During the pre-production phase of SAS: Red Notice, Sam Heughan needed to get in touch with former special air service operative Andy McNab, author of the film’s source material and inspiration for Heughan’s character, Tom Buckingham. The actor wanted to discuss the psychology behind a few key scenes before shipping off to set in Budapest.
“I gave him a call and he just so happened to be out with the Royal Marines doing maneuvers in Wales,” Heughan tells Men’s Journal. Despite having retired from the military after 17 years of service, the highly decorated McNab has remained an active member of the community, all while writing a number of best-selling war thrillers like Red Notice. “The guy is climbing through the mountains with a full pack, doing drills, and at the same time giving us guidance on the script. I was impressed.”
Those interactions influenced Heughan’s own specialized training for the film, which included weapons work and Krav Maga. That was all in addition to his usual workouts with long-time trainer John Valbonesi of Everyday Athlete. We chatted with the Scottish gentleman about spending time with McNab, studying tactics, and his SAS-inspired workouts.
Men’s Journal: What made you to want to star in this project?
Sam Heughan: First off, I think we all love a good action movie and this one came with a great character study. It also gave me a chance to work with Andy. I found him incredibly fascinating, especially the fact he categorizes himself as a ‘good psychopath.’ I enjoyed getting to spend time with him, both over the phone and in person. The first time we chatted was when I first signed on, and he flew to Scotland to have dinner with me. I learned about Andy’s time working undercover in Africa and Ireland—about the struggles he faced when captured and tortured in Iraq. He was deployed on a great number of missions behind enemy lines. There’s a good amount of dialogue and even some of the situations that happen in the movie that are pulled directly from his life. In the film, we hear Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen) [who plays my girlfriend] say when her cat died, Tom puts the cat in the freezer to preserve it before they go on vacation. That’s something Andy actually did.
What elements of McNab’s personality did you incorporate into the character of Tom Buckingham?
I wanted to pepper the movie with little hints that Tom might be slightly different and one of them is that he can’t read emotions. That was something Andy shared with me. Psychopaths don’t blink a lot. They can be very charming because they’re forced to put a lot of effort into learning how to be social in situations versus having that natural ability.
Did Andy share anything else with you that was helpful to the project?
I was able to rendezvous with him in Leeds, where we connected with one of his local policing contacts. We were allowed to witness some of the tactics they work on out there, and how they’d execute a drug bust. I got to do a lot of training with weaponry with Andy as well—learning how to clear compounds and buildings myself. I felt it was important to be able to move naturally through a space with a weapon. The thing that stuck with me was how, despite the frenzied activity, everyone in the service or SAS is always so controlled. They’re in these highly stressful, sometimes life-threatening situations, and their voices may raise, but it’s never out of excitement; it’s just to make sure commands are heard.
Did you do any special combat training for the fight sequences?
I did combat training with Etienne Ferreira, who has a Krav Maga school in Cape Town, South Africa. There’s a lot I learned from working with him, and he actually trains the NYPD and people who work on SWAT teams, not to mention the Israeli special forces, so he was perfect. The kind of training he does with those soldiers is focused on being useful, and it’s terribly physical. Everything they do is high stress and under pressure. We would do our workouts until failure, then transition immediately to weapons work. You hit this point where you can’t go anymore, then they throw a gun in your hands to do tactics so your heart rate is up the whole time. I was also doing a special program with my trainer John leading up to filming.
How did you adapt your training with coach John Valbonesi for this project?
I’d just finished filming Bloodshot before I started on this movie, and put on quite a bit of muscle, for me at least. Going into this though, I wanted Tom Buckingham to be a bit leaner. If you look at a lot of the guys from SAS, they’re not extremely large. They’re incredibly fit, and have amazing stamina, but that doesn’t mean they’re bulging everywhere. They have to be able to travel long distances on foot, while carrying sufficient pack weight. So we adapted my training to suit that. I had the goal of trimming down a bit, and our gym work was changed to get those kinds of results. The exercises we focused on were more about raw power and endurance than traditional weightlifting. In order to mimic some of the physical challenges soldiers in the military go through, we added a lot more weighted cardio, like weighted runs and weighted carries.
The majority of this movie takes place on a train, but what were some of your favorite filming locations?
I love getting out in the world and this movie was another opportunity to do that in the best way. We filmed a lot in Budapest, but we were also in Paris, London, and Spain. It was so fun to make a project like this. I think that scope was important giving a lot of the movie takes places in these cramped, confined places on the train. As people will see when they watch the movie, we end up in Spain, and that’s where we get the hint of a possible sequel. I really enjoyed getting to play Tom Buckingham, and hope we get out there again.
The Military-Inspired Workout That Got Sam Heughan Ready for ‘SAS: Red Notice’
Directions: Complete three rounds of this three-exercise circuit, taking 45 seconds rest between rounds. Then move onto the strength portion.
- Air Bike: 15 Calories
- Pushups (with hands on dumbbell handles): 20 reps
- Bear Crawl x 20 meters
Directions: Complete the specified sets and reps for the dumbbells press with varied weight, taking 60 seconds rest between sets, then move onto the next circuit.
1. Dumbbell Bench Press (heavy weight) — 2 x 8 reps: Sit at the front end of a flat bench with a set of heavy dumbbells in each hand resting just above your knees. Lie down on the bench and position dumbbells so palms face one another. Kick your knees up to hoist the dumbbells up, arms extended shoulder-width apart. Keep your feet up on the bench so you don’t hyperextend your low back. Rotate wrists forward so palms face away from you, then lower dumbbells to chest. Exhale, then press the dumbbells, locking your arms at the top and squeezing your pecs.
2. Dumbbell Bench Press (light weight) — 3 x 25 reps
Directions: Complete three rounds of this three-move circuit, taking 45 seconds rest between rounds, then move onto the next circuit.
1. Chinups x 10 reps: Position yourself under a pullup bar. Grab it with an underhand grip, keeping hands slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart. Bend knees and cross ankles. Keeping your core engaged and back straight, pull your weight up until your chin reaches the height of the bar, directing eyes over it. Pause briefly, then return slowly back to the starting position, keeping a soft bend in arms to maintain tension.
2. Banded Pull-Apart x 20 reps: Hold the ends of a resistance band in both hands. Standing tall, bring the band to chest height with arms straight out in front of you. Spread your arms out toward your sides, which will increase the tension in the band. Continue until the band is taut against your chest, arms wide. Pause briefly, then return slowly back to the starting position.
3. Plate Pinch Farmers Carry x 20 meters: Pick a pair of plates with challenging but manageable weight. Hold one in each hand using only your fingers. Keep your back straight, core engaged, and shoulders down and back as you walk the specified distance.
Directions: Complete three rounds of this two-exercise circuit, taking 45 seconds rest between rounds.
1. Power Cleans (110 lbs) x 10 reps: Stand just behind a weighted barbell, feet hip-width apart. Bend at knees and hinge at hips to lower down and grab the bar, hands just outside shoulder width. Dig your heels into the ground, engage your core, and maintain a flat back and proud chest as you drive the weight up. Once you hit deadlift position, instead of hitting lockout, keep your knees bent and extend through your hips. Powerfully shrug to keep the bar moving up your body, then drop under the bar extending your elbows out, until it comes to a natural hold on the front of your shoulders. Stand up all the way with your back straight. Bring the bar back down in a safe fashion.
2. Stair Sprint x 200 meters: Locate either a large outdoor staircase or a stair machine and run for the specified distance. Be conscious of your form, keeping your knees high to maximize cardio. If available, use a weighted vest to make the sprints more challenging.