun sets on a still empty carpet, which is the only reason I can grab a clear shot before it gets too crowded. The humongous backlit Outlander billboard divides one side of the carpet from the other, creating parallel lines of press people.
I noticed the tall perch set at the entrance to the carpet earlier, and when the trainers from Studio Animal Services arrive, I am intrigued. The perch is for two stand-in Adsos, the feline who is the newest Outlander four-legged heartthrob [Note: on the carpet, there were two breeds—a British shorthair and a Russian Blue. I have also read Adso is a Scottish Fold] No way was STARZ or Sony going to fly the real animal actors in from Scotland. I meet Adso One, heart-meltingly adorable and preternaturally calm. This is one well-trained cat, though the sudden bray of bagpipes tests his equanimity. One of the trainers holds a clicker, and LA Adso strikes a pose, not for me but for the treats to follow.
As darkness falls, the talent begins to arrive. STARZ has invited cast members from VIDA and RUN THE WORLD to piggyback on the moment because press attention is a good thing for their original lineup. They pose for stills, do a few interviews and disappear inside as the Outlander actors trickle in.
Among the first is Yan Tual, the French actor who played Father Alexandre Ferrigault and came to a horrible end in Season 4. Because this is Outlander and you can never be sure, I ask him if there is anything he wants to tell me, or can tell me, about his appearance here. Most Outlander actors are expert vacillators, and Tual is no exception: “Anything is possible,” he says with a twinkle, “but what I can tell you is he is not in Season Five.” Um, okay—well played; moving on. He agrees this part has been life-changing for him. “I’ve gotten such great feedback from the fans and I’m happy and grateful that they received my work in such a way.” As proof, he now has over 12,000 Twitter followers, more than 17,000 Insta followers and his own Facebook page, which includes his latest demo reel and other videos. [https://m.facebook.com/YanTual/videos/1277483939112159/?refsrc=https%3A%2F%2Fm.facebook.com%2FYanTual&_rdr.]
The carpet fills up. It’s up to me to keep an eye on which actor is where on the line. It’s a chess game. If I talk to this person, I may miss the next person. Peripheral vision comes in handy so you can end one interview in time to nab another. The last thing you want is to have someone pass you by because you’re otherwise engaged.
Graham McTavish, dapper in a blue suit, does indeed head my way. We shake hands. His grasp is firm and and his gaze warm and direct. He is temporarily non-plussed by my first non-Outlander question. I ask for an update on This Guest of Summer, his indie film project. “Well, right, you caught me on the hop there,” he says with a chuckle. Many of his fans chipped in to view the very clever promo videos his Outlander castmates made in support of McTavish’s fundraising efforts.[https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-graham-mctavish-s-directorial-debut#/]
“We are done. What I didn’t realize when I went into this entire experience was how difficult it is to get all these things together, not just the obvious stuff, the financial stuff, but also just the schedule—my schedule, the schedules of the people that we want to be involved in it…from Outlander…the Hobbit. So it’s putting together a jigsaw puzzle [and] it’s taken longer than I thought.” He readily admits he has a new appreciation for the job of executive producer; by comparison, the acting thing is easier. “I turn up in my life and most of the time [the project] is already going. They show me the trailer, they give me a cup of coffee and they say, here, they’re ready for you in half an hour…So yeah, it’s a process.”
We switch to Outlander, a show known for its resurrections. Has he given any thought to how Dougal might come back? He pauses, the kind of pause that might be a clue, or, could just be…a pause. Outlander makes you that suspicious. “I would very much love to be back in the show in some capacity,” McTavish says. “Hopefully that will happen.” Another pause.
I don’t want to get him in trouble. So what has he imagined? That seems like safer ground. The possibilities for a Dougal return, he calculates, “are endless. A show that has a premise of time travel can allow for all sorts of things. Personally, I would love to see some of the Highland characters go forward in time. I mean, that’d be brilliant. Imagine if Rupert and Angus…sadly—” he interjects–-“they’re all dead—but somehow if they could, it would be fantastic to see what they would make of 20th-century life.”
The strong familial bonds estabished on screen by those Highlanders in the first three seasons resonate in McTavish’s personal life as well. “I miss that, you know, I miss the show, I miss the people. It’s one of the reasons I’m here tonight because I’ve become very close friends with a lot of the people in the show. They’ll be lifelong friends. Duncan came on holiday with my children and I, and then in the summer he came and visited me in New Zealand, in New Orleans. These people are a big part of my life. You make bonds. You don’t always.” As anyone knows who’s spent time on long night shoots, there’s something magical about being on set at 3am, shrouded by darkness, and what you suddenly find yourself sharing with people. “Absolutely,” he agrees. “You get deep.”
One of the publicists is doing what good publicists should do—advance work. She approaches and asks if I would like to speak to Outlander executive producer Toni Graphia. Most entertainment shows on TV priortize who they interview at events like this, based on audience demand. The normal viewer wouldn’t know anyone other than über EPs with some name recognition value. Print reporters have more flexibility. I’m always interested in what producers have to say.
I know better than to ask Graphia about the future of Outlander beyond Season 6. I’ve interviewed her before and know what her answer will be: She doesn’t talk about the business side of things. She won’t confirm the actors are signed for Season 7. With David Berry standing just a few feet from me—I think I overhear him say he doesn’t know anything about a Lord John Grey spinoff—I ask her about that possibility. Even though the STARZ CEO mentioned it at the most recent Television Critics Association press tour, all Graphia will say is, “I’ve heard rumors about it. You know that there’s a desire. The audience certainly wants it. So I’m sure if there’s an appetite for it…folks will be trying to find a way to get it to screen.” She adds, “We have our hands full with Outlander.” She admits she hasn’t read Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey books: “I don’t read ahead because I feel like it influences me, so I only read up to the book we’re working on. But I absolutely love David and Lord John is amazing character, so I myself would love to see that come to the screen.”
The writing staff, based in LA, is already back at work. “We had an extra long Christmas vacation,” Graphia says, and they are now deep into it. “We’re halfway through breaking season six.” As she has always done, she will go back and forth to Scotland to supervise episodes once the new season is underway.
I also ask her about Sam Heughan’s and Caitriona Balfe’s producer credits. I can’t speak for Outlander—to be clear—but with many long-running shows I’ve worked on, a producer title is a bargaining chip when contracts are being renegotiated. The producer title translates into additonal fees per episode, and may set a precedent for how the stars are credited in future projects. The longer a show lasts, a valued actor/producer may eventually be bumped up to co-exec and then executive producer. No matter how much the credit is deserved, It’s hard-won (again, I’m not speaking about Outlander), one which EPs, networks and studios hand out sparingly. It can sometimes make things on set…complicated. Not all producers are created equal.
Graphia confirms what Balfe and Heughan have already said about their new roles. “They came to production meetings last year. They’re learning, they’re excited to be involved, to learn more about what goes on in the production side of it. They always have good ideas. They’re great collaborators.” When pivotal actors like Heughan and Balfe speak, with or without a producer credit, they are heard because above all, showrunners want happy leads and happy sets. As the actors have said, they win some and they lose some. The truth is, and showrunners will tell you, their world is NOT a democracy. They will listen to their actors, respect their imput, but in the end, the EP’s decision is final.
I make Diana Gabaldon laugh. I tell her I’m not going to ask the question, because I get it. It’s the question she hears every day from her followers on social media. They’re certainly entitled: rabid readers in the Outlander fanbase are the main reason the television series is a success. They were there from the beginning and they are a devoted, patient bunch. They’ve had to be. The faithful have been aniticapting the publication of “Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone,” Book 9 in the saga, since 2014, when “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood” was published (with short stories and novellas in between). At last, Book Droughtlander appears to be reaching its end. “We’re now weeks away, not months,” Gabaldon says.
I recently had a conversation about Droughtlander with Sam Heughan, which isn’t an actual thing for him (more about that in a separate post) or Caitriona Balfe. I suspect it is the same for Gabaldon. Has she ever considered what she’d do if she wasn’t a writer? That thought is completely foreign to her; she won’t even go there. “I’m never not writing.” As for that other life she might’ve led? “I’m doing it,” she asserts, right along with writing, which is “very flexible. If something urgent is happening—our younger daughter had a baby six months ago, so for two or three days there I was not writing—I was with her.” She corrects herself. “I wasn’t not writing—it’s there in the back of my mind but there are other things to do. If you’re an actor on a set, you have to be there at this particular time and you have to be doing this. So their time is much more structured than mine.” Right now, her schedule pretty much has her writing 12 hours a day. Even on this premiere day, she adds, “I’ll be writing for two hours when I get back to my hotel room.”
I mention an Entertainment Weekly story about how David Berry’s Lord John found closure with Sophie Skelton’s character Brianna Fraser. The Season 4 finale, disappointingly, didn’t have time for it, so Berry wrote a letter to Bree in LJG’s voice [see the poignant text below] I ask Gabaldon about the one line that really touched me when I read the words Berry wrote: “May you never feel alone.” Gabaldon praises the Australian actor’s preparation for his role. “He goes very deeply into his character….It is by definition [that John Grey] is a lonely man…He has this very unusual bond with Jamie, but it’s never going to be requited. It does settle into a definite relationship. They trust each other. They are friends and they depend upon each other.”
I check my watch. it’s very close to 7pm, the start time for the premiere.
I have watched the lead actors do full-on TV interviews at the head of the line and then simply drift away.
Sam Heughan is in my line of sight only briefly. He finishes his last on-camera appearance and then he is led off the carpet.
I wilt a little as Sophie Skelton drifts past in a cloud of rainbow tulle. Her flowing train is the last thing to disappear around the corner.
Richard Rankin stands apart from the press, chatting with assoiciates. I catch his eye. “Hello,” I say. I get a “hello” back, but he does not take it as an invitation to chat.
Caitriona Balfe works her way down the line, closer, closer, and then she, too, disappears. I feel that loss keenly…but suddenly, she returns. Her personal publicist has brought her to my end of the line. One thing I know: they can’t start without her. If she’s unruffled, I’m going to be unruffled.
She is radiant in grey Chanel, with a beautiful illusion neckline, minimal but perfect jewelry (Beladora’s Jar Rose Petal Earrings). I am reminded of the Oscars, so I ask her what that night was like for her, if there was one moment when she had to pinch herself. She recounts this story with a tinge of disbelief in her voice, still. “I mean, we were standing waiting for an elevator and Tom Hanks was there with his whole family, and he just turned around. He was like, ‘Hi, I’m Tom.’ You know? Not that it’s surprising that Tom Hanks is the nicest man in show business, but he really is the nicest man in show business.” She beams. “Um, it was just really special. It was a very special night for me. It felt really amazing to be there as part of a film that was nominated for best picture and it was just beautiful. It was all, yeah, it was great.”
I have come armed with great Twitterverse questions but there’s time for only one, even as Outlander reps are now fidgiting bigtime behind Balfe. @jessjan wanted to know what the actors’ do to unwind, so I ask how she finds her Zen in that little window?
“For me, I like to read. When I really get a holiday holiday, that’s what I do,” she says. “I have a stack of books that I lug around with me. I cannot get on board fully with the Kindle. I do have a Kindle but, it’s the book books.” I know what she means: it’s the heft in youur hands, it’s the smell, the page-turning that is everything to book people. “I just love to find a lounge or somewhere and just read,” she adds. Does she see herself taking one of those books to produce? “That’s the idea,” she says with a laugh.
With her departure, the carpet almost immediately breaks down in front of me. Stray staffers decamp. TV camera tripods are disassembled, reporters switch from their sneakers or flipflops back into their sky-high heels. They grab their bulky totes and head out, followed by the last remaining still photographers with equipment slung over their shoulders.
I dart for the back door of the Palladium. My IPhone recorder app is humming along at the bottom of my backpack, doing its transcription thing as I place my bag in front of security for the second search of the night.
Already, I am writing this story in my head. Because Diana Gabaldon is right: that’s what writers do, even when they are finding their way into a dark theater, even while they search for their seat, hidden behind a wall of fake greenery, even as the lights go down and the premiere episode of Season 5 begins to play against the gigantic Palladium screen…yes, we are always writing.
THE LORD JOHN GREY LETTER
With thanks to Entertainment Weekly and Sophie Skelton:
By now you will have arrived at River Run, safe after our ordeal in Wilmington, and I am long, long departed on my journey back to Lynchburg, back to see Willie, home to my sometimes quiet and often humdrum life on the plantation, until perhaps the next time I am called upon to aid your father. And once again, I am hurled head first into a world of excitement and adventure.
While I know you hold feelings of trepidation towards your future, I also know you are equipped with the character of such strength and virtue that you will meet these challenges and rise above them. In spite of my absence, I promise you will find the peace for which your heart yearns. Remember to never let yourself succumb to thoughts of despair. I shall continue to avow the fiction of our engagement until such time as true custodian of your affections and father of your child to be is returned to you. I am certain he will. You need not share this certitude, but above all else, hold onto hope.
It is my fervent wish that at the resolution of this ordeal, you will find the grace to forgive your father. Do not punish him for his mistakes, but honor them and pledge to never repeat them with your own child. Until that time arise and forever after, I am your humble and loyal friend.
May you never feel alone, John
[Caitriona Balfe Correction: A woman was placed next to me on the press line, last minute. She was vague when I asked her affiliation. “Can I just listen to what you ask?” she said. When I began my interview with Caitriona Balfe, she interrupted to ask for a photo, which wins, hands down, as the single most unprofessional thing an actual press person can do on a red carpet.
I maintained my composure and manuevered to keep Balfe focused on me. The worst part of all this: Balfe asked if we were a team. I was mortified when this woman began babbling about her boyfriend who she said was a music producer like Balfe’s husband, Tony McGill.
Balfe politely but firmly interrupted her: “He’s not a music producer, by the way. I just have to do this…He really hates this because he manages bands. He’s in artist management. One person wrote it and now everybody does.” The woman talked over her, because it was more important, apparently, for her boyfriend to know the name of one of the bands McGill manages so he could listen to the music.
All I can think about, then and long after, were my unasked, thoughtfully researched questions. This woman absconded with my time and wasted Caitriona Balfe’s. The downside of the carpet, for sure. But I include this side story so that Balfe knows her correction is now officially on the record]