Gary Young, on Playing Mr. Willoughby/ Yi Tien Cho

It’s Wednesday, February 21st, 1:30PM, and I’ve just dropped off my 15-year-old at the bus stop for afternoon classes. Usually he rides his bike, but it’s 15 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the streets are covered with ice. I tuck my sick 11-year-old and our dog up into her bedroom with lots of food and drinks and an electronic babysitter. After the last edits to my questions, I print them out and check the time.

Shit, 10 minutes.

My daughter comes down for one more thing and takes in my appearance: fuzzy slippers, thick oversized hoodie, baggy sweats, and disheveled hair.

“Please tell me you’re gonna change your outfit.”

This always happens. I want to be as prepared as possible when the interview starts, so I do quite a bit of research, reading, and studying during the week or so before it. On the day of, I allocate time for organizing my notes, a technical run through (which our 15-year-old graciously did with me this day), final prep, clothes, makeup, and hair. Invariably that last part gets squeezed ?.

I throw on a clean shirt, brush my hair, apply some light makeup, and it’s camera time.

Through the magic of technology, I time travel to Thursday 10:00AM, on the other side of the world – New Zealand, where it’s now summer. Once we work out the kinks, I’m greeted with the friendly, smiling face and the distinctly Kiwi accent of Gary Young, Outlander’s Mr. Willoughby, Yi Tien Cho.

I’m always interested to meet new people, and as part of my Outlander adventure, it’s been fascinating to meet the actors and learn about their journeys with their particular characters. I’d say Margaret Campbell hit the nail on the head for both actor and character, when she said “you are a rare soul.” I find Gary to be gracious, humble, gentle and generous, and yet, I’ve no doubt that if the situation called for it, he could absolutely kick someone’s ass in under 3 seconds flat. I imagine his kids know exactly when not to push any further with the merest of looks from dear old dad. He recounts a run-in with a ruffian during our chat, which he handled with calm, compassionate, and mindful choice making – it made a big impression on me.

I’m excited for this interview, there’s a lot I want to cover, so I dive right in…. We talk for about an hour, about many things, including Gary’s exploration to the crux of Mr. Willoughby. We talk about his connection to the character, he tells his casting story, and we talk turtle soup (yep). We discuss Ping An, as well as the central role martial arts plays for both Gary, and Mr. Willoughby. We touch on the love story between Margaret and Willoughby, and he tells his story of first meeting Diana. He talks about his experience in South Africa, and about hanging out with other cast members. 

When I produce my interviews, the hour I spend together with each person turns into many, many hours, after the fact, as I play sculptor and choreographer, cutting out the distractions, finding the rhythm, and bringing forth the heart of the interview. And then, at some point, I have a final product I’m happy with.

As I produce Gary Young’s interview, and communicate back and forth with him, I am struck by two things. One, I think Mr. Willoughby might just be the most difficult and complex minor character (so far) in the visual adaptation of Outlander. When you consider what was required for Gary to pull this role off, it’s no small feat. He chucked his natural New Zealand accent, and spoke non Kiwi broken English with a heavy Chinese accent. He had to be believable as an experienced orator, and as one proficient in real time archaic Chinese calligraphy, using water and a paintbrush, no less. He spoke Cantonese, a language he doesn’t have mastery of (it’s rusty and crappy, according to him), and he studied acupuncture in order to be a convincing practitioner to Jamie. He also learned and practiced administering stitches, to appear adroit at stitching Claire up. We had to believe Willoughby’s journey from womanizing sot to honorable man who falls in love with that batty Margaret Campbell, in the limited screen time he had. All this in addition to the fact that Outlander book fans watched Season 3 with our own expectations for this character….

Caitriona once said that the main attribute required to be an actor is empathy, and this guy has it in spades. I was struck (and assume you will be too) by how much empathy Gary has for Mr. Willoughby, and for others in generalI believe this is one of the key factors in Gary’s success in making this new version of Willoughby believable. 

I hope you enjoy my interview with Mr. Gary Young…


After our interview, I sent Gary some follow up questions, which he graciously answered…

Q: We talked about the considerable research you did, and your very extensive training in calligraphy, did you do any research or training for the acupuncture scenes with Sam? or the stitches scene with Cait?

A: Yes, I talked to a lot of people on acupuncture, got their opinions etc on what “it” is. Both here in New Zealand and in Cape Town. The study of meridians etc, and the effect of how they control and alter life energy is a huge field of study. I’m no expert, and I admire the dedication people put into the practice. Of course, with everything medicinal being interrelated in Chinese medicine, it led to opening a whole slew of side studies. Technical understandings of how the whole body is assembled together; what disease does to the system. Causes of, and symptoms. Treatment of, and by what method (acupuncture, or oral medicines, or a combination of both). Are the herbs found in Scotland? Are there substitutes. Which meridians? What type of needles? How deep are the needles; at what angle and do you roll the fingers when inserting them?….and so on and so on. Human nature being the way it is, the experts I talked to sometimes differed remarkably in their advice to me….The study felt like a bottomless pit at times – there was that much stuff to look at….

For the stitches scene with Cait, I had a mockup about 2-4 weeks to work with beforehand. I would put in 2 to 3 hours a day getting the stitching nice and tight, as well as making sure that I did not go too deep. Cait, bless her soul was an angel when it came to shooting it!

Q: Now watching the scene in which Mr. Willoughby apologizes to Father Fogden for roasting and eating Arabella, and knowing that you and Nick Fletcher are pals, I find it hilarious – how many takes did you have to do? Did any of the four of you crack up during that scene? His face… Haha!

A: No, we were very professional and did not! The only thing I was watching out for was continuity with the chicken (whether it had its “hind quarters” facing camera or not!). It was lovely collaborating with Nick!

Q: I read that the translation of the calligraphy is “Fire rises, in my heart ash remains.” – very fitting for Mr. Willoughby as he finds himself again through this story. Did you know that translation? And if so, how did you relate to it as Mr. Willoughby?

A: I received a translation of the characters when I got the script, and subsequent translations from others. This was a major building block for the character, and I was very happy to take it and run. If an individual can read and write, form poetry from the heart about the inner self and predicament, well, it gave me the idea that he was self aware. That he had hope and that the “journey” for him was changing and he recognised this. Especially, the need to repay the kindness that his friends, Claire and Jamie in particular, had shown him. Of course, fear of failure – his recent and not so recent past, was/is a major barrier to him, as it is with everybody. This is a major dynamic that I hope I explored to some degree of depth in regards to him.

Q: When you broke Archie Campbell’s neck – how did you work that – did you have stunt guidance or did you just say, “OK it would be done like this, but I won’t really do it.” Were you afraid of hurting him?

A: Well, we had the confidence of the stunt coordinator to do what we wanted – had a brief chat about the ins and outs. We got together and worked it a few times, but it’s a simple thing and we had confidence in each other. About getting hurt, no, no real chance of that happening.

Q: In that scene you move with him sort of as he is falling, very intent on his trajectory to the ground. Watching that dance reminded me of this quote from you: “You want to be able to come into an object coming toward you, your innate sense of timing becomes in tune with it, and then you can use that person’s force, while applying your own.” Any comments about that?

A: He had the control of the action, and I went with him. So that ties into the quote – he gave me his action and all I was doing was timing myself off that. In this case, the connection meant that I could make adjustments on the fly to ensure that both of us were very safe. 

Q: Since you haven’t read or really investigated Book Mr. Willoughby, I’m wondering, did you know that the character is based on an actual person? He was based on a Chinese immigrant known as Mr Hu, who mysteriously arrived in Edinburgh docks in the mid-18th century and who could not make connections anywhere and finally drank himself to death.

A: Well, that is news to me….I’m sorry to hear that the historical figure came to such a sad end. It is never pleasant to hear of people getting into such despair that they do this to themselves.

Some readers asked questions as well…

Q: (Cece, Marion, and Connie had the same burning question, or a slightly different version of the same question): 1.Did you know how Mr. Willoughby was going to be portrayed on the show versus the book? And if so, did that influence your decision to audition or accept the role?

A: No, not at all. What was presented to me initially was some dialogue which was superbly written. I was captured the moment I read it, and knew that there was a very deep, conflicted character that I would enjoy playing and exploring. This made my decision very easy when it came to accepting the role. 

Billy: Where do you live in New Zealand?

Gary: I live in the North Island, Billy. Not as pretty as the South Island, but pretty enough!

Cece: If you were an Asian in Scotland or Jamaica in the 18th Century, what would you do to try to acclimate yourself or feel more accepted?

Gary: I suppose just be friendly, accepting of others and hope that that is reciprocated.

Marion: Where does your passion for acting come from and what/who are your major influences?

Gary: Hi Marion, my passion for acting and the arts comes from Saturday afternoons when I would watch old movies. They were glorious stories, told in black and white with differing shades in between. When I was older, I saw “On the Waterfront” and was instantly spellbound by Brando’s mesmersing performance. There is nothing like him, before or since who had that ability to capture so many conflicting nuances at the same time, and moment to moment. I’ve got a lot of his movies on DVD, and periodically view them – and each time I’m astounded by some new discovery, such was his technique and understanding of human nature. My training included a stint in the U.K over a 2 year period attending “The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, London” and I learned many things there. When I came home I auditioned for a place at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School and was accepted there. Part of my pleasure for acting comes from the construction of a role, from a piece of paper with a description, the words/interaction written for the character, to working out the complete background to the character – as much as I can do. Another part of myself is very interested in ordinary everyday complexity, how we as human beings adapt (or not) to the demands of life.

Gary sent me a little bio on himself…

I was born in New Zealand, in a town on the east coast, Napier. It’s a fairly small place, and is now known for its art deco architecture which is the result of a rebuild of the city after a huge earthquake hit in 1931. My memories of the place are of the roar and smell of the sea. Since then, I’ve always loved being near water.

I was fairly sporty growing up, and participated in a lot of team sports like soccer, basketball, some field hockey. It wasn’t untill I left for university that I began to study Wing Tsun Kung fu, and I’ve been at it ever since.

I never really had a passion for the performing arts until I went to the UK on a holiday/work experience trip back in the ’90’s. I was working in a job that was a 60hr basic week when I saw an advertisement in a travelers magazine – for the London branch of the “Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute”.

I’d always been a fan of actors who’d underwent that training so I enrolled and traveled to their campus in the middle of London. The whole style fascinated me, due to the duality, complexity and ambiguity of their performances. I’d work and save up money, before taking a break from full time work, go until my money ran out, and repeat the process. As you can imagine, a 60hr working week means you have very little social time and I was determined to meet new people.

After coming home, I auditioned for Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School; got through the process, and graduated in 1995.

Since then, I’ve worked in public libraries; as a ditch digger; a minder, and for awhile a maker of fine furniture (although I must admit I was pretty rubbish at the latter).

I owe a lot to my friend and agent, Gail, for her positive and wondrous encouragement throughout the years!

To wrap up, I want to extend my deep appreciation and gratitude to Gary for this interview. Gary has some exciting things coming up, but they’re all top secret at the moment, so we’ll have to stay tuned.

I like to put together a blooper reel for each interview (little wonder that I started this with Steven Cree), and between the two of us, Gary and I managed some excellent material for this interview! Enjoy…


23 comments on “Gary Young, on Playing Mr. Willoughby/ Yi Tien Cho

  1. Twelve years ago, I lived in Beijing for a few months at Beijing Foreign Studies University with twelve American students from the college where I teach near Chicago. If you visit parks, like Beihai, you’ll see men using long sponge-tipped brushes to do calligraphy in water, just in the same style that Yi Tien Cho does in Outlander. It’s lovely and ephemeral, and of course disappears as the water evaporates. No doubt a few of the writers had seen this or heard about it. The beauty of calligraphy is very tied into the beauty of language in China, and the skillful calligrapher/artist may develop his or her own style, what we might call a distinctive “font” of their own making. When I was at Beiwai the museum on campus had a display of calligraphy, each one distinctive and beautiful, shown in extensive examples shown like the works of art they were.

  2. Terrific interview Courtney- and I love it how you edited in so many scenes from voyager. thank you so much! I was very much relieved to see the direction that they took mr. Willoughby’s character in the script. I’m a married to a Chinese man from Hong Kong and I first read Voyager years ago found myself wincing reading Diana’s descriptions of Yi Tien Cho. There was also quite a lot of concern expressed on the huge Outlander book and series Facebook page, prior to the release of season three, about how he would be written and portrayed in the series. I’m so glad they found such an amazing actor and I’m also glad that he didn’t read voyager before accepting the part and working on the script!

    • Piper, I love learning something new about you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, thank you for your kind words. Yes, I think Gary’s Mr. Willoughby perfectly brought forth the important elements of the character while elevating him too. x

  3. This is great. Love seeing this interview. Gary Young was such a perfect choice to play Yi Tien Cho, aka Mr. Willoughby. I had a little connection and empathy for the book character but amazingly, although the TV series had to condense so much of the story line, seeing Gary Young portray Yi Tien Cho brought so much more enjoyment to his part in the story. He was just wonderful in the role. Another brilliant casting choice of the Outlander team. Thank you for this interview!

    • You’re welcome Linda, and I agree, Suzanne Smith and team did it again. I can’t imagine anyone else as Willoughby. Gary brought so much depth to the character, and made him more relatable IMO. Thanks for your comment x.

  4. I loved the interview above. Interviews help us understand the “real” people in the roles they take. Gary Young as Yi Tien Cho, aka Mr. Willoughby was the best. I read the book, many times, and watched Voyager a lot – the role of Mr.Willoughby or Yi Tien Cho was a challenging one, and Gary was brilliant in it. Thank you for sharing the above.

  5. Thank you Courtney. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. It had a many insightful questions. Gary was quite entertaining! I’m glad you took the time to interview him. I love to hear about the actor’s processes when creating a character. I loved that playing Mr Willoughby inspired him to look into his family story. Well done!

    • Loved your comment. Outlander has opened my eyes to the fact that actors do more than just read lines and scripts. I miss Mr. Willoughby, I felt that they were kinder to him in the TV series with his final scene in Voyager, than what he faced in the book – though the book was probably more realistic as to what Mr. Willoughby’s aka Yi Tien Cho future would be. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. I enjoyed the interview as well as Gary himself, aka Mr. Willoughby. There was a very genuine quality about this character and I can only think that is how Gary is himself. Certainly a caring father per the article.

  7. Thank you so much for this awesome interview, Courtney! I thought Gary did such an incredible job in Season 3 and now I am even more impressed with him! It was so interesting to hear about all the background work and study that he did for the role. The extra work that Gary put in definitely came across in his performance on screen. Your questions were great. Also, thanks for the bloopers! 🙂

  8. Oh, Courtney. This was one of the most interesting interviews I’ve seen. Well done, lass! I would like to know more about Gary Young. I loved hearing (and reading) about the work he put into realizing his character!

  9. I enjoy all your interviews, Courtney, and this one was excellent. I wondered how TV series Outlander would handle book Willoughby, and some fans urged that the character be dropped altogether. But once again the series writers got it just right– along with Outlander’s genius of a casting director– and we have another fleshed out minor-come-major character to love.

    Gary Young’s intense prep was a huge boon to fans. It makes me appreciate even more what the right actor can bring to make a favorite book pop on screen. I’d love to see Willoughby again. I like him almost as much as I like me some Murtagh!

    I’m a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s books. I started reading in the early 90s, and have re-read many times. But unlike some rabid book devotees that can’t stand any deviation from canon, I embrace and enjoy the changes and tweaks the series has introduced. Mr. Willoughby is a prime example of TV Outlander improving book Outlander.

    • Hi LJ, Thank you so much. It brings me so much joy when people enjoy my work, and take the time to tell me about it! Thank you.

      I agree that Gary’s performance was like a gift to us. And, I agree, I don’t mind changes to minor characters and locations, minor plot changes (just don’t change Jamie and Claire! ??). Thanks for your comment! x

      • I have read Voyager over and over (absolutely loved the book), and to have dropped Willoughby from the TV series would have been a great injustice to the storey – as, believe it or not, he was an integral part of the story. He saved Jamie’s life and Claire’s as well. So, to have dropped him from the storey is unthinkable. All the characters made a difference to each other’s lives. So the series writers knew what they were doing.

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