Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling Outlander novels take place against the misty backdrop of the Scottish Highlands. Reading the books, fans could have hardly guessed that the time-traveling story would sweep them off their feet and land them, delightfully, back to the 18th century. From its debut in 2014, the Starz drama literally struck gold. Just by bringing Claire and Jamie’s epic love story to life, the show managed to garner widespread acclaim and appreciation.

But before a drama can come to fruition, it’s the casting process that makes directors and producers sweaty and confused. In Outlander, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan play Claire and Jamie. And while it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the characters now, Gabaldon and the producers had entirely different visions.

A barrage of A-listers were considered to breathe life into the complex heroine and her Highlander husband. From stars like Sean Connery to theater greats like Laura Donnelly, actors had potential to win the role of a lifetime. However, two relatively unknowns were entrusted with them instead.

As a matter of fact, Outlander showrunner Ronald D Moore revealed how it was easy to cast Heughan to play Jamie, but finding the right Claire took longer than he’d expected.

He told The Wrap, “We looked at a lot of actresses. It was difficult, because you were looking for a lot of indefinable qualities. Smart, because you’re going to have to watch this person think; we’re doing a lot of first person narrative. It was a long search [but when] we saw Caitriona’s tape and we thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s Claire.’ So, it all kind of fell together.”

Against some famous choices, Balfe and Heughan seem unlikely final picks. But through their emotional investment in Claire and Jamie’s characters and the incredible chemistry they shared on screen, they have come to define and own their roles.

The stars are now part of a cultural fabric and have set standards for period drama couples. Regardless, with the first half of the series having aired and the anticipation of the second half growing, it is fair to look back and see just what actors were almost cast as Jamie and Claire in Outlander.

Liam Neeson

One of cinema’s most respected actors, Liam Neeson is known to bring his intense personality and grounded approach to every role he plays. He possesses a commanding screen presence and a natural flair for action.

Of his varied array of iconic roles, he’s perhaps most popular for portraying the avenging protagonist, Bryan Mills, in the Taken movie series. But before these movies established himself as an unparalleled action star, Neeson grew to prominence with Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, a holocaust drama directed by Steven Spielberg.

The Northern Irish star later exploded into Hollywood in 1999 as Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I. His soft spoken depth adds dimension to even the most formidable characters. Given his experience with action thrillers and period roles, Neeson was a strong contender to play Jamie Fraser, a Scottish soldier and landowner.

The actor starred in the 1995 movie, Rob Roy, as a chief of a clan in 18th-century Scotland and wore a kilt and everything. It is easy to picture the veteran tackling the highlands and being devoted to Claire throughout the years. The actor was author Diana Gabaldon’s choice. She told E! News in an interview,

“Liam Neeson and Sean Connery were the first contenders for Jamie.”

Sean Connery

Also considered for playing Jamie Fraser in the widely popular historical romance drama, Outlander, was Sir Sean Connery. He rose to global fame when he introduced mainstream moviegoers to the “suave and sophisticated” secret agent 007. His effortless charm and towering physique enhanced some of the campiest Bond installments till date.

Connery was an iconic character in a dozen movies. He was a frequent collaborator to directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Lumet, and he starred in Murder on the Orient Express, Time Bandits, A Bridge Too Far, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and more. He earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for being cast against type as a tough Irish cop in The Untouchables.

Roger Ebert praised his performance by saying, “The best performance in the movie is Connery… when he’s onscreen we can believe, briefly, that the Prohibition Era was inhabited by people, not caricatures”

A living legend from Scotland, Connery would have been a shoo-in to play Jamie. His naturally fierce personality would bring more gravitas to the show. But this was back when Outlander adaptation was envisioned as a feature film. Gabaldan, the author of the novel series, conveyed the same to E! News, “This was years ago when I was first approached about adapting Outlander, when it was a feature film.”

Katherine Heigl

The Grey’s Anatomy star first cemented her spot with Hollywood’s most bankable rom-com actors. Katherine Heigl stunned fans with her girl-next-door charm and outstanding comedic timing. She kicked her career off as a child model before turning to acting and debuting in 1192’s That Night, a coming-of-age directed by Craig Bolotin. However, it was with the writer-director Judd Apatow’s commercially successful rom-com, Knocked Up, that Heigl really rose to fame.

In her glorious filmography, Heigl has demonstrated an undeniable likability. While some roles missed the mark, she carried 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth with her radiant screen presence alone. Heigl is best known for playing Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Izzie Stevens, a role she infuses emotional layers to and won a Primetime Emmy Award for.

When Outlander began casting, Heigl was on the producers’ radar for the role of Claire. It must be her experience traversing both funny and dramatic material that made her a contender for Starz’s acclaimed time-hopping adventure. It was also when Heigl was a strong, complex, sought after actress that made the producers imagine her ideal for the role. In an interview, she even remarked, “Scotland? 2012? What do you think?” revealing she knew of the consideration.

Laura Donnelly

Hailing from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Laura Donnelly lit up theatrical stages in the UK during her prime. Her profound sensitivity, natural timing, and ability to convey emotions ranging from anger to vulnerability allowed her to breathe soul into deeply layered characters. She enhanced television roles in The Fall, Casualty, and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. In the latter, she plays the stubborn and beautiful Elvina, Herot’s healer and translator.

Having showcased the power to transform across drama and period pieces, Donnelly was bound to bring authenticity to the role of Claire, for which she had auditioned. Despite actively pursuing the role, Donnelly was selected to play Jamie’s sister, Jenny Fraser, instead, as the creators and producers were impressed by Donnelly’s craft and range during tests. To Entertainment Weekly, co-star Sam Heughan revealed,

“I remember we auditioned Laura Donnelly, who now plays Jenny Fraser, who is my sister on the show.”

Following the adaptation, Donnelly found herself being launched into stardom as a recognizable face. It was a chance well taken, and the role worked wonders for her because in 2017, she won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress for her performance in The Ferryman, a play set during The Troubles. Donnelly was also nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in 2019 for the same play.

Nell Hudson

Arriving on British screens at the same time as the Downton Abbey phenomenon, Nell Hudson showcased depth beyond her years in every role she played. With an ability to endear audiences to the most complex and turbulent characters, she lit up scenes in no time.

The same captured the producers’ interests when Hudson auditioned for the role of Outlander’s pioneering heroine. Her experience across drama, music, television and comedy charmed the casting directors, who then figured it best for Hudson to channel the same dedication towards another character – Laoghaire MacKenzie.

Despite only being a recurring character at first, Laoghaire marries Jamie when Claire returns to the present in season two of Outlander. When Claire travels back in time, however, and reunites with Jamie, his marriage with Laoghaire is declared void as they didn’t have children together.

Speaking of her character’s arc and characteristic to Access Hollywood back in 2015, Hudson elaborated by saying “she’s [Laoghaire] got all this pain and she doesn’t know what to do with it and it comes out in this very kind of aggressive way and she does whatever she can do to rectify the situation.”

Outside of Outlander, Hudson has impressed fans by starring in the ITV historical drama Victoria as Nancy Skerrett, the Queen’s dresser. She also guest starred in the period drama Call the Midwife and NBC’s Crossing Lines.

While roles that enhance our understanding of the human condition helped establish her place in the industry, Hudson is unafraid to step outside the box. She landed her first movie role in the 2022 installment of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and we can only imagine what’s in store for the actress next.

Source: movieweb.com

By Ivaylo Angelov

Ivaylo Angelov born in Bulgaria, Varna graduated School Geo Milev is Tvserieswelove's Soaps Editor and oversees all of the section's news, features, spoilers and interviews.