We didn’t bring up James Bond. Sam Heughan did. For the record: he’s flattered, interested, coy and skeptical, in roughly that order. His new film does feel like a none-too-subtle hint that he could be comfortable behind the wheel of an Aston though.
SAS: Red Notice is a Big Action Flick based on Andy McNab’s novel of the same name. In which the very McNab-ishly emotion-free Special Forces operative Tom Buckingham, played by Heughan, has to sort out a bunch of mercenaries who’ve taken a train full of hostages in the Channel Tunnel while rooting out corruption at the heart of the British establishment.
Buckingham is part Bruce Wayne (independently wealthy, dead parents, sage butler), part John McClane (trapped in a terrorist siege), and, yes, a bit of MI6’s least consistently secretive secret agent too (love of country, mild psychopathy). He is, at least, aware that the ease with which he throttles, stabs and grenade-launchers his way through life might indicate that there’s something wrong with him.
“And I think we can all relate to that, you know, we all have these feelings.” Heughan says over Zoom. He pauses. “[I’m] not saying we all think we’re psychopaths. But, you know, it’s a man who’s slightly lost.”
Over lockdown, Heughan’s been busy with work and very slowly learning the piano— “I think I’ve got up to ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’”—and waiting to hear about the next series of Outlander, his day job and the root of his considerable and vociferous personal fanbase.
“We’re shooting season six. And hopefully, there’ll be some news soon, about next season – a possible next season. So we’ll see about that. But yeah, I don’t know. I think as long as people enjoy it, and we enjoy making it then yeah, long may it live.”
Is it unsettling hanging out with someone who describes themselves as a psychopath?
I found myself at one point in this sort of cave, we were doing some tactical training in Leeds, there was no one there but me and him and we had some weapons with us. I just thought, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing here?’ Like, I’m with a guy who’s a trained killer, who is a self-professed psychopath. Like, what if he just doesn’t like me? What if he thinks I’m not good enough? And he just, that’s it, you’re gone [Heughan imitates gunfire.] But it was really fascinating because he is the most gregarious, charming, outgoing, intelligent man—by studying him I realized that’s how to play him.
Are action heroes necessarily psychopaths?
Somebody asked me earlier, “Is James Bond a psychopath?” There are a lot of high functioning, ‘good’ psychopaths, as we call them, in the military, but also lawyers, doctors, surgeons – people that have to be in these high stress situations that need to be logical, and not allow their emotions to take them over. It might be a learned behavior, or it might be something they’ve been born with, but in a stressful situation they can turn down their empathy, they can turn up their logical thinking, or whatever it is. If they need to be charming, like maybe James Bond, you know, he could be more charming. It’s very much about them being able to just manipulate their emotions and turn them on and turn them off. That’s what Andy did: he was doing these studies with Oxford University and they had a heart rate monitor on him and checking all of his biometrics. They were showing him a lot of very graphic images and videos, and they saw his heart rate go up, and then just flatline. There’s almost like something in his brain just switches off and he can just be totally fine.
You mentioned Bond there, so I’m going to ask the question: is it something you’re interested in?
I think any actor would never say they’re not interested. Of course, you’d be interested. I mean, it is all rumors, and sometimes you think, should I, should we even talk about it? Because you don’t want to jinx it. I’m sure the people, whoever runs [Bond]—you know, Barbara Broccoli and Eon and all that—they must be sick of it; people sort of throwing their hat into the ring. But yeah, he’s a great character, and would be certainly be a fascinating character study and place to kick off. But I think in SAS we have our own authentic note based on real life scenarios, we have our authentic character, so I’d love to explore this one more.
In the past you’ve talked about wanting Scottish independence. Where are you at with that now?
I’m firstly very proud to be British, but certainly seeing the way that that Scotland has been surviving and been very well led, and also the way that the democratic system is set up; that Scotland, despite [being] promised that if we voted to stay in the UK, we would stay in Europe, and then we weren’t, we were pulled out of it. The majority of Scotland wanted to stay in Europe, and I think it’s important for us to work together with our European neighbors, and to be part of that. It’s a time to remain open to other countries, rather than sort of closing our borders off. I think it’s also dangerous to have actors sprouting their politics, but that’s my personal opinion. I think it’s a great country, Scotland, and I certainly would love to see it thrive and do well.
Most people who see SAS: Red Notice are going to see it at home. How’ve you been coping without cinemas and theaters?
I do miss them a great deal and theatre as well. Obviously, [as] an actor they’re where I grew up and I would love to see them open again. After the first lockdown, I managed to get to the cinema a couple of times. I love that sort of shared experience, when you’re with other people and you’re not talking to them but there is this feeling when you’re in a theatre or cinema [that] you’re having a shared experience.
What did you see?
I saw Tenet and I saw On The Rocks with Bill Murray. Two very different movies.
What did you make of Tenet? Did you understand it?
Honestly as an experience, no, I didn’t enjoy it. Watching it as a movie maker, I was in awe of how incredible it was. The action sequences are just stunning and I read about how they did the fight scenes—you know, in SAS, we have some great action sequences and I know how long that takes and how hard it is, so for them to then learn it backwards is ridiculous. But yeah, I was confused, to be honest. Still am.
Have you picked up anything over lockdown you’ve not had time for before?
I actually started teaching myself piano. I got a keyboard and I haven’t touched it for about a month but I was enjoying it. I think we’ve all baked soda bread and drunk alcohol and read books and watched movies. I think now it feels like the spring is almost around the corner, I’m ready to get back outdoors and I really can’t wait to get back out into the mountains, especially in Scotland, go hiking and stuff.
Best hike in Scotland?
There’s so many but I’ll say an unknown but really beautiful ridge walk—and I love a ridge because you know they curve right the way around—is the Ballachulish ridge. It’s a little known ridge, but it’s stunning.
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