Outlander « Caitriona Balfe Fan


 

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?
Jamie and I didn’t really know each other before this. We’d met once, I think, through a mutual friend. So one of the first days, Ken had us all sit down in a room, Judi [Dench], Ciarán [Hinds], Jamie, and myself. We shared just a lot of information about our childhoods, our parents, our grandparents…Ken’s brilliant, he has these Wizard of Oz ways of getting people to be at the right place to get what he needs to get from them. So from that first day, I knew more things about Jamie than probably someone who’s known him four or five years or 10 years might have known—personal, vulnerable things, and him likewise, the same with me. So we started off from a very open place with each other.

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?
I don’t think it made it into the film, but there’s a little moment where Buddy’s asking about why he has to go to church, and he’s like, “Well, why aren’t you going?” Ma says, “Me and your father have some business to discuss, and God understands.” In the script, there’s a shot as Buddy and Will are walking away where you see the upstairs curtain close, and it’s obviously Mum and Dad are having a little bit of fun time! It was knowing that no matter what the tensions were, they still had a vibrant sex life, and they were still very much in love with each other. That was a really helpful thing to know.

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.
In a way, yes, they share that in common, but what really makes them different is I think Claire thrives on the unknown, and is forging her way through that by going forward. Whereas Ma, I think, at her core, there’s such a scared little girl that can’t really imagine a world beyond this little space that she knows so well. She’s like a big fish in a small pond, but she can’t really conceptualize life beyond that, and I think that’s her struggle. For her to be able to get to the point where she can make a decision to leave was really, really difficult, because I don’t think she had the confidence to veer past or to step outside this world that she knows so well. Which is very different, I think, from Claire. Claire has a lot of innate confidence in her capabilities. Whereas I think Ma, because of her upbringing and because of her surroundings, was very limited in that way, and that was really interesting to play.

That’s a good point. Claire really thrives on throwing herself outside of the world she knows.
Yeah, Ma is clinging on dearly to the only world she’s ever known, and I think that’s very telling. We get to see Pa’s parents, and we get a sense of the stable background that he’s come from. Whereas Ma, you never hear about her parents. You never see them, and so she never had that grounding and that stability at home from a young age. So for her, she’s clinging on to the only home and stable life that she’s ever really known, and that’s why it’s so hard for her, I think, to make that decision.

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?
The events of the end of season 5 have really destabilized Claire in a way that we’ve never seen before. I think Claire has always been able to compartmentalize things and move on, with that very 1940s can-do attitude. She packs things up in a little box, she parks it, and she gets on with the rest of her life. And we see that she’s unable to use that coping mechanism, to get through this particular incident. So it’s really lovely to actually finally unpick her in a way, and find her core vulnerabilities. I think it’s the only way she can properly heal, because she has to find a new way of coping. She has to find a new way through. There’s really great stuff for Claire this season. We’ve got some great directors back, and I think we’re playing around again with the style of the show, so that’s really exciting.

And I believe you were also pregnant throughout filming, right?
Pregnant for the entire season, yeah! I could’ve probably timed things a little better. [Laughs] But these things happen when they do. I was pregnant, there was COVID, it was winter, shooting every single day for 14-hour days…it wasn’t the easiest six months, but it was good. I have to say, our camera crew, in particular, a bunch of burly Scottish men, were the sweetest group and really looked after me. They’ve all become dads, I think, since we started shooting way back in season 1, and I’ve never had so much child-rearing advice or pregnancy advice or baby gear advice as I have from all of them, and it was just brilliant. They’re legends, all of them, so a big thank you to them.

So 2021’s been a pretty huge year for you, and you’re capping it off with all this Oscar buzz for Belfast!
Yeah, all that stuff’s a bit, like, aargh! But it is exciting. It’s exciting for Ken because this is such a personal film for him. He put so much of himself in it, and he has created this merry band of warriors around him, and I think we all just feel a debt of gratitude that we got to go on this journey with him. So I think we all just feel very happy for him that it’s getting such a good response.

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Caitríona Balfe has been waiting her entire career to be offered a project in Ireland. After filming Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical drama “Belfast,” about a young boy growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the 42-year-old actress is still waiting.
“Technically, I still have not worked in Ireland as an actor,” Balfe laughs as she reflects on the film, which shot in Surrey, England, last fall. “It’s really strange. But it’s something I’m always looking for. It was so lovely. Even though that accent is not my own accent, it’s very close. It’s one I’ve grown up listening to. Being part of something like this touches you in a different place. It pulls something a little bit different from you when you’re doing something that is so personal or has that personal tie.”

Balfe grew up about 90 minutes from Belfast, on the other side of the Ireland border, in Monaghan. The actress describes her hometown as a “small, one-horse town” (it didn’t even have a movie theater) and she remembers going back and forth between Ireland and Northern Ireland throughout her childhood.

Her father worked as a police sergeant and her mother was responsible for raising Balfe and her four siblings — an experience that feels related to the circumstances depicted in “Belfast,” which is now playing in theaters nationwide. In the film, Balfe plays Ma, a hardworking woman raising two boys in 1969 Belfast while her husband, Pa (played by Jamie Dornan), commutes to England to earn a living.

I thought about my mom a lot while filming this. Just how tough it must have been for them.

“The circumstances are very different, but the timing is similar,” Balfe recalls. “Only a little more than a decade after this time we moved to the border because of my dad’s job because things had escalated in that 10 years to the point where it was really like a war zone. But [my mom] left her really tightknit community of sisters — they all lived very close to each other down near Kildare. All of that definitely resonated with me in a different way. I thought about my mom a lot while filming this. Just how tough it must have been for them.”

While Branagh wrote “Belfast” based loosely on his own upbringing, the director wanted his cast, which also includes Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, to draw on their own memories. One of the first days on set, Branagh sat Balfe, Dornan, Dench and Hinds around a massive table — for social distancing — and invited them to speak about their experiences growing up and their recollections of their parents.

“In his master genius way, I think he was pulling out things he wanted us to start thinking about that he wanted to be bled into our performances — without saying, ‘This is what I want you to do,’” Balfe says. “He was like the wizard from Oz, pulling on the levers without any of us quite realizing. Because we were sharing quite personal stories and everyone at times was being very vulnerable, immediately there was a bond between all of us. Especially for me sitting in that room — when I first went in I can’t even tell you how intimidated I was. It helped me so much in terms of how I related to everybody.”

Although Balfe may have initially felt intimidated, there was no doubt in Branagh’s mind that she was the perfect person to embody Ma, a complicated woman who struggles with the idea of leaving her familiar neighborhood.

“Caitríona has the rare combination of passion, intelligence, humor and generosity that makes up what you might call soul,” Branagh says of the actress. “Hers is a large one, which in her work, she is willing to share. … When shooting she was always prepared, and also, was always game to be surprised. We had the same goals for the performance: Truth. Simplicity. Heart. Easy to say, hard to provide throughout, but she did.”

“Belfast” went into production last October with serious safety protocols in place, and the opportunity to get back to work couldn’t have come at a better time for Balfe. She had spent the past four months holed up in her Glasgow apartment with her new husband, Tony McGill, and she was so excited to shoot the film that she missed the pair’s first wedding anniversary.

“I was in that apartment until the beginning of July,” she sighs. “It was quite a strict lockdown that we had in Scotland, which was great because they really managed to get a hold on the numbers. Ken talks about how he wrote that script during that time. I was not that productive at all. It was a really introspective time for everybody. I think we all looked at our lives and thought, ‘What the hell are we doing?’ I might have had a little existential crisis or two.”

Balfe is no stranger to looking inward when the calling comes. Although she grew up wanting to be an actress (she notes, “I wanted to be an actor since I was 3 or 4 years old — I was that annoying little child”), Balfe took a major detour in her 20s. She began modeling at age 18, walking in runway shows for fashion houses like Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy. She left her one-horse town in Ireland and moved to New York City. But after several years Balfe had to acknowledge that this wasn’t the career she wanted.

“I had always planned on coming back [to acting], but it’s one of those things where it’s hard to see where your path is,” she remembers. “I was definitely really unhappy. I got to that point where I was 27, 28 and I was miserable and I didn’t know how to get to do what I wanted to do. I started taking these random walk-in acting classes in New York to see if I still liked it and to see if I was any good. And I loved it. It took a while to make the decision and when I was like 29 I was like, ‘That’s it, I’m moving to L.A. Something will happen.’”

In Los Angeles, Balfe landed her first job: J.J. Abrams’ 2011 film “Super 8” playing the “dead mom.” She didn’t have any lines, but the experience was enough to convince her to keep going. She got a few more bit parts before she was cast as Claire Randall on “Outlander,” the role that changed everything.

“That role is such a gift, because within that fantasy world the range of what I’ve been able to do with Claire has been incredible,” says Balfe, who relocated to Glasgow for the Starz series, which will air its sixth season next year. “If this was more of a modern-day procedural or something like that I wouldn’t get to do half the things I’ve been able to do. I wouldn’t have been stretched the way I’ve been stretched with that role.”

The upcoming season of the show was a particular challenge for Balfe, who was pregnant with her first child during production earlier this year. The pregnancy was hidden for the episodes — Claire is now in her late 50s and menopausal — and instead Balfe’s focus was on exploring Claire’s trauma from the events that concluded Season 5. The character has endured a lot over the years and often bounced back, but this time Claire has to grapple with her trauma, something that excited Balfe.

“This season it was really amazing because for the first time I got to explore Claire in a way where she’s more destabilized than she ever has been before,” the actress explains. “That’s a lot to do with the events of last season, but I [also] talked to a lot of women and there’s a lot going on in the U.K. press in the last year about women who go through menopause and how that can really destabilize you [and] change your ability to cope with things. I was definitely bleeding that into what was going on in this season.”

She adds, “Psychologically, she’s really struggling from having the attack at the end of last season. She’s someone who’s always been able to compartmentalize things and been able to put things in a box and move on. But this is something she’s unable to do that with. She’s really struggling emotionally and mentally to keep her feet on the ground and keep moving forward.”

Although there are some similarities between Claire and Ma, Balfe was especially interested in exploring their differences. Claire is always ready to leap into the unknown, but Ma fears the world outside Belfast, even as she knows it might be best to move her family from the growing violence. Balfe watched a lot of footage and interviews with women from the time and sought to understand the challenge and complexity of raising a family during turmoil. While the story has its moments of darkness, there is a sense of levity throughout the film — which the actors also embraced behind the scenes.

“There was just a kind of buoyancy to the mood on set because we were all happy to be doing this great project together and Caitríona was central to that,” recounts Dornan, who had only briefly met Balfe before production on “Belfast.” “I found it very easy to pretend we had a real marriage and a real bond and that we were really parenting these two boys together. She made it very easy. … I think we approach work in very similar ways. We’re both super focused and ready but ready to have fun as well.”

Now Balfe is considering where she wants to take her career next. The seventh season of “Outlander” will film next year, and Balfe recently optioned the novel “Here Is the Beehive” by Sara Crossan and is developing the potential film as a producer. She also is ready to start directing.

“This is another gift ‘Outlander’ has given me,” Balfe says. “As a woman in this industry it’s important you create your own destiny, in a way. If you’re waiting on the phone to ring there are going to be huge lulls and dips. I think you have to look at different ways of how you’re going to sustain a career and have longevity.”

“She can and will direct, because she has plenty of things she wants to say, she has an eye for how to say them, and she is determined,” Branagh confirms. “I’m excited to see her develop that part of her work. She is an original and passionate voice, and six seasons of ‘Outlander’ is a hell of a training ground for the technical side of filming.”

After working with Branagh on “Belfast,” Balfe knows one thing for certain: She can’t settle when it comes to her future roles.

“Obviously, when you’re starting out in your career you don’t get those options,” she says. “You take what’s offered. You can have a little bit of power in saying no to some things, but really you’re lucky anyone’s offering you a job. I definitely want to do more work in Ireland. I think that’s really scratched an itch, for sure. When you get given great writing and a great role in a great project, it’s really, really intoxicating, so the next thing you want is great writing in a great role in a great project.”

She laughs and adds, “I’m screwed now, basically!”

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From fashion model to actor, and currently taking on her most important role yet, a new mother, actress Caitríona Balfe looks to be having her most significant big-screen breakout yet with her awards worthy performance in the emotional drama “Belfast,” opposite Jamie Dornan. On this episode of the “Variety Awards Circuit Podcast,” Balfe talks about getting the call to shoot Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical story for seven weeks during the pandemic. She also discusses her gratitude to be working during a time where there is no further delineation between film and television, and having the freedom and creativity to explore both of the realms.

Finally, get out your favorite translation app, because Balfe teases the upcoming season of “Outlander” in her native Gaelic language, discussing where her character Claire and Jamie (played by Sam Heughan) are headed in the upcoming season, scheduled for release in 2022.

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast” tells the semi-autobiographical story of Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy who lives in Northern Ireland during the tumultuous late 1960s. Alongside his working-class family that includes his parents (Jamie Dornan and Balfe) and grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench), the family faces life lessons and decisions that could break the family apart. The film has received critical acclaim after premiering at the Telluride Film Festival and has won multiple audience prizes on the festival circuit. At the moment, “Belfast” is one of the leading contenders for the Oscars in multiple categories including supporting actress for Balfe.

Balfe has established herself in the television realm, most notably as Claire Randall in Starz’s hit series “Outlander.” Focus Features’ “Belfast” marks only her tenth performance in movies, after having worked with filmmakers such as JJ Abrams (“Super 8”), Jodie Foster (“Money Monster”) and James Mangold (“Ford v Ferrari”), the latter of which was nominated for best picture.

Listen to the full interview with actor Caitríona Balfe in the latest edition of Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast below!

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