NEW YORK — There's an odd believability you find inside "Outlander" that somehow makes it feel true-to-life.
Never mind that it's a rip-roaring fantasy. Claire, a lovely British Army nurse on a second honeymoon in Scotland, is mysteriously swept from 1945 back to 1743, plopped into a strange and alien existence, including marriage to a dashing Scottish warrior, even as she struggles to return to "modern" times and the husband she left behind.
Premiering on the Starz network on Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT, "Outlander" is adapted from Diana Gabaldon's wildly popular novels. Shot in Scotland, the series is lush and beautiful, and as genre-bending as its source material as it straddles romance, science fiction, history and adventure.
SAME AND OPPOSITE
"I've always done period shows," said "Outlander" executive producer Ronald D. Moore, a sci-fi maestro celebrated for his futuristic "Battlestar Galactica," ''Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
"I like working in worlds that don't exist, and creating things that take you outside of your day-to-day reality. So the process of putting together a show that takes place in the 18th century is really not different from a show that takes place in the future: You're still creating everything from scratch."
Moore knows he's facing a hurdle snagging viewers who aren't already hooked on the "Outlander" books. In particular, he's got to win over guys, who may not instantly see the appeal of a romance-laden saga with a woman at its center.
"Perceptions are hard to fight," he said. "This is the exact opposite challenge that we had on 'Battlestar Galactica' on the Syfy channel: How do you get a woman to even look at this program? But once they did, women bought in, and loved it. Now we have the opposite challenge: Look, 'Outlander' isn't chick-lit or a romance novel! This is really an adventure story. So, you try to get men to sample it in the same way."
"I wasn't aware when I got the job," said Irish actress Caitriona Balfe, who stars as Claire, during an interview in New York alongside Scottish-born Sam Heughan ("A Princess for Christmas"), who plays the warrior, Jamie, and like Balfe knew nothing of the "Outlander" craze.
"But I had a funny moment when I went to my local bookstore in L.A. to buy a copy," Balfe recalled. "When I was paying for it, the clerk said, 'You know, they're making a TV series out of that. Ronald D. Moore is going to executive produce it. I wrote my thesis about him in college.' I thought, 'Ahhh, this is a good omen!'"
"I thought we would cast Claire first, and that Jamie would be the hardest part to cast," said Moore. "But Jamie was the first character cast in the entire piece. It happened so early it scared us, but once we saw Sam's tape, we said, 'Let's just grab him while we can.' And then it took forever to find Claire. We needed someone intelligent, funny, empathetic, capable; an actress who could sustain viewers' interest week after week.
"Then Caitriona sent her tape in, and word roared around the office: 'Yeah, that's it!' She was cast just days before she had to go to work!"
"There's a cockroach!" hooted Heughan, interrupting himself as he pointed to a baseboard of the otherwise immaculate Associated Press conference room. With that, Balfe let out a yelp, followed by apologies for overreacting as the roach was swiftly removed.
"She's GREAT with horses," Heughan laughed.
"I'm even fine with mice and rats," said Balfe, who recalled when she used to live in roach-infested New York. "I was pretty lucky. I never had a cockroach in five years in Brooklyn. But I was staying at my friend's place in Manhattan one night while he was out of town. There was a cockroach in the bathroom and I couldn't even bring myself to go in there. I woke up at six the next morning and had to run out to the closest coffee shop just to pee."
BACK TO WORK
After a week in the U.S. for publicity and Comic-Con, it's back for a few more weeks' shooting in Scotland. There, the "Outlander" troupe has been able to toil in a bubble since last September, largely shielded from the hubbub greeting the show.
"This year has flown by," said Heughan. "Our feet haven't touched the ground."
"When the show premieres," Balfe said, "we'll be back in Glasgow. We miss it."
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at [email protected] and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore