- Outlander -John Bell Talks Filming Young Ian's Backstory On 'Outlander'
Spoilers ahead for Outlander Season 6, Episode 4, "Hour of the Wolf."
Outlander is first and foremost the story of Caitríona Balfe's Claire and Sam Heughan's Jamie. But it was Young Ian's time to shine in "Hour of the Wolf." In the Season 6 episode, Outlander revealed Young Ian's time with the Mohawk. "He's got his chance to make peace or reckon with his past," John Bell says about Young Ian's big episode. But while Ian experienced "true heartbreak," Bell only has positive things to say about filming Ian's backstory on Outlander.
As Bell shares, the flashbacks in "Hour of the Wolf" were some of the last scenes shot in the season. "It was just like, 'Woo, this is my time,'" Bell says. "Cait had wrapped, Sam had wrapped. It was just me. I felt like I was coming in like, 'Aye, I'm the boss.' It was a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun."
One of the reasons these scenes were filmed last was because they had to fly in the First Nations actors from Canada who play the characters from the Cherokee and Mohawk tribes. The episode marked the return of Braeden Clarke as Kaheroton and Tom Jackson as Tehwahsehkwe from Season 4. It's Kaheroton's presence in particular that compels Ian to open up to his uncle Jamie about how he fell in love and married Wahionhaweh (played by Morgan Holmstrom). And how after they lost two children, including their daughter Iseabaìl, she ended their marriage to be with Kaheroton.
"I adored Braeden the minute I met him back in Scotland all those years ago and we kept in touch ever since. So when I saw the scripts, it was like, 'Dude! Your name's here!' He's like, 'Yeah, dude!' I was so, so excited to see him again."
Though Ian may have some complicated feelings toward Kaheroton for being with his wife, the three actors involved in this love triangle bonded on set. In fact, Bell shares that he, Clarke, and Holmstrom got matching tattoos. When I ask if he's willing to tell me what tattoo he got, he does me one better — he stands up on his couch, lifts up his kilt, and shows me the outline of the wolf on the outside of his thigh over Zoom. "We've all got wee wolves to remind ourselves of our time shared in Scotland," he says. (You can see the wolf tattoos for yourself on Holmstrom's Instagram in the last slide of this post.)
Although the show kept what happened to Ian when he lived with the Mohawk a secret in Season 5, Bell says he had looked up what happened to his character in the books by Diana Gabaldon. "I would be daft not to. It's just [mimics typing], 'Young Ian Wiki Outlander What Happened?'" And Bell calls the experience of working with the First Nations actors from different Indigenous tribes, including Cree, Ojibwe, and Mohawk, an "incredible culture exchange."
"All the people that came over were so interested in Scottish culture and Scottish history. And I was very interested in their culture and their history, so it was this great exchange of culture and ideas and finding our common grounds, which was just magical," Bell says, adding he was "very privileged to have met all those guys."
There was some tragedy the cast had to process while on set. During filming, the news broke that hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children were found in Canada from the country's residential boarding school program.
"I've never seen Outlander do this, but basically Glen [Gould], who plays Chief Bird, he led us all in a song of healing at lunchtime. So the entire crew gathered round — crew and all the [supporting artists] from Canada — and he sang a song of healing from his drum and then we were all given tobacco, which we then took to the river," Bell says. "It's a prayer that is traditionally given in his culture in Cree. And it was a very, very emotional experience."
Like Ian has a deep respect for the Mohawk culture that he's been adopted into, Bell wanted to make sure he portrayed Ian's experience as authentically as possible. "There's responsibility for me to play the truth in every scene and then trust in the production and the writers that they are putting the research and the effort in."
"We had elders from the Mohawk Nation basically on speed dial for us so that anything I needed to say or anything that was going to be added into the script would go to them," he says. "I would get voice notes from them saying, 'This is how you say, "I love you." This is how you say, "Eyes." This is how you say, "Belly."'"
He also worked with Outlander dialect coach Carol Ann Crawford on pronunciation. "He's not a master of the language yet, so you're allowed to make some mistakes," Bell says, joking that Young Ian's on "Duolingo level 20" when it comes to his Mohawk language skills.
He praises the costume department for their research, including finding an 18th-century document that translated the Mohawk's beadwork. Bell says they used this for the band that Wahionhaweh gave to Ian, which roughly translated to "white man in the tribe."
He was also personally given a piece of jewelry from one of the First Nations performers. "I have a ring that was given to me by one of the elders," Bell says. "It was made in Canada and she brought it over for me and it's the Mishipeshu, which is the water panther that lives in the Great Lakes."
Beyond highlighting the Mohawk culture, Ian's emotional backstory also gave him the opportunity to bond with his uncle over their shared experience of losing a child when Jamie mentioned Faith — the daughter he and Claire lost in Season 2.
"If there's one person that Ian will always feel completely comfortable to be vulnerable around, [it] is his uncle," Bell says, citing how this moment mirrors when Ian talked to his uncle about his sexual assault in Season 4. "There's another parallel there when he admits to his uncle about what really happened with Geillis and his uncle confides in him about what happened to him. And then cut forward to Season 6, a different trauma which they have both experienced," he says. "We love men talking about their feelings!"
Ian's moment with Jamie also showed that he still has a bit of that unguarded innocence that's reminiscent of Young Ian in Season 3. But Bell teases that that side of Ian may not be very present as Season 6 continues.
"I do think he's found some peace. I say 'some' because I think he's been traumatized, as well, through his experience. It's not been easy. And as we see Ian progress, I think he does tend to get a bit darker as these demons still haunt him," Bell teases. "Yes, he's got peace but his tendency to violence will also be informed by his past."