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.