Outlander packed a lot into its fifth season. Weddings! babies! attempted murder! actual murder! locusts! But through it all, one character emerged as the true hero of the season: Lauren Lyle’s Marsali Fraser. From training as her stepmother Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) apprentice to offering words of wisdom to struggling family members, Marsali—inquisitive, quick-witted, and perpetually pregnant—has morphed into one of the most interesting characters on the show. And Lyle is having a lot of fun with that.
“With every script I got this season, I [was] blown away by what Marsali had to do, the things I had to learn—really diving into who she is and her personality and her inner life,” Lyle says. “She’s found her place and her needs, and we couldn’t have the Ridge without her.”
The season finale makes that clear. Marsali has become fiercely protective of the stepmother she once loathed, and after Lionel Brown (Ned Dennehy) is captured following a brutal attack on Claire, Marsali decides to finish him off herself when Claire declines to enact her own revenge. She loads a syringe with poison and promises to send Brown to hell for the destruction he’s wrought on her family. “It was an amazing, empowering, and healing moment to round off the season with,” Lyle says.
With quarantine still underway (“I feel like I’m eating and drinking my way through the whole situation,” she jokes), Lyle is still awaiting word on a start date for shooting season 6. “We’re getting a little bit trickling in here and there, but everything’s been up in the air because of the world right now,” she says. Instead, Lyle’s hard at work on her new podcast, She’s a Rec, an interview series that sees the 26-year-old actress quizzing “the coolest women of our time” (think Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell and Sex Education‘s Chinenye Ezeudu and Seraphina Beh) on the book, movie, and album that shaped their worldview. The only caveat: All the art must be created by women. “Normally you’ll get a radio show where people are talking about the music they love or a podcast where they’re talking about the big dark feelings, but [this is a] sort of marriage of the two, and it feels like a really cool way to get to know someone,” she says.
Below, Lyle breaks down Marsali’s season 5 journey, filming that ’60s sequence for the finale, and dragging a prosthetic baby bump around set all day.
How did you react to Marsali killing Lionel?
It seemed like with every episode the writers were going, “Let’s give her more—something even weirder and wilder.” There’s a scene where I confess to Bree I killed my dad. I read that and I was like, “Okay, I can see that happening.” And then you read through it and see a reverse psychology. But [with the finale] it almost felt like the writers spoke about it quite a lot, like, “How cool would that be if that had been something she’d really done?”
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How did developing Marsali’s personality come about? Did you have conversations with the producers about bringing more of yourself to the character?
I had a lot of encouragement to play around this season and I had a lot of really great material to do that. I always thought she has an element of humor and I come from a very funny, very dry family. I’m the youngest and the only girl, so it’s been me and my wit sticking up for myself all my life. And working with people like Cait and Sam—we all really care about each other, it’s not as though you have to work too hard there. Claire and Marsali have gone through a journey of absolutely hating each other from the first moment they met to loving each other, and me and Cait have a lot of fun with that, calling each other pains in the ass. But actually, we’re really good friends. Chemistry works!
Do you have a favorite day on set this season?
Doing the autopsy scene with Cait was hilarious. She had to learn a lot of dialogue and I kept making her laugh. That scene goes from being quite funny to being really serious, so we were quite giddy that day. And it was really special because that was the first moment of everything starting for Marsali: She’s offered this job and this world that would never be offered to a woman of her status at that time—something where she’s expected to think and learn, a skilled career that isn’t housekeeping and butchering, as you would [be required] to do. I remember being quite excited about what was ahead that day—everything kicks off for her in that scene and this new chapter was really special. I got to learn to stitch up like a proper surgeon. The art department gave me a big bit of thick leather [with] a sponge underneath and a needle and I sat in hotel rooms learning to stitch. And that’s for a thirty-second bit in the show. But we wanted to keep it all [feeling] really real.
The videos of the maggots in the surgery in episode 9 were disgusting.
The maggots were horrible. I remember being told I was the one who had to hold them, and they were like, “Is this bowl okay for you to use?” It was a really shallow bowl and I was like, “They’ll all crawl out! That’s not okay!” Then they got me a better bowl [but the maggots] hadn’t been washed. They were like, “Oh yeah, we didn’t think to do that.” I was like, “It’s come from a dead animal!” And I don’t think Sophie was handling it that well. [Laughs] They actually became quite fond friends of mine because I had to sit with them all day.
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Tell me about taking Marsali to the ’60s for Claire’s dream sequence.
That was a dream to receive that script. Matt came to visit and we were having a chat and he was like, “We’re thinking of doing this ’60s sequence where you guys will all go forward in time.” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? I get to take the corset off? And I can wear makeup? And I can have my hair dyed?” I’m really into fashion and I got to wear all original vintage, so the fitting was really special—we had 20 or 30 outfits that we could pick through, proper vintage Prada and things like that. Jamie [Payne], the director, really wanted to show Marsali’s personality through her clothes because we don’t get to see that in the 1700s, so we have the bright yellow mini dress and the knee-high white boots which I was desperate to take home with me.
And it’s so free! Marsali is so restricted in the 1700s, she’s got a baby bump all the time and layers of clothes—it’s a bleaker sort of time and place, so to be able to be in such brightness was brilliant. But it’s also really harrowing—a horrible contradiction we’re playing with. I think the brighter and more in-your-face we were, the darker it seems because it’s such a contrast from what’s going on.
What was set like that day?
We were all giddy the whole time because we were in this massive ’70s home [and] everyone was together, although it was obviously layered with dark insinuations and from such a horrifying place. [But] it was a joy to get to work together and play out something completely different that we’ll never get to do again. And Cait did amazing. They did a lot of heavy stuff, so we managed to strike a balance between support and stepping away when necessary. And something really heartbreaking happened: I had my film camera, a Canon A-1, and I was going around taking photos of everyone and I was like, Oh my goodness, I’m going to win awards for how good these photos are. And then all the film burned and none of it came out. I was like, I’m going to have to try to keep all these memories in my bank in the back of my head!
Do you get sick of wearing the bump? Do you end up just dragging it around all day?
Honestly, yeah. [Laughs] This year has been an absolute joy to have so much to do, [but] it’s easily been physically the hardest. The only good part was with the nine-month bump, I didn’t have the restriction of the corset. With all the others before it, I still had to wear the corset. But even then you can’t sit down because it’s so big. Sophie and Cait get quite a lot of opportunity not to wear the corset because they’re from the future—at any point they’d be trying to keep it off and be as comfortable as possible. Whereas Marsali is a woman of that time and would never consider that. She doesn’t know any other way. And you actually do get sympathy from people like you are pregnant; [they’ll] offer you water or come over to check that you’re okay or help you stand up. And some people thought it was funny to punch the bump and I didn’t find that funny at all—I was like, “Guys, still my body. My tummy’s still under there.” And you do find yourself stroking it like there’s a baby in there.
There’s a scene that opens with me and Cait on the surgery table and she’s examining Marsali for the end of the pregnancy and I call her my ma for the first time. And our director Annie [Griffin] came in and was like, “Wow, Lauren, Marsali looks like she belongs right here. Something looks modern about the others.” I love there being a difference between me and her. She walks differently, lives differently, looks so different from what I would ever want to look like. She’s a woman of the land and raw and has this massive bump and gets on with it anyway.
I know Sophie and Caitriona fought for more female friendships on the show. Can you talk about developing Marsali’s relationship with Bree?
Sophie and I never really worked together, we’d only ever seen each other at press events. We’d often be like, we [don’t] get to do stuff together, that’s really missing. They’re meant to be sisters, [but] what is that? The three of us spoke and said, “It would be really cool if we could all be close and a unit. Maybe they don’t know each other that well and that’s okay—it’s natural. They’ll get to know each other and support one another.” Marsali’s probably a little bit younger than Bree, but like [the scene] when she thinks Jemmy’s been taken by Bonnet and we had the conversation in the kitchen over whiskey—that is a moment where two very different times come together. Someone younger than Bree has more children and more experience in this world and is able to comfort her and convince her that things are going to be all right. You might perceive Bree as the more intelligent one because she’s educated and comes from a more developed time, but actually, [Marsali’s] teaching from something else. That’s the unpredictable thing that brings them together. I’m proud we made that decision.
Also, there aren’t that many women on Outlander. We’ve still got the remnants of Laoghaire trying to burn Claire as a witch, and I love the moments you get a reminder of that. In the autopsy scene, for a minute I’m convinced my mom was right and that Claire is a witch. I love all those [throwbacks] we still get, but I also love the big development—she has her loyalties and her heritage, but she’s able to grow and make her own choices and become the woman she would like to be.
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