Interviews « Caitriona Balfe Fan


Portraying your director’s real-life parents in a movie can be daunting, but “Belfast” stars Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe say Kenneth Branagh gave them the freedom to improvise in the film based on his childhood.

“As Ken said, this is the script version of his parents, and I think he didn’t want to do an exact … he very much gave them over to us,” Balfe told TheWrap’s Steve Pond in a virtual interview during the Toronto International Film Festival. “He was like, you create this, we want you to bring what you feel from the page into your character, so I think luckily he wasn’t stopping us at any point saying, no my mum didn’t do that or my dad didn’t do that. He gave us a lot of freedom and within that, I think that pressure just goes if you’re allowed to just play.”

Dornan added: “I feel that Ken is very open like that. I feel there were moments where we were able to improvise some stuff… there are definitely ad libs here and there but again, Ken sort of trusted us.”

Dornan said that Branagh would even ask the duo for advice in certain scenes given that both Dornan and Balfe are from the northern part of Ireland, so the “colloquialisms sit very strongly within us,” Dornan explained.

“[Branagh’s] siblings were pleased with the casting, especially Caitriona, probably less so with me,” Dornan joked.

“Belfast,” filmed in black and white, follows Branagh’s childhood in the late 1960s. Branagh wrote and directed the film that also stars Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench, Colin Morgan and Lara McDonnell.

“The first time I read the script it was the first time I read something about Northern Ireland that wasn’t about the ideology,” Balfe said. “It was about this love of family and love of community and the first time I read it, I totally teared up… it’s a love story to his childhood and the place he grew up.”

Dornan said that the script came to him during the first lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the screenplay resonated with him because he was feeling homesick for Belfast, where he was born.

“This came to us during the first lockdown where we were all in a state of disarray and pondering whether movies would ever be a thing again,” Dornan said. “I was thinking about home a lot. I was writing a script that was set at home, I couldn’t get home — when I say home I mean to the north of Ireland to Belfast — Home was on my mind, and then I got a script called ‘Belfast.’”


The actress opens up about fusing personal history with the scars of her homeland’s divided past in Kenneth Branagh’s tribute to lives “destroyed by this ridiculous sectarianism and ideology.”

Nothing soothes like a mother’s love, and Caitríona’s Balfe’s impassioned portrayal of a devoted mama bear protecting her family amid social upheaval in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (in theaters Nov. 12) serves as both a balm and a testament to the scars of her homeland’s bitterly divided past.

EW’s The Awardist recently caught up with the 41-year-old Outlander star (and new mother of one) out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where her turn in Branagh’s semi-autobiographical account of Ireland’s violent, three-decade sectarian conflict received standout reviews at the top of Oscars season. Below, Balfe breaks down how she fused personal history with Branagh’s heartfelt story, preparing to dance a sweet jig with costar Jamie Dornan for one of the film’s most touching scenes, and the catharsis of honoring of Ireland’s lives “destroyed by this ridiculous sectarianism and ideology.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on the new baby!
CAITRÍONA BALFE: Thank you. I’m sleep-deprived, but cuddles make up for it!

Motherhood is a lovely segue into Belfast, because the maternal strength and heart you bring to this role is so moving. What were your initial conversations like with Kenneth?
He sent me the script before we’d spoken. It’s so full of heart, I got emotional reading it. As I said to him the first time we spoke, Ma just felt so familiar to me. You can’t help but think about your own childhood, your own mother. It touched me.

On one of our first days together, Ken had me, Judi [Dench], Ciarán [Hinds], and Jamie in a room together, and we talked about our upbringings. Ken asked lots of questions, we all shared. Even though this is Ken’s story, he wanted us to connect with the things personal to us, and find similarities between ourselves and his parents.

Did you have conversations with his family?
Ken’s parents unfortunately have passed, but his brother and sister make cameos in the film. I didn’t talk to them beforehand, but we met them during filming. Ken used so many of the crew he works with time and time again. It was a small crew in this bubble, I was in a hotel with the kids and their moms, so it had a family feel anyway!

You previously told The Irish Times that growing up in borderland counties wasn’t easy. The period of Belfast is about 15 years off from your childhood, but can you talk about how you channeled your experience into Ma?
Even though I didn’t grow up in Belfast or in the North, we were in such proximity that we were affected by it. Whereas Ma and Pa left Belfast, my dad, who was a police sergeant, was transferred to the border when I was a baby. Our lives were completely shaped by it. My mom left her close community in a very similar way to Ma. My mom has eight siblings, and she left all of them in this close-knit community to go and be on the border where my dad worked. We weren’t welcomed initially, because the police were regarded with a lot of suspicion and people in that area weren’t sympathetic to a provisional army. Doing the research, I watched so much footage from that time. When you see how your own people and these communities were just destroyed by this ridiculous sectarianism and ideology, and people who use that to drive wedges between people who’d lived completely peacefully for years, it’s heartbreaking… that conflict is still going on. But obviously there was the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in ’98, which I was very much aware of at the time I was in Ireland. I know Jamie and Ciarán are from Belfast, and Judi’s mother is Irish, so we all felt a soulful connection to the movie. It’s funny how you see the British army and tanks coming through the town, and in my childhood I went through British army checkpoints into the North regularly, to go grocery shopping or the dentist.

There are political and social elements here, but Belfast is about family first. How does it feel to give a face to the people who lived this conflict? Is it cathartic?
When you get a script about Northern Ireland or that takes place in Northern Ireland, it’s always about the ideology. And this was about the people, the community, the heart. That felt special to celebrate that. Making it about the humanity of the people, of course it was rewarding. You feel a special responsibility to make sure that this is what’s important, and it feels especially timely in the last year because of Brexit, everything is heating up again. You want to just get people to see that this is what’s important; this rubbish about our side, their side, Ken speaks to it so well in the film. It’s just so ridiculous. We’re all human beings, everyone has dreams, we’re all that little kid, we’re all Buddy at some point. It’s so important to connect to that and remember that and to see that your supposed adversary is the same.

It’s a wonderful ensemble, and the emotional layers you and Jamie built are palpable. But there are great physical moments between you — particularly when you throw dishes at him! Was that improvised?
It was great, we got to do it a few times. Ken is so amazing, obviously we had the scene on the page, but he’ll let you play. There was freedom in it. Any scene where I get to throw things at people is fun! One of the things Ken emphasized was how these people love fiercely and laugh fiercely. Even if they’re arguing one minute, the next they’re dancing and kissing. Life is big and full, and Jamie and I enjoyed playing around with that.

Our first day together, we had a dance rehearsal for two people. Now that I’ve seen him dance on a beach in Barb and Star… He was like, “Oh, I can’t dance,” and I’m definitely not somebody who learns choreography well, so if there was ever a good bonding moment, stick two people who claim to not dance very well together for dance rehearsals!

Walk us through filming the dance. How long did you work on it prior to shooting?
Not very long! [Laughs] We had an amazing choreographer who’d steal us a couple hours between filming. It was a heat wave in London, so there were one or two days where it was 35 degrees Celsius or more, and we’re trying to learn these dance moves in a tiny bit of shade. We were dying. We didn’t want it to feel like they were too professional, so that’s my excuse for the very amateur-looking feel that we gave it!

What’s Jamie like as a dancer partner?
He’s one of those annoying people where he was like, “I’m never going to get this!” and then the day of filming, he just busted it out and I was the one making mistakes. He was perfect! It was good fun. Any time you get to do stuff like that, it’s freeing and fun. And it’s such a beautiful point in the movie. We watched Jude [Hill] while they filmed his close-up reactions to us dancing, and Jamie and I stood there like two proud parents. He’s so amazing and looked so angelic, but going through this whole range of emotions that Ken prompted. We were like, “Our son!”

You’re all getting huge acclaim out of the fall festivals. You’ve gone through this for Emmys on the awards circuit, but it’s still early in Oscars season. What does that waiting period feel like? Is it nerve-wracking or validating?
It’s lovely that people connect to it and enjoy it. I feel happy for Ken because I know how much he put into this and it means so much to him. To see people embrace it because it resonated with them, that makes me happy… It feels great when you enjoy the process of making something when the experience is special to you on a personal level. To see that go out into the world and touch people, it feels great. Even if it didn’t, it’d still be a special film to me. But the fact that it is… it’s the cherry on top.


Caitriona Balfe on Her Most Polarizing Red Carpet Looks: “It Doesn’t Have to Be for Everyone Else”
The Outlander actress is all about out-there fashion. If she loves it, she wears it — as it should be.

Let it be known that Caitriona Balfe doesn’t take a red carpet lightly. Case in point: the 2019 Golden Globes, where, among a sea of standard fishtail gowns, Balfe — a four-time nominee for best actress in a TV drama for her role as Claire Fraser in Outlander — turned up in a strapless custom Moschino dress that featured a voluminous burgundy velvet tulip skirt. A less confident woman wouldn’t necessarily opt for a silhouette that balloons at the hips, but Balfe, 40, isn’t afraid of Fashion (with a capital F). “That was probably the most polarizing thing I’ve worn,” she says with a laugh. “But it was different, and I loved it. I always say if I love it, then I’m happy. It doesn’t have to be for everyone else. Some of what I wear is crazy, but it’s good crazy. And if my mom hates it, then I’ve probably done the right thing!”

It wasn’t always this way. High fashion didn’t really enter Balfe’s consciousness until 1999, when she was approached to become a model while studying drama in her hometown of Dublin. She spent the next 10 years hitting the catwalk for such houses as Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs before moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. Going from runway darling to Hollywood ingénue was an adjustment fashionwise. “When you first start, the availability of what you get offered [to wear for big events] is different — you’re just grateful that somebody’s lending you a dress,” she says. “I was fortunate to have had prior relationships with many designers and to get the opportunity to work with them again in a different way.”

Now, with Outlander going into its fifth season on Starz and a major role in the upcoming blockbuster Ford v. Ferrari, out in November (she plays Mollie Miles, the wife of legendary 1960s race-car driver Ken Miles, portrayed by Christian Bale), Balfe has even more opportunities to show off her fashion prowess, although comfort is essential. “I’m never going to do a 20-foot train because I need to be able to get from point A to B and go to the bathroom by myself,” says the actress, who works with stylist Karla Welch to prepare for the red carpet. “Plus, there’s no point in walking out the door in something that doesn’t make you feel great. If you don’t wear something with confidence, it doesn’t matter how it looks.”

Indulging Balfe’s madcap fashion whims was part of the joy of this shoot. Her favorite looks? The Miu Miu shorts-and-jacket combo (“I could wear that every day”), the Ferragamo jumpsuit (“I was like, ‘I can steal this, right?’”), and the very scrunchy pink shawl by Moschino Couture. “I love when you can really play with clothes and enjoy them,” she says.

Balfe’s zesty outlook extends beyond her wardrobe. “I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at, the people in my life, and the things going on in my career,” she says. “It’s been a hectic but good year. I hope it isn’t my best one, though. Because that would really be shit!”

For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 18.

Yara Shahidi, Zoey Deutch, Bill Skarsgård, and Five Other Stars Offer Their Cravings, Picks, and Binge-worthy Hits

It’s official, the barriers between the cable box and box office are broken: More is more. The top 2019 Oscars went to Olivia Colman and Rami Malek, two actors who got their start on television. Back-to-back best supporting actors Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell are up for the same Emmy this month, while cinematic wonder women Julia Roberts and Amy Adams made major debuts on Hulu and HBO, respectively, this season. This summer, the most Oscar-nominated actor in history, Meryl Streep, graces weekly cable in Big Little Lies.

Now, Hollywood’s rising class is following the lead with gusto, moving seamlessly between film and TV, reaping the benefits of a renaissance in storytelling. From franchises to miniseries and indies, with a superhero stint here and there, these eight actors are among the busiest this fall, and you’ll see them stealing screens big and small.

Caitriona Balfe
Film Ford v Ferrari, in November
TV Outlander (Starz)
Binge-watching Black Mirror
Nightstand reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
Date spot Glasgow Film Theatre
Fantasy role Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Gloria

Source / Full List

Big thanks to my friend Mary for the scans.

Even by the highly stressful standards of Outlander, the season 4 finale really put fans through the wringer. Jamie decides to trade himself to the Mohawk people to save Roger—and just as you’re beginning to process that, Young Ian jumps in and takes his place instead! Poor Brianna went into labor and gave birth before either of her parents could make it home. Oh, and Jamie has been tasked with assassinating Murtagh next season. Cool, cool, cool.

Below, Catriona Balfe breaks down the key moments from “Man of Worth,” hints at what’s to come in season 5, and explains whether Jamie and Claire have been having less sex of late.
Where does the season leave Claire emotionally?

I think her primary focus throughout the season is so much about her being a mother to Brianna in a very different way, because of what Brianna has gone though and also being a grandmother now. I think it’s definitely been a transition, this season, going from the search for Jamie and “Will this relationship work?” to them finding each other.

Now it’s like okay, we built this life, and what does it look like? With Brianna coming in, it becomes very different, because now Claire’s become the matriarch of this extended family unit. When she says to Brianna, “I want to take you away from here,” I think she needs to have her family around her, in a place where they create the society that they want. She can see how heartbroken Brianna is, and everything about River Run for Claire is just so tainted and it’s hard for her to relax there at all. I think she just wants to protect her daughter, get her home, and create a safe space for her.

When Jamie is going to trade himself for Roger, Claire accepts it fairly quickly. Why?
I think it’s telling that one of the next lines is when after Ian offers himself up, Jamie says “Escape at your first chance.” Given that we had so little time to use in that moment, where I had to go with it was, this is a temporary thing. He’s going to get out of here as quickly as he can. I think she felt that this is Jamie’s politically savvy decision to get Roger for this instant, but he’s not going to stay.
Fans were wondering if Jamie and Claire would make it back before Brianna gave birth. How did you feel about the fact that they weren’t there?

I think they had a lot of stories to try and tie up in the finale. There’s a lot in that book, and obviously when you’re trying to tell it all in 13 episodes it’s quite difficult. Just personally, getting to play those scenes with Sophie would have been so cool, but I think it also speaks to Brianna’s independence, and allows for some healing between Jocasta and Claire. Also, it’s so great when Jamie and Claire come back at the end, and I think once they see a healthy baby, it doesn’t matter. It’s the moment you first meet the child that’s more important.

What was it like playing opposite Sophie now that Bree and Claire’s relationship has changed so much?
It was great, because towards the end of the period in the ’60s, this was a mother and daughter really at odds with each other. Their relationship was so fractured, and there were so many secrets, Claire wasn’t being honest. So then in season 3 when Claire is finally honest with Brianna and they start repairing and healing that relationship, it allows for what’s happened this season. Sophie’s just blossomed this season because she’s been given so much more to do, and it’s been wonderful to see her flourish in all of that. At the end of season 2 and the beginning of season 3, it was still sort of this mother–child relationship in many ways, and Brianna was very much in pain and acting out in response to some of the things she found out, and justifiably so. Now they’re on an even keel and they’re meeting as equals.

It feels like Jamie and Claire had fewer sex scenes this season. Why do you think that is?
Well, even in season one, there were only three or four episodes where we had sex scenes—it was just that we had one episode that was all sex scenes! People are like, “They never have sex any more,” and I’m like, “Yeah they do!” But the show has opened up—there’s a couple of episodes that Sam and I weren’t even in this season. You’re telling a story of a family and a relationship, and the passion is still there. It’s not the same as when you first meet somebody, but it doesn’t mean the passion’s diminished. It just means that it’s changed.

I think some people have misconstrued the fact that we talk about a mature relationship, like, “Are you trying to say mature people don’t have sex?” That’s not what we’re trying to say at all, and actually, as we’ve shown, they do. Their relationship is about that, but it’s about all these other things. It’s about their family and their children and this larger unit that they’ve created. Also…they’re living in a one-bedroom house with their nephew for a lot of it! There are logistical issues as well! I think all of that has to come into play. They might traumatize poor Young Ian.

How is Young Ian’s decision to trade himself for Roger going to impact next season?
I think it’ll have the biggest impact between Roger and Jamie. There’s a lot of resentment still there, and obviously Jamie is in some ways thinking about the impact that having to save Roger has had on his nephew, so that’ll be an interesting dynamic. John Bell is so wonderful and you can’t help but see the absolute glee that he has when he got to do those scenes with the Mohawk and the gauntlet. I think one of the cool things is it will allow us to explore Native American culture, and the relationship that Claire and Jamie and Young Ian have with them, in a deeper way.

What can you say about season 5?
I think one of the main focuses is going to be this impending, looming Revolutionary War—obviously Murtagh and Jamie are being tasked on opposing sides, and that’s going to have a huge impact on the family. The war is going to put Claire and Jamie is a very precarious position, so how are they going to deal with that, and how is that going to impact their family? We’ve got a lot of interesting stuff coming up.

On December 30, 1996, Delacorte Press released Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s stealth blockbuster Outlander series. Tonight, 22 years to the day of publication, the most anticipated, beloved, compelling, and frustrating scenes in that book come to life on the series’ wildly popular TV adaptation. Though the episode revolves around the shaky dynamic between a young woman and the father she’s never met, it’s the mother, Claire Fraser, and the woman who plays her, Caitriona Balfe—the series’ linchpin, the gravitational force keeping the Outlander world on track and viewers coming back for 51 episodes and counting—who quietly shapes the hour.

Titled “The Birds and the Bees,” the episode focuses on 20th century-born Brianna Randall Fraser (Sophie Skelton) tracking down her mother Claire (Balfe) and father Jamie (Sam Heughan) in 1769 North Carolina. A thorny communion plays out between the stubborn, 1970s-shaped American and the Scottish Highlander father she’s meeting for the first time. Confused? Welcome to the world of Outlander, in which a certain subset of the population can travel through time with the help of specific prehistoric monuments. More on that in a bit.

This is what fans who devour Gabaldon’s books and track cast members’ every move (a fandom the New York Times describes as “one of television’s most passionate fan bases”) have waited more than two decades for: Claire and Jamie, the textbook “perfect couple,” reunited with their long-lost daughter to complete the Fraser family unit. “When Brianna comes back, you see Claire look around the table like, Oh my God. I’ve finally been able to have it all,” Balfe explains over the phone from LA after a dizzying month spent promoting Outlander’s fourth season.

It’s an image Claire never allowed herself to imagine, and the road to this moment is paved with three-and-a-half seasons’ worth of timeline-hopping and tangled family trees. To quickly recap: In 1946, Claire, an English World War II nurse, accidentally travels to 1743 through a group of mystical standing stones in the Scottish Highlands. Though married in her own time, Claire weds a Highlander, Jamie Fraser, for protection, and they fall in love. Two years and a half-dozen life-threatening adventures later, Claire returns to the 20th century pregnant with Brianna. She’s fleeing the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, the Scottish conflict with the British that spells the end of Highland culture—and where Jamie plans to die alongside his comrades.

Claire spends the next 20 years in the 1950s and ‘60s, mourning Jamie and raising her daughter with her first husband, Frank. After his death, Claire and Brianna, with the help of an old friend (and Bree’s future romantic interest), historian Roger Wakefield, learn Jamie survived Culloden, and Bree urges Claire to return to her husband in the past. As Season 4 opens, the Frasers are happily reunited and settling into life in America in 1767. Meanwhile, Brianna, essentially orphaned in the 1970s, discovers a clue in historical documents that points to Jamie and Claire’s deaths, and decides to makes the dangerous journey through the stones to warn them. (When Roger discovers where Bree has gone, he, of course, follows her.)

Though the burgeoning relationship between Brianna and Jamie—complicated by two centuries’ worth of baggage, including the shadow of another father figure—is the subject of this episode, there’s something goosebump-inducing about Claire and Bree’s reunion. Claire—who has experienced several lifetimes’ worth of upheaval and should, at this point, be physically incapable of shock—is well and truly stunned. Though Gabaldon wrote Claire as a character whose face betrays her every emotion, Balfe always played the part at a slight remove, with an aloof dignity betrayed only when Claire decides to speak her mind. Yet in this scene, there’s no pretense, no emotional barrier—just poignant relief. It’s incredibly moving, compounded by Skelton nearly knocking Balfe off her feet in an embrace. (“Everything in one moment is in that hug she gives her Mom,” Skelton says. “I ran to her and threw myself on her, like Bree would do, but I think Cait nearly fell over.”)

It is, perhaps, the first truly uninhibited interaction between these characters. Their relationship in the 20th century was strained at best, the truth about Brianna’s real father stretching the chasm between daughter and workaholic mother nearly beyond repair. It took what both assumed would be a permanent separation to bring them closer than ever, and their reunion closes the last remnants of that gap. “It’s really Claire and Brianna meeting each other on equal footing,” Balfe explains. “This is woman to woman, whereas at the end of Season 2 she was still trying to raise a child—you’re still very much trying to guide them, trying to teach them and tell them. When you’re a mother to an adult, there is that friendship that comes into it. [Claire] knows she can’t dictate to her anymore or tell her how to live her life. She sees she’s this full woman who still needs nurturing and comfort from her mother, but at the same point, Brianna is a woman now. And I think Claire recognizes that.”

The seasons’ earlier episodes establish Jamie and Claire in a home to which they can actually welcome Brianna, with the couple making the decision to actually sit still for once. They buy a tract of land in the backwoods of North Carolina and establish Fraser’s Ridge, a homestead where Jamie can farm while Claire practices her medicine. “It is so nice to see this couple be settled… There’s a solid foundation that Jamie and Claire have built, not only in their relationship, but now in this family, in this community,” Balfe says. “There’s a contentment and a settled nature that we’ve never got to explore before.” While earlier seasons saw Jamie and Claire crisscross the Highlands and portions of mainland Europe before their separation in Season 3, Season 4 allows the couple to settle down—and, of course, engage in that intimacy fans come to expect and crave. “Season 1 and Season 2, Claire was in constant reaction to events happening around her, and then last season it was that investment in her professional life and daughter, but at the expense of a personal fulfillment in that kind of intimate way,” Balfe says. “This season, it was about self-nurturing, where it’s never really been about that before.”

Balfe admits she struggled with Claire, a woman equally as proficient wielding a knife against leering miscreants as she is a scalpel in an operating theater, settling into the role of homemaker. “I think we can all fall into traps in our own lives and in ourselves, and as an actor you can fall into traps with characters where you’re like, Oh no, this is who they are and this is the way I see them. When I read those first scripts, it took me a second understand the shift. But I think that’s what’s so exciting about being on a show like this—[it] keeps you on your toes and keeps you challenged every season,” she says. “It’s finding the value in what you’re being given to explore in that particular moment. This season, she’s finding the value in nurturing that side of herself that she had to neglect for 20 years… This is the first season where we see all the parts of her come together in a more cohesive way.”

In “The Birds and the Bees,” it’s Balfe’s performance as both mediator and a mother grappling with a shifting family dynamic—which quickly devolves into concern for her daughter’s welfare—that reminds viewers why Claire is the core of the show. Despite this portrait of a happy family, viewers know there’s heartache to come for the Frasers. What should be a celebratory occasion for Brianna is marred by the impact of last week’s episode, which saw her raped at the hands of a pirate, Stephen Bonnet, with fateful ties to her parents. Bonnet stole Claire’s wedding ring in the Season 4 premiere, and when Brianna met him in last week’s episode and attempted to pay for the ring’s return, the pirate attacked her. Skelton gives a standout performance as a young woman stunned by grief, and when Bree finally tells her mother about what she’s been through, the four-minute scene is cathartic for both viewer and audience. “This whole storyline was so harrowing,” says Balfe. “The thing that’s so insidious about sexual assault is what a toll it takes on every relationship in the person’s life.”

Balfe and Skelton’s performances are chilling, and the rapport between the actors underlines a real camaraderie. “You get very generous actors [on this show] and Caitriona is very much one of those,” Skelton says. “Even when it’s not her take, she gives a 100 percent performance for you to feed off. She doesn’t tire for you. If she’s crying on her take, she’ll cry on your take because you’re reacting to the same thing. Not a lot of actors are like that.”

It’s a performance that calls back to some of the best Balfe has given on the show—think her steely conviction in the face of Season 1’s general confusion, or the aftermath of her first daughter’s stillbirth in Season 2’s “Faith.” It’s easy to see why she’s received four consecutive Golden Globe nominations for her efforts. (Her most recent, for the current season, pends next Sunday’s awards ceremony.) Her energy and tenacity has been one of the series’ most compelling factors since its premiere in 2014—not to mention her chemistry with leading man Heughan and their smoldering sex scenes, the appeal of which lies in the show’s inherent female gaze. “Somehow this show was groundbreaking in the beginning because the female character was more fully fleshed out than we’d ever seen when you’re telling these relationships,” Balfe recalls fondly. “We get to see sex through her eyes, we get to see all these things through her eyes. It’s quite shocking that in 2014 that was somewhat slightly revolutionary. I know we weren’t the only show doing it, but we were one of the only.”

Tonight’s episode explores some of the darkest material ever depicted on the show, but Balfe has always elevated material that could sink into soap opera territory, bringing depth, nuance, and gravitas to every scene. Claire’s reaction to Brianna’s news is a foil to her grief after Faith’s death; Claire can’t give herself fully to her rage because she has to have strength for her suffering daughter. “For Claire as a mother to know that in some way her actions… Claire can’t help but take on the guilt of it in many ways, and the pain that she can’t fix this, that she can’t make it right,” Balfe says. “That must be every mother’s worst nightmare, when something happens to your child, that you can’t protect them from it.”

Outlander has seen multiple main and supporting characters experience rape in past seasons, with critics and fans alike criticizing the show and its source material for its use of sexual violence as a plot device. Brianna’s assault in last week’s episode met mixed reviews, with some praising the decision to close the doors on the act itself, while others questioned the need to include the rape at all. “It’s important to discuss these kind of things and explore them, because unfortunately they’re all too real in our world,” Balfe says of the plot line. “We do straddle this tough line because we’re following a path that has been laid out in the books, and it’s set in a time period where sexual assault was a weapon used freely and still is in many places today. We have to tell these storylines because they are an integral part to the overall story. But there’s a concerted effort made on behalf of the writers and the producers and us actors that, if we’re going to do it, then let’s find the best way of doing it.”

Balfe also sees this storyline as a chance to convey a vital truth: “The shame of sexual assault does not lie with the victims. I think that that’s the most important message, especially in this episode—we don’t get to shame victims. And that would have been such a commonplace reaction in that time. It’s nice to see how Claire, especially when she’s telling Jamie, how that conversation is guided to go in the complete opposite way.”

The episode ends on a cliffhanger, with Jamie beating Brianna’s partner Roger (remember him?) close to death after Bree’s traveling companion Lizzie mistakenly identifies him as Bree’s rapist. The rest of the season will deal with the aftermath of this monumental misunderstanding as well as Brianna’s pregnancy (she doesn’t yet know whether the baby is Roger’s or Bonnet’s). So yes, things are about to get a lot messier. And as the final four episodes explore these converging storylines, it’s impossible to miss an inevitable shift in the show’s storytelling methods. Throughout Season 4, Outlander has slowly splintered away from a razor-sharp focus on Claire and Jamie to make room for Brianna and Roger—an expansion from the original duo to a quartet. “The story is as much Brianna and Roger’s as it is Claire and Jamie’s,” Balfe says. “The show has evolved to tell the story of this couple, and more, this family.”

This season also marked the first with an episode in which neither Balfe nor Heughan appear. “We were so happy. We were like, yay! A break!” Balfe says, laughing. She recounts the grueling shooting schedules of the shows’ first seasons, the “11-day fortnights” which constituted shooting a six-day and a five-day week back-to-back. “There’s an exhaustion level that kicks in,” she says. “I think all actors will tell you when you’re in production like that, it’s like you step outside the real world and you live in this bubble. You can do that for a certain amount of time, happily so, but then a couple years down the line you realize that real life is knocking at the door and demanding to be addressed.”

Balfe is excited about the opportunities this shift will afford her—in fact, she’s hoping to get to know Claire better. “Going forward it’s going to be a much more evenly doled-out set of storylines. I will get my moments to really delve deep into Claire, but there will also be moments where I will have to take a step aside and let one of the other characters do that,” she says. She recalls Tobias Menzies’ method in Season 1: “[He] would come in and he’d have had two, three weeks off, and he would have taken his character and looked at it from seven, eight different points of view. His way of working was incredible. I think the one thing this is affording me is the luxury of sitting with the character in a different way and being able to approach the process in a very different way.” For fans already wailing in protest, don’t panic: “It’s only going to be to the show’s benefit,” Balfe promises: “Any world that is more nuanced and given a wider view can only be better.”

Balfe also hopes the expansion of the Outlander universe will provide opportunities for her, along with Heughan, to explore roles beyond acting within the show’s production. “We would both relish more responsibility. I definitely would love to direct down the line, and I think he would too. I would love to be on set when Sam Heughan’s bossing me around,” she says, laughing. Balfe is, naturally, fiercely protective of Claire, and her influence extends beyond the camera and into the writers’ room: “It’s important to have a say. We’ve built these characters from day one, and I think we feel—especially when so many of our core writers are not on the show anymore and we’ve got new writers coming in—it’s [important] to retain that through-line throughout all the seasons.”

I ask Balfe if behind-the-camera work was something she considered when she started her career: “I think I’ve always had that secret ambition somewhere, but a lot of it is the fear of, first of all, voicing it. And then the fear of, Would I be able to do it? But being on set all the time, the hours that we’ve now accumulated doing this show—it’s an education. You get to watch people at the top of their careers. I try and be like a sponge and absorb as much as I can when I’m working with other people. There’s a confidence that comes with watching other people doing it day to day and learning from them. You feel like, Oh, I can do it.”

And it extends beyond the personal. Much like Claire, Balfe is fearlessly outspoken, her Twitter feed a window into her opinions and passions. This extends to the discussions surrounding #MeToo and #TimesUp, and women in entertainment. “What’s happening in the zeitgeist and these conversations about needing more women, [there’s a] realization of, Well, if I don’t step up and I don’t do it, then how can I talk about [how] we need more women? You realize we each have a responsibility to break through those barriers of fear. There’s one thing talking about it, and there’s another thing of just getting off your ass and actually doing it,” she says, laughing. “So I’m trying to get myself off my own ass.”

Outlander was officially renewed for Seasons 5 and 6 in May, which means Balfe has plenty of material with which to work. In the meantime, she’s voicing a character in Netflix’s upcoming Dark Crystal prequel (“It brought me back to such a particular time in my childhood”) and will play a role as sports car driver (and wife of fellow driver Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale) in Ford v. Ferrari. Then there’s a wedding to plan with fiancé Tony McGill. But first, there’s those final four episodes of Season 4, which Balfe promises will hint at what’s to come. “This is a big, transitional season, and I think it sets us up for the next couple of seasons. In many ways this is a big calm before the next storms.”