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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.
In Kenneth Branagh’s evocative, semi-autobiographical drama Belfast, Caitriona Balfe plays a resilient but increasingly scared woman facing an impossible choice. Named in the script only as Ma, Balfe’s character is the matriarch of a working class Protestant family in 1960s Northern Ireland, whose day-to-day existence becomes increasingly dangerous amidst The Troubles. With her husband (Jamie Dornan) often overseas for work, Ma is usually left to parent their two young sons, Will (Lewis McAskie) and Buddy (Jude Hill), alone, and as the environment becomes more and more unstable, she’s forced to consider uprooting the family altogether and fleeing to England.
“The script was so emotional, and it was really evocative. Even though it’s very much Ken’s story, I was sobbing by the end of it as somebody who’s left Ireland, as somebody who grew up in a very big family, and I’m now away from them,” Balfe told ELLE.com on Zoom last month. “There was also just the tragedy of what I know went on in Northern Ireland. I think there’s something about seeing the world through the eyes of a child, and [Branagh] has really perfectly captured what it’s like to see the world at that age,” she added, referring to nine-year-old protagonist Buddy. “There’s a myriad of things that can happen to us where we have this loss of innocence, and I think that’s something that everybody can relate to in one way or another.”
Below, Balfe, who just earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, delves into how she and Dornan bonded on the Belfast set, her experience of filming Outlander season 6 while pregnant with her first child, and the key difference between Ma and Outlander’s Claire.
The marriage between your and Jamie Dornan’s characters in Belfast is seen mostly through glimpses, or snatches of conversation that their son overhears. What was the experience like of creating that dynamic?
Then, the next thing we had to do was dance. So we had a dance rehearsal, and that’s also something that’s very, I don’t know, I suppose exposing, and makes you very vulnerable. So very quickly, we just had this very cool bond with each other and everything else just built organically from that. I think we both approach our work in a very similar way. We both are very meticulous about our preparation, but then very easy with how we are on set. I think we both try to be uncomplicated with how we work, and just show up ready to play and not have to make too big a deal of it, if that makes sense. That was really freeing.
Was there any particular scene that you felt helped you to understand your character?
So you knew where you were pitching things, that even though they were battling and banging heads, it wasn’t the sum of their whole relationship. That there was light and dark, there was up and down, and that that was always very present together, running alongside each other. But I do love scenes where you also get to just have explosions, and as a fiery Irish woman, I understand! I don’t think I quite throw plates, but I might have a bark. Having scenes where you can just let loose and throw a few plates at somebody is just really great fun.
Speaking of fiery women, I was thinking about Ma in relation to Outlander’s Claire Fraser. It just struck me that you’re playing these women who have to be very centered, and try to hold their family units, in the midst of enormous trauma and upheaval.
That’s a good point. Claire really thrives on throwing herself outside of the world she knows.
Outlander season 5 ended on a very traumatic note for Claire, and it sounds like things aren’t necessarily going to get easier. What can we expect from season 6?
And I believe you were also pregnant throughout filming, right?
So 2021’s been a pretty huge year for you, and you’re capping it off with all this Oscar buzz for Belfast!
Beloved for her role in Starz television series Outlander, Caitriona Balfe is not a total stranger to the big screen. Her turn opposite Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari was certainly noticed, but it’s only now, with Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, that she’s been given the chance to really show off her big screen chops alongside Dame Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds and Jamie Dornan. A fictionized memoir, Belfast follows Buddy (Jude Hill), growing up during the onset of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Balfe, as Ma, combines the heart and strength of home. Here, she recalls her own Irish childhood and how she implemented Branagh’s vision.
DEADLINE: I am so thrilled to see you in this meaty role. How did it feel for you, stepping into this?
DEADLINE: You grew up closer to Dublin, right? In the countryside?
DEADLINE: In terms of the accent, regionally, it’s a little different. So, how did you get your head into that?
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.
For Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, making “Belfast” felt like coming home. When writer-director Kenneth Branagh approached the Irish actors about his new drama amid pandemic closures last year, it was an easy decision.
“It was a beautiful take on that place and the people who are from it at that time in history,” recalls Dornan, speaking with co-star Balfe during the London Film Festival. “There was so much very fast positivity around the whole idea of the project — who Ken was already talking to, the other cast. It just felt like this gift, really, that fell upon me.”
“I remember my agent calling me and saying, ‘Look, there’s this project and this is who’s doing it and who’s already attached,’” Balfe adds. “He was like, ‘I’m going to send it over for you to read.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to say yes before I read this.’ It’s such a beautiful script. The way Ken had written it, there was so much love in it and so much emotion. I had been looking for something to do in Ireland for quite a while — thinking we would film this in Ireland. Once I read the script, I was in tears by the end of it.”
“Belfast,” which actually filmed last fall in Surrey, England, is a deeply personal story for Branagh, who based the script on his own upbringing in Belfast during “The Troubles.” The film is set in 1969, as the 30-year Northern Ireland conflict began to affect the city’s communities. It follows a young boy named Buddy, played by Jude Hill, as he realizes his tightknit neighborhood might not be the safe haven he’s always known.
Dornan and Balfe play Buddy’s parents, dubbed Pa and Ma, respectively, and they are joined by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as Pa’s parents, whose decades-long relationship shows genuine warmth and often comic relief. The familial connection between the actors wasn’t manufactured; the cast lived in a bubble while shooting and found a real sense of commonality — aided by Branagh.
“On the first day of rehearsal, Ken brought Jamie, Judi and me into a room,” Balfe remembers. “He just asked us lots of questions about our childhoods, about our parents, about how we would react to different situations or how our parents would react to different situations. Instantly, then, we all knew something very intimate about each other. That breaks down a lot of barriers and creates an instant bond. He’s very clever, Ken. Just in a subtle way he’s needling out the things he wants you to start thinking about or bringing into your performance, without it feeling like he’s giving you a directive.”
Balfe, who grew up about 90 minutes outside Belfast, and Dornan drew on their own experiences being raised in Northern Ireland to find the conflicted emotions of their characters. Branagh’s story juxtaposes moments of joyful celebration with marital tensions, and political and societal tumult, allowing Ma and Pa to experience a complex range of reactions to their situation.
“This focuses on the beginning of a particular conflict that lasted for 30 years, a conflict that had a huge influence on both of our lives,” Dornan says. “We were both born into it. That is something that has shaped us, growing up in a conflict environment and a post-conflict environment, which it still very much is today. It’s a world that we recognize in a big way compared to other worlds we’ve tried to inhabit with our work.”
The actors looked at YouTube interviews and news reports from the late ’60s, and binged the BBC Two series “Pop Goes Northern Ireland.”
“There’s so much footage from that time of real people,” Balfe notes. “You hear them talking and arguing. It was really emotional going back and watching all that stuff. To see the inception of something that lasted for so long and is still not resolved, there’s a sadness to it.”
Along with Branagh’s careful direction, Balfe and Dornan found an immediate ease with each other, which resonates throughout their performances. Despite the surrounding cast, their work feels undeniably like a two-hander.
“Ken’s cleverly crafted his cast,” Dornan says. “He puts people together he thinks will make sense, energy-wise, based on whatever algorithms he’s concocted in his mind. Sometimes you’re working with people where it’s more of a challenge to make it feel like you’re friends or you have a relationship or whatever. But we just fit.”
Balfe responds, “You and I have a very similar approach to what we do. You do all of your research and you do all of your prep, and then you come to set and it’s like, ‘Let’s play. Let’s not overthink. Let’s not make it more difficult than it has to be.’ You just show up, and you’re open and you’re ready to try whatever is needed.”
The two are aware it’s a once-in-a-lifetime project, and while everyone involved took the work seriously, it’s also the most joyous experience the pair have had on set.
“I want to have fun all the time at work — you don’t become an actor not to,” Dornan says. “Some things you do on paper probably aren’t that fun, but this is one of the ones that it felt like you should be having a laugh and we really did.”