It’s a long way from the stoney grey soil of Monaghan
Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe talks home-town memories, finding love, and sex scenes
CAITRIONA Balfe has lived a peripatetic life, ever since her parents moved from Westmeath to Monaghan when she was a toddler. Her father Jim was transferred to the Garda barracks there as Garda sergeant in 1976 and with the Troubles simmering and bubbling away, the father of seven children was often fearful for his safety when he left for work every morning.
‘It wasn’t the easiest time when we moved there. We were blow-ins and some people had no difficulty in letting us know directly to our faces,’ she tells me over breakfast of mint tea, smashed avocado and poached eggs at the Chateau Marmont.
The 37-year-old is wearing a colourful dress from British designer Emilia Wickstead, very light makeup on her flawless skin and the most subtle of diamond rings.
‘I remember a woman coming to our door one time to tell us that “our kind”, meaning cops and their families, were not wanted in Monaghan. My father would work crazy long shifts because at that point there was 24-hour border patrol and he was head sergeant in the area. It’s insane now to think of Brexit and the whole idea that the border is going to go back up again.
‘Anyone who grew up on the border remembers the checkpoints and soldiers with machine guns in camouflage. It is so destructive to communities on either side that you just hope it’s not going to happen again.’
Fast forward 30something years and the Balfes are very much part of the furniture and landscape of Monaghan, and the same father who struggled to be accepted in his official role, is one of the most popular actors in local drama in the town.
‘I think I got my love of acting from him, because despite his profession, he was always involved in performing comedy sketches and he was part of a comedy troupe that wrote and performed their own original material. They used to compete and win in Scór [drama contests] and they won All-Ireland medals. I have seen my 6ft 4in father in a wedding dress on stage! Being a middle child of seven, I was always fighting for attention and I used to dress up and do impressions of people to try to make the family laugh. I got involved in the Youth Theatre at the Beachill school. The first thing I ever did was a production of Oliver! when I was seven, where I played Mr. Bumble.’
Caitriona got diverted into modelling at 19, while studying acting at DIT, when she was spotted by a talent scout outside the Swan Centre in Rathmines, where she was collecting money for charity.
For the next ten years or so, she enjoyed a hugely successful and lucrative career as an international model for all the major design houses, as well as Victoria’s Secret. She was a popular face and a wellliked colleague, but she found the profession vapid and exploitative.
‘Most of the perviness had been cleaned up by the time I was working, but I saw so many girls being exploited financially. I had money stolen from me that I had earned.I was fortunate to have good representation but still, you can get exploited.’
When she took her courage in her hands seven years ago and moved to Los Angeles to study acting, she had a nice nest egg put aside which gave her the space to pursue the craft she had wanted since she was a small girl in Monaghan.
‘It’s been a huge relief to find my place in the profession and to be a part of such a successful TV show like Outlander. There were a couple of scary years after I moved to LA that were very worrying and I found myself doing the typical LA actor thing of going out for commercial auditions when some of the acting ones weren’t working out.’
Four years ago, Caitriona was cast as the lead in the hugely popular show Outlander, based on the book series by Diane Galbadon. She’s been nominated for a Bafta and a Golden Globe and this week it was revealed that she is one of the highest-paid dramatic actresses on US TV, receiving $100,000 per show.
There are 12 books in the series and three seasons have been recorded and broadcast so far and they are about to begin filming the fourth. She could conceivably play this part for years to come.
Caitriona moved with her cat Eddie from Los Angeles to Glasgow four years ago and this is her base while she is filming Outlander.
‘Where feels like home? I’ve spent most time as an adult in the US and I love being in LA but I am getting used to calling Glasgow home at this point. I’m really a gypsy. ‘I love the sunshine and the healthy lifestyle in LA, liking hiking and surfing and the food is so great. But Glasgow has good restaurants and a great visual art and music scene. Monaghan will always be home, but I think I’ve developed the ability to settle in anywhere.’
She’s been in a very happy relationship with Brian McGill for the past two years. He’s based in London and works in the financial world.
‘We met through friends in the UK and I’m very happy. He’s from a small family and when I’ve bring him to Monaghan, he’s fine for a few days and then he finds the big, noisy Balfe family a bit overwhelming. I have more stability in my life now than I’ve ever had.
‘I’m lucky to be on a show that films in the same place, because all the moving around you do as an actor can be so taxing on a relationship.
‘I think at this point in my life, I’ve made all the mistakes and hopefully from doing work on myself, I’ve learned how to make things work in a relationship. It’s not an innate skill that everyone has. It’s interesting when you’ve gone
I got my love of acting from Dad. I have seen my 6ft 4in father in a wedding dress on stage
through many relationships and you’ve been on all sides of the argument, so to speak.
‘I’m in a very nice place in my life. Things are going good and it’s nice to feel confident and to feel that you know yourself better. Growing up during the Troubles I think makes you aware when you look at conflict. I remember cousins coming to visit us from the South and they would be terrified of going through checkpoints. I think the experience made me less fearful of going to unknown places and also made me more sensitive when I see conflict in other places.
‘Going to school in Monaghan was hard at the start, because of being a blow-in and also because everyone seemed to cousins. Maybe that’s why I always wanted to travel. I was always a rolling stone.’
She hasn’t bought a place in Glasgow yet although she has grown to love it. Increasingly, she is thinking about buying a place on the west coast of Ireland, either in Donegal where the family went on holidays regularly, or in Kerry which she has grown to love.
‘It was my mum’s 70th birthday recently and we all got together in Killarney. Between the seven children and their spouses and children, there were about 27 or 28 of us. It’s my tribe and I love that.
‘It’s fantastic being part of a big family. There is always someone to go to if you are going through something in your life. They all have real jobs. One sister is a scientist and one of my brothers is a garda. I’m number four in our big, loud, messy family.
The only drawback was being the third sister, so I got a lot of hand-me-downs. I am also an awful lot shorter than my sisters, if you can believe that. I am the runt of the family!’
Two of her sisters live in London with their families and the Balfes get together regularly for Sunday brunch.
Her best friends from her schooldays in Monaghan still number among her closest friends today – one lives in London and the other lives in Edinburgh and they all remain tight.
When there are sex scenes in Outlander – and they are plentiful – her sisters and mother ‘protect’ their father by warning him in advance and sending him out. ‘He is very proud of all of his children and I think proud that I’m doing something that I love and that makes me happy. He obviously doesn’t watch certain things and I don’t think any father needs to watch that stuff!
‘I think they all watch bits and pieces of the show, but for brothers and fathers, I think it’s a little difficult to watch, but my mum and my sisters, they all watch.’
She loves returning to Monaghan, and flies over from Glasgow regularly. In the tiny bit of free time she has, she has been writing a script for a movie set in Monaghan which she hopes to direct one day.
‘At the end of the day, I’m a country girl who grew up climbing trees and mucking out. We grew up on the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh and the landscape of Monaghan is very much imprinted in me. It’s a much more vibrant place now than when I was growing up.
‘We didn’t have a cinema in the town when I lived there and I still remember the first time I was allowed to take the bus to Castleblaney to go to the cinema. Robin Hood was the first film I ever saw in the cinema – Kevin Costner in all his glory on the big screen in Castleblaney!’
She has a few weeks free before returning to Scotland and as we say goodbye she is off to spend the day in Malibu with a good friend for her birthday.
Caitriona is a citizen of the world, at home everywhere.
Monaghan will always be home but I’ve developed the ability to settle in anywhere
Great Scot: Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Outlander
Big earner: Caitrions Balfe has become one of the higest-paid actresses in the US