Time has often acted as Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) primary antagonist on Outlander, but the time travel drama has also had some truly reprehensible flesh-and-bone villains. In Seasons 1 and 2, the role went to “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies). In Season 4, that narrative honor goes to Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers), an Irish pirate who will do seemingly anything for personal gain.
We first meet Bonnet in the Outlander Season 4 premiere, when Claire and Jamie help him escape the hangman’s noose only to fall victim to Bonnet and his men’s murderous robbery at the end of the episode, but Bonnet is around to stay. Den of Geek had the chance to chat with Ed Speleers, who plays Bonnet, about joining the show and bringing the character to life.
“I’ve not had the chance to do an out-and-out villain, so I think that was a huge draw for me,” Speleers, who is best known stateside for his work as James Kent in Downton Abbey and as the title character in Eragon. The actor said that, while it is often more fun to play a villain, what truly matters is good writing.
“It’s not as simple as he’s just a bad guy,” said Speleers of Bonnet. “I think there’s something very interesting about what makes people tick, but also what makes people, perhaps, go down a path of destruction and whether there’s something in it from nurture vs. nature. There are so many reasons as to why someone can end up a certain way. And I think that interested me: the circumstance of what led Stephen Bonnet to be the way he is.”
Co-stars Sophie Skelton (Brianna) and Richard Rankin (Roger) echo Speleers description of a more complex villain.
“I think he’s a very fresh villain in terms of he is so different to Black Jack,” said Skelton. “Black Jack, we never really saw an insight into why he was the way he was. He was just sort of evil through and through, whereas, with Stephen Bonnet, he is a seemingly charming man who actually has this exceedingly dark side to him and I think it makes for a far more complex villain.”
“It’s a fresh take on the character playing the bad guy,” said Rankin. “He is quite charming because he is quite disarming. It’s very interesting how the character is written and also how Ed plays the character as well. He obviously affects each of the characters’ storylines quite severely, but, yeah, he’s just a good villain really. He’s a psychopath. He’s a really charming psychopath.”
Speleers knew of Outlander before taking on the role—”It’s very difficult, you may find this yourself, to keep up with all of the shows that are out there. I literally can’t keep up.”—but had not watched the American-British co-production before going for the part.
“The main following comes from the States. It’s definitely known here, and I was aware of it, but it wasn’t until I took on the role that I sort of looked further,” said Speleers. “It’s only when I am going up for something for that show that I try to watch as much of it as I can.”
When Speleers did check out Seasons 1-3, the series was not what he expected. He cited the quality in both production value and writing. Speleers also delved into the Diana Gabaldon-written source material to find out more about his character. “There’s a lot of [Bonnet] character description that you get in the book, especially early on,” said Speleers, calling the translation of Bonnet from the page to screen faithful.
“I think it’s a fairly accurate adaptation from the book to telly,” said Speleers. “I think maybe because the character in the book, he’s a character that pops up. He’s not necessarily ever-present in the books, nor is he in the scripts for the TV show, so that allows more accuracy from the books.”
While Speleers said the adaptation is a direct one, he noted the value of experimentation as an actor when bringing a character to life—it is a story-crafting feature that sets television or film apart from book as mediums.
“As an actor, you allow yourself to play and pinpoint some extra bits that may or may not be there,” said Speleers. “You can play around with it. It’s about making your own mark, as well. You see what will work on the day. Sometimes, things work in a novel, it works when you read it, but it doesn’t work in a script.That’s the beauty of film.”
In addition to reading about Bonnet in the books, Speleers did a fair amount of research into Irish history. For Speleers, the research was unsettling, as he focused on the history of British rule in Ireland in particular.
“I think that was what I found so fascinating about watching [Seasons] 1 and 2 and 3 before taking on this role, was what was going on in Scotland during this period that I didn’t know anything about,” said Speleers, referencing the cycles of imperialism and impression that come up again and again in history and in Outlander‘s representation of it. “It’s quite depressing and actually horrifying, what this nation is actually founded on,” noted Speleers.
We see the exploration of imperialist brutality come up again in Claire’s season premiere conversation with Jamie about the fate of America’s indigenous people. “A dream for some can be a nightmare for others,” notes Jamie, remembering how his own people were treated by British rule. For Speleers, and many viewers, Outlander‘s depiction of these cycles of oppression are not irrelevant to today’s world or political climate.
“We’re talking about how the world is operating,” said Speleers, noting the increasingly extreme, nationalist trends that are appearing in both the United States and Europe. “It’s a comment on America. It’s obviously still a huge issue in the United States, racism, but it’s founded by something that happened with the British years ago and that has happened time and time again.”
For Speleers, the questions these histories bring up are far from answered.
“How do we look back and justify it to ourselves?” said Speleers. “Hopefully, we’ll all somehow get it together and we’ll stop this cycle.”
In the mean time, Speleers is just living his life like the rest of us, and caring about the stories he helps to put out into the world.
“I’m very lucky to do this job and hopefully I will keep doing more work and get the chance to do more and more interesting roles each time,” said Speleers, admitting that he is nervous for fans of the books and the series to see his interpretation of Stephen Bonnet.
“I gave it my all. I hope it’s well received. But I have no control over that. I am nervous. I am. I think, if you care about your work, you’re going to inherently care about what people think. Even if you shouldn’t.”
Outlander Season 4 airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz. Stay up-to-date on all things Outlander Season 4 here!