Sophie Skelton knew what she was getting herself into when she accepted the role of Brianna Fraser on Outlander—or at least she thought she did. She had already spent hours poring through Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, which serve as the basis for the Starz show, before her very first audition in 2014. “I read from book two to book four,” Skelton says, remembering the way she feverishly scanned the pages for all of “Brianna’s bits.”
She wouldn’t hear back about the role for another year, but during that time, Skelton never stopped thinking about Brianna: the witty, headstrong college student from Boston who travels back in time to reunite with her English mother, Claire Randall Fraser, and meet her biological father, Scottish highlander Jamie Fraser, in 18th century North Carolina.
To the uninitiated, Outlander’s time-traveling, globe-trotting premise might sound like quite the doozy. Add Gabaldon’s exhaustive source material into the mix—nine books, three novellas and counting—and you’ve got an epic tale that rivals the likes of Game of Thrones. Like George R.R. Martin’s series, Gabaldon’s books had a dedicated readership before Outlander’s premiere in 2014. For years, these fans waited for their version of Bree to appear on screen; she was towering, strong-shouldered, blue-eyed and boasted thick red hair like her father Jamie, whose luscious locks were once described by Gabaldon as a “shining mass of auburn, copper, cinnamon and gold.” But that’s not Skelton.
When she arrives at StyleCaster’s offices in New York City, Skelton stands shorter than most members of the makeup and photo crew—and that’s with Louboutin heels on, their signature red soles peeking out with her every step. Her eyes, a deep honey brown, gaze around the small library where we’ve set up for the day. After getting acquainted, she pulls off the black peacoat she arrived in, revealing the lithe frame of a former dancer. “I did ballet for years,” she tells us later during her photoshoot, stretching her arms in ways that only someone with a practiced sense of grace can manage to make look so good. Her hair, dark brown with a natural wave, is a stark contrast to her character’s curly ginger mane on Outlander. Now she wears it slicked straight behind her ears, gently pushing any rogue strands back between shots.
Days later, speaking in her light British accent over Zoom, Skelton reminisces on the beginning of her Outlander journey. She recalls a moment with showrunner Matthew B. Roberts, right before her casting was made public in early 2016. “I remember him sitting me down and being like, ‘Just be aware when the announcement goes out, you’re going to get some hate because you’re not American, you don’t have blue eyes, you don’t have red hair. But don’t worry, you’re our Bree.’”
While Skelton was warned of the potential blowback over her casting, it wouldn’t be the first time an actor in the cast didn’t match up with their character’s description from the books; Irish actress Caitríona Balfe, who plays her mother on the series, isn’t exactly the curvy, brown-eyed Claire of Gabaldon’s novels. But four months later, when Skelton’s character made her onscreen debut during the second season of the series, the actress was up against yet another hurdle: According to Skelton, some viewers just “did not like Bree,” period.
When we first meet her on Outlander, Bree is a striking, brainy high school senior going through all the growing pains of adolescence—and that includes frequent arguments with her mother, Claire. Skelton says this was far from the most “palatable” introduction on the series, but nevertheless believes this initial tension between her and Balfe’s character was necessary. “It was a more interesting dynamic to start off with,” she says, adding that it made for “more of a journey for them to become closer as mother and daughter.” And this journey has been a long one, seeing them through shared past and present traumas—from the death of Frank Randall, Claire’s modern-day husband and the father who raised Bree, to instances of sexual assault that happen to both mother and daughter following their travels through time.
Six years and five seasons later, Skelton admits that Brianna can still “sometimes be a hard pill to swallow” for some viewers. “Sometimes as Sophie, I think Brianna takes things too far. I’m like, ‘Stop punching people, Bree,’” she says with a laugh. “But I have to be able to defend it.” Indeed, Skelton is one of Bree’s fiercest supporters—even, if not especially, during her character’s messier moments.
None of us are perfect.
Skelton brings up an infamous scene from season four of Outlander, where Brianna slaps her father Jamie across the face after he mistakenly beats up her partner Roger, played by Richard Rankin, for thinking he was the man who raped her (that disgraced title goes to Stephen Bonnet, an Irish pirate played by Ed Speleers). At first, it was a response that Skelton herself couldn’t quite understand: “Brianna is intelligent enough to know it wasn’t Jamie’s fault. It was a mistake,” she says. “I just had to think she’s doing that thing where, when you’re mad, you take it out on the ones you love because you can.’”
In a show like Outlander, the stakes are always high. Emotions run even higher. For Bree—who came from the same era as the Free Speech Movement and traded her 1970s bell-bottoms for the prim and proper petticoats of the 1770s—Skelton knows that sometimes a raw reaction is simply overdue. “What I love about Brianna is that she shows that people don’t always behave in the best light. None of us are perfect,” she says. “I like that Bree’s not Hollywood-washed. You really see all of her vulnerabilities, you see the times where she behaves ‘badly.’”
But not everyone takes to this behavior kindly. Skelton is quick to point out the double standard that exists for her character—both in Outlander’s 18th-century universe and the world from which audiences are watching the show today. “It’s so interesting to see people watch the show who love Jamie and excuse everything that Jamie does,” Skelton observes, “but if Brianna does the same thing, it’s like, ‘Wow, what a naughty girl.’”
“I suppose the men have become the object of desire for a lot of fans, and sometimes they aren’t always so kind to the women, which is a shame,” Skelton continues. “I really hope that that starts to change. But at the same time, the majority of fans are super supportive.” In the future, Skelton says she wants to see perspectives shift enough so there’s “not such a stigma for women” to act the same way as their counterparts on screen.
Skelton is paving a way for this future, on her own terms. “My confidence has grown a lot more,” she says. “Being on a show for six years, it just gives you more space to explore, to speak up and protect people.” This not only includes protecting herself and her castmates, but Outlander’s viewers as well.
Sexual assault is an unfortunate, but real, component of the Outlander universe. Bree’s father, Jamie, is raped early on in the series. Years later, her mother Claire is kidnapped and raped by a renegade gang during Outlander’s season five finale. In dealing with Outlander’s more difficult scenes involving sexual assault, Skelton feels an immense responsibility to research the physical and emotional experiences of survivors and approach the subject with great care. “Caítriona and I had a lot of conversations about it. If we’re going to show a lot of rape and we’re going to talk about healing and PTSD, then we have to justify why we’re showing it,” she explains.
For Skelton, these scenes offer the opportunity to foster more honest conversations about trauma and recovery on television. Viewers see this approach on Outlander season six, as Skelton’s character doesn’t force her mother to talk about what happened; instead, she gives her the space she needs to process. “Even if you’ve been through the same trauma, every experience is different and every way of healing is different,” Skelton says. “I hope it helps people who’ve been through it because it shows there’s no right or wrong way to deal with something.”
Of course, healing is not always linear. But at the onset of Outlander season six, we meet a more “settled version” of Bree, Skelton says. Her character has grown up considerably on the series—she is now a wife and a mother herself—and she is searching for her place on Fraser’s Ridge, the impressive tract of land and community helmed by her father Jamie. In one memorable scene early in the season, Bree “invents” matches, an innovation yet to have been developed in 1770s America. When she decides to share the good news at the Fraser family dinner table, her father assumes that she’s announcing that she’s pregnant (she isn’t—not yet, at least). Moments later, when she finally demonstrates her creation, the response is lackluster; everyone already knows how to light a fire, after all.
Skelton is wiser now, too, and says she “really fought against” playing this match scene in a way that the “older version of Bree” might have. As the master of Bree’s internal world, Skelton is bringing a warmth to her character that may have otherwise been eluded on the page. “There’s a really lovely dynamic change now, where she’s accepting the time and she wants to make it better. But she’s not going to berate those people for not having her same mindset,” Skelton notes. “It’s not their fault. Of course they would assume I’m pregnant. That’s just how this time is!”
In a world where a woman’s role is largely chalked up to child-rearing, it’s not surprising Skelton’s character is facing pressures to have another baby—but these pressures aren’t always coming from the place you might expect. Bree and Roger are trying to get pregnant, but haven’t had luck yet after their son, Jeremiah “Jemmy” MacKenzie, was conceived around the same time as Bree’s rape in season three. While Jemmy’s ability to time travel in Outlander season five appeared to hint at him having his parents’ shared genes for the gift, the series has yet to offer conclusive proof that Roger is his father—and the question of his true parentage remains for them to find out. “It’s the elephant in the room,” Skelton says.
“There is a question deep down in there, but I don’t think it’s something [Brianna and Roger] consciously think about all the time,” she adds. “But I do think once they are trying to conceive, it resurfaces that conversation and that doubt because Bree obviously knows that she can get pregnant. But maybe Roger can’t conceive. I think all of these things will be going around their heads too. And hopefully, it doesn’t tear them apart.”
Whatever you go through, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
When she talks about the future of Outlander, Skelton has a knowing glimmer in her eye. “I feel bad for fans,” she jokes. “They’re just now watching season six but we’re already ramping up for seven!” While the next droughtlander will hopefully not last nearly as long as the last, Outlander fans have plenty left to experience from Outlander season six. And for Skelton, it’s a chance to soak up a chapter that took years for her character to finally experience.
“We’ve seen Brianna from age 16 to her late 20s now, and she’s changed so much. But she’s also who she is at her core—that hasn’t changed. We’ve just seen her in very traumatizing circumstances,” Skelton says. “This season, it’s really nice just to have her as a beacon to show that, whatever you go through, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I think it’s really important to show that people can come so far.”
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