Outlander’s fierce and frank Caitriona Balfe.
caitriona Balfe will talk about anything: her body image, her emotional state, even her preferred place in history to journey to (although she’s pretty sick of that one after two years of promoting Outlander, a show about time travel). Just, please, don’t ask her about “home.” “That’s a touchy one right now,” says the Irish actress ruefully. “Right now, it’s my suitcase.”
Balfe is talking to me over the phone from New York, where she just arrived that morning. It has been a busy few months for the 36-year-old: She’d barely wrapped her duties on the second season of Outlander, the popular and critical-hit fantasy that earned her a Golden Globe nomination last year, before she was back on the road to promote her new film, Money Monster, released this May.
Chatting about the film (the action of which revolves around a man who loses millions after a bad tip from an onscreen talking head and then takes a TV studio hostage), the Dublin native reveals “a fascination with economics”— even though it “far outweighs my knowledge or ability to comprehend.” Her character—a member of the communications team for a huge corporation—has a moment of awakening that Balfe describes as “questioning her actions as a little cog in a massive wheel.” This is something the former model (who fronted campaigns for everyone from Oscar de la Renta to Dolce & Gabbana) has also grappled with: “I’m an actor and I used to be a model, and I question the consequences of these professions on women, how women are perceived, how I perceive myself because of them, all the time,” explains Balfe, who stopped modelling five years ago to focus on her first love, acting.
“A few years ago, my friend Sara Ziff and her boyfriend at the time started making a documentary on the modelling industry [ Picture Me, which Balfe co-produced],” says Balfe. “That was a moment that really made me look at what we’re a part of—how it affects us as well as other people who look at the industry.” She pauses. “But at the same time, everyone does the best they can, and I don’t think anyone, or most people, starts out with malicious intent. But it’s important to always question these things.”
For Balfe, coming up through the “2-D world” of fashion was excellent prep for the life of an actress in what she describes as a “very appearance-centric business.” But it certainly hasn’t made her bulletproof: “I know how unattainable most of those images are, but I’m still like every woman; there are days when I’m very much like ‘I don’t care what I look like, and why should I care what I look like?’ and then there are days when I feel terribly insecure and wish I wasn’t eating the massive bag of salt-and-vinegar chips I’m eating.”
Something Balfe is very conscious about when looking at potential roles is whether that female character “does” anything for women: “I hope that at some point I don’t need a job so badly that I play the inconsequential girlfriend or someone who’s just there for gratuitous ogling. I can’t ever see wanting to do something like that.”
That’s probably one of the reasons Balfe lists Outlander— a historical fantasy epic set in Scotland that is hailed by feminists for its nuanced treatment of its male and female protagonists—as her proudest accomplishment. There’s a warmth that enters Balfe’s generally quite measured voice when she talks about the show that has made her one of television’s rising stars. “We laugh a lot,” she says of life on the set. “It is usually the most benign, ridiculous things that have us all in stitches.” (An exception is when Balfe is getting ready to film one of the show’s fairly frequent intense dramatic scenes; she retreats inward instead and listens to something from her “vast collection of depressing music”—“Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil is a recent favourite.)
She’s also obviously close to her male co-stars: Tobias Menzies, who plays her time-travelling character’s modern husband, and Sam Heughan, who plays her Scottish 18thcentury husband.
“We know each other so well,” she says. “With Sam especially, we do so many fight scenes together that I know what will push his buttons; I can see in his eye when he’s about to go for my jugular.”
Balfe is aware of how special her experience with Outlander is and how incredibly warm its reception has been. “I don’t think I had the maturity that’s needed to be a lead on a show like this when I was in my 20s,” she reflects. “I feel very grateful that I came back to acting when I did, because I feel like I lived a life, I observed a lot in the world and I had stories to tell. I think everything sort of happened for a reason.” n