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Just as Claire (Caitriona Balfe) was thrown into a completely new world as she accidentally time-traveled from the 20th century to the 1700s in Scotland on Outlander, Balfe’s life was turned upside down when she landed the lead role on the hit Starz drama.
Back in the fall of 2013, an exhaustive casting search finally ended when Balfe was offered the role of Claire Beauchamp Randall, an English ex-combat nurse of WWII. That was a full two months after Sam Heughan already landed the co-lead role of Highlander hunk Jamie Fraser. While fans of author Diana Gabaldon’s book series instantly became enamored with the live-action version of Claire, making Balfe a household name, the actress had no idea just how much her life was going to change until much later.
“Sam and I, we didn’t notice really anything for a while because we were in Scotland working and pretty much sequestered away in our own little bubble for the better part of a year,” Balfe tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The first time we did a fan event, we had only filmed perhaps four episodes at that point but nobody had seen anything. 2,000 people showed up. Sam and I were looking at each other then like, ‘Whoa, this is really big.’ We just had no idea.”
Three years later, with two seasons of Outlander wrapped, Balfe has only just started to get used to her newfound fame.
“It’s great, work-wise,” Balfe says with a laugh. “Outlander has opened so many doors for me and that has been incredible. You have meetings with people that you would never have had meetings with before. Suddenly, you’re on a list with people I’ve been admiring for years. In some ways, you move from one ladder to the next ladder but you see that you’re back at the the bottom of that new ladder. But I’m so happy I have this TV show that has connected with so many people and it’s elevated my status as an actor.”
While Balfe was relatively green as an actress when she began filming Outlander, she wouldn’t change a thing in how she played the first few episodes of the series.
“I think the only thing I would tell my past self is get more sleep,” she says with a laugh. “In some ways, I think my naivete and my lack of prior knowledge of TV-making probably helped me in many ways. The adrenaline that you have doing your first big series is amazing. The well that you have to draw from because of that, it’s incredible to look back at the hours that you put in and the fact that you survived it alone, having that stamina, I’m still shocked we pulled it off. It’s been a wild and crazy ride but I wouldn’t change a second of it.”
And Balfe actually has that same healthy attitude about all her scenes from the entire series.
“I had a great help from production in that because when we first met Claire, we filmed all the 1940s stuff first. There was a real innocence to Claire in that time before she went through this catastrophic event and went back through time,” she says. “Claire finding her way in this new world and adapting to her new surroundings and circumstances while I was doing the same, it was fortuitous that it all worked out that way.
She continues, “But it was such a learning curve, and I still feel like I’m at the very beginning of my career, at least I hope so, and I think I have a lot to learn still. This is my first big TV show and before that I had small parts in this film or that film, nothing really consistent for me to sink my teeth into. This was the perfect show for me. It feels like home now. I know this woman and I know this world.”
It also helped that Claire’s emotional journey was on a steady uphill climb during the first two seasons of Outlander. In fact, Balfe calls the seventh episode of season two her most challenging one to film, and “one of the strongest I’ve had in this season.” In the emotional hour, “Faith,” Claire suffered a miscarriage and loses her baby all alone because her husband Jamie is detained in prison for dueling his nemesis Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), breaking the one promise he had made to Claire.
“I’m quite proud of what I did in that episode,” Balfe says. “I was pretty much on my own. A lot of those scenes are self-generating which can be quite a scary process because there is so much relief and stability in knowing when you’ve got a great scene partner like I normally do, be it Sam or Tobias. You know when you get there on the day that they’re going to bring so much and they’re going to provoke you and bring things out of you. When you’re on your own it can be terrifying because you can do all the prep in the world and sometimes when they yell action, it might not come. But I put my all into  and I felt like everything, from the set design to the acting, all seemed to click in the moment. It resulted in very powerful scenes.”
Despite the grueling nature of most of Balfe’s season two storylines, something she’s most proud of is her ability to separate her work life from her personal life … although she does admit that sometimes the line between the two can still blur.
“Our show is very all-consuming,” Balfe says. “You’re not exactly doing something else after work, so Monday through Friday you’re just living in it. By the time you get home, you’re learning your lines for the next day and going to bed. And if you’ve been crying all day for work, you’re not going to be bouncing out of the studio at the end of the day, cracking jokes.”
That can become even more difficult when it comes time to prepare for an especially emotional episode. Balfe reveals that her main way of prepping for an episode is to do research — lots and lots of research. She can spend hours reading through material pertaining to whatever is coming up in an episode, extending her time thinking about dark, draining subjects that much more.
“I enjoy the learning part of it,” Balfe says. “I like to read things that put those situations or emotions in my mind so I can almost create a memory of that for myself. But I’ve worked hard at having an easy access to my imagination. I don’t think it’s healthy as a human being to not be able to turn off that tap of your emotional well that you use when you’re working, because sitting in that can be detrimental to your life if you sit in that for too long. I try my best to be able to, at the end of the day, put it to one side and shake it off.”
Diana [Gabaldon] gives us so much in the books that you can probably make 10 series and the fans would watch it all,” producer Matt Roberts says of a possible Lord John spinoff. “]
Balfe reveals that the season two finale is probably her most heart-wrenching and emotionally grueling episode to date, and she isn’t worried about keeping that emotional momentum going during the hiatus between seasons two and three.
“Now that we’ve lived with these characters for so long, I feel I have a pretty strong grasp on Claire’s inner emotional life,” Balfe says. “It’s easy enough for me to go back to that. I always start by reading the novel so right now I’m doing my prep with Voyager and immersing myself in that world. So much of what I need to know is in that. But once I get the scripts, it comes back pretty quickly. It won’t be a shock to the system by the time I get back to set to film season three. And people who know the books know that a lot happens between book two and book three, and I’m very excited about the reunion of Claire and Jamie that’s coming.”
When it comes to taking on other projects during Outlander‘s hiatus, which fans have lovingly dubbed the “Droughtlander,” Balfe has already added major Hollywood blockbusters to her resume with the Jodie Foster-directed film Money Monster.
“I loved working with Jodie, she was such an amazing director,” Balfe says. “And doing something that was so contemporary in comparison to what we have been doing was a really nice balance that I didn’t know I was craving. It also made me really excited to get back to my crew on Outlander, my team, the people I know.”
As for her Money Monster co-stars, Balfe revealed that Julia Roberts may have gotten bit by the Outlander bug during filming.
“I was in the middle of reading Dragonfly in Amber when we were shooting Money Monster, so Julia was very interested in what I was reading,” Balfe says. “I haven’t asked her whether or not she took on the series after that. But she was very curious about it so hopefully she did.”
Outlander airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
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