I had the pleasure of chatting with actress Joanne Thomson to discuss her recent role on Outlander, shooting during COVID and her thoughts on speaking Gaelic.
Joanne is an Actor, Writer and Director from Glasgow who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She recently played Amy McCallum in season six of the hit show Outlander.
Tell us a little about your character in Outlander.
“I play a character called Amy McMcallum. Right now, they’re in North Carolina in America, the setting of season six, and she’s one of the new Scottish settlers on the ridge. She comes over on a boat with her husband and two sons. But unfortunately, on the journey over, she loses her husband. She’s in this completely new land, totally alone with no husband, and you needed one back then. She’s a reminder of home for the settlers. Everybody there at that time had been away from Scotland for quite a while at this point. So it’s like a fresh breath of tartan. She’s finding her place and finding out how to survive as a widower.”
You auditioned for Outlander three times before you were cast; what was your reaction when you got the call saying you had bagged the role?
“This has been my first acting job in two or three years. I was considering quitting entirely. I was at my wit’s end. At the time, I’d just come back from London. When I was in London, I was working around seven jobs, and I was miserable. I took a year-long break for no auditions just to relax because it’s just so much nicer not knowing when you’re failing, it was nicer to know you’d not been rejected. It’s a really tough industry; that’s the reality of it. I started writing instead. To get a job in the middle of all that just meant a lot. It was my way back in because I was very much out.
The only reason I auditioned for it was because I’d auditioned for it back in February before COVID when I was in LA, and then because of the pandemic, it had been pushed back, and they asked me to audition again. At the time, I had a flatmate staying with me who was an MA student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where I went, and she was a huge Outlander fan. One of the first things she’d asked me was, ‘have you auditioned for Outlander’ and I was like, ‘Yes, three times’. She was there when I got the call, and she knew how much it meant to me. She was on the floor crying in the kitchen.
I hadn’t watched all of it at that point, I’d seen bits, but I was so bitter about it. It was much nicer to be able to watch it, knowing I was gonna be in the show, it felt really special. Now I’m a genuine fan of the show, so I was fortunate to be like, oh my God, it’s really good, and I wasn’t being biased. I think more people in Scotland should watch it because I thought it was an American idea of Scotland it’d be a bit cheesy. I had that in my head for some reason, but it’s just such a good series.”
What was it like rehearsing and shooting the show during COVID restrictions?
“It was weird. We were all carrying that responsibility at the time. It’s a huge moral responsibility, but also, there’s the responsibility of not being the person to bring the whole thing down. I pretty much quarantined with my mom, they didn’t ask me to, but I was like, I’m battening down the hatches, I’m not going out until I’m in at least a few scenes. We started filming in January and we had like snow storms. So all the snow that you see in season six is completely real. The writers were under so much pressure because there were scenes that were rewritten to be outside to help with COVID ventilation, then had to be rewritten overnight to go inside because a snowstorm would come, so that was a bit of a nightmare. It was just extremely, extremely cold.
“I think the other thing that was quite challenging was that we were all masked basically until maybe rehearsal, camera rehearsal, and actually shooting it. That was a hard thing. You’re stepping into an existing, real family, like a work family, and you can’t socialize outside of work. You can’t go to the pub afterwards or anything, and you’ve got to try to smile behind a mask. Every time you get too close to someone or touch someone, you’re taking a bit of a risk. That was a shame. Things started to ease up during the summer, and I was shooting from January to June. Caitlin, who plays Lizzie, took me for a picnic in Kelvingrove, which was really nice. Once things started to ease up, it was a lot nicer.”
What’s the strangest thing you’ve encountered from the Outlander fan base?
“I love the fan base. Having watched it and read book six, I totally get why they feel the way they feel. It’s been around for so long, it’s been around for decades. I’m so impressed by their encyclopedic knowledge of things. I generally like to think if they have an issue with how the books have depicted things on screen, from what I’ve seen, they’re able to discuss that in a not too harmful way. I think the thing that’s really damaging, and I know that some people in the cast have experienced this, is when people cannot separate the actor from the character.
I’ve never been in something with an existing fan base, and the weirdest thing was when I was at the London premiere for Outlander. I put something online, I wasn’t allowed to announce it until that day. I put something on Twitter, like, ‘tune in to see me fall flat on my face’, because I was so nervous about it. Then people were shouting my name. I was like, what was that? And they were like, ‘You haven’t fallen yet!’.
I was like, Oh my God, I don’t know who you are, but you care I didn’t fall on my face? How nice. I’m going to a couple of conventions, and I’m really excited about that. Anything that makes me feel, in any way, respected for the work that I do, I really appreciate.
“I’ve never really wanted to be famous. I don’t think anyone really wants that; it’s just not sustainable. I’d never want to get to a point where I didn’t appreciate these things and not see it as someone just genuinely appreciating the work that you do. So far, it’s not gone in the other direction. I have not been hounded or anything. I know people that have, and it’s really hard.”
Do you know any Gaelic?
“I don’t speak Gaelic. But when I got the job, I started learning it as a New Year’s resolution on Duolingo. Just in case I got scripted it, I thought it might help with the accent as well. Although I ended up not having to use it because they cast a Glaswegian boy as my son.”
“It is such a shame that it’s not taught in the curriculum anymore because it would be great. I love that in Outlander because, for anyone who hasn’t watched it, they’ve intentionally decided not to subtitle the Gaelic so that you feel how Claire feels as an outsider. I think that’s such a lovely thing. Sometimes I definitely want to know what they’re saying, but I think many fans get a big kick out of that. They like translating and learning. It is a beautiful language.”
“I think that’s what’s quite nice about watching it. It’s nice to romanticize where I’m from. Very refreshing. It’s amazing what it’s done for the tourist industry in Scotland. I took my friend on a tour for her birthday to the locations that they film at, which are phenomenal, and you do get swept up in things.”
Tell us about your award-winning pilot ‘Spinner and Marie’?
“It’s a story about a woman in her 60s, a widow, who rides her wee mobility scooter out of the closet and across the Atlantic on this road trip with a woman that she meets online. It’s an older woman, a self-proclaimed geriatric, queer adventure story, sort of like a coming-of-age story. It’s a big arthritic middle finger in the face of grief and loss and rejection and everything. Spinner and Marie is intended to be a really feel-good thing.
“It’s really exciting, It’s just been optioned, and it’s being developed. It’s a very new side of the industry for me. It was a lockdown baby. It was something that I wrote when I was given the gift of time. I’ve read a lot of scripts, I’ve been acting for 12 years, so somewhere along the way, the things I like and don’t like have seeped into my brain. It was the first thing I’ve ever written. It’s wild that it’s been picked up. I’ve just got the bug now and I’m writing shorts.”
Usually, a lot of the time when we’re talking about queer, womxn, lead stories, it is younger women that people tend to focus on, so I like the idea of this being about older women that are finding their identity and saying ‘who cares’.
“That’s why I wrote it. I’m bi, and it’s interesting to look at the stories that have been represented. There’s been a wonderful influx of incredible stories that are representing queer people that have genuinely changed people’s minds. It’s not that I’m setting out to be necessarily educational. If those things are done right, like Schitt’s Creek, It’s a Sin and Heartstopper,you can’t help but fall in love with those characters. I think there’s a real appetite for series at the moment that make their way into your living room and might get suggested to you, even if you think a certain way. That’s my hope. I’d like to be able to make people fall in love like those shows have and make people fall in love with those characters.
I want it to be an answer for this lost generation that, for whatever reason, had to deny who they were. Who never got the chance to get what a lot of younger people now were able to experience. And that time is just gone.”
Feature Image Credit: Starz and Sony. Supplied by Joanne Thomson
BA (Hons) Film, Media and Journalism graduate. Freelance Journalist for Brig Newspaper and Entertainment Daily. Head of Social Media for Brig Newspaper.
Passionate about diversity, inclusion and representation.