Caitriona Balfe: a role model after Outlander and Money Monster
For Caitriona Balfe, walking away from the catwalk and into the acting world after a successful, decade-long career modelling for brands such as Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana was a leap of faith. “Especially at 30, which is a dirty number in the [film] industry, you know,” she says.
Although modelling to acting is a well-trodden path in Hollywood, the 36-year-old Irish actress says crossing the threshold between the industries was the most challenging thing she has done. “I had no idea how to get into the industry: how I was going to get an audition, let alone a job,” she tells Review from Los Angeles.
It was, in fact, something of a full circle for Balfe, who, at age 18, had been studying theatre at the Dublin Institute of Technology before being approached by Ford Models. “After a while it became clear that modelling wasn’t a passion, and that was getting very frustrating,” she says. In 2009, Balfe dropped everything to pursue her original career choice. “For me it was now or never. I think when you have a passion or a dream in life you have to give it a shot, because if you don’t, you’ll be miserable”.
Balfe has certainly landed on her feet with a breakout role in TV’s Outlander as Claire Fraser, and now a major role in Jodie Foster’s upcoming film Money Monster, which also stars George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Dominic West.
Money Monster is a part of the growing genre of financial thrillers: here, a leading investment firm, the fictional Ibis Clear Capital, has lost $800 million overnight and Balfe’s character, Diane Lester, is its righteous and determined communications officer. Meanwhile, financial television host Lee Gates (Clooney) has been taken hostage by an irate investor demanding answers.
Balfe says that only a few weeks before she read the script, she had been deeply affected by a Rolling Stone article about Alayne Fleischmann, the whistleblower at JPMorgan Chase who, after the financial meltdown of 2008, gave evidence that resulted in a US$9 billion settlement to the US government.
It was the correlation between Fleischmann’s story and the character of Diane that resonated with Balfe. “There is a sense of naivety to her, which I quite liked,” she says. “Diane believes in the company she works for and has no reason to question what she’s being told. But once she begins to grasp the full picture of the consequences of her job, she very quickly becomes a truth-seeker”.
Money Monster is Foster’s fourth film as director and Balfe revelled in the opportunity to be involved in the project. “She is just this incredibly generous, down-to-earth person who knows exactly what she wants and is able to express that in such a direct and succinct way; it was really incredible to watch,” she says.
“One thing I found surprising was her technical knowledge. Of course she’s been around film sets all her life, but I wasn’t expecting her to have such prowess. She would even ask if I wanted to be taught about different things, which was great. I always think that it helps you as an actor to have all the information; yes, you’re a cog in this big wheel, but it’s so great to know what that whole wheel is doing.”
Far from the world of economic hostages, Balfe has returned to our screens in a second season of Outlander. Based on the bestselling books by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander is a historical drama whose first season is set in the rugged Scottish Highlands. It follows Claire, a married nurse during World War II, who is transported back in time to 1743 where she falls in love with a highlander named Jamie (played by Sam Heughan). In the second season, which premiered on Foxtel’s SoHo in April, Claire and Jamie are in France to undermine the Jacobite rebellion and change the course of history.
Since 2014, Outlander has garnered critical acclaim worldwide, gained a fiercely loyal fan base, and received multiple award nominations, including at last year’s Golden Globes.
Balfe can’t pinpoint the precise reasons behind the show’s success, but mentions a “special alchemy” on set she hoped would translate to the screen. “Obviously we knew that it was a very popular book series and you kind of hope that those core fans will transfer their love over to the show. But I don’t think anyone was prepared for the sheer amount of success. It’s done so well, I think most of us still get bowled over … We’re like, ‘really?!’ ”
Described by Buzzfeed as the “feminist Game of Thrones”, Outlander is praised for its balanced representations of sex. The show has what Balfe refers to as “the best male feminist you could ever have at the head of a show” in the form of executive producer Ronald D. Moore. “In my first ever conversation with Ron he was very adamant that the sex and the violence was never going to be gratuitous, that it would only be present if it was necessary to tell a certain part of the story of this couple,” she says.
Women account for half of the Outlander writers’ room and female directors are the norm. “It’s always been important for us to keep that balance,” Balfe says. She says Gabaldon’s source material has also enabled the characters, regardless of their sex, to be developed beyond surface level concerns. “It’s a great thing about our show: yes, we have a central female character, but the male characters are just as well written and as complex as Claire,” she says. “I think you can get the converse on some shows where it’s a central male character, the female characters are just so thinly drawn and you don’t get a balanced view of relationships. It’s something that I’m very proud of”.
So what does the future hold for Balfe? A third season of Outlander is likely, but not yet confirmed. (Moore recently revealed on Twitter: “Nothing official yet but I’m very, very optimistic and we’re actively starting to plan.”)
Balfe is reluctant to discuss potential upcoming projects but says she is keen on challenging roles. She is also happy to rule out a return to the catwalk anytime soon.
“There’s just too much I still want to try. I would love to do theatre and I would love to direct and produce at some point,” she says. “For me it’s about having a long career, keeping myself interested and hopefully continuing to be employable — that would be good.”