Catriona Balfe: ‘Monaghan in the ’80s, a guard’s daughter … you’re not particularly welcomed’

‘I think I’ve been living out of a suitcase since I was about 18,’ says Irish actor Caitriona Balfe
Following a hugely successful decade in modelling, she has risen to stardom on the silver and small screens, and is now tipped for an Oscar

One is tempted to argue that “Caitríona Balfe’s moment has come”. That doesn’t sound too ludicrous. Right? The Monaghan woman’s role as a head-spinningly glamorous variation on the director’s Ma in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Belfast – Jamie Dornan is the no-less-dazzling Pa – has propelled her to the front of the awards conversation. An Oscar nomination seems in the bag. Every magazine wants her on the cover.

In truth, Balfe has been at or around that “moment” for close to 20 years. She is a phenomenon. She is an industry. In the early years of the century, she was among the most successful models of her generation. She returned to her first love of acting and worked steadily before securing the lead role in the hit fantasy series Outlander. A legion of fans have been hanging on her every utterance for a decade. She shoots Outlander around Glasgow. She offered strong support to Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Le Mans ’66. Currently she is in London. It’s a life.

“I am a bit of a nomad. I sort of split my time between Glasgow and here,” she says. “I think I’ve been living out of a suitcase since I was about 18. But now I definitely feel I need to stabilise things a little bit at the moment. But for the last eight years I’ve been in Glasgow so much that in a way that has sort of felt like home.”

She and her husband, Tony McGill, announced the birth of a son last August. That is sure to offer some opportunity for stability.

“Well, you begin to realise that travelling as freely as you want gets a little bit harder when you have a child,” she says merrily.

Catriona Balfe
Catriona Balfe

Balfe, tall and dark with facial features bordering on the aquiline, casts off golden-age charisma in Branagh’s monochrome Belfast. That’s fine. This is a proudly romanticised version of Northern Ireland in the early years of the Troubles. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds are the platonic ideal of Ulster grandparents. Jude Hill is charming as a kid who shares the young Branagh’s love of popular cinema. I wonder how consciously Balfe’s character was modelled on the director’s mother.

“I think, for Ken, a lot of this is very much what happened in his life,” she says. “And it’s a very close version of his childhood, heightened in certain ways. But he never made us feel like he wanted us to do his Ma. He wouldn’t say: ‘Don’t do that. My mother would never do that.’ But we definitely spoke a lot about his parents and spoke a lot about their struggles and what they were going through.”

The conversation seems to have wound around the actors’ own upbringings.

'Monaghan town has one accent and Castleblayney and Carrickmacross are completely different'

“On the first day he had Judi and Ciarán and Jamie and myself sit with him. And he would ask us about our childhoods and our parents and their parenting styles and what would they have done in such-and-such a scenario. I think, in his very clever way, he was drawing out certain specifics that he wanted us to explore and think about.”

One might reasonably assume that this was something of a homecoming for Balfe. She has never really filmed in the old country. Cinema is, however, a great deceiver. There is some striking second-unit footage of Belfast, but the action was largely filmed on a set in England.

Caitriona Balfe in Belfast
Caitríona Balfe in Belfast

“When I found out we were doing this I didn’t have all the details,” she says. “I thought: This is great. I get to work in Belfast. It’s so close to home. My parents are an hour and a half down the road. But of course, then we ended up filming in Surrey. It is funny, because I’ve been looking for something to do in Ireland for such a long time, and the people attached and everything was so exciting. I feel doing something from home touches you in a different place. You understand it on a whole other level.”

The outside world will assume her perfect accent in Belfast required no effort. But no Monaghan person would mistake the real Balfe – the characteristic vowels still remain after decades abroad – for a citizen of that distant metropolis. The idea is ludicrous.

“It’s crazy. Even in Monaghan, Monaghan town has one accent and Castleblayney and Carrickmacross are completely different,” she says. “But it is the closest to doing something that feels similar to home. When you’re growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, that accent, Belfast, is on TV all the time. So it was very much in my ear. I didn’t need to do much work on it. It lives in you.”

The cast of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Photograph: Rob Youngson/Focus Features
The cast of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Photograph: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Born in Dublin, Balfe grew up outside Tydavnet as the daughter of a garda. In earlier interviews, she talked about becoming a voracious reader and working her way through all the greats. But she is frank about the difficulties encountered growing up with a dad in the force.

“I think when we first arrived in Monaghan … It’s not exactly an area that you’re particularly welcomed in, especially in the ’80s,” she says. “You know, I definitely remember certain families and stuff – they wouldn’t really interact with you because you’re a guard’s daughter or a guard’s family. More so in primary school. By the time you get to secondary school, that stuff goes away in the wash, but, for sure, I think it had an effect.”

Balfe and Jamie Dornan in Belfast
Balfe and Jamie Dornan in Belfast

She drifted towards acting at an early age, signing up for whatever youth theatre was available. That offered escape and diversion. It also fired ambition. Her father’s enthusiasm for amateur comedy and acting must have been a factor. He was apparently gifted in that area.

“I think it must have had some kind of influence for sure,” she says. “It’s quite funny to think of my dad – who on one hand was this very strict police garda sergeant, quite stoic, and then on the other hand he was doing skits, maybe dressed up in a wedding dress! He was something of a performer and that influenced me. Also, being child number four in a big family had an influence.”

'There’s a lot of dark, terrible stuff that goes on in [modelling]. And it’s not quite had the reckoning that it needs to clean it up, quite frankly'

Life soon took an extraordinary swerve. She went off to study drama at DIT in Rathmines, but, before she had the chance to properly tackle Desdemona, a model scout spotted her and launched her towards a dizzying catwalk career. The story behind that discovery is now part of the Balfe legend. Lana Turner was famously discovered drinking a Coke in a malt bar. It is said Balfe was minding her business in the supermarket.

“That is more or less true,” she says. “I was in a supermarket. We were collecting money for multiple sclerosis, and a Dublin agent was in doing his shopping. He gave me his card and was like: ‘Do you want to do this?’ I started doing it part time in Dublin while I was still in drama school, and then a couple of months later somebody came from Paris. But yeah, I’ve had a funny trajectory.”

Caitriona Balfe in series three of Outlander
Caitríona Balfe in series three of Outlander

Balfe had an extraordinary decade in the business. She stepped out for Chanel, Givenchy, Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. In a 2009 article for the Irish Independent, Derek Daniels, founder of Assets Model Agency, described her as “arguably the biggest model to come out of this country”. We have heard a lot in recent years about how women are mistreated in the acting business. The stories from the fashion industry are, if anything, more worrying.

'To be able to say that I’m now in my eighth year working on a show that has increased in popularity and that opened so many doors for me … I feel incredibly lucky and blessed'

“I think I was very lucky because, at the very ripe old age of 18, I had already done a year of university in Dublin and that’s quite young to start modelling,” she says. “You are among the older girls. So, in a sense, I had a little bit more street smarts or maybe wariness about certain people and situations. I know many, many horror stories from many people I know who were in the industry. I feel very fortunate that I managed to not be a part of that. People look at models and modelling and they think: ‘Oh, well, they’re young, they’re pretty, they get too much money. Why should anybody care about them?’ But in a lot of instances it’s akin to trafficking. There’s a lot of dark, terrible stuff that goes on in that business. And it’s not quite had the reckoning that it needs to clean it up, quite frankly.”

After a decade in the fashion game, she returned to her first passion. She moved from New York to Los Angeles, attended some prestigious acting schools and soon secured smaller roles in films such as Super 8 and Now You See Me.

“Well, I never intended to leave acting,” she says with a laugh. “I thought, I’ll take a year out of drama school and I’ll go back, which sort of turned into a decade. But I’m very grateful that it did happen like that. Because, in my 20s, I wasn’t worldly enough. I definitely wasn’t mature enough to bring anything of worth to a role. I had a lot of living to do. And I had a lot of the world to see.”

Catriona Balfe filming Outlander in Glasgow. Photograph: by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Catriona Balfe filming Outlander in Glasgow. Photograph: by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

She really hit the seam with Outlander. The lavish TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s novel sequence – concerning a second world War nurse transported to 18th-century Scotland – may not have the name recognition of Game of Thrones, but it has one of the most loyal fan bases in contemporary pop culture. She has been nominated for four Golden Globes. Balfe and Heughan, her co-star, are social media megastars. The online attention seems, indeed, a little exhausting at times.

“It has been amazing,” she says. “To be able to say that I’m now in my eighth year working on a show that has increased in popularity and that opened so many doors for me … I feel incredibly lucky and blessed. There is always the small tiny element that step over the line. But I think that’s there in any walk of life. With the good there has to come a tiny bit of bad, but it’s not even worth mentioning.” A very civilised approach.

Belfast is released on January 21st