We were considered blow-ins. Though my family had moved just two hours north of Dublin when I was a toddler, most people who lived in Tydavnet had roots there dating back generations.
We had relocated in the 1980s because my father was a police sergeant who was transferred there. It was the peak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the village was near the border.
One of my earliest memories was the wife of someone my dad had arrested or stopped coming to our front door and telling my mom that we should go back to where we came from. From an early age, I felt like an outsider.
Tydavnet is rural and spread out, so there were lots of fields and woods. When I lived there as a child, there was a church, a school, two pubs and a tiny post office. Not much has changed.
We lived first in a small cottage and then built our own home—a two-story, red-brick stand-alone that was quite pretty, with a beautiful garden that my parents kept up.
I’m the fourth of five children. When I was seven and my youngest brother was four, my parents decided to foster two children, so there were seven of us. It was a boisterous house and we had lots of fun. All of us got along.
I was probably the most emotionally overwrought of the bunch. Most of my siblings are quite science-minded or they’re a little more subdued in their personality.
I liked to carry on and was restlessly curious about the outside world. I knew from an early age I’d leave as soon as I could. Meanwhile, my observational qualities developed early.
My dad, James, was often busy with his officers patrolling the border, which was heated. My mom, Anne, assumed the bulk of the child-rearing.
As kids, we got around on our bikes and went fishing or built treehouses with different levels. I became quite good at it. We spent a lot of time hanging around in those finished treehouses, smoking stolen cigarettes.
Dad involved me and my siblings in a lot of local cultural activities, including a marching band, from the age of 6. I also was part of a theater group.
In primary school, I wasn’t a popular kid, and I didn’t think I was very pretty. We had a bad bullying problem in our school and not much was done about it.
My father’s position in the village didn’t help. In fact, that was part of the reason for it. The police weren’t necessarily respected or well-liked.
In high school, I appeared in plays and met people who were more like-minded. After graduation, I attended the Dublin Institute of Technology to study acting.
Out with friends one day at a supermarket to raise money for multiple sclerosis, I was approached by a man who gave me his card. He was with a Dublin modeling agency.
I was embarrassed. The checkout girls were watching and talking. One of them started shouting to all her friends at the other checkouts, “A woman just got asked to be a model!”
To ensure that everything was on the level, my oldest sister, Deirdre, came with me to the office. Soon after I signed on, a French agency hired me to model in Paris.
I was drawn to modeling immediately. It was my ticket out to see the world. My family wasn’t wealthy and never went on foreign holidays or anything like that.
Paris opened my eyes to so many cultural and aesthetic things. It gave me this sense of history and beauty, and hinted at what might be out there in the rest of the world.
Though modeling was the antithesis of acting, it helped me adjust to being rejected and not taking it personally. After 10 years, I moved to New York and took acting classes.
My first American film was “Super 8” in 2011, directed by J.J. Abrams. Though it wasn’t a speaking role, it was confirmation that I hadn’t been deluded, that acting was the right road for me. A series of small roles followed.
Then came my co-starring role as Claire Fraser in the “Outlander” series, which streamed in the States. It was my proper break.
Today, my husband, Tony, and I and our son are slightly nomadic. We split our time between Glasgow and London. When I’m working on “Outlander,” we’re in Glasgow.
In Glasgow, we live in a lovely Edwardian terrace apartment with high ceilings and moldings.
There’s something beautiful about historic buildings. At home in Scotland, I often find myself wondering about the lives of people who lived there before us.
What’s “Belfast” about? The film centers on a young boy, Buddy, growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the late ’60s unrest.
Your role? I play Buddy’s young mother.
What did you learn from Judi Dench? That humor is vital. She has the most delicious, wicked sense of humor. Apart from being utterly brilliant, she has a beautiful, youthful spirit.
Best part of working with director Kenneth Branagh? Seeing how much this project meant to him and how much love was on that set.