With the Irish actor already beloved thanks to TV’s time-traveling romance (hey, let her direct an episode already!), her performance in Kenneth Branagh’s coming-of-age film puts her on the path to movie stardom—and the Oscars.
As a child, Caitríona Balfe never found it strange when a trip to the dentist or to a clothing store involved driving by British soldiers with machine guns, or having the family car inspected for explosives. There were frequent bomb scares too, around where she grew up in Tydavnet, a small Irish village near the Northern Ireland border, and sometimes on the news she’d hear about a nearby community that had been hit. “It’s such a part of the fabric of your life when you live in those areas,” she says. “It’s really not until you get older that you look back and you realize the craziness of it, or the strangeness of it.”
It’s a warm November day, and Balfe is sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant in Los Angeles, talking about the concentric circles that are her life and her new movie, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. The film is Branagh’s semi-autobiographical take on his own childhood, set in 1969 not long after the violence and conflict known as the Troubles got under way. Balfe plays Ma, a mother of two torn between the fear of leaving her home in Northern Ireland and the desperation to keep her Protestant family safe. As it happens, Balfe has brought her three-month-old baby boy with her to Los Angeles for his first cross-Atlantic trip. Her son didn’t sleep well last night, so neither did she. Mind you, you can’t tell: Balfe still has a fresh glow, seemingly perfect skin, and piercing light blue eyes, all of which make it completely understandable that she spent her 20s as a runway model in Paris.
Even without the nighttime needs of her little one, Balfe, 42, has reason to be tired at the moment. A couple of evenings ago, she attended Belfast’s glitzy L.A. premiere at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which wrapped up with a late-night after-party where her costar Jamie Dornan belted out “Everlasting Love,” a song his character sings to Balfe’s in the film. The whirlwind promotional trip began a few weeks earlier with the London premiere, and then a hop over to Belfast for the local fête, which was the first time Balfe’s mother had ever attended one of her premieres. In between London and Belfast, Balfe stopped over in Ireland to visit family members she hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. “They hadn’t met the baby. They hadn’t seen me pregnant,” she says, ordering huevos rancheros, excited to be baby-free for a moment and use both her hands to have a civilized, adult meal. “It was like this whole event happened without seeing them.”
Belfast quickly became an Oscar front-runner when it was released by Focus Features in theaters on November 12. Even with a cast that includes Dornan, Judi Dench, and Ciarán Hinds, Balfe is a clear standout. Despite starring on a hit TV show—Starz’s Outlander—for the past eight years, Balfe will likely be set on the path to movie stardom by Belfast, though she waves away that kind of talk. “I feel like I’m at such an early stage in my career because I started so late,” she says, having left Ireland at 18 for that decade-long modeling career. Outlander has earned her fans and a rich role to dig into, but Belfast has brought her to Northern Ireland, and to a story close to her own heart.
As an Irish person, you read so many of these scripts about the Troubles, and they all have this romantic version of the violence. It always upsets me, because I don’t think that’s something that should be romanticized. And here was a script that really focused in on the family and on the people and the communities that are affected.
Balfe couldn’t have known that when she left Ireland to work, she would never call it home again. She became one of the most in-demand models working the runways, walking for the likes of Chanel, Valentino, Alexander McQueen, and Givenchy. Over a three-year stretch in the early 2000s, she appeared in hundreds of shows. “There was something about the theatricality of the runway shows—and the event of it—that I really loved,” Balfe says. But it eventually lost its shine as she neared 10 years in the business. “For the last couple of years I was miserable, really,” she says. “It’s not exactly the nicest industry or the healthiest industry.”
By then, Balfe was based in New York, and she started to dabble in acting classes. She was dating a guy who lived in Los Angeles and decided to take another leap to a new city full of strangers. “I knew that I had a passion for acting,” she says. “I knew it was something that, if I got the chance to do it, I would attack it with everything I had.” Balfe was aware she was at a disadvantage as a late starter, even at the not-exactly-old age of 29. Still, she began to build a career, commencing with the smallest of roles in J.J. Abrams’s Super 8. “I didn’t speak and I was the dead mom,” she says with a laugh, “but at least I spent a day with J.J. You kind of feel like, Well, if that person who’s really incredible and successful gives you a sort of seal of approval, then maybe that means something.”
The smaller jobs kept coming for a while, but then things dried up. One day, Balfe was standing in a dog park with a friend when her manager called her and dumped her. At that point, she hadn’t worked in five or six months. At first, “He kept telling me, ‘You have to wear the dress and put the makeup on and do the hot-girl thing.’ And it was so not me,” she says. “I’m glad I knew that I wanted to do it with integrity, if that makes any sense.”
Balfe’s conviction began to falter and she considered giving up on acting. When the casting call came along for Outlander, “it was another self-tape among hundreds,” she says. But in 2013 she was cast in the lead role of Claire, a former World War II nurse in Scotland who is transported back to the mid-18th century, where she’s thrown into a group of rebel Highlanders. She falls in love with one of the men, Jamie (played by Sam Heughan). “That feistiness she’s got, maybe it’s the Irishness in her—because she’s got great intelligence and great wit about her—that feistiness really works for Claire,” Heughan says of Balfe. “She’s never going to be told what to do. She’s always going to stand up for herself.”
Outlander allowed Balfe to show off her versatility in a series that requires physical strength, charm, wit, and depth, and the offers sailed in. But because shooting a season of Outlander in Scotland takes between 9 and 12 months, there’s never much time left for her to accept other opportunities. “The beauty of this show is that it’s opened a lot of doors. The tough part about it is that we don’t have any time to really take advantage of it,” says Balfe.
She was able to film Jodie Foster’s Money Monster between seasons one and two and starred opposite Christian Bale in the Oscar-nominated Ford v Ferrari between seasons four and five, the latter of which brought her some critical acclaim for elevating what could have been a by-the-numbers “wife” role. Says Ford v Ferrari director James Mangold, “Whatever had been said to me before I met Caitríona—‘She’s in this hot TV show, huge following, former model’—this is often the kind of thing that turns me off. But what I was confronted with was a simply remarkable actress—present, fearless, emotionally vulnerable, and smart.”
Outlander has a passionate fan base, and the new level of fame has also come with challenges—especially in regard to Balfe’s personal life. Though she was pregnant while shooting the sixth season (premiering March 6), she managed to keep the news off of social media, and many fans were surprised when she announced the birth of her son—with a simple black-and-white image of a tiny hand holding hers—on August 18. “I’m a very open person,” she says. “It’s not like I was hiding my pregnancy. Everybody at work knew, all of my friends knew, anyone I came into contact with in my life knew. But in terms of putting that out there, I don’t see the value in that. I think there’s certain things that are nice to have for yourself.”
She has a reason to be a bit more protective, owing to a sliver of fans who are obsessed with the idea that Balfe and Heughan are romantically involved in real life. These stans have conspiracy theories, including one positing that her baby is Heughan’s because the bedsheets in the baby picture look similar to ones seen in a photo Heughan has posted. Balfe says that after she married her husband, Scottish music manager Anthony McGill, in 2019, she found out that someone had called to harass the secretary of the church where the wedding took place; they didn’t believe her marriage was real. She’s also gotten wind that private investigators have been hired to “solve” the case and prove definitively that she’s involved with Heughan.
“When you have a kid, you become really protective,” Balfe says. “I don’t want those crazies—because that’s what they are—I just don’t want them talking about him.” So you won’t find the name of her son in this article, and you won’t find photos of him on her social media. Being a new mom has necessitated an additional layer of armor for Balfe: “It’s sad, because you meet the loveliest people who are fans of the show and they’re super supportive and they do the nicest things—and then you have that little thing, which just taints it.”
That maternal fire to protect her child at all costs is exactly what drives Ma in Belfast. In certain scenes, she is literally blocking her boy from harm. Early on, when a riot breaks out in their quaint town, Ma scoops up her son Buddy (Jude Hill) from the street and uses a trash can lid to shield him from danger while she rushes him home to safety. Branagh says Balfe had the balance of wit and charm with the strength needed for this character, who is loosely based on his own mother. “You have this quiet, funny, twinkly woman at one end of her presence,” he says. “And at the other end, you’ve got this sort of Cleopatra, Boudicca kind of lion woman—you just would not mess with her, ever. When she accesses that, this beautiful, funny, kind, gentle, quiet woman would take your head off.”
While filming Belfast, which was one of the first projects to shoot in Europe close to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Balfe considered her own mother, who had to uproot her family from Dublin and move near the border. “I think a lot about how hard that must have been for her and the struggles that she made in making that decision,” she says. She found that Ma had an interesting contradiction at the heart of her character: “In her own space and in this own little community, she was so confident and comfortable. But yet she was such a little girl, because you take her outside of that, and she was so scared. The outside world was so alien to her.”
Unlike Ma, Balfe has been at home in the outside world for more than two decades now. She mostly resides in Glasgow because of Outlander’s demanding production schedule. Balfe says she’s not sure when the series, which will shoot its seventh season later in 2022, will end, but adds, “We will have hit the almost 10-year mark by the end of that, which feels like a nice kind of time frame, but we don’t know. Those decisions are far above my pay grade.”
But it will end eventually, and then Balfe’s schedule will very much open up. She hopes to do theater and delve into other meaty film roles, but more than anything she hopes to direct. “It’s something I’ve been talking about doing on the show. It’s falling a little on deaf ears,” she says, adding that there was a plan for her to do some directing in the sixth season, but the pandemic, her starring role, and her pregnancy made the logistics of that more complicated. Clearly frustrated, Balfe says she hasn’t heard anything about directing in the upcoming seventh season but feels it’s unlikely at this point. “It would’ve been the perfect chance for me in a very safe space,” she says. “I’m so close with all of our camera crew, and they were always having conversations about what lens they’re using and what frame it is and they’re really always super helpful in giving me as much information as I want. It’s a shame, but out of my hands.”
She’s got great intelligence and great wit about her… She’s never going to be told what to do. She’s always going to stand up for herself.
She spoke with Branagh, while they were filming Belfast, about her desire to direct. He’d make sense as a mentor, being an actor himself. “I personally would be really fascinated to see her direct,” he says. “Because that compassionate emotional intelligence and genuine, significant intellect—I think will also be a great storytelling voice to see in the future.”
And on the set of Belfast, she noticed something noteworthy about Branagh’s team: There were a significant number of women on the crew, something she hasn’t seen on Outlander. The disparity was so noticeable that she said around two years ago she and Heughan spoke with the show’s executives about diversifying the crew in terms of gender and race. “I think on one hand there’s sort of this idea, ‘Well, Scotland’s a very predominantly white place and it’s an industry that traditionally is much more male-skewed, so it’s tough to find these people.’ I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. I think there’s ways of finding people to bring in.”
Having a child also gave Balfe some insight on the reasons why men continue to dominate productions. “By the time you get to a certain age, if you want to have a family at all, you end up stepping off that ladder and I think it’s very hard for them to come back in,” she says. “That’s something we need to address as an industry because I look at our camera crew, all amazing guys, all of them have become fathers in the eight years we’ve been filming, but not one of them has had to give up their position.”
Whatever direction she takes next, her choices will be influenced not only by what she wants for her career but also what’s best for her new family of three. “I was talking to my agent the other day [about a job], and I was like, ‘Well, let’s start with when and where.’ For how long and where it is have become sort of initial markers of whether or not things are doable,” she says. Promoting Belfast will likely keep Balfe very busy through the Oscars, and afterward she hopes to spend some quiet time back home, which is, for now, in Glasgow. That’s another thing that could change when Outlander does finally end—and it’s an issue Belfast deeply grapples with. If you leave your home, where is home? It’s a question Balfe has faced since she moved away at such a young age.
“It’s funny, I don’t know where my home is,” she says. “Since I left Ireland, I’ve constantly been on the move. I think it’s definitely the people you’re with now. But as in a place, I’ve never really put down roots since. I think you’ll never feel as tied to a place as you do when you’re a child, you know?”