Landing the lead role in Outlander turned Caitriona Balfe into Hollywood hot property. With two films in cinemas this week, she talks to Ana Kinsella about sex scenes, strong women and superfans
When we meet in a hotel suite in Soho, London, Caitriona Balfe looks impeccably summery in a pink silk dress. It’s hard to imagine that she has spent the past 10 months in full corsetry, battling the elements in rural Scotland, filming the TV drama Outlander. “It’s sort of epic,” she says in an accent that’s part-Irish drama school, part-California sunshine. “Some days you’re running along mountains, galloping across the moors, and it’s incredible. Then there are days when you’re standing in mud and it has been raining for 12 hours and you’re like, ‘Why did I choose this again?’”
Rain or shine, there is of course no doubt in Balfe’s mind about signing up to the hit show, now in its second series. Best described as a fantasy drama with a feminist twist, Outlander has been compared to Game of Thrones, and is a surprise triumph, especially in America, where it has racked up nominations for the Golden Globes and Emmys and won three People’s Choice awards.
Balfe plays the lead, Claire Randall, a Second World War nurse who accidentally time-travels back to 18th-century Scotland, where she meets the fiendishly handsome Highlander Jamie Fraser, played by Sam Heughan. As well as learning how to ride in a corset, Balfe had to swot up on the Diana Gabaldon fantasy novels that inspired the show and have sold millions of copies worldwide. “I didn’t even realise how popular the Outlander books were, what sort of a fanbase they had. I think that naivety helped,” she says. There wasn’t much time for the role to sink in either — she relocated from LA to Scotland only three days after she was offered the part.
Luckily, the 36-year-old from Co Monaghan is used to an itinerant lifestyle, after years spent modelling around the world. The daughter of a garda sergeant and a stay-at-home mother, Balfe was scouted outside the Swan Centre in Rathmines just months after she left home and her “big, loud Irish family” to study drama at Dublin Institute of Technology. She promptly packed her bags and moved to Paris. What began as a gap year ended up lasting nearly a decade, during which time she walked for the likes of Chanel, Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs. The job also forced Balfe to grow up fast: she reportedly lost hundreds of thousands of euros in wages when her Italian agency, Paolo Tomei, filed for bankruptcy.
Modelling took a back seat when she began going to acting classes in New York, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a screen career. “I didn’t really know anyone when I arrived. I took my first LA class after reading that Amy Adams had gone to that one in Vanity Fair.” Eventually, one of her teachers introduced her to a manager, who put her forward for the role of Claire.
It’s obvious that Balfe is immensely proud of Outlander, which she refers to with fondness as “our show”. But for a first TV role, it must have been a steep learning curve, particularly given the show’s outlier status as an action-adventure tale with a strong female lead. “The opportunity to play someone like her was exciting,” she says. “My grandmother was a nurse in the Second World War, with nine kids. My grandfather was bedridden ever since I can remember, and so she ran the household and the farm. She was such a formidable character — women of that generation generally were. There was this emancipation of women, and I relished the idea of playing a woman who was all of that and then yet so sexually free and open.”
Ah yes, the sex. Outlander has been praised for its honest portrayal — the first series opens with a steamy scene in a Scottish castle where Claire and her 1940s soldier husband, Frank (played by Tobias Menzies), have gone for a dirty weekend. The process of achieving such a real perspective wasn’t always easy for Balfe. “It was funny, often we will talk to the director and the writer about what’s going to happen, so usually I’m the only woman sitting in a room of men. It’s awkward. You don’t want to be like, ‘Well, when I’m having sex, this is what I feel like …’”
The on-screen liaisons have sparked the inevitable rumours that there might be a real-life “SamCait” relationship. “We have a responsibility to these beloved characters. But it’s funny — people sometimes forget that you’re not the character you play.”
It’s a testament to the chemistry between the two, but is she tired of explaining that there is nothing between them? She delivers a chuckle that seems a tad exasperated. “It gets a bit … It’s fine, but you say it so many times, and people are still, like, ‘No way!’ Really, we’re not.”
That’s a firm no, then. Balfe says she’s seeing someone at the moment, but that it’s not always easy balancing a relationship with her busy schedule. “Thinking about that kind of stuff is difficult, but people do it.” I ask if it’s difficult to keep her private life private with the attention she gets in America. “There’s a small fraction of fans who like to find out that stuff and will go to extraordinary lengths to do so,” she says. “And it can be quite hurtful — not to me, because I signed up for this, but to the people that you’re with — and that’s the one thing where you’re, like, ‘Really? That’s not necessary.’”
At home in Ireland, she can still fly under the radar. Outlander is on RTE “in the middle of the night”, she jokes. “Ireland still has a very late watershed.” So she isn’t being mobbed on Grafton Street when she visits Dublin for family get-togethers at her sister’s house. Would she ever move back? “I don’t know. I would like to think at some point I’d have a place I could go to in Ireland.”
She came back to shoot The Price of Desire, Mary McGuckian’s film about the Irish designer Eileen Gray, but, for now, Hollywood is her home — and calling. She’s in Money Monster, a financial thriller directed by Jodie Foster, opposite George Clooney and Julia Roberts, which is also just out. “Working with Jodie was super inspiring. She is one of the most intelligent women you’ll ever meet.”
A top actress who successfully became a top director — could Balfe follow Foster’s lead? “My long-term goal is to write for the screen and eventually to produce and maybe even direct. I think we all have a responsibility to change the percentage of women working at the top of the food chain. That’s where I want to head.”
Considering her journey so far, it would seem Balfe is up for the tassk.