Outlander‘s Young Ian doesn’t seem all that young anymore. After the climactic season 4 finale, in which the adventurous young Scot changed the entire path of his life, the puppyish enthusiasm and wide-eyed naiveté melted away; left behind was the steely determination and Fraser-ish loyal fire we knew he’d had all along.
Ian and his uncle Jamie have spent the past couple of episodes trying to make up for their brutal mistake by tracking down Roger and bringing him back to Bree. Long and uncertain though that mission was, when they finally found the Mohawk village where he was being kept, they still couldn’t secure his safety. And when, at the final minute, Jamie was tearfully ready to exchange himself for Roger, Ian shocked everyone by having already offered himself up instead—allowing Roger to be free, and committing to spending the rest of his life with the Mohawk.
We talked to actor John Bell about Ian’s biggest episode yet, whether he’ll be back next season, and—of course—Rollo.
What did you think at first, when you read the script, first of all?
With the title “Man of Worth,” I looked at it and went, “I wonder who they’re talking about.” Then I got into the script and was just blown away. I knew this point in Ian’s story was coming up, as I’d read the books, but to see it on the page and then sitting in that table read and saying these words out loud for the first time with everyone…there were chills on my spine. It was the payoff that I was looking for. I’m super proud of it and what the team created; I thought it was magical.
It’s tense seeing him go through that gauntlet, especially since we’ve seen Roger go through it before. Can you talk to us about preparing for that?
First of all, we had stunt performers there, of course, who did a lot of the rehearsals and training, but I was very much up for doing it myself. So we did a lot of rehearsals beforehand with the First Nation cast members who were involved, basically learning the choreography as if it was a dance. And then…I’m kind of a springy individual. I can jump high, I can run around. We just hit it hard for two days. That is me in 95 percent of the shots of that gauntlet scene.
Even with the best intentions, I still got a war club to the face at one point. But don’t worry, it was rubber.
It’s really impressive. We’ve laughed a bit at Ian in the past, you know—when he offers to marry Brianna, for example. But even though we knew he could fight, we’re seeing him in a different way.
Absolutely. You know, I think that’s part of the Fraser within him. His Murray side can be a bit of a laughing matter, as you say; but it’s this Fraser fire that really comes out in that final episode. I do love Ian because he doesn’t mean to be funny. He’s not there trying to crack jokes. It’s always at his own expense, but you’re kind of laughing at him. But that just makes him even more endearing, and shows that there’s that side of Ian that doesn’t take things too seriously. I think this decision is going to really impact his personality and how he continues on as a man.
When he comes out the other end of that gauntlet triumphant and the Mohawk accept him as one of their own, I think that’s truly the happiest we have ever seen him.
That is absolutely the happiest we’ve seen Young Ian. From the minute he landed on that New World, he was fascinated by Native American culture and immediately wanted to know their language, know how to communicate with them, know their customs and traditions. From a really respectful point of view, I love that line he has when they’re at the party at Jocasta’s house when he says, “The Native Americans were here first, were they not?” and I think that shows his modern viewpoint on the world.
He falls in love with what they deem important, and that has a lot to do with how he was raised—the Frasers put family and relationships above all else. That’s what the Native American culture was, so I think he just absolutely just loved it. So when he finally got that acceptance, that note of approval for doing something that he chose, that he wasn’t a victim in, he triumphed; he was allowed that moment of pure joy. I don’t know if that will last, but at the moment that’s how he is feeling.
Did you research Mohawk and Cherokee culture in preparation for the season?
Yeah—the first part was language. There isn’t as much information out there on Native American languages. So when the First Nations [actors] came, I chatted to them to see what resources they had. I signed up to online courses for Kanien’keha, which is Mohawk. I wanted to come at that with the most respect possible.
I’ve always been fascinated by Native American history, so to get to delve deep into what the traditions were to the Cherokee, with comparison to the Mohawk and their place in history at that time, and who they fought with and who they sided with…an absolute dream. The research isn’t finished yet. Right now he is taking baby steps into this world and now it’s like, okay, now he needs to really survive here.
We know Young Ian’s journey isn’t finished in the books, but you are coming back?
I know, yes, I’m coming back, but in what context and all that is yet to be announced and decided. I can’t really talk about anything else apart from the fact that I am preparing for season 5.
I want to talk about Ian’s other really big moment, when he secretly offers to exchange himself for Roger.
That is, for me, the emotional crux of that episode for Ian’s story. There are a lot of emotional moments, but that was, for me, the tilting point. Preparing for that was quite simple, really. It was, I will stand in front of Sam and he will stand in front of me, and we will just share the experience together. Sam’s a very open, one of the best guys to work with on set when it comes to scenes like this because he takes time and is so supportive. Any doubt or anything like that, he is there 100 percent in my corner. I prepared my lines as usual, but the magic happens when you add another actor, staring into each other’s eyes and that’s where the truth comes from.
Then the topper-off is when Claire gives Ian that hug. Claire can be a little cold to Ian, but she loves him so much and in that moment you see her. I think that’s when Ian really feels the gravity of the situation and the gravity of the choice that he’s made, but still sticks with it. And may have a little bit of a cry, but he’s ready to do this now.
I can’t let you go without talking about Rollo.
Was there as there a favorite moment that you’ve had working with the two dogs that play him?
Some of my favorite moments really started when we were preparing for season 4. Immediately, my first question was, “When am I gonna meet Rollo?” They’re like, “Okay, John. We’re going to get you to meet Rollo this week.” So I went to a park in Pasley, which is just outside Glasgow, and through the grass saw these two beautiful huskies looking like wolves. I called them over and they came running up to me in these beautiful, peaceful surroundings. I immediately fell in love with them, and we went to puppy training classes together.
It was at the forefront of my mind that this bond between Ian and Rollo had to really shine on screen. We climbed a mountain together, their first ever mountain. So we were a pack on set, me, Whiskey, Dewey. We were the Three Amigos together. We do only work with Dewey. He’s the main Rollo dog. He is the star, Whiskey’s never too far away, though. He’s sort of just hanging around, getting all the treats while Dewey has to do all the work.
There’s a photo on your Twitter where you’re wearing a ring and it has a wolf on it. Does that have something to do with Rollo?
That was my 21st birthday present—it was a ring that my mum got me from Gucci. It’s a Gucci wolf, but it’s also Rollo wolf. So, whenever I’m traveling; if I’m here in London or in Barcelona, or whatever, I always wear my little wolf ring so Rollo’s always with me.
It’s definitely Rollo?
I know, it’s so sweet, right? Totally Rollo.