As the headstrong Claire Randall on “Outlander” — the time-traveling romance now in its second season on Starz — Caitriona Balfe headlines as a 1940s nurse suddenly transported to 18th century Scotland (as you do). She perfectly evokes both eras, with a portrait-ready face and porcelain skin seemingly made for period costume.
Here in New York, on an April morning, Balfe (who goes by Cait) is still strikingly beautiful — but also startlingly contemporary. Of course, you don’t quite expect her to arrive in a corset, but in her Maison Margiela jeans and boots and A.P.C. trench with not a stitch of makeup on, Balfe’s effect is disorienting, a testament to how fully she has entranced fans with her portrayal of Claire.
At the next table, two 20-something women are doing their best to resist Instagramming the encounter, even if they’re not exactly sure who the stunning actress is. Balfe, 35, is in New York for the premiere of the new season of her show and to film the financial drama “Money Monster,” sure to be a Hollywood juggernaut, with co-stars like George Clooney and Julia Roberts.
“I had one of my first paparazzi encounters last week,” Balfe laughs, “but I’m 100 percent sure it was a case of mistaken identity.” It’s quite clear these moments of semi-anonymity won’t last long, even as her dry humor persists.
On the set of the bodice-ripping “Outlander,” she playfully taunts “the boys,” as she calls her male co-stars. She’s referring to the dashing Scottish actor Sam Heughan (who plays her 1740s husband and was named one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive), as well as Tobias Menzies and Graham McTavish — each of whom has a rabid fan base.
“They get it so much worse than I do,” Balfe laughs. “They’re all such accomplished, serious actors with stage backgrounds. I can’t help but tease them, ‘Well, now you’re just the hunks.’ ”
While fans may love to imagine that Heughan and Balfe are real-life lovers, the actress is decidedly discreet about her romantic life. “I’m kind of a private person,” she says. “At this point we’ve all built such trust. Sometimes it gets funny when you’re filming a sex scene, but it’s always fine a few hours later.”
When the show returned in April, however, things took a darker turn. The season premiere featured a controversial “punishment” scene, in which Heughan’s character, Jamie, beats Claire.
“I don’t think any of us went into that scene lightly,” Balfe says. “I quite like what our writers did with it in that it’s from Jamie’s point of view. He’s a man from 1743 and he feels he’s doing his duty.” The scene is jarring, she says, because it should be. “We forget how far we’ve come as a gender.”
The star has certainly traveled a long path from her childhood near Monaghan, Ireland. The daughter of a cop, she dreamed from a young age of becoming an actress, moving to Dublin after high school to study theater. At 19, she was discovered by an agent from Ford Models, who encouraged a move to Paris.
An impressive 10-year modeling career followed. The lithe, 5-foot-10 Balfe walked in shows for Marc Jacobs, Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen, modeled for Victoria’s Secret, and landed glamorous campaigns for the likes of Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein.
“I loved it most whenever I felt I had an opportunity to inhabit a character,” she says. “I guess I always leaned to the theatrical.” Though she found great success on the runway, “modeling wasn’t really my passion,” she says. “The idea was always to be an actor.”
By the time she turned 30 she had begun landing small parts in films like “Super 8” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” (OP NOTE: WAIT, WHAT?!) and she relocated to LA. Scoring the lead role on “Outlander” just a few years later would change her life entirely.
“I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen,” she says of her incredible break. “But I was stubborn. I didn’t really have a plan B.” Balfe’s intense filming schedule (Claire is central to every scene on the show) on location in Scotland leaves her little time for much else. She’s racing through the Highlands being pursued by English soldiers on one day, filming a no-holdsbarred sex scene with Heughan the next. Nudity is par for the course.
“You’ll probably find most models are incredibly insecure about their bodies,” she muses, “but maybe some of my background prepared me. I’m so used to stripping off in a room of 30 people … and I think the fact that I’m out of my 20s helps. I’m just much more sure of who I am.”
Balfe comes by her enviable figure naturally, and confesses she used to be one of those infuriating women who didn’t have to put much thought into what she ate or how often she worked out. These days, she tries to stay fit with yoga or Pilates but admits that “sleep so often seems like a better option. After I catch up on sleep, then I’ll worry about my butt.”
When Balfe does get to wear clothes on-screen, they are incredible: tartan dresses with corsets in the 18th century scenes and elegant postwar dresses in the 20th. Costume designer Terry Dresbach “is incredible,” she says. “The ’40s stuff I love so much.”
In real life, her sense of style is “all over the place. I’m such an emotional dresser. I like vintage but my style is evolving. The days of scouring through thrift stores might be over, as sometimes I say to myself, ‘It’s time to grow up a bit.’”
For now, she’s soaking up her stay in New York, where she lived for eight years during her catwalk days. “Every time I come back to New York, I kind of exhale,” she says, noting it’s the place she feels most at home. She has a soft spot for Brooklyn and recalls attending concerts at McCarren Park Pool, biking around Williamsburg, and brunching at Enid’s and Five Leaves. Because she’s here only temporarily, all of her belongings are in storage: “I’ve reduced my life to two suitcases.”
Lucky for “Outlander’s” passionate fans, those suitcases will fly back with Balfe to Glasgow later this spring so she can begin filming a new season of the series. Giving them plenty more of the swashbuckling, bodice-ripping, action-packed romance they so adore.