Caitriona Balfe talks to Shauna O'Halloran about life on Outlander, wedding plans and why women have had enough of Hollywood's shitty behaviour (her words, not ours).
A pair of stonewashed Levi’s 501s, flat white converse and a little white T-shirt are all that Caitriona Balfe needs to rock up to a day’s shooting in North London, and still have a full crew comment on how beautiful she is in real life. It’s never something I like to lead with in interviews – we’re here to discover the person, after all – but I do feel that to not mention it would be a shame, because she is quite stunning, even when off-duty.
Ireland's Super Model
It’s not that much of a surprise of course. The Monaghan native was once one of the most sought after runway models in the world, having been spotted by a Ford Models scout in Dublin. At 18, she was opening and closing shows in Paris for Chanel, Moschino, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton, to name a few.
And this humble glossy is just one of many she’s graced the cover of – with Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle magazines all having starred Caitriona over the years. So no wonder there was literally not one bad shot to be found in the photographer’s edit.
The Outlander Days
Today however, Caitriona Balfe is known best to most of the world as Claire Beauchamp Randall – Outlander’s time travelling 1940s nurse who falls for a dashing highland warrior by the name of Jamie Fraser, played by her costar Sam Heughan.
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“It’s been such a wild ride!” She tells me as we sit down to interview. She’s back filming in Scotland for her fourth season and we already know that seasons five and six are a go, so Claire is going to be part of Caitriona’s life for some time to come. “I was cast late into the proceedings. I got cast on the 11th of September and I was in Scotland [for fittings and filming] on the 15th of September 2013. I guess I knew about two days before they announced it!” she says of the whirlwind entry into Outlander.
The show, now on series four, is based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon and to say it has mega fandom is an understatement. Having taken up acting after her modelling career, Outlander was Caitriona’s first major role and has propelled her into a stratosphere with over five million viewers per episode. How, I wonder, is that?
It didn’t take long, however, for Caitriona to realise the scope her new role was going to have. “After we filmed about four episodes Sam and I were taken to LA and we did a fan event. Nobody had seen anything and there was over two thousand people at this fan event…having not seen one minute of footage. We came out on stage and everyone was just screaming!”
The core fan base has stuck with them as the seasons have gone on and Outlander has won multiple awards. Caitriona, too, has been widely recognised for her role with 20 plus nominations and a host of Best Actress wins from institutions like the People’s Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the Saturn Awards, IFTA and BAFTA.
Cait & Sam, Anyone?
One of the notable points of the drama series is the sparky on-screen chemistry between her and Heughan during their many steamy scenes together. So much so that people have had a hard time believing that they’re not a couple in real life. No matter how much the actors insist.
“It’s nice that people kind of see something in that, but you know, we’ve always just been friends. And I said it from the beginning but people didn’t want to hear it!” Even so, it must be hard after four years of filming sexy scenes with someone to not get embroiled in a romance of some description. “We went for a walk,” Caitriona explains on how the deal was cut early on.
“Both of us had to go to London right before we had to start filming, I was getting my second perm of the week and he was getting his hair dyed, probably for the 15th time that month and we met down in Kensington and went on a big long walk in the park. I was there with my poodle perm and he was there with some kind of terrible ginger-red version of his hair and we were like, ‘You know what, who knows what this is going to be but we’re going to be in this together and we gotta have each other’s backs.’ And from that time on we always have.”
A sweet moment that has led to a lasting friendship and has probably been key to Outlander’s success. “The shows that have been successful – I think you always see that they stick together. The minute you let ego or your pride or all of that kind of stuff get in the way, I think that it can really sour things,” she says with honesty.
Caitriona On #MeToo
It has to be said, there is no ego about Caitriona Balfe and as the lead role in the show, it’s easy to imagine that she sets the tone for all involved. The atmosphere on set, she says is supportive and tight, although she’s painfully aware that not all hit shows and Hollywood sets are so lucky.
“Our work is really tough and we’re in tough conditions, like when you’re out in the pissing rain or sideways snow, which happens! To have people be supportive of each other and care about each other, that makes such a huge difference.
“I know somebody who worked on a showas the lead male and he and the lead female never spoke, literally didn’t speak to each other unless they were in a scene. I can’t imagine ever wanting to be in a situation like that, I can’t imagine waking up in the morning and feeling like I have to go to work with someone who won’t even speak to me. That’s horrible.”
But the stories are rife; even before #MeToo broke, celebrities and bad behaviour on set seemed to go hand in hand. And it makes for great, salacious tabloid fodder. And women, notoriously, seem to get the raw end of the deal, in everything from respect standards to salaries.
“I think everybody’s waking up to the fact that they can’t get away with that stuff,” Caitriona chips in. “I obviously came to this point of my life a bit later so I’ve always felt very comfortable about standing up for myself or speaking up for myself but there can be a bit of a double standard. But I don’t think, I mean I will stress this, it’s not always men enforcing that. We’ve had male directors or male producers who are so much more sensitive and supportive than sometimes the females can be. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a split line down the middle about sex; it’s not all women supporting women because that’s not my experience. I think it’s really about people.”
And does it hurt more, when it’s a woman being the unsupportive one? “Yeah, I think you expect better. And I think sometimes they think because they’re women they don’t think they’re being discriminatory, but if what you’re asking is completely out of line…”
In the hierarchical worlds of modelling and acting, people entering the careers at the bottom rungs are more vulnerable to mistreatment. Caitriona notes that she did experience it in particular as a young model and her first career left her with some healing to do.
“I remember one of my first ever photoshoots in Dublin. I was so young and I remember coming back from it and my sister was like ‘Where have you been all day?’ I was just being sent off with a strange photographer who was older and with no kind of knowledge about where I was going, what was expected, just sort of thrown out to the wolves at 18.”
The Modelling Years
It was that age that she first began travelling too, to Paris and Milan, and with little to no support structure. “It’s just incredible when I look back now at how I navigated all of that because you literally are just sent off on your own, traipsing around strange cities where you don’t know the language. You are just expected to fend for yourself. “It was the wild west and you were lucky if you had a job. There was a discrepancy of power – the agency was really supposed to be there protecting you, but it was almost like you needed to please them to get the jobs. “I think that’s why so many girls who have gone through that experience are as tough as nails,” she adds, also referring to herself, although that toughness hasn’t come without cost.
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“When I left the business, I moved to LA and I am so grateful that I was able to take a year…a lot of that was just dismantling a lot of the mental issues I had taken from the business because your confidence and your self-esteem is in the toilet after you’ve been in that business for so long. Most models I know have terrible self-esteem which is the most crazy thing.”
Thankfully, in both modelling and acting, the industries are changing. As someone who is in the Hollywood stratosphere and has been in the company of the likes of Weinstein and more, Caitriona has first-hand experience of being with the people at the very centre of the #MeToo storm.
“A lot of the names that have come forward, it’s strange because you kind of go ‘Oh yeah, that’s not surprising.’ With someone like Morgan Freeman; I grew up watching him and he’s been that voice that calms everyone. But I had previously heard rumours. Nobody is above the law and what I do hope is that all of these things go through a process because I think the worst thing is that we get into this situation where there is like a mob mentality and we start being judge, jury and executioner on social media because that’s never the right way of doing things.
“But I think there has been a real shift and I think people aren’t going to put up with shitty behaviour anymore. And they shouldn’t.” The one thing that high profile and influence does afford people is the ability to shine a light on situations that deserve more attention.
A Good Cause
It’s something that Caitriona’s very aware of and since her Outlander fans have always asked 'who can we support on your behalf’, she went out of her way to discover a charity that she could be an ambassador for. As a result, she is now a patron of Wold Child Cancer and travelled to Ghana last year to see two of the hospitals the charity works at.
“It’s very humbling when you see the different kinds of care you can expect if anything ever goes wrong in your life just because of where you are born,” she says of the experience but is equally quick to downplay her role as a patron versus that of the people working on the ground, despite using her own time and profile to raise awareness and funds for the charity.
“I feel so grateful that I can, the people in the trenches are the people who do work day-to-day and it’s super impressive because they don’t get a lot of credit for it.”
Check Caitriona’s Twitter and you’ll see how impassioned she is about this, as well as being a big supporter of other issues: she was vocal on Repeal (Repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution to legalise abortion), supports ethical fashion choices and promotes a meat and dairy-free lifestyle.
“I believe that no matter what you do you should be a responsible citizen of the world,” she says, “I think a lot of my social media is promoting issues I believe in and causes that I believe in. As for my more private life, frankly I’m not interesting so I don’t like doing selfies, my partner is super private so he isn’t on any social media and doesn’t want to be so nothing is said about him. So yeah, that’s naturally how I am!”
A Personal Affair
It’s clear as the conversation goes on how grounded Caitriona is. She’s fiercely proud of her Irishness and uses it as a conversation starter worldwide (“We command goodwill – people genuinely like us!”) and while she laments how badly her name gets ‘butchered’ she misses the fada which she dropped for ease some years ago. “I’m devastated about it!” she says, before also confessing that technology had some part to play in its demise.
“In the early days of computers I didn’t know how to put it on! I just learnt a couple of months ago, like ohhh it’s that button there. So I might bring the fada back.” And she hasn’t ruled out an upcoming wedding in Ireland – the actress is recently engaged to intensely private music producer Tony McGill, but plans for the nuptials are still undecided. Would she consider coming back to Ireland to tie the knot?
“If you put a sun lamp over it, yeah I’d love to!” She laughs. Wedding planning is not really her thing however, and doesn’t garner giddy chats and wish-lists. “I would just love to have all of my friends and family and have a great party,” she clarifies when coming across as less than enthusiastic about planning her perfect day. “I think the production side of it is just too much like work!”
And finding time that suits both their schedules is also proving challenging, with Caitriona lined up to film in LA with Matt Damon and Christian Bale. It’s a biopic of mechanic and driver Ken Miles (Bale) and the conflict between Ford and Ferrari during the 1960s. “I play Christian Bale’s wife and James Mangold [Walk the Line, Logan, The Wolverine] is directing. It’s set in the sixties, it’s all about Le Mans, the 24-hour race so it’s a lot of fast cars, hot men and me!” She laughs.
“I’ve been watching loads of documentaries on Le Mans which is really cool.” And this is Caitriona: totally unfazed, seemingly, by the prospect of working with some of Hollywood’s most famous actors and directors and yet, nerdily researching so she can be prepared on the day. Oh, and consciously enjoying it too. With more projects in the pipeline, that demand is only going to get higher, but of one thing I can be sure: to her own self, Caitriona Balfe will always be true."
This interview appears in the July Issue of Irish Tatler, on shelves now.
Photography by Conor Clinch; styling by Dee Moran; makeup by Mary Greenwell using Chanel Hydra Beauty Essence and Cruise 2018 Makeup Collection; hair by Declan Shiels; nails by Sophia Stylianou using Chanel Le Vernis Nail Colour
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