In a stylish black dress with a buttoned-up neckline, her dark hair pinned up, you might not recognize Caitriona Balfe as the star of the TV series “Outlander.” Get closer, though, and you will see the same almost mischievous smile as you do in her character. Sitting in a sunlit Pasadena restaurant, the Irish actress is also a long way from the wet, untamed Scottish highlands of the 18th century, which is where the Starz series is set.
“I think I look so different in person without the curly hair,” says the 5-foot-10-inch former model.
So far, “Outlander,” which has been renewed for a second season, has been a success in the eyes of critics and fans. Balfe, who makes Los Angeles her home, was the last of the main characters to be cast, and when it was announced it surprised some because she was a relative unknown.
Though she had wanted to be actress from a young age and studied drama in Dublin, a successful modeling career came first. It brought a “lot of traveling” and “a lot of excitement,” but eventually she wanted to go back to her original dream. She moved to the U.S. and started studying again and pursuing roles.
Though her resume was slim when hired for “Outlander,” her profile has been on the rise since. She was one of Entertainment Weekly’s 12 breakout stars of last year, and is currently filming “Money Monster,” directed by Jodie Foster and starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts.
The actress admits that on the surface “Outlander” might strike some as a Harlequin bodice-ripper, but the books and the show are filled with action and political intrigue beyond sex.
“I think we’ve all worked really hard to make it good television,”says Balfe, 35. “In the context of this fantastical story we find the reality and make it about human relationships with people fighting for what they believe in.”
Balfe says the first thing she connected with her character was her sense of displacement. “When I was in my 20s, I was traveling by myself, away from family and friends, but I love Claire’s resilience and strength. I love that she is irreverent. She loves to have a drink and wasn’t bound by the conventions of her time.”
The actress says the writers occasionally have the character doing something that seems out of the 1700s, but she would remind them that Claire is from the 1940s, and unconventional at that.
The showrunner for “Outlander” is Ronald D. Moore, who helped reboot “Battlestar Galactica,” which had a number of strong female characters. Most of the interior scenes for the show, which is stylishly done, are shot in a studio about a half-hour drive from Glasgow. The rest is filmed all over Scotland, in the Highlands and the moors and various castles and manors.
When Season 1 picks up, Claire will be in a precarious position, imprisoned by a British officer, an ancestor of her modern husband also played by Menzies, who is something of a brute. There is a scene in an upcoming episode that will give viewers pause.
[Episode 9 Spoilers]Because Claire does something Jamie told her not to do, he must — as the custom of the time dictated — discipline her as a husband. This horrifies her.
“Not only is it a physical wound to her but it’s a big psychic wound — that this man she fell in love with would do this,” says Balfe.
The actress says the scene was difficult for her. “I talked to the writers and wanted to make sure it wasn’t flippant or sensationalized.”
[...] The first season of the show took a year to shoot.
“It was a very long, very intense shooting schedule,” says the actress. “You’re very immersed in the character. You got to live and breathe it.” That’s something she may be doing for years. Gabaldon has written eight “Outlander” novels.
“If anything, Claire’s just either brought my inner strength out or sort of shown me that I’m maybe stronger than I thought I was previously,” says Balfe.