How ‘The Spy Who Dumped Me’ and ‘Outlander’ Star Sam Heughan Got Big-screen Buff

Jamie Fraser's Leather Sporran

BEFORE WE LINK UP in New York City, Sam Heughan Opens a New Window. has already had a full day. He’d gone early to a movie special effects studio in Brooklyn, where he’d been stripped down to his briefs and had sensors placed over his body, face, and hands, which recorded his topography for hours. It’s preproduction for a just-announced movie, Bloodshot, based on the Valiant comic book. He had also squeezed in a six-mile run along the East River and planned to hit the gym before dinner.

For most actors, an exact rendering of an action hero would necessitate weeks of preparation—an austere diet, a slavish gym regimen—but Heughan is nearly as much athlete as actor. His physicality is central to the role of Jamie Fraser, the broad-chested, rakish Scottish soldier he plays on the time-travel drama Outlander on Starz. “My character is always in some scrape: fighting, horse riding, saving his wife from some sort of villain,” Heughan says. “And he takes his clothes off quite a lot, as well.”

Let’s pause for a moment. If perhaps you’ve not been introduced to Heughan, ask your wife, your mom, or your grandma’s canasta group about him, and listen to them kvell. He’s an international phenomenon. Some of his devoted fans call themselves Heughan’s Heughligans. And the romance between Fraser and the time-traveling nurse Claire, played by Golden Globe–nominated Caitriona Balfe, is so hot that their steamiest encounters show up on NSFW websites. (Don’t ask how we know this.) They shoot on location in the Scottish Highlands, which has caused a four-year bump in tourism to the country. Now Heughan is on the brink of expanding his audience from ladies of a certain age to one much, much larger.

The Spy Who Dumped Me, out August 3, is a comedy-action movie filled with explosions, car chases, and gunfights, as well as solid one-liners and plenty of improvised laughs. Heughan plays Sebastian, a high-level, covert-ops MI6 agent who gets entangled with Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (Kate McKinnon), two ordinary best friends who get caught up in an international espionage ring.

It’s far from Outlander and pure popcorn shenanigans.

‘Outlander’ Star Sam Heughan’s Guide to Scotland Opens a New Window.
THERE WAS A TIME when Heughan wasn’t so darn buff. He ran races and triathlons, trained martial arts and Muay Thai in Thailand, and did mostly body-weight workouts. It’s only been in the past few years that he started lifting seriously. “Jamie Fraser doesn’t have access to a gym,” Heughan says. “It’s his lifestyle that gives him his body. He’s an outdoorsman, a fighter, and I wanted to build that sort of body.”

That meant adding in Olympic lifts in a CrossFit-like program, designed by his trainer, John Valbonesi, with the goal of adding muscle and definition while avoiding injury. The Muay Thai training helps with the authenticity of the fight scenes.

His regimen is also a survival mechanism. Outlander, which shoots in 14- to 16-hour days, generally outdoors, is dialogue heavy. He has to remember today’s lines and memorize tomorrow’s all while mastering Scotland’s cold, rocky north. “It’s a bit of a runaway train—it never stops,” Heughan says.

Today he’s traded in the tartan-clad warrior physique for a cut that’s slightly trimmer (as well as Fraser’s signature mop of curly red hair for a slicker ‘do), which helps explain why we can sit on a park bench, sipping hibiscus iced tea, largely unnoticed. Heughan’s downsizing is the result of marathon training and in the service of his latest role. A week before The Spy Who Dumped Me started shooting, director Susanna Fogel asked Heughan to lose some of the bulk. “Sebastian is a spy, and the function of a spy is to fit in, not stand out,” Heughan says. “We wanted him to look more everyday, more like the people around him. There was also a great deal of fight training and stunt work, which is a lot about flexibility.”

So Heughan walked and jogged for 30 to 45 minutes every morning and evening, listening to podcasts (he’s a fan of The Tim Ferriss Show), throwing in sprints or mobility work to keep the body guessing, in whatever cities they were filming—Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin. Kunis and McKinnon have joked that whenever they drove across a certain bridge in Budapest, where the majority of production took place, they’d inevitably see a bare-chested Heughan sprinting across it.

“It was an interesting part of training,” Heughan recalls. “It’s not always about smashing your body, but it is about consistency and getting your heart rate up.”

The movie is his first crack at comedy, and he did it alongside two veterans, as well as Gillian Anderson­­—who plays Sebastian’s boss—an actor with “gravitas.” How was he able to hold his own so well? “It’s easier being the straight man,” he replies.

For all you Heughligans out there who believe the actor is nice to a fault and a man of fine character, you’re right. He’s truly humble; you can’t pay the guy a compliment without him demurring and crediting others. And he throws himself headlong into new challenges. “Sam’s eager to learn and grow, to try new things and also to poke fun at himself, which is a rarity,” Kunis says. “He’s a really good guy who’s smart, kind, and thoughtful—who just happens to be good-looking.”

His next challenge will be getting ready for Bloodshot. “They’ve asked me to put on as much muscle as possible,” he says. In Outlander, he focused on being big and strong, but not overly chiseled—that’s all about to change. “I want the character to be very different from Jamie,” Heughan says. “I’m thinking Dolph Lundgren.”

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