Tonight’s episode of Outlander marks a major shift in Season 3. After five episodes and 20 years spent in the 20th century, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) finally identified Jamie’s whereabouts in 1760s Scotland and, at the behest of her daughter, stepped back through the stones to return to him for, well, forever. Outlander fans have waited exactly 14 months to watch this moment play out onscreen, and it was quite a tease: Jamie and Claire lock eyes for only a few moments before Jamie collapses in a faint and the screen cuts to black.
It was quite a journey for an episode which opened with Claire settling into a new normal back in Boston, having abandoned any hope of finding Jamie in the 18th century. But Brianna isn’t adjusting to life after Claire’s paternity bombshell, and the two are clashing more than ever—until Roger arrives with a document pointing to Jamie’s location in 1766 Edinburgh. This revelation upends Claire’s life once more, forcing her to make an impossible choice: stay in the present with Brianna, or make the dangerous, irreversible trip to the past. Neither Claire nor Balfe took the dilemma lightly. “This is a woman who makes a decision to leave her daughter forever for the love of someone else,” Balfe tells HarpersBAZAAR.com. “That’s a really hard thing to understand.”
But Brianna pushes Claire to go to Jamie, and she acquiesces. Balfe’s transformation in this episode is astounding; the hardened, hopeless Claire going through the motions melts away as we start to recognize our heroine from seasons past: determined, resourceful, and perhaps just a tiny bit scared. Now that she has 20 years of growth and knowledge behind her, she can tackle the unique challenges of 18th-century life from a wholly new perspective. This will be fascinating to watch play out in forthcoming episodes.
Claire makes an unfathomable decision tonight. How did you come to terms with your character’s choice?
That decision that Claire makes to leave her daughter is probably the hardest thing I had to get my head around this season. This is a woman who makes a decision to leave her daughter forever for the love of someone else. That’s a really hard thing to understand. Brianna giving her permission and telling her she should go because she wants her to tell her father about her—that’s sort of the permission that Claire gives herself.
If we think back to the ‘60s or back to the ‘40s or whatever, I grew up in a place where there’s a lot of immigration. There’s a lot of people who would leave Ireland, move to America, move to Australia, move somewhere for a better life, and a lot of my father’s aunts did that, and they never got to come home again. They never got to see the rest of their family. I had to think of it in terms of that mindset—you’re not really that far from that idea in the ’60s. Nowadays, it’s so hard for us to think about, because we’re so used to having that constant connectivity. In that time, if somebody left, it wasn’t that unusual that you would say goodbye forever, in many ways. Maybe you’d get a letter once a year or something like that. That’s where I tried to come at it from.
But it’s such an emotional episode. This idea of making a choice to try and find somebody after 20 years without even an inkling, you’re going on your own gut. You’re not like, “Oh, he accepted my friend request! It’s on!” There’s none of that kind of stuff. There’s nothing for Claire to have a barometer on where he is in his life. Is he going to be married to somebody else? Is he going to even want anything to do with her again? The only thing she has is to trust how she felt and trust the bond they had back then: that if she still feels this way, then he’s gonna feel that way too.
You only had five episodes to capture a 20-year period in Claire’s life. What challenges stem from packing as much as you can into those tiny snippets?
I had a good while to think about it, because we started with Claire later on in life at the end of Season 2. In Diana’s book, you do get quite a lot more of the Claire story from the book. There were certain scenes that were very helpful to me that were pivotal in the book but didn’t make it into the show. There was a scene in the book where Claire comes home and Brianna’s been hurt. She’s been at work and she wasn’t able to get back home. It’s this really great working-mom-in-the-early-‘60s dilemma. I tried to amass all of that.
Tobias and I talked a lot, because we didn’t want to make this relationship, “It’s Claire and Frank, they don’t really love each other and so they’re at each other’s throats the whole time,” because you can’t believe that two people would spend 20 years together if there wasn’t love there, if there wasn’t some kind of harmony. So we talked a lot about, what do you think their daily life looks like and what do you think this routine is? How do you think they’ve managed to sustain this relationship this long? You see occasionally that it explodes—how do they move forward from that? We did a lot of talking about that. A lot of acting is just thinking. You just spend a lot of time daydreaming, imagining how that day-to-day goes. My favorite part about the job is I get to daydream and pretend I’m working. [Laughs]
I think for Claire, the biggest thing about her at the beginning of this season is she’s compartmentalized certain aspects of her life. She’s a woman of her word. She’s made a promise to Frank that she’s going to put aside everything to do with the research of Jamie, talking about Jamie, anything to do with him. She has to put it in a little corner in her mind and in her heart and close the door. And that comes at a huge price. She’s a very compromised woman in a sense. Her depth of passion has definitely been minimized. She and Frank tried to resume their sex life, but after a little while that was gone. Here’s a woman who has shelved that side of herself. That was such an important, integral part of her character, and that comes at a real price. There’s a rigidity to her and a suppressed nature that’s not our normal view of Claire. I always thought of her as being elemental, that she’s got this earthiness to her. I tried to reign all of that in,especially in the first part of the season, so you get somebody who’s much more rigid and buttoned-up.
Was there a scene or a bit of dialogue or a director’s note, or even your own personal research, that helped you connect to Claire in these early episodes?
An early reference we had for Episode 3 and the viciousness of that fight was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It’s all those years of repression and bitterness and resentment and they all just explode. I think I’ve said this before, but for grief, I used both Joan Didion’s books, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking. Last year it was the death of a daughter and even though it was very different, to me, [Didion] writes in such a way that I feel like I understand what she’s talking about very well. I think you’re always stealing. [Laughs] We have different directors, so Brendan Maher did [Episodes] 1 and 3. Two was Jennifer Getzinger. Four and five actually were Brendan again. Diana’s books are always really important to go back to. We changed things, certainly, for the show, but it’s always helpful to go back and get that internal dialogue again.
We had that great scene in Episode 1 where she’s cooking over the fire. Were there any other instances where you tried to bring 18th-century Claire to the 20th century?
I think you are always a sum of all of your experiences. Even if you tried consciously to leave something behind, I don’t think you ever fully do. That fire scene is only seven, eight months since she’s come back. Those experiences are so much fresher in her mind. Her decision to do that is almost instinctual: the cooker’s not working, what do I normally do? I cook on the open hearth. That’s what she does. I think as time goes on, she’s lived much longer in the 20th century than she has in the 18th, and those moments and those parts of her, they fade away a little bit.
Did you approach Season 3 differently than the other two?
It’s funny because the journey is so different. Season 1 I was just holding on for dear life. I had no experience in TV. I had no idea what was going to be expected of me. In many ways my experience was very similar to Claire’s. I was thrown into this world and was just like, “Holy shit!” Season 2, you’re not sure how you’re going to feel about coming back after something. It was such a whirlwind in Season 1. Season 2 is very like, “Now we’re settling into it.” Season 3, I felt like I knew what was expected of me and how to manage my time and requests on my time better. You mature a little bit.
Is it easier to slide into the character now?
I think so. There’s always the danger that you get comfortable. That’s one of the things, every time we meet with a director. I’m like, “I don’t want to get cozy. I want you to try and make me look at something from a point of view that I might not have thought of.” When you’re working that many hours and you’re in [character] constantly, you’re going off your first instincts because you don’t have a huge amount of time to let things percolate or look at it from 20 different angles. The most challenging thing is [not] having time to be able to look at things. When you’re tired and you’re in it, to not just go for the most obvious choice. It’s important when somebody comes in that you’re like, “Okay, well, please just give me that other option and I’ll see if I agree with it—or not.” It’s always good to have that other point of view.
How do you decompress after working those long days?
It’s usually at the end of week. At the end of the day you run home, you learn your lines, and you go to bed. I started cooking last season. I used to always cook, and then Season 1 and Season 2, you just eat on set the whole time, and no offense to Scottish catering, but it was bloody horrible. Last year I made the decision, I was just going to make all my own meals. It was the best thing I could’ve done for myself, and it sort of helped in South Africa, at the weekend, just cooking. I like to read other stuff. What have I read that I really liked? A beautiful Irish book called the I Found My Tribe, which was really great. I read the Patti Smith, which was fantastic. Miranda July’s book is hilarious, The First Bad Man, definitely worth reading. I thought it was really funny and really twisted. You’re like, “What?!”
What do we have to look forward to in the rest of the season? How was shooting in South Africa?
South Africa was such a breath of fresh air. There’s a particular episode that we had, I just loved the people. We had a young kid in it and he and I had some great scenes. He was just such a sweetheart to work with. Our show’s always like that. We’re constantly on the move and it does keep it very fresh. That’s always the biggest reward with the show, that you’re never going to the same set five days a week, 10, 20 weeks in a row. Things are always kept new.
We were all very comfortable after day one. We had a skeleton crew that came with us. My hair and makeup artist Anita turned into this different person. We were all like, “What are you wearing? Who are you?” [Laughs] She was hyper, it was like the sun did something metabolic to her. It was hilarious. I was probably one of the luckiest of everybody because we were able to sort of de-layer my costume a lot. But there’s a lot of protocol in that time and a lot of the poor sailors were in heavy, wool sailor’s uniforms. They were not allowed to take a single layer off. There were a lot of sweaty boys.
Can you tease the sea journey that’s coming?
Our first episode on the ships, we really see Claire in her element. It reminds me of bits of Prestonpans from Season 2 or the very first episode in Season 1. You see Claire in nurse-doctor mode. She is trying to do the best that she can with what resources she has. There’s a young character called Elias Pound and you see that maternal instinct of Claire’s. It made me think of her relationship with Brianna a lot. That choice she made to leave her daughter, that love she has, that maternal instinct—there has to be a surrogate for it . They form this really beautiful bond. Luke Schelhaas wrote that episode. It’s really great. I just loved it. It was just such a new environment, the ship was gimbaling and we had rats and fake vomit. It was really exciting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Outlander returns Sunday, October 22 at 8 PM EST on Starz.