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Period pieces and romance novels have long been populated by swooning maidens, forever in peril and pining for rescue from their swashbuckling lovers. Outlander takes that trope and tells it to sod right off. The smash hit (season two is airing now on Showcase) is helmed by a lady hero: Claire Fraser, a feisty and flawed time-travelling Second World War–era Englishwoman (Caitriona Balfe). Even better, she’s often the one doing the saving, coming to the aid of her beautiful, bold and sensitive Highlander hunk, Jamie (babely Scot Sam Heughan), as they try to evade capture by the evil Captain Randall in 18th-century Scotland. (Oh, and the bad guy is the ancestor of Claire’s present-day husband, so they look exactly alike. Yikes.)
Viewers pant for the hot AF sex scenes, but it is the richness and complexity of the main characters — and the depth and equality of their partnership — that has won both OG fans of the obsessed-over Diana Gabaldon books upon which the series is based and new admirers alike. It is quite the score for any actress. Balfe, 36 — born in Ireland, currently living in Scotland while filming the show — was a relative newb before she was chosen to bring Claire to life. Prior to becoming an actor, she spent nearly a decade as a New York-based model, walking the runways for Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and Givenchy, and racking up campaigns for Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein. But posing was not Balfe’s true calling. Instead, she headed to L.A. — in her wizened-by-Hollywood-standards late twenties — to become an actress, and endured four years of bit parts before landing Outlander. (And fancier film roles: next up, she is co-starring alongside George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Jodie Foster’s hostage drama Money Monster.) There is a quick humour and sexy spiritedness to Balfe — fitting for a feisty gal raised in a tiny Irish village alongside six siblings, who still plays traditional music on the accordion and tin whistle — that makes her perfect casting for Claire.
“We also both like to drink, as all good people do. I like to think that I have a lust for life that’s similar to Claire’s,” she says. “It was just so interesting for this central female character to be the heroine of her own story. She goes and saves Jamie a lot; it felt that she was an equal with all of the male characters.” But adjusting to life in France in season two — as double agents courting the king in an effort to change the future and avert the Culloden massacre, natch — has Claire struggling. “It’s a lonely journey because it’s bringing up a lot of insecurity. She never really had a mother figure; she doesn’t really know if she can be a parent, and she doesn’t have an awful lot of friends. So it’s an isolating time.” The first half of the season has been rough for our lovers — including the painful return of I-thought-he-was- dead nemesis Captain Randall — although if anyone can make it work, it’s Claire. “The couple goes through probably the biggest challenges in their relationship, and it’s really tested,” Balfe says. “But their bond is pretty strong.”
Caitriona Balfe gives up the goods on…
…how she’d describe Sam Heughan in five words or less:
Kind, funny, late, generous and thoughtful.
…what fans would be surprised to know about Caitriona and Sam:
The boys the other night were very surprised to know that I collect instruments that I don’t play. Well, I do play certain instruments: traditional Irish stuff, like the tin whistle and the accordion, which they were both like ‘You what?’ I also got given a gift of a cello recently and I’m going to learn that. And Sam Heughan is always bloody late. He takes his time — his sweet-ass time.
…just how close she and Sam Heughan really are:
He and I are very close, as are Tobias [Menzies, who plays Jack Randall/Frank Randall] and I. All of us in the cast, we get along really well. And I think that’s part of being in a project like this. We’re away in Scotland, sequestered away on our own, and this is all a new home for all of us, so the bond that we’ve created just by the very fact of being part of this project is very strong and no one else has gone through this experience the way we have, so that also strengthens the bond. But Sam and I definitely have the similar sense of humour — child-like. There was a blooper reel that we just saw, which I’m sure they will release. And when you just see yourself, Sam and I just standing there being absolute idiots, it’s really touching. Hopefully that will really just move people [laughs].
…the secret to making such scorching love scenes:
It’s first and foremost Diana’s source material, and the fact that she wrote it as a woman and she wrote what she wants to see. We take that and we bring it into our show. For example, the wedding episodes were written by Anne Kenny and directed by Anna Foerster and when we were rehearsing those scenes and talking about those scenes, you had a room with three women and one man in it. Everyone’s sharing their stories so you can’t help but infuse the script with them. In contrast to that, sometimes I’ll be in a room where it’s a male writer, a male producer and a male director, but you also need that balance, too. Sometimes when it’s a male-driven show, you’ll have very thinly-drawn secondary female characters. And in our show, what keeps it honest and grounded is that all the characters are very fully formed so you have a very balanced landscape.
…her wild audition for the role of Claire:
I love vintage clothes anyway so any excuse to go vintage shopping is a good excuse for me, so I went with a friend to look for ’40s dresses. And I came across this plaid, early-’40s-style dress, and I was like ‘Ooh, is this too much? Is this, like, a really like massive wink?’ And we were like, oh, frig it — you just have to go for it. I stupidly was running late for the audition because there was construction and I got caught in a traffic jam. And so I was all in a bit of a tizzy but Sam was this really calm guy, which is unusual for actors in L.A. — he just had no ego. He was very chill and we started talking about Scotland, as I have friends who live there, and pretty quickly we were just two people who were chit-chatting and felt like we’d known each other for a long time. The minute we got into the scenes, that kind of comfort created a safe place to just go for it, and we did. At one point he had me in a bear hug and I think I tried to shove his arms off, and so then he hit me [laughs]. And it just got very intense, but it was good — it felt really good.
…working on a show so forthright about sex and sexual assault:
As an actor, you don’t always have a lot of control. You try and make good choices, you try and pick projects that you think are going to be good. But anyone who looks at my credit list knows that I was doing very little before I got this show. And so there’s also an element of sometimes you just want to be working. But the great thing was, when I sat down with [showrunner] Ron [Moore] before we agreed that I would take the part of Claire, he was so adamant that he wanted to tell, especially the sexual parts of the story, from Claire’s perspective, and that he didn’t want them to be gratuitous and he wanted them to be part of the story, that they wouldn’t be there unless they were moving the story forward and they informed the audience [about] something about the character or the couple. And I think that we’ve stayed really true to that, and any times where we’ll get a script and it seems that it’s deviating from that, whether it’s the producers or whether it’s me or Sam, we will fight for that. And we will make sure everyone keeps everyone in check, so that we make sure that this mandate that we set ourselves in the beginning, that we stick to it. It is important — I came to this show in my 30s and, as a woman, it’s nice to be doing this kind of stuff with my life experience so that I know how I want to be portrayed and how I want to portray a character.
…the crazy season two costumes, including that stunning crimson ballgown:
As a human being, wearing a dress that’s four-foot-two wide and where your boobs are practically falling out, that can be difficult, but you know you also have to approach it from the standpoint of a character. There was an initial excitement about wearing all of these things because when you’re on a show as long as this, you get so sick of your costume by the end of the season. So when you come to season two, we were like ‘Yay, new clothes, and oh, they’re gorgeous and pretty colours!’ but they’re so constraining. I couldn’t get dressed where I normally got dressed, I couldn’t get ready in my trailer; there had to be a special room made or if we were on location, I would have to go to a special room. There was no eating or drinking in them other than water. That kind of isolation was also really good for the character, though, because Claire and Jamie are at odds with each other at the beginning of this season. So Sam would be hanging out by craft services with everyone else [laughs] and I’d be like ‘Yep, I have to go back to my room and sit and read and just be by myself.’ As an actor, I feel like you always have to use what you’re given so I feel like it really informed me [of] Claire’s frustration as well.
…what the couple has in store for them as a twosome this season:
It’s a much deeper portrayal. In season one, they were falling in love, it was the honeymoon period, they were laying down their boundaries and testing each other to see where the lines were drawn. But this season, the marriage has gone through this horrific event. Jamie has suffered so much at the end of season one and is still suffering. That has a huge effect on the relationship, on their marriage. It’s destroyed their intimacy — they have this wide gulf between them. For Claire, her challenge is trying to figure out a way how to help him. She’s giving him this mission, in a way, to keep him busy, to inspire him to get past what happened. But unless you’re communicating, unless you’re talking things out, you’re only pushing things below the surface and they’re going to bubble up anyway.
Caitriona Balfe Featured In InStyle
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