Outlander Homepage originals by Susie Brown
While an actor’s life is never dull, you could be forgiven for thinking that the life of an Outlander actor is another level altogether! Imagine, for example, that you were portraying a character who, in the space of one televised hour, watched their best friend die, helped to bury him, sang a lament for his life, pledged loyalty to Jamie Fraser, was set upon by pirates, tried desperately to protect their friends and then ultimately lost their life by having their throat slit courtesy of the new resident villain! That was precisely the brief for actor Keith Kikki Fleming, who portrayed Jamie Fraser’s kinsman, Lesley, during season 3 and the first episode of season 4. Luckily for us here at Outlander Homepage, Keith agreed to talk to us about his final scenes.
Following the hanging of his offsider Hayes, Lesley leads an impromptu lament for his friend’s life. The song, sung entirely in Gaelic, gave viewers the chance to hear Keith’s impressive voice and we wondered how long he had been singing.
“I actually joined the choir at school when I was 16 or 17,” Keith told us. “The choir was regarded as being full of ‘squares’ so I was viewed with suspicion when I turned up with my late friend Mark. We were two of the ‘cool guys’ - so choir wasn't meant to be for us! But I had an eye on the planned choir trip to Munich and Italy - girls, you see! However, I soon found that I loved singing the pieces too. Performing Vivaldi's Gloria, and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana was an extraordinary experience.
Like most people, I think being a rock star is the ultimate fantasy job, so I've certainly rocked out in the shower! But yes, I’ve also sung professionally. I have been Cliff in Cabaret, and have appeared in two irreverent and riotous musicals by Forbes Masson, called Mince! & Pants. I also played the lead character of Davy, in the musical Sunshine on Leith, which was based on the music of The Proclaimers. We actually went into the studio to record an original soundtrack which is available on CD, so my voice exists forever for people to hear and judge!
As for the singing in that episode, I'm not a native Gaelic speaker, but I had the lament’s composer, Robert Robertson, a Gold medal Mod winner, helping out. He was fantastic. He basically spent an hour with me working on the pronunciation and the tune. Then he gave me the sound files and it was down to me, but he was on hand to help with anything that wasn't sounding quite right. So, I basically spent my spare time singing the lament. I knew what the song said in English first, so that I could then convey the emotional context in Gaelic.”
And what was the reaction to the performance?
“I sang it at the read-through and received a great and surprised response from the room,” Keith said. “Matt Roberts actually said that he'd have made it a feature of Lesley if he'd known about my voice. You know, thinking back, that was my cue to suggest a quick rewrite where Lesley only suffers a flesh wound!
On the day I made sure that I was prepared, as I was going to have to sing in situ with all those people in the tavern and with the camera focused on me. Sam Heughan slyly remembered that Jamie was tone deaf and a terrible singer, so I was left, quite correctly, to lament my dear friend solo. There were 3 verses and 3 repeats of the chorus, where the others start to join in. There were further verses too, but they didn’t make the edit. I think, by the end of the day, I'd sung the lament about 20 times. Certainly everyone in the crew seemed to know it!”
Next, we asked Keith if he could walk us through the final brutal scene that resulted in his character’s death. We started by asking about the choreography.
“The final scene was choreographed with our fight director on hand,” Keith explained. “He and our director, Julian, worked out what they wanted and we set to it. We rehearsed the stunt/fight parts in an empty warehouse on mats, then we went to the studio. The boat itself was in a warehouse studio in Hamilton - a far cry from Cape Town! It was complicated because the action is fast and furious, and a cabin is a really confined area - especially when you have cameras, crew and cast all vying for space. Then there is health and safety, with stunt guys helping ensure that you feel safe in the fights.”
But how was the atmosphere created?
“Well,” Keith began, “atmosphere is really created from an actor's point of view by playing the stakes. You have to be aware of the situation, the danger, the obstacles and whatever action is needed. In film/TV that can be enhanced with music, lighting and editing. The creative team really get to work.”
Lesley’s death is a brutal one, when Stephen Bonnet grabs him from behind and cooly slits his throat. We wondered if Keith had to wear prosthetic make up to achieve this shocking effect.
“No prosthetic,” Keith said, “but I did have a blood pump which ran up my arm and finished under my collar. And Ed (Speleers, who plays Bonnet) had a knife which also had a blood pump. It was a real knife I might add. Solid steel on my neck - that is why we rehearse! It was blunted, but it still left marks. So I trusted Ed's professionalism and awareness. We had to have a dialogue between each other to ensure that we were both cool with it.”
When we commented that we hoped Ed was lovely in real life, Keith was quick to reassure us.
“He's a great lad,” Keith said. “He’s got a real twinkle in his eye and is cocky, fun, confident, mischievous. He’s a bit of a lad - intelligent, sharp, just perfect for Bonnet! Oh aye, and he’s not bad looking either. On his first day at the read-through, I spotted him and guessed he fitted the description of good-looking pirate. It must be hard being bonnie eh?” Keith joked. “I dunno if I loved or hated him!”
All jokes aside, the final scene must have been tough to film.
“It was a tough scene,” Keith agreed, “for many reasons. It was emotionally tough for Cait and Sam, given where their characters were in the situation - both helpless and not knowing if their loved one was safe. That's where Lesley stepped in, to protect the most precious cargo - Claire - because that's what Jamie expected of him. There was much discussion of what was the focus of the trauma at end. The ring was important of course, but Cait pointed out that their good friend has just been killed brutally in front of her and she must react to that. Caitriona is an incredible actress and so aware of the ‘whole’. Claire would not be willing to just accept that Lesley is dead and move on.The whole thing has been horrific for her and as an actor you need to map out the emotional content and respond to everything accordingly.”
Amidst all the sadness, Keith shared a moment of humour.
“It could have been a different end if we only had one take,” he said. “The first time Ed burst through the door and got me in the neck choke, his musket fell out of his belt, so I bent down and picked it up! I missed my opportunity to change the series there and then! Also, whilst I lay dead out of shot, he dropped the ring, so to help him out and save cutting, I reached it and handed it to him! Fun indeed!
But what we didn’t know, was that while the character of Lesley was dead, Keith was still suffering, due to an injury he had brought to the set.
“I was playing Macbeth at the time in the Citizens’ Theatre and I had dislocated my shoulder mid show,” Keith said. “The pain was incredible, but somehow I carried on. It was 2 weeks later when we filmed this scene, so my shoulder was back in, but was basically not as mobile as it had been. The stunt guys looked after me, but I had to go for it in the fight and lying on floor for many takes was uncomfortable - what we do for the art, eh!”
The scene was also a tough one for Keith emotionally.
“For me it was a mixture of playing the scene and knowing my time was coming to an end. I was going to be leaving this great group of people who'd become friends, not just the cast, but right throughout the crew, drivers, producers, the lot. And DEAD...! No coming back ...wtf? We also didn't film in order...so my death was on the Monday and I filmed my final scenes on the Friday which was the lament tavern scene.”
Sadly, since even Claire’s amazing medical skills couldn’t fix a slit throat, we have now seen the last of Lesley on screen. So, we finished the interview by asking Keith was was coming up next, career wise.
“Next for me...? Well, currently I'm in Cyrano de Bergerac with National Theatre of Scotland and then I'm doing a wee panto with Ryan Fletcher, who played Corporal McGregor at Lallybroch in season 3, and Charlene Boyd, who was my incredible Lady Macbeth when I dislocated my shoulder. After that, who knows? I've been asked about an exciting theatre project for Spring, but we will see. I'm genuinely gutted to be gone from Outlander but when your time comes, it comes. My character didn't appear in the books and I had a great experience. People started to compare Lesley with Rupert and Angus etc, but they were original characters who did exist in the books, so there was investment in writing their material and of course they became established. In my case, it's tricky for writers to keep someone who is almost perfunctory, when there are so many characters and storylines from the books to satisfy. You can only work with what is there.”
So did Keith have any parting words?
“I'd love to have said, ‘Two things: lose the death, and where is MY love interest?!’ Hahahaha!” he joked. “Seriously, I just tried to make a rounded, believable true character with what I had and I am so grateful to Matt and Maril for giving me the opportunity. Outlander is a stunning production and has a brilliant team. The fans are the icing on top.”
We’d like to thank Keith for chatting to us about his final days on the Outlander set and wish him every success from now on.
This interview was conducted by Susie Brown, a writer and teacher librarian who lives in Australia. She’s had the privilege to interview a number of cast now and has just realised that Keith Fleming and Steven Cree have both played the role of Cliff in Cabaret. She wonders if they ever sang together on set?