Caitríona Balfe joins Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki to discuss all things Outlander—Claire’s emotionally-charged season, a very devoted fanbase, and crafting a performance that transcends time.
The passion for Outlander continues to intensify. Having just concluded its sixth season on Starz, the series is still gaining steam. And those now-legendary love scenes between stars Caitríona Balfe and Sam Heughan continue to set hearts ablaze. But, alongside the epic love story is a show that explores family, trauma, and loss (among so many other threads)—all centered around a woman and her perseverance through it all. Outlander wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is today without Balfe and Heughan in these lead roles.
Balfe’s performance—her ability to layer love, pain, sensuality, and compassion— is a wonder to watch.
Read on as Balfe opens up about her approach to filming Outlander‘s most difficult moments.
Awards Daily: Hi Caitríona, how are you?
Caitríona Balfe: I’m doing well, thank you.
AD: This is so exciting for me. I’ve wanted to speak to you for so long. I so appreciate this.
CB: My pleasure.
AD: You know, Outlander fans are famously kind of intense, but I have to tell you, you know, I’m 27, and in my group of friends, Outlander is the show… I had a friend plan an entire trip to Scotland so that she could visit all of the big Outlander sites.
CB: Oh wow! Well, I love to hear that because, traditionally, people come up and say, “Our mom loves your show!” [laughs].
AD: No! [Laughs].
CB: So, it’s really nice to hear the younger crew [likes it too].
AD: We’re obsessed. But I mean, what is it like to be a part of a show that has permeated the culture so much? Because you know, that is a rare thing when you think of it.
CB: Yeah. I mean, God, you know, this doesn’t happen very often—to be on a show that gets to seven seasons and also has such a crossover in terms of the people who watch it. And I think it’s grown so much over the last couple of years, with people finding it on streaming services and things like that. But, it’s been amazing. I mean, it’s hard to really analyze exactly how it is when you’re so in it.
CB: When we first started the show, we had no idea what it would be, but it’s been amazing.
I think it’s been incredible to see the friendships that have grown up through this fandom and how it has touched people’s lives. I mean, to be a part of something that has become part of the fabric of people’s lives is really quite amazing, you know?
AD: Those strong opinions of the show and Claire—does that ever influence what goes on in the show, or your performance, or your own opinion in any way?
CB: No. I mean, I think I’m pretty good at having my own stubborn opinion [laughs]. You have to have a very personal connection to your character, and that has to be quite private. I think probably the writers might listen to what is being said, and I think it’s always good to have one ear open and be aware because obviously your fans are the people who are buying the show at the end of the day. But, sometimes, it’s the smallest group that shouts the loudest. So, you have to also have a very centered version for yourself, what makes the best version of the show, and what is the truest adaptation of these books that retains the essence of what it is.
AD: I don’t want to infringe on your privacy, but I know that you were pregnant when you shot this season. Can you tell me about that? There were scenes that were quite brutal. I mean, Claire is assaulted at one point. Then, in another pivotal moment, she has to cut a baby from a womb in order to save it. What was it like to film these scenes while you were expecting?
CB: Yeah, it was intense. I’m not going to lie. I probably could have worked out the timing a little bit better, but these things happen when they happen. You know, I think we were shooting during the lockdown. I was pregnant; I was very early pregnant when we started shooting. So, in the beginning, it wasn’t too bad.
But, when we got to the scenes where Claire had to perform the emergency C-section, our medical advisor, who is also called Dr. Claire, who was also pregnant at the time—and she and I were talking through this procedure and talking about what we were going to do. And we were both like, ‘I can’t believe we have to do this. This is absolutely horrible.’ But, at the same time, when you’re shooting, you can remove yourself from the process; you get clicked into the character, and that’s sort of the mindset with which you go through these things. I think one of the hardest things for me personally was the scene in the church where they have that little baby coffin and just sitting there waiting to do that scene, and it was just…When you’re pregnant, that’s the last thing you want to be seeing or touching, and that was hard.
But, I did enjoy, weirdly, the kind of material I was given for Claire this season. It was a very complex storyline for her, and it was a good challenge aside from all of that stuff.
AD: And how do you approach those really difficult scenes? How do you allow yourself to go to a place where you’re able to access those emotions while also protecting your own mental well-being? That’s a fine balance. And I just wonder how much of an impact that has on you personally.
CB: You know, I think early on when we started this series, I was very green, and it wasn’t as easy to sort of separate myself from the character. And if you have a big emotional scene, you’re to pull on anything that’s available to you because you don’t really have the experience or the techniques.
But, nowadays, I’ve learned how to put myself in those zones, whether through music—it’s almost like you go into a little meditation, and it’s very separate from me, Caitríona. You know, I think it’s really unhealthy if you’re trying to use stuff from your own personal life. I mean, no matter what, you’re filtering anything through yourself, so you’re using yourself no matter what, but I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. I think at a certain point, you have to be able to sort of leave it on the set and walk away, and whether you go home and you have a nice bath and wash the day off, or something like that. But you have to learn to keep yourself safe in this business and how to separate those things.
AD: Are you allowed to tell me any of the songs on your Outlander calming playlist?
CB: Oh, I don’t know. I’m a little bit like, if I talk about them, then they might stop working. [Laughs].
AD: That’s absolutely fair [laughs].
CB: It could be anything! I have a few in rotation, but sometimes they stop working. It’s like you just get into a zone—it’s almost like a meditation. You go into a particular zone and it’s where you’re able to access your feelings in a very direct way.
AD: One of the big plot points that was much discussed this season is that Claire turns to ether, to drugs, to cope with the trauma that she’s been through. And I wondered what your take on that was as someone who is having to compartmentalize and embody that trauma.
CB: Yeah. Well, you know what, when they first proposed this to me, I was like, ‘Really? Okay.’ It wasn’t exactly a natural route that I would have expected for Claire, but actually it was really exciting and it was really challenging, I think. Because here is somebody – as you said, who is so used to compartmentalizing things, from being a doctor, from being a product of her time. I think women in that time were expected to be able to just swallow whatever happens to them— put it in a little box, and just continue on, you know?
And she’s got such a skill at that.
But then there is this huge rupture. There is this trauma that is so big and so overwhelming that it kind of deconstructs and blows the walls off all of these neat little boxes that she’s been building up for years, and everything comes out. And what I really liked, and we worked really hard with the writers to get this was the sort of apex of where that storyline went to. She’s suppressing, and she’s escaping, and she’s using ether as a means to kind of dampen these voices that are now coming up in her mind.
Claire is somebody that takes on the responsibility of everybody around her. What happens is these voices, and her deepest, darkest fears are then manifested as this voice of Lionel. He was the manifestation of her guilt, fears, and all the things that she could never really admit to herself. And of course, most of them are not true. And we all carry around things that we tell ourselves, in our worst moments, that aren’t true—but those are our biggest fears. And so, it was really interesting to explore what those might be for Claire and to get that voice right. I thought it was really interesting that we see her sort of unraveling in that way. We’ve never seen it before, and it also allows growth for her.
You know, through any events like this, what’s as interesting as the deconstruction, is the reconstruction. And I think it’s been really lovely to kind of watch Claire find these new skills. She can’t just keep suppressing things anymore.
She has to share, she has to speak, and you know, we’ve continued that this season. And it’s really lovely to see that —the fact that with her healing, there’s been a lot of growth as well.
AD: And how do you see her relationship with Jamie? Because you know, these aren’t the young kids we met in the first season. They’ve been through so much together, and so much has changed for them, even in the physicality of those intimate scenes for which the show is known. How have you adapted or changed your approach?
CB: Well, you know, I mean they’re old, Sam and I are old, we’ve all gotten old. [Laughs]. We’ve been on this show for so long! No, it’s beautiful. I think it’s really nice to be playing this couple that has so much history and has so much understanding of each other, and has weathered so many storms together. I think that’s a beautiful thing. And, you know, Diana [Gabaldon] was always telling the story of a marriage. Falling in love was just the very beginning; it’s staying in love and it’s keeping the love ignited that is the real story. It’s great. Sam and I have such a shorthand with each other. We’ve been through so much together. I think we have such an understanding of each other, and that’s helped so much with playing this couple that has life between them.
And it’s important— we talk a lot with the writers about: what is the difference between a couple that’s been together for so many years and yet they still have passion, but it can’t be the same as it was in young love. It has to evolve and it has to deepen and it has to change and morph into other things. And it’s been really lovely, being able to explore that. And intimacy that isn’t necessarily always just sex. It’s just so much deeper. It’s been really great having the longevity that we’ve had, to be able to explore things on a really deeper level.
AD: As you mentioned, when you started Outlander, you were new to acting, But now you’re a producer on the show and you’re coming off the incredible success of Belfast. What has all of this taught you about the industry, and has it informed what you want to do moving forward?
CB: Wow. That’s a big question. You know, I’ve been so lucky with the show. I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned so much just about the process. Having stepped into the role of a producer, I’ve learned so much about behind the scenes and what it takes to get a show made, and what it takes to continue a show. And it’s definitely something that I want to do again and again.
Sometimes just being an actor can be great because you can just focus on one thing and put all of your energy into that. But it’s also really lovely to have a greater holistic view of a production and the storytelling. I think one of the things that I’ve learned, but I think everybody’s learning—is that women’s stories, female stories, female-led stories—they sell.
There’s an appetite for them, and it’s not just other women—it’s everybody.
Our show, it’s not just a woman’s story. It’s a very balanced view of relationships. And I think, you know, we… well, when I was your age [laughs], we were fed a lot of male perspectives and male-centric stories, and I’m just super happy that I’m working in a time where that is changing and has changed quite a bit.
Catch up with all things Outlander on Starz