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“It’s imagination. That’s where I do most of my work, daydreaming. As Actors that’s where most of our toolbox lives;” Golden Globe nominated actress Caitriona Balfe In Discussion with IFTA
17 Dec 2021 : News Desk
Actress Caitriona Balfe
On Tuesday, The Irish Film & Television Academy hosted multiple Golden Globe-nominated and IFTA-winning actress Caitríona Balfe (Belfast, Outlander) for the final IFTA screen discussion event of 2021.

Balfe discussed her career in acting and her approach to the craft with Academy CEO Áine Moriarty. Best Known for her work on the international smash-hit TV series Outlander, Caitríona Balfe is fast-becoming one of Ireland's leading actors on the international stage. Currently earning rave reviews for her role in Kenneth Branagh's Oscar-tipped Belfast, Balfe has worked with filmmakers such as JJ Abrams (Super 8), Jodie Foster (Money Monster) and James Mangold (Le Mans ’66 / Ford v Ferrari), the latter of which was nominated for best picture.

She  first established herself in television earning rave reviews and legions of fans as Claire Randall in Starz’s hit series Outlander. Outlander was Caitríona's major breakthrough and has earned awards at the Saturn Awards, the People's Choice Awards, the BAFTA Scotland Awards, and the Oscar Wilde Awards for Best Actress – Television Series Drama. In 2014, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Balfe the Breakout Star and Woman of the Year. A year later, she was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series. This week she added a Golden Globe nomination for Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture for her role in Belfast.

“You learn so much about yourself and people from travelling, from immersing yourself in different cultures.”

Moriarty began by asking Balfe about the beginnings of her career. The actress was born in Dublin and grew up outside a small town of Tydavnet, in Co Monaghan. Her Father, a Garda Sargeant was also member of a comedy troupe and Balfe had a lot of exposure to the theatre. After secondary school, she chose to study acting in DIT. Before she finished her first year, she was approached at a local supermarket with a modelling offer.  She decided to drop college and sign-up to the Ford Modelling Agency and it wasn’t long before a French agency hired her  to model in Paris. Asked by Moriarty about how this impacted her as a young person and how it influenced her as an actor.

There were some great things about modelling. You learn so much about yourself and people from travelling, from immersing yourself in different cultures. People can be dismissive and look down on models, but these are young girls from all over the world who get a chance to experience so much. It was a huge life lesson for me.“

Balfe explained how there were however downsides, in particular in terms of bad habits for acting, but also some good things in terms of poise and knowing where the light is.

“The downside of modelling is you become so focussed on the exterior and this 2d image of yourself, and while that can give you lessons in poise and so on, it’s not necessarily the healthiest way to carry your way through life and as an actor, if you are thinking like that then you’re not there, you’re not in the scene, and not in the character. But one good thing is you always know where the light is. Other than that, I just had to unlearn a lot of bad habits.”

“The only difference  between actors who are successful and those who are not is, not that they are so much better than those who don’t succeed, the difference is that they actually go and do it.”

After a successful career in modelling Balfe returned to her first love of acting, moving to LA to realise this. She admits that this was a big risk and took a lot of work. She would try different acting coaches and do showcases and audition and try to get a manager. It was a lot of work but Balfe always remained positive  and was confident she had what it took to succeed. This confidence would prove vital to her success.

“It was a big risk (moving to LA to act). You do this thing where you go to LA and you do a few days with an acting coach and some agents came to see you perform in a showcase… and one agent actually said they’d take a meeting and I was really cocky. I just had a feeling that this was going to work out, that this is what I wanted to do and that it had to work out. So they asked me if I had what it takes and I said “yes, yes I do!” I just lived inside this little bubble that this was all going to work out

He detailed her process of working with different acting coaches and trying to get a manager. All of which was made more difficult was the fact that she didn’t drive. LA is a notoriously car-centric city and Balfe and her friend would be cycling to lessons and auditions. She read an article about Amy Adams’ acting coach being in walking distance from where she lived so she started going there, then she read of another and another before eventually someone recommended her to a manager. In addition to the confidence required Balfe outlined the importance of actually doing the work required.

I was working really really hard at the time and doing all of my rehearsal and learning my lines and showing up. And that was my first break.”

This she says is one of the great lessons she learned that she would like to share with other young actors.

One thing that is a great piece of advice for young actors is something someone said to me years ago, that the only difference between actors who are successful and those who are not, is not that they are so much better than those who don’t succeed, the only difference is that -they actually go and do it They do the work they do the auditions, they take the hits. All of it. That’s what it takes.“

This dedicated approach paid off when she got an audition for Super 8 and its director JJ Abrams, Though it was a small role, and one without dialogue at that, the audition and the relationship proved very valuable with the team going out of their way to help the actress.

“I remember the audition for Super 8 very well. It was all improv. If you’ve seen the film you’ll know I have no lines. I play the dead mom. But the interview was just some improv with one of the kids and it was great. JJ said he’d love to bring me on board but there was an issue with the fact that I didn’t have the right visa, I had a modelling visa but needed an acting one and they went to bat for me and sponsored me which was really unheard of.”


“It’s imagination. That’s where I do most of my work, daydreaming. As Actors that’s where most of our toolbox lives.”

From there Balfe got a number of small roles, with dialogue, before landing her big break in Outlander which has been a major success for Balfe and for broadcaster Starz. It has attracted legions of fans and made Balfe a superstar to them.

Balfe was taken aback by the incredible response to the show and the scale of the fandom but was made feel at home very fast.

“"I didn't realise how many books had sold and how die-hard the fans were. It's amazing that everyone was so welcoming when I got the job. And the story was so captivating. It's leading up to the war between the Highlanders and the British Redcoats but seen through the eyes of a modern woman. There's so much spectacular action but at the same time, at the centre, is this love story between Claire and Jamie. It was incredibly exciting."

But the action scenes caused some minor difficult with Balfe admitting she may have slightly padded her cv in terms of her equestrian ability.

What i meant in my cv when I said I had horse riding experience was actually more like “I’ve been on a horse once!”

The show has continued to be a smash with Season SIX coming out in March 2022.  There will be just 8 episodes (not the usual 13 due to the challenges of filming during Covid-19).  At the end of last season Claire was physically attacked and in this upcoming season Claire has to grapple with her trauma, which meant that Balfe had to challenge herrself further to bring your character through this desperate situation, when ordinarily she was a tower of strength. Asked about her acting process in terms of embodying the character of Claire, she explains the importance of imagination and wondering what the character will feel and do. She warns against wondering too much about gestures or how you look as that will take away form the feeling of the character.

“Most of it is daydreaming to be honest. You sit and meditate on it and your mind wanders and you connect to certain things the character will do. It’s imagination. That’s where I do most of my work, daydreaming. That’s where most of our toolbox lives.”

More recently she worked with director James Mangold on Le Mans ’66 alongside Christian Bale and Matt Damon. She enjoyed the process very much particularly his approach to the actors.

“I loved working with Jim (Mangold, director). It was a joy to work with him. I was so intimidated but one of the first things you notice is how much trust Matt (Damon) and Christian (Bale) had in Jim. You just know he was gonna look after you as an actor and ensure your performances were great.

She loved working with Bale and Damon and really liked their differing approaches to the craft.

“You know Christian takes his work seriously. I didn’t find him too intense or anything. Just professional. I have so much admiration for him. Just look at his roles and his work. Intensity can be a bad word, and its not like he’s in character the whole time. He might stay in mannerism or an accent. I can’t do that. But as an actor it’s about what works for you. On the film Christian has a very set process, Matt is a much more easy going but when action is called Matt just snaps in. It’s two processes for two different people. If you are an actor you don’t have to torture yourself and get really intense about the process unless that’s the only way it works for you. That’s not the only way.”

“The Irish deal in humour and Dark humour in particular very well and that’s something I loved about the script. It’s serious and poignant but there is so much humour through it all.”

Earlier this week she was nominated for her second Golden Globe as part of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. She outlined some of the process Branagh created for the actors to feel connected.

“Ken (Branagh, director) is obviously intelligent and knows what he is doing. And he had this idea of getting all of us in a room (Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan and me) and that we would sit down and just share our stories and feelings from our childhood. And it was hugely intimidating. I felt like the least experienced kid on the block but it was amazing. Judi Dench stopped being Judi Dench but became little Judi when sharing her story and it was an amazing way to bond the cast. Ken would throw in scenarios like “how would your parents have reacted to this, how would a younger you have reacted to that.” It makes you connect with the material in a shared way. It didn’t feel crafted or contrived, it was very subtle.”

Balfe finished the interview by offering advice to young actors saying :

“You can’t control certain things but you can control your work, how much you prepare, being off book, being on time and so on. I’ve left so many auditions and gone to cry in my car. I mean it’s tough. You just have to control what you do.”

“Don’t force anything. The worst thing is when you see in a script “and then she cries” and you see people really trying to cry. I wish writers wouldn't write that. You can express sadness in more real ways. Just feel the sadness in character.”

You shouldn’t think about what your character is doing. You should concentrate on what they are feeling. Everything else will come from that. You shouldn’t be worrying about what your face is doing!  

Belfast is released early next year in Ireland/UK and Outlander season 6 will premiere in March 2022 on Starz.

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