- 13 Apr 16
After a decade as a top model, Caitriona Balfe has become a Hollywood A-Lister with a starring role in TV time-travel drama, Outlander, and big name movie directors beating a path to her door. The Monaghan actress talks Sly, Jodie, JJ, Woody and Saoirse with Stuart Clark.
I know I have the air of a man who habitually hangs out with Victoria’s Secret models but, nope, Caitriona Balfe is the only professional wearer of super-expensive frillies I’ve ever met.
Also persuaded to get out of bed for four figure sums by Dolce & Gabbana, Givenchy, Channel, Moschino, Marc Jacobs, Roberto Cavalli, Bottega Veneta, Oscar de la Renta and Narciso Rodriguez (who made her his muse), the Tydavnet, County Monaghan native spent 10 reasonably happy years walking the catwalk before going back to her first love, acting.
“I was scouted at college as an 18-year-old and got to work with some of the most amazingly creative people in the industry, but fashion was never my passion,” the friendly 36-year-old admits. “I was doing a theatre programme at D.I.T. when I took this sort of detour into modeling. I made it a personal battle of mine to get back into acting, which I did in 2009 when I moved from New York to Los Angeles and started taking classes.”
A huge music fan who grew up reading Hot Press – “You were always one of my go-to magazines!” – Balfe remembers having a serious teenage thing for Damien Rice and his then band Juniper.
“I absolutely loved them! D.I.T. is just down the road from Whelan’s, so I was always at gigs and clubs there. I was really excited a couple of years ago because I got to appear in the video Sofia Coppola did for Phoenix’s ‘Chloroform’.”
It was another Hollywood A-Lister, JJ Abrams, who in 2011 gave Balfe her big acting break in Super 8.
“Aw, he’s such a great guy!” she enthuses. “Even though it was a non-speaking part, I got to spend the whole day with JJ who was filming me on the same tiny camera he used as a kid to make home movies. It was very informal, so I got to ask him lots of questions and talk about Ireland, which he has a strong connection to. Every February he hosts the Oscar Wilde Awards in his Bad Robot production company’s Santa Monica offices. You’re trying to be all cool and nonchalant as Steven Spielberg wanders past! The Super 8 casting was a massive deal; I’d been struggling to get roles and a work permit, which JJ arranged for me through Paramount. He really went into bat for me when he needn’t have.”
Caitriona found herself in the company of Hollywood royalty again in 2013 when she bagged a part in Now You See Me, a Vegas heist yarn that despite mixed reviews grossed a whopping $351 million.
“There was one day up on stage when it was literally Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Jesse Einsenberg… and me!” she laughs. “Even though it was a tiny role again, I got to spend three weeks watching people of that calibre work. At first you’re overawed, then you start to realise that, massive stars or not, they’re just people. Now You See Me sort of demystified the filmmaking process for me.”
Nevertheless, Balfe was still pinching herself a few months later when she joined Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Neil and 50 Cent on the set of prison breakout flick, Escape Plan.
“Arnold turned to me one day and said, ‘So, how iz all theez going for you? Vot are you doing next?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not sure’ and he goes, ‘Ya, it’s always like zat, vaiting for ze next job.’ Our careers are stratospheres apart yet there he is talking to me as an equal. Him and Sly were both lovely.”
Balfe wasn’t expecting too much when post-Escape Plan she blind auditioned for a new historical time travel series being assembled by the Starz network.
“I was given two scenes and told to put myself on tape,” she recalls. “There were just a few lines and no context other than, ‘It’s based on a series of books.’ I did what I’d done dozens of times before, which was send my audition off and then forget about it because the chances of it actually leading to anything are minute. This time, though, I heard back that they liked my tape and wanted to test me with Sam.”
The Sam in question being Sam Heughan, the devilishly handsome Scottish thesp who following that screen test became her Outlander co-star.
“The Irish mafia being what it is, a really good friend of mine already had a job working in the Outlander costume department, so she was able to tell me more about it. She said, ‘You have to get the books’, which I did before testing with Sam. Diana Gabaldon’s storytelling is so vivid. There was so much horseriding and running around outside and battles. All I could think of reading them was, ‘Wow, this would be so much to film.’ So, anyway, I was cast as Claire Randall and Sam got the role of Jamie Fraser.”
The storytelling is not only vivid but also very adult, with lots of steamy bedroom romps and a scene last year in which the normally courtly and kind Jamie spanks Claire with a belt. Needless to say, Twitter went into meltdown with some finding it highly erotic and others denouncing it as violence against women.
“I’d never done a sex scene before so you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s a bit racy,’” Caitriona says of Outlander’s more X-rated content. “Until you do it, you don’t really understand what it is you’re getting yourself into. In my early conversations with (series creator) Ron Moore before we filmed any of those, he was adamant that it was going to be from a female perspective. It would be integral to the storyline rather than gratuitous. I think that for the most part we stuck to those directives. I felt it was very necessary to the character and used appropriately.”
Was there a phone call home to Monaghan saying, “Mam, some good news… and possibly a little bit of bad news for you”?
“No, I let my sister tell her about those bits,” Balfe laughs. “It was out in the States before it came to RTÉ so my Mum, who’d previously struggled to use a calculator, was all of a sudden illegally downloading episodes. My brother, who’s in IT, had to clean her computer for bugs for about two months afterwards.”
While Outlander has done respectably on this side of the Atlantic, in the US it’s a Game Of Thrones-style cult sensation complete with obsessive fans, endless tabloid speculation as to whose beds the cast are sharing in real life, and running social media commentary on everything else they get up to.
“I feel that had I been given this opportunity in my 20s, I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it or take the responsibility,” Balfe reflects. “When your character’s in virtually every scene and you’re pulling 14 hour days, you have to be focused and present on set. You can’t decide, ‘I’m not feeling it today’ and go missing because that makes things harder for everybody else. Season 2 filming started at the very beginning of May last year and didn’t end until two weeks ago, so it’s been quite a grueling schedule.
“I’m lucky because from day one there was a great alchemy on set. I don’t know whether it’s because most UK actors have done theatre, but there are very few egos or divas. Sam and I are great mates. We’re having a right old laugh doing press junkets together at the moment. I’d never done TV before so I don’t know if it’s the norm, but our writers don’t mind us bringing notes in and saying, ‘I’m not sure if this is going to work…’ We have a really good dialogue with them in that way.”
Lest you think that the life of a TV leading lady is all glamour, Balfe recalls a particularly grim Outlander shoot last year.
“I didn’t think anywhere could have worse weather than Ireland until I went to Scotland,” she laughs again. “We filmed in a disused quarry outside Bathgate and it rained non-stop for four days. We had to move our base camp because they were worried it was going to sink. There’s nothing like shooting outdoors in Scotland from October to February to toughen you up!”
Caitriona does get to wear some nice frocks, though…
“As a woman I challenge any man to spend 12 hours in a corset, a bumroll and a cage and not lose the will to live! One of our writers, Matt B. Roberts, always puts me into a pair of trousers when he’s doing a 1940s scene – and gets a nice bottle of whiskey from me as a ‘thank you’! Uncomfortable or not, the costumes are fabulous.”
As part of the Season 2 premiere hype, Starz have decorated all four sides of a Beverly Hills office block with giant wraparound Outlander posters.
“It’s funny because when I first moved to Los Angeles I was living with an ex-boyfriend who now has a massive poster of me at the end of his street! You think back to the days when things were really tough and pinch yourself.”
Is it possible for Balfe to go to the local 7-Eleven without somebody whipping out a camera phone?
“If you walk round acting like you’re someone to be looked at, people will turn their heads. But if you walk round looking like a scruffy bugger, which is yours truly most days, they don’t notice. I generally find it pretty easy to fly under the radar.”
Given that George W. Bush asked Charlotte Church what state Wales is in, is there the faintest flicker of recognition in America when Caitriona says where she’s from?
“Most people in Dublin don’t even know where Monaghan is on the map,” she jokes. “I’ve learned doing US interviews not to go into specifics because the minute you say, ‘It’s by the border’, they’re like, ‘What border?’”
In addition to her People’s Choice Award, Caitriona was also up for Best TV Actress at the Golden Globes in January but lost out – boo! – to Empire’s Taraji Henson. Not that it seems to have spoiled her night.
“I had a great chat with Lenny Abrahamson whose work I’m a big fan of,” she enthuses, “and also talked to Saoirse Ronan who’s the nicest lady. We’ve the same problem with no one in America being able to pronounce our names properly. It was so nice that night to meet everyone because having never worked in Ireland as an actor I’ve felt quite distanced from the industry there.”
Outlander promotional duties permitting, Balfe will be jetting in on April 9 for the IFTAs where she’s duking it out with Ruth Bradley (Rebellion), Elaine Cassidy (No Offence) and Catherine Walker (Critical) for the Actress In A Lead Role in Drama gong.
Has she managed to check out the 1916 competition yet?
“No, but I’m dying to because that part of Irish history fascinates me. I met Sarah Greene last year and she’s really cool. I left Ireland in 1999 when it was a completely different country. I watched from afar as the Celtic Tiger happened and crashed. My family’s still in Monaghan so I hear through them how everything’s going, but when I come home I almost feel like a tourist. I’d love to work in Ireland. My long-term goal is to develop my own projects and maybe even direct, so perhaps I’ll set something in Monaghan!”
Has starring in Outlander opened doors in that respect?
“For sure,” she nods. “You can get those meetings now and also you understand the mechanisms that get something greenlit. As a woman in this business, you have to think about what’s going to happen when you’re not in a hit show anymore. Even though it’s done really well up till now, we won’t know if there’s a Season 3 until the numbers from the first few episodes of Season 2 come in. Nothing’s forever; there will be times when there’s a lull in getting jobs. It’s important to be able to create stuff.”
SPOILER ALERT: Along with the plot synopsis below, we know that during Season 2 of Outlander Claire and Jamie have a daughter, Brianna, who’s played as a precocious 20-year-old by Sophie Skelton, a Londoner who already has DCI Banks, Waterloo and Foyle’s War on her CV.
“She joined us towards the end of production and was excellent. I got to sit in on some of the chemistry reads when they were auditioning for Brianna and Sophie was the obvious choice. She slots in perfectly. The really interesting part of this season was getting to play Claire as a mother and older woman with all that entails.”
While RTÉ have retained the rights to Outlander here, UK fans will get to see episodes the day after they go out in the States courtesy of Amazon Prime.
“When it was originally announced it was coming out on Amazon, people were scratching their heads and saying, ‘What’s that?’” Balfe acknowledges. “Streaming services had a far bigger slice of the pie earlier on in the US, but now people are used to multi-platform viewing.”
They’ll be even more in the habit of watching Amazon Prime when the rebooted Top Gear premieres on it this autumn. What’s floating Ms. Balfe’s televisual boat at the moment?
“Bloodline and Sharon Horgan’s show, Catastrophe, are both really good. Like everybody else, I binged on Making A Murderer but my favourite thing recently has been Transparent.”
We don’t have the space to delve into the latter’s complexities here; suffice it to say that a gap should be placed between the Trans and the parent. During the few months she wasn’t on Outlander duty last year, Caitriona got to appear alongside George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jack O’Donnell in the Jodie Foster-directed financial collapse drama, Money Matters, which hits big screens in May.
“Jodie was so inspirational,” Balfe notes. “She liked the tape I’d done, so I went and auditioned for her in person in LA. She arrived with her backpack on and was very much a down to earth, cool person. We got straight into the work. It felt like two actors going through a scene and mining it for whatever we could find. The process of working with her was amazing. The movie is about the world of high frequency trading and the new financial landscape since 2008. It was a fascinating world to learn about and do all my research. Jodie is so smart and a constant source of knowledge. She’s one of those actors that you aspire to emulate even a tenth of what they’ve done. I respect and admire people who put work before fame and life before work.”
If she could time travel back through time like her Outlander character, is there anything Caitriona would change?
“I have regular ‘what was I thinking?’ moments, but often it’s those mistakes which lead to you making better choices or working that bit harder in the future,” she concludes. “You have to fight to create the life that you want. I’ve been lucky and had a very varied and interesting career so far, but I’m always thinking about the next chapter.”
If you’ve yet to pop your Outlander cherry, we should explain that its lead character, Claire Fraser, is a World War II nurse who accidentally stumbles through a time portal that has the wild, war-torn Scottish Highlands of the 1740s on the other side.
Despite already being married in the 20th century, she falls for Brit-fighting landowner Jamie Fraser who soon becomes hubby number two.
With the gory battle scenes offset by copious amounts of bodice-ripping lust and tourist board-approved scenery, there’s something for everybody in the audience.
Season 2 begins as Claire and Jamie arrive in France determined to infiltrate the Jacobite rebellion and stop the Battle of Culloden. Instead of swords and guns, they’re armed with political savvy and the finest 1700s Parisian fashion as they embark on their new mission – infiltrating the French aristocracy and rewriting history.
Thrown into the lavish world of French society, political gains prove tricky as Claire and Jamie endeavour to alter the course of history, amid challenges weighing on the fabric of their relationship. With the help of his cousin Jared, a local wine merchant, Jamie and Claire are thrown into the lavish world of French society, and armed with the knowledge of what lies ahead, Claire and Jamie must race to prevent a doomed Highland uprising and the extinction of Scottish life as they know it.