It's been nearly two years since we last saw Sophie Skelton play Brianna Fraser Mackenzie, the strong-willed student who follows her mother, Claire Randall Fraser, back in time on Outlander. One world-altering pandemic and the longest "droughtlander" in the series' history later, Skelton and her castmates are finally returning to screens in season 6.
Outlander is known for its over-the-top drama (see: the time-travel precedent) and the stakes are only getting higher in season 6. Ramifications from last season's finale—where Brianna's father, Jamie Fraser, rescued Claire from outlaw abductors, while Brianna, her husband Roger Mackenzie, and her son Jemmy tried (and failed) to return to the relative safety of the 1960s—are still yet to be revealed. Looming in the background of it all is the impending Revolutionary War, threatening to disrupt any sense of peace the Fraser-Mackenzie family could find at their home in the North Carolina backcountry.
One thing that's for certain? More change is coming for the Fraser-Mackenzie clan. In Brianna's case, Skelton tells BAZAAR.com this season will spotlight a side of her character audiences haven't seen before: one that's relatively "settled" while chaos swirls around her family. Previous seasons have put Brianna through relentless trauma while navigating a new life in the past. This season, she's given time to evolve as a mother and family leader amid all that history in progress...at least in the first episode.
Before last weekend's premiere on Starz, Skelton spoke with us about tapping into a new version of Brianna, how her character is building a future in the past, and what lies ahead on Outlander this season.
Tell us a bit about what it was like returning to the Outlander set after such a long break. Were there any challenges getting back into character?
Covid was the longest I’d actually been away from Bree, and we didn’t have new scripts coming in for the new season. Obviously, having the books to lean on is a great thing because I knew where the character was going. So it hadn’t completely gone, but there were definitely elements where I was thinking oh, what accent does she have again? It’s like putting on an old coat where you don’t know if it’s going to fit anymore.
I was excited to get back into Bree’s shoes because in a weird way I missed her. She’s so brave and ballsy and so unapologetically herself. I was also excited for season 6 playing Brianna as a mother. Roger and Brianna are the most settled we’ve seen them so far. Brianna is this more calm, collected version of herself. Usually she’s so hot-headed and fires off on all cylinders. This season, she’s kind of the rock that everyone goes to. So I was excited to play that more mature version of her.
What were some of your favorite scenes from the premiere where we can see this new side of Bree?
I think one of the first, early scenes where we see Roger and Brianna again. It’s one of those scenes that could easily be left on the editing floor, but the fact that I kept it in I love. This is a season where the chaos is going on around Roger and Bree, they’re the calm amongst it, and they’re actually the ones that everyone else is crutching on.
Then there’s the scene with Claire and Bree. I always love those mother-daughter scenes and I think they’re so important. I was really excited to have Brianna’s character able to help Claire through her trauma and I’m glad they didn’t just move on from it. Even though we don’t need to show Brianna’s recovery all the time, trauma doesn’t go away from you. I think these little throwbacks and reminders are important to show, because otherwise you’re telling the audience that all people get over things—but it’s okay to not.
Can you elaborate more about how you and Caitriona [Balfe, who plays Claire] approached that scene? I found that conversation so moving because if anyone can understand the trauma Claire is experiencing, it's Brianna.
One thing Caitriona and I did talk about a lot was not only how the sexual abuse happened differently, [...] but how we wanted the healing to be different, too. Claire is very used to dealing with things on her own. For Brianna, for a while, she didn’t tell people, but I think that was due to circumstance. Whereas I think the good thing with Claire is we’re showing people it’s okay to not want to talk.
That’s why I love that scene–Brianna is not forcing Claire to speak. So I love that Bree says, "I said I was fine too, and I wasn’t." It’s like, "I kind of know you’re lying to me, but that’s your prerogative. And if you want to talk, I’m here, and if you don’t, I’ve got you, too."
Brianna, Roger, and Jemmy didn't make it back to their time at the end of season 5. In season 6, has Brianna's understanding of what she wants for her future changed, knowing that she can’t go back—at least for now?
Do you ever sometimes feel like when you don’t have a choice, it’s just nicer in a way? Because you can’t beat yourself up for making the wrong one? I think that’s some of why Bree and Roger are so settled in season 6, and why they’re so lovely and warm. Because that choice has been taken away, they have no choice but to live their life and make the best of it.
For Brianna, obviously she’s had so much going on, plus this undercurrent of angst at the fact that she can’t do what we loves. She can’t be an engineer, and her whole life’s work was toward that. She knows she can help the Ridge and she just can’t do it. There’s been this longing for that future life. Whereas now, now that she has no choice, she wants to make the best of it.
The seasons before have been very much about Roger trying to fit in with this time. And this season, it flips. There’s a through-line this season where Roger is busy and Bree isn’t, and it’s an interesting little reversal of Bree twiddling her thumbs and tearing her hair out.
You mentioned being excited to play Brianna as a mother. In any era, to be a young woman in a relationship, people beyond it can have expectations or enforce norms about whether and when you’re having kids, or how many.
Or, why aren’t you married yet? Every Christmas it’s like, "No boyfriend?" And I’m like, "Are we really going to do this?"
That’s already a lot! Then playing a modern woman stuck in 1773, where being a wife or a mother is the most many women can do…
And she can’t even talk about it. It’s not like she can say, "In the future, this is different!"
There’s so much for Brianna to contend with, and at the same time, there have been hints that Brianna may have another child later in the show. I was curious about how you thought about playing that nuance: what Brianna actually wants for her family versus the norms this time may place on her.
I also think it’s that thing of whether Brianna even wanted to be a mother before or not. I think once you’ve had a kid–and I haven’t, so speaking from how I played it—that love is so magnificent, I can imagine, and overwhelming, that having another is like, why not, if you can expand that love? Bree was an only child. I think for Jemmy, the idea of having a sibling would be magical for Bree. So I think all of those things play. But I do also think the worry is also Roger. We know Bree can have children, maybe Roger can’t, and in that time you can’t just go get tested.
I think Brianna very much sees Roger as Jemmy’s father. Although it's not something that sits consciously on Brianna’s mind so much, I think subconsciously, having another child with Roger would be a different dynamic that might be a little more whole for her. Not that that child would be any more or less than Jemmy, but it would mean something for her and Roger to have a child of their own as well.
Season 6 only has eight episodes, and Outlander's known for some very action-packed seasons. With so few episodes, what are you most excited for us to see?
I know I said everything’s peachy with Roger and Bree, but this is Outlander. There’s obviously going to be some ruffles. And it brings up a very modern conversation about jealousy in relationships, should we say. Or men misreading signals from other women.
Then actually, the last episode I’m excited for. The season got cut short and we didn’t get much notice of that. A lot of Roger and Brianna’s storyline was about to happen, so we were really about to sink our teeth into the season—and then it was cut. So that’s going to push to season 7. Because of that, Richard and I had a talk to the producers and they re-did some of the last episode and changed the story a bit. So there are a lot of really lovely family moments with Jemmy, Roger, and Bree in the last episode.
The end of Outlander, the series, hasn’t been published yet. Has Diana [Gabaldon, the author] given you any hints about where Brianna is headed in the long-term, or how her story ends?
Not at all. It’s funny: Diana, one of the first times I met her, told me, "I don’t know who Brianna is." Any time Claire and Bree had a mother-daughter altercation, she’d just write Brianna as kind of bratty. And she said, "Thank you for finding Bree and what you’ve done for her."
Now that we’re catching up to the books [on the show], Diana kind of writes the characters to us. So no, I don’t know where she’s going to take it. But with the writing, you’re in such great hands. We’ll see what happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.