Ed Speleers on living out Stephen Bonnet's 'biggest fear' on Outlander
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Outlander season 5, episode 10, "Mercy Shall Follow Me."
EW loves a good villain, and now it's time to drown our sorrows because Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) has shuffled off his mortal coil.
The pirate/smuggler terrorized the Fraser family almost since the moment he first met them. He went from terrifying thief to the true face of evil when he raped Bree (Sophie Skelton) shortly after she arrived in 18th-century America in season 4. Ever since, the entire Fraser clan were consumed with exacting revenge upon him, particularly once they learned he had survived the explosion at the jail. But they finally got their vengeance, and Bonnet his comeuppance, after an eventful episode.
After Brianna told a jailed Bonnet she was carrying his child, Bonnet became obsessed with the potential of Jemmy being his son. On Sunday's episode, everything came to a head when Bonnet kidnapped Bree from a Wilmington beach and took her to his secret hideout on a small island with the intention of starting a life with her and his son. After she rejected his plan, he resolved to sell her into slavery, but the Fraser clan came to the rescue. They could've ended Bonnet then and there, but instead, Bree chose to hand him over to the authorities for him to face judgment.
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This led to Bonnet's sentencing to death by drowning, his gravest fear, which he reminded us all of when telling Bree of his recurring nightmares. But he wasn't forced to suffer the fate after all when Bree, in an act of mercy or perhaps just control, shot Bonnet in the head and put him out of his misery.
Though it seemed for a time that Stephen Bonnet could cheat death over and over, his time is finally up – and so is actor Ed Speleer's stint on Outlander. We caught up with him to talk about Bonnet's final hour, how he made such an evil man so damned charming, and just what it's like filming a drowning scene in a freezing Scottish lake.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well, it’s time at last to say goodbye to Stephen Bonnet, who for a time, seemed like he might have lives. When did you know this would be it for him?
ED SPELEERS: It's a shame he doesn't have nine lives. I was on holiday with my family, sitting on a beach in Majorca when I got a phone call from one of the ADs saying, "Would I come in for a prosthetic fitting for a bullet wound?" I thought Oo, a bullet wound that sounds exciting. He's probably going to get shot in the leg or arm or something. I didn't realize that what they meant was I was getting shot in between the eyes. I found out in a roundabout way. I was upset because a character like that is never going to last that long, but I was thoroughly enjoying playing him. I didn't want it to stop, but it had too. I'm very lucky that the script for that final episode for my character was a chance to maybe answer a few questions about who he is; he confesses perhaps quite a lot he's never confessed before. He almost goes through a big bit of therapy I suppose, as well as getting his comeuppance.
I'm not sure if you've read the books, but the showrunners have combined a showdown with Bonnet in this book with one from the end of the next. Do you know why they decided to do that and not keep you around another season?
I haven't got a clue. Maybe I wasn't good (laughs). I've read Drums of Autumn. I hadn't read the fifth book, but I did know there's something else that happens to him at some point where he gets his [groin] shot, which would be very uncomfortable. I think the writers are probably looking at many different ways things are going and stories bubbling along and how do you do that with a character that is looming over people, but isn't necessarily there all the time?
He is very obsessed with becoming a father and a gentleman, and rather psychotically believes that he is going to be able to do that with Bree and Jemmy. Why do you think he believes that and is so obsessed with these things when he's done all right for himself without them?
Maybe it's the one thing that hasn't been ticked off. Maybe because he didn't come from his own family, and the beginning of his life was so disrupted and disjointed. He was abandoned as a child. Maybe he felt that he wanted to have an influence. There's lots of mentions of fate and luck, and I think there is this very backward disturbing way that he thinks he and Bree are destined to be together. Although he plays out this idea that he wants to be a father, he wants to love a son, I wonder if it might be something slightly more narcissistic and it comes down to wanting to have an heir, wanting to have something left. Also, that in itself means people can never escape him in a way. He puts his feelings and ideas out there to the layman in a normal way, in terms of wanting to love a son, etc. but actually because he has this more sociopathic quality to him, he puts that out there because he thinks that's what people want to hear and he can get something out of that situation. He can get Bree, and if he can get Brianna by showing he's a loving father, then that's a way of hoodwinking her I suppose. It would be about leaving his legacy, an heir. I think that's how he would be pursuing it.
Bonnet is an extremely evil man. We have so much evidence of that, and yet, in those scenes with Sophie, it was almost a twisted Beauty and the Beast vibe. He still, in spite of it all, seemed charming and then when he talked of his childhood, you did feel sorry for him. How do you make such a bad person so appealing?
I don't know If he comes across as charming or not. But I do think there's a charm to him. In the books, there's a charm to him. In the script, there was as well. I find it difficult articulate because I'm potentially talking about people who've done some heinous acts in their time, but there's also humans out there who are on paper incredibly bad individuals but I'm sure if we got inside them and got to know them, there would be at some point a redeeming quality. [He's a] well-rounded character and you can think maybe he could take a different path, maybe we could see him in an alternative light. That's the beauty of good writing. As an actor, that's what you're looking for. You never want someone to be a 2-d good guy or 2-D bad guy. you need them to have shades of grey and everything else. That's why I'm disappointed not to be playing him anymore because he does have the ability to be multi-faceted.
Bonnet has been afraid of drowning as long as we’ve known him, so of course, that’s how he’s sentenced to die. First off, did you always know that was coming and did it impact how you played those other scenes where he talks about the nightmares?
I've read up about him a lot, and it's mentioned in early books. It's funny because he adores the sea in a way, although it's his biggest fear. He works with the sea, being a pirate and being at sea for most of his adult life. It's a big part of his existence. But it was definitely a huge factor in playing things. It was another color having this as a way in [and] trying to find my own biggest fear, whatever it may be. I was very fortunate to have this known fear, that was his biggest fear of all. To have that as something to harness onto was a very powerful tool because it gives you great scope to play with. Especially in this episode, it's there the whole way through. It's mentioned on two or three occasions; he confesses it away, and he gets his comeuppance and it is his biggest fear. That's why it's so interesting that Brianna takes the shot to put him out of his misery. Ultimately, she gains a lot of power doing that.
Was your drowning your final day on set? A proper final goodbye?
We actually did quite a bit after that. I'm trying to think. I thought we did a lot in order, but we didn't. The scenes changed around a lot quite a bit because of weather. I had some major things to do after that. Interestingly, I had to do the whole confession of why I had such a fear in my nightmares of the sea. I had to do that after the event, which was quite interesting.
Tell us about filming that death scene – it doesn’t look terribly pleasant to be up to your neck in water with your hands strung above you.
It was a cold lake, don't get me wrong. There were lots of stuntmen out there in all these very nifty high tech diving suits that were designed for diving in the coldest water possible. The crew had lots of wet gear on. To be fair, I was very well supported with what I was given in terms of wet suits and dry suits and all the stuff. I looked like the Michelin man in order to get in the actual water. I was expecting it to be freezing cold. Maybe I switched off, I don't know but I kind of became oblivious to the temperature in a way. I was using other things in my mind that were having a different effect on me. It was quite a quick process. It was a long day building up to it. There were other scenes going on, but I was waiting for a long time to do the scene and it was such a small moment. I was up there for not a huge amount of time and not even in the water for very long. Everything felt very surreal. It was quite a peaceful setting. It was beautiful woods and a lake. It was all very picturesque. It felt very still. It was an almost odd moment because everything was very quiet. It was a very surreal process.