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'Outlander' postmortem: Lotte Verbeek on blood baths and lost loves

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Lotte Verbeek as Geillis Duncan in Season 1 of ‘Outlander’ (Photo: Starz/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Warning: This post contains spoilers for “The Bakra” episode of Outlander.

Never let it be said that Geillis Duncan doesn’t know how to make an entrance. Outlander‘s other time traveler returned to the series in grand fashion on Season 3’s penultimate episode, “The Bakra,” emerging from a goat’s blood bath to unnerve, and then seduce, her captive — young Ian Fraser Murray. Of course, the poor kid would have been a lot more unnerved had he been aware that the hemoglobin in her tub was “donated” by young men his age, rather than goats. “It’s actually young boys’ blood,” actress Lotte Verbeek tells Yahoo Entertainment of her character’s bathing habits. “She says that it’s goat’s blood, but that’s one of the reasons why she keeps the boys!”

Regular blood baths are just one way that Geillis has tried to stay young in the 20 years since we saw her being tried as a witch and sentenced to death way back in Season 1. Claire very narrowly escaped the same fate, learning that her companion had also traveled back in time from the 20th century, where she answered to a different name, Gillian Edgers, but still had the same passion for Scottish independence. We met Gillian in the Season 2 finale, when Claire and Brianna watched her pass through the Craigh na Dun stones after offering up her husband as a ritual sacrifice.

Having missed the opportunity to stop her one-way trip to the past, Claire assumed that Gillian/Geillis’s story still ended at the stake. As it turns out, there’s a whole other chapter to her life — one that Claire learns about when she makes landfall in Jamaica, where Geillis is enjoying the privileged lifestyle of a plantation owner’s widow. As she explains to her fellow 20th-century refugee, her lover — and Jamie’s uncle— Dougal MacKenzie saved her from her fiery fate by swapping her body out for a woman who was already dead. After Dougal died at Jamie’s hand prior to the Battle of Culloden, Geillis eventually married her now-dead husband, Barnabas Abernathy, and moved to the tropics. Despite the distance from her native land, she hasn’t given up her dream of seeing a Scotsman on the throne… even if that goal means betraying her former friend. We spoke with Verbeek about Geillis’s commitment to her cause, and how the centuries are finally taking their toll on her.

How did you feel about the blood bath scene when you read it in the script?
It wasn’t on the page that she’d be blood-bathing! Matthew [B. Roberts, one of the show’s executive producers] suggested it in conversation when I was on the set. He was like, “How about that?” and I went “Yeah, that’s super-cool. Moving on!” But then he looked at me, and said, “No, I’m serious; let’s do this.” I thought it was a great idea, although there was quite a lot to it. As with water, when you’re in blood you float — you don’t stay under. So they made this whole tub that would hold me under the surface. But it also got really slippery, and I’m supposed to walk out like this kind of predatory animal, but I was slipping all over the place! I think we took an entire day to shoot that scene.

What was the blood made of?
I think it was a mixture between natural coloring and some sort of glucose. It was sweet — that I definitely remember. Sticky and sweet and really thick, too. It was quite a thing to take a shower afterwards. [Laughs] But the crew was amazing. They kept me warm and made sure I was comfortable. And John Bell [who plays Young Ian] was phenomenal to work with. I had to keep taking blood baths, but he had to stuff his face with cake, which he completely committed to.

Geillis in her Gillian Edgers phase (Photo: Starz/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Even though Gillian appeared in Season 2, this is the first time we’ve seen Geillis since Season 1. Did you enjoy the opportunity to show how she’s changed in the 20 years since we last encountered her?
In the book, she’s gained quite a lot of weight having been on the island for a while. When I offered [to gain weight], they had no interest, but they still wanted to show some transformation, so they used a grey wig and some prosthetics to age me. The blood, obviously, is used to explain how she still looks relatively good for a 50-year-old. I liked seeing the journey for this woman who is so driven to fight for her cause after all these years, but is also getting quite tired and annoyed. I like those bits where she’s not having it anymore, because it has been 20 years! I’ve enjoyed this season the most so far; I think I got some really juicy moments to act.

It does feel like she’s being less careful about trying to fit into the past. The fact that she’s making references to 20th-century things like Casablanca and Benjamin Button indicate she’s letting her mask slip.
Yeah, completely. She’s one of the most powerful people on this island, and doesn’t have anything to fear, so she’s kind of letting go a little bit. It’s fun to play that. I got the sense that she must be exhausted and so done. She’s not giving up, but she’s reaching that point. In the first season, she was more invested in being charming. After all these years, she’s letting her mask down in public.

Do you think of Gillian and Geillis as being different people? Or is Geillis an extension of who she was as Gillian?
I think it’s an extension. She’s definitely chameleonic in that she adapts to her environment and her time. She also travels deliberately to the 18th century, so there’s an awareness of how things would be. Geillis has always been someone to explore the boundaries of what would fit and what wouldn’t fit, but I definitely think she is always the same person. The one thread in all these times and places is that she’s fighting for this cause. Even when she’s far away in Jamaica, she’s still fighting for the Scottish cause.

Does she ever step back and realize how crazy her mission seems?
I think the nice thing about the character is that she’s fully committed. In some ways, you almost forgive her for the things she does because she’s such a complete and true believer. It’s almost a virtue; it doesn’t justify everything, but she gets away with stuff. That’s been true for the fans as well. It’s a character fans love to hate, as I’ve been reading!

Geillis and Claire on trial for witchcraft in Season 1 of ‘Outlander’ (Photo: Neil Davidson/Starz/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s interesting to compare her to Claire in the way they approach living in the past. In Season 2, Claire tried to change history, but this time through the stones she just wants to have a life with Jamie. But Geillis is still trying to alter the past rather than conform to it.
Claire in the moment will fight for what is right when she sees it happen. Like when she sees slaves being traded, she steps in because she has a big heart and wants to do what’s right. But it’s not like she has a bigger master plan to change things in the world in the way Geillis has. She planned this trip, and went out of her way to do this over 20 years, not just in the moment.

Would you consider Dougal to be the love of Geillis’s life? Her Jamie, in a way?
For me that’s always been the case. He was her big love, and what drew her to him was his love for Scotland as well. But that didn’t work out, so she just decided to be with or marry whoever was convenient and could help her achieve her goals. I do think that was the big lost love and an unrequited love in a sense, because it just didn’t work out.

Had Dougal not died, do you think the two of them might have found a way back to each other?
I don’t know! It’s a shame that you never saw [how he rescued her] onscreen, and only learn about it by hearing it from her. She did have his baby when she came out of the witch trials, and there is ancestry there and it’s interesting how that will play out in the later books. But that’s a mystery.

Is she perhaps envious of Claire for getting to continue her grand love story?
There’s a point in the season finale where I play to that. There’s an envy, because who doesn’t want to have the love of their lives return to them? And I think there’s a loneliness to Geillis as well. As much as she’s committed to what she’s fighting for, she’s ultimately living her life alone and that’s a big thing to play with. It’s also kind of sad, and I think it comes out in the end of the storyline. Hopefully you feel for her. She’s not just a villain, and I’ve always found that that’s the most interesting thing about her.

Outlander airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.

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