'Outlander' Star Sam Heughan on His Rape Scene: 'We Knew It Was Going to Be Intense'

The actor says fans of the show have embraced his character's journey

Photo: Neil Davidson/Starz

Portraying Jamie Fraser, a tall, strong and gallant Scot in Starz’s Outlander, comes easy to actor Sam Heughan. But when the script called for his character to be the victim of a brutal sexual and physical assault by a merciless English army captain, Heughan had to mentally prepare as well.

“We knew it was going to be intense,” he tells PEOPLE. “But we were very aware of anything graphic or violent and we made sure it was there for a reason. It was just about wrapping yourself in it for a few weeks and living that experience.”

Filming the scenes, which take place in a dimly lit prison cell, took two weeks and was mapped out in advance. “A week before, we went through the script, very much like a rehearsal in theater, so we worked it scene by scene, what we thought worked, what didn’t. And then we just blocked it out, which is strange,” Heughan, 35, admits. “But once you got the idea and knew what you wanted the audience to see or not see as well, that sort of set the guidelines for shooting it.”

Heughan’s days began at 4 a.m. in the prosthetics chair to apply his character’s scars that cover his back and the progressive physical assault on his body. “Then we’d shoot for 12 hours, and then another hour and a half to take the prosthetics off,” he says. “So there wasn’t much sleep. But I think that helped the mind-set of prisoner.”

VIDEO: Is Sam Heughan Allowed to Cut His Long Outlander Locks?

The only moment of levity during the filming was when the script called for rats to scurry around the dank cell. “I didn’t know about it. My character was unconscious, so I was lying there pretty much naked and they said, ‘Release the rats,’ ” Heughan recalls with a laugh. “That was a terrifying moment because I didn’t really know what they were going to do.”

Yet the actor says the reaction to the episode was worth every moment. “I was nervous because it was pretty dark material, but I know we put everything into it,” he explains. “To watch these two men and the battle of wills and how they break each other. It was exciting to go to this strange place where you are broken down and reprogrammed.”

Now shooting the second season, in which Jamie and his wife Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe) go to France, Heughan says he’s still taken aback when fans recognize him on the street. “I’m rarely prepared for it, and it’s always a surprise, but I enjoy meeting people,” he says. “It’s always nice when someone comes up to you and tells you they enjoy the show. At least they’re not coming up and saying how much they hate it.”

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