Caitriona Balfe (‘Outlander’) on being ‘very proud’ of her work in harrowing Season 5 finale [Complete Interview Transcript]

Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire on the Starz fantasy series “Outlander,” which returned for a fifth season this past year. She has received four Golden Globe nominations for her performance.

Balfe recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about the difficult subject matter she faced in the season finale, working with co-star Sam Heughan and what’s ahead for Season 6. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Caitriona, I’m going to cut to the chase. You were completely devastating in the harrowing season finale as Claire is kidnapped, repeatedly beaten and raped and it was really, really hard to watch. I’m wondering, given that I believe it was one of your best performances to date, how did you feel how it turned out? Were you proud of it? 

Caitriona Balfe: Yeah. I mean, it’s strange material to sort of be proud of. But I know that we just worked really hard on trying to make it a really strong episode. I mean, Jamie Payne, who was the director, was just such an amazing collaborator over this episode. We worked so hard on the script trying to do something interesting and yet be super respectful to the subject matter and be respectful to Claire as a character. Obviously, it’s a very tough watch for people, but I think we found a way to highlight something that is not only educational and in some way, I think helpful, I hope, to people who have experienced trauma of that aspect, but I think also cinematically, we found a really interesting way to tell the story. It was lovely to be a part of that process, both as an actor and sort of as a producer as well. I’m very proud of the episode. 

GD: Yeah, I mean, I was going to raise these later, but we might as well just kind of deal with it now because the show gets criticized from time to time about how it deals with or portrays sexual violence. I’m sure you’re asked about this a lot. But if we turn that narrative around, I mean, we’re dealing with a period in history where this was a really common thing that happened to women and I think there are some positives to be taken out of the way the show tries to tackle those things. What are your thoughts on how it does bring domestic and sexual violence to light? 

CB: Well, today, one in six women will either experience an attempted or complete rape. So, sexual violence is not only something that happened frequently back then. It happens with just a horrible frequency right now. And for us, yes, it is in the books and it’s part of the story of what happens. You have a female writer who explores what are the consequences of sexual violence? What happens to people? How do they recover? How do families recover? And this is something that Diana [Gabaldon] returns to but also we should be asking those questions. And for us, I mean, I understand some of the criticism and we hear it, but I think for us, we really try with each time that it happens to find something that we can explore that is going to put out something positive there. So in this instance, we really wanted to explore the idea of disassociation. And I think it was also so important to show that Claire sometimes gets lauded or held up as this strong female character and I wanted to show that this can happen to anybody and also everyone responds in a different way. The psychological coping mechanisms are different for every single person. And I do think that we find an interesting way to portray this and we worked very hard. Jamie Payne worked so hard in terms of how you film it, about not giving any agency to the attackers and making this Claire’s story and Claire’s journey. I do think it’s unfortunate that it exists so prevalently in society. But as storytellers, we reflect that. I think if you’re going to have a conversation or if you’re going to show sexual violence, then you need to take a point of view. And I think that that’s something that we try to do. 

GD: Yeah, I agree. I think you do it quite authentically, and you touched on how the show attempted to portray how a lot of victims dissociate and distance themselves from the horrors that are being inflicted upon them into that dreamscape Thanksgiving dinner in the ‘60s. Talk us through how that came about and what it was like to film those particular scenes in that house and how beautifully it came across in the actual episode. 

CB: Yeah, I mean, Matt [B. Roberts] came up with this idea, which was really interesting, but it took a long time for us to get it right. There was a danger that in earlier drafts that we got lost in this idea of how cool it is to have all of the characters in the ‘60s. And for me, it was always so important to remember why we were doing it, that it was a psychological coping mechanism for Claire. So, originally we had a lot of dialogue for Claire and I wanted to strip all of that back. I wanted the only things for her to say during that time are “No” and “Jamie,” because I feel like that is the only thing that she is expressing that fits in both places. We worked really closely. Again, Jamie Payne was amazing with coming with a visual language. We talked about different artists and he brought in a lot of imagery from Gregory Crewdson, who’s this incredible photographer who, everything is very surreal. And I think that that’s what we wanted to keep. It’s this idea of this is a construct of Claire’s mind and she’s trying to hold together this kind of safe space for herself. But the reality of what’s happening keeps bleeding in. You never want the audience to sort of just forget that the reason you’re here is because something horrible is happening somewhere else and then shooting it, it was really interesting. I mean, the set was incredible. Everyone else was sort of having this really fun day, they were all in their ‘60s clothes and everyone looked amazing. But for me, I was kind of staying away and trying to stay in this very sensory place because I feel like that’s what it was to try and keep this idea of a dream, this not reality happening. 

GD: Yeah, it absolutely came across because it was very otherworldly, but thinking more about the scenes in the 18th century when she’s in that horrible situation, what strategies are you employing as a performer to prepare you for the physical and emotional toll that it must take on you day in, day out when you’re actually performing those scenes? 

CB: It’s a multitude of things. You do an awful lot of research, but also for me, I use music a lot with work and finding music that brings you to a certain place in yourself and trying to stay there. I think it was also such a credit to the guys because they had such a horrible job to do and Ned Dennehy is just such a wonderful actor and such a wonderful guy playing such a horrible character. But with “Outlander,” I always feel that everything conspires to sort of help you whether it’s the terrible weather or where we are and you’re really shooting in quite rough conditions and everything just feels very real, I suppose, because of that. You’re not really in a studio setting where they’ve created this dark place. You’re in a forest, you’re lying in the wet, you’re lying in the mud. Being able to use all of that and just put it into your work is just so good. But, yeah, it’s weird, these kinds of scenes. I think you just have to give yourself up to it and just allowed the circumstances around to inform what you’re doing. I like to try and leave everything as organic and react as much just in the moment and as organically as I can, instead of planning everything out to the nth degree. 

GD: Yeah. I put out a call to your show’s fans on Twitter the other day, and obviously there were so many responses, really interesting questions they might have. One in particular I really liked and I know you’ve probably talked about this before. Dimitystatheos wants to know how you became a producer on this season. How did it come about and how did it affect your ability to have more influence on the show? 

CB: How did it come about? Well, I’ve been chapping on that door for a little while. I think Sam and I are in quite a unique position. We’ve been on the show and I’ve been on that set every single day, pretty much, since Season 1, a little less in the last two seasons. But you become just so aware of everything that’s going on. It became apparent to me that there’s certain places that I can be of benefit and I could really help out. I’ve always been interested in producing and looking at the broader scope of a production. Maybe it’s because I’m a busybody (laughs). But we put in a request and in prior seasons, I don’t think they were ready for that. But we had a renegotiation and part of that was that we both wanted to be producers. And it takes a long time for these things to be worked out. So it wasn’t until this last season that that happened. But we didn’t really get the approval until right before shooting. So earlier on, I think we didn’t have as much influence, but definitely towards the end of the season, in terms of really working the scripts, and we had a lot of new writers and a lot of new producers this season, Matt and Maril [Davis], obviously, the writers’ room is in L.A. so I think we were really helpful being on the ground and being able to walk people who are kind of newer to the show through what’s the core of our show and really trying to retain the essence that we believe that we might have slightly lost a little in Season 4.

GD: Yeah. I mean, even when you weren’t a producer, you’re number one on the call sheet, and so that means that you are setting the tone on-set. I hear a lot from lots of different performers who say X, Y, Z is number one on the call sheet really set the tone. How do you set the tone for someone who is one of the co-leads of the show? 

CB: Well, I think both Sam and I really have strived from the very beginning that we have a very friendly, open, respectful set. Every single person who comes onto that, no matter if it’s a day player who has one line or somebody who’s a supporting artist, everyone contributes. And unless every single person is working at their best, then none of us are and I think we really try and make everybody as welcome as possible and also just set the tone by showing up, being prepared, being on time. There is no room for divas or big egos on our set. That’s also a very British way of working. A lot of British actors, no matter who they are, they do a bit of everything. They’re doing huge movies but they’re also doing radio and it’s really about the work. And that’s what I love about shooting here. There’s no stars throwing their weight around. It’s very much everyone gets all hands on deck. And I love that about it. 

GD: So what about looking ahead? Vanessa, one of your other fans wants to know whether you’re planning on directing any episodes coming up. Is that on the horizon for you? 

CB: I mean, I would love to. Again, that’s a door I’m chipping on. So we’ll see (laughs.)

GD: Fingers crossed. You recently participated in an online discussion where you talked about the gender pay gap and how you renegotiated your contract quite early on. It’s quite amazing that a show about a strong, modern, independent woman in an antiquated world, you were fighting for equal pay. I had no idea about this. Can you talk us through what was going on in the early days and how you were able to fight for equal pay? 

CB: Well, I think it’s more I was a really unknown actress when I started. There is a system that when you start, you come in at the ground level. So it’s usually based on had you tested for things before? Had you been on shows before? I’d never done TV. So that was the way the system was. I think it’s changing. I think people are learning that this doesn’t quite fly in 2020 or whatever year we’re in, but it’s pay parity across the board. It’s not just actors you have to look at. And what I am always interested in is you look at the crews in different departments and crews. Hair and makeup and costumes, which are predominantly female-led departments, are paid far less than some of the more traditionally male-led departments. Why does this happen? Why are we still having these fights? So I think it’s something that’s changing and we all have to keep trying to break those glass ceilings and get things changed. 

GD: Agreed. And another thing that occurred to me over the years that you’ve become more well known for your role in “Outlander” is your charity work and your ability to kind of use your platform as a well-known person to fight for the underprivileged. Can you talk us through how much that’s meant to you over the last couple of years as you’ve tried to make a difference in that sphere? 

CB: Yeah being part of this show, it’s been one of the most incredible opportunities, I suppose, I’ve been given. When I was living in L.A. before I got the show, I used to volunteer locally and be part of different organizations but I was never part of a global charity that had a reach. And when I got “Outlander” it was really something that was pushed by the fans because they were like, “Who can we donate in your honor? And there’s such a new concept for me because I’ve never been asked anything like that before. And it was amazing that I was able to form this partnership with World Child Cancer, which are an incredible charity and they do the most amazing work across the world. It’s just been something that’s been really amazing. It gets me to be able to pay my fortune forward. I get connect with the fans in a really special way, and they are so generous and so invested. It’s just been one of the real beauties of being in my position and being on a show like this. 

GD: Can we briefly talk about the flip side? Because I know Sam recently spoke out about the incessant bullying and negativity that happens online and you understandably and promptly voiced your support him defiantly. Just great to see the two of you banding together like that. What’s it like to deal with so much incessant negativity as a famous person on social media? I mean, what do you do? What do you employ? What strategies do you employ to deal with that? 

CB: I would say that it’s not incessant negativity. I do think it’s a very small group of people. And for the most part, you can ignore it. We all, I think, are our own worst enemies sometimes and read comments when we really shouldn’t (laughs). I don’t really need to know what other people think of me. The people who I know and love and who know me and love me, it’s important what they think of me and they think I’m doing the right thing in my life. But strangers who make assumptions on things they really don’t know about, it’s not that important for me to notice. But inevitably, at some point, you come across it or you see it and it can be hurtful. And I dealt with bullies when I was a kid. I didn’t think I would have to deal with this again in my later years but I think trying to keep it in perspective, trying to remember that it’s a small fraction of people and also just realizing that it’s probably coming from a place of hurt for them, that this is something that we are in public so they’re using us in some way to work out something that’s actually very sad and very hurt within them. And if I try and approach it from that side, then I know it’s really not about me, but when it affects my husband or people in our lives, well, then, you get a little bit like grr (laughs). So, occasionally you might zip back, but I try to not.

GD: Just have the self-control that is required. So much about the show, we spoke about this before, is the interaction between you and your co-star Sam. You’ve both really developed such a great working relationship and we see it over the screen. You implied this as well, in the last season or two, the show has moved a little bit away from the two of you as the central part of the show as we bring in new characters, which has been great. But it’s been so lovely to see more of Jamie and Claire this season. And I’m just wondering for you, what is the highlight about working with Sam as an actor and as your co-star? What does he bring to this dynamic that we really love? 

CB: I mean, I could just slag him off here. No, it’s been such an amazing thing. We clicked instantly. We’re very different people but we have a similarity in how we approach certain things in our lives and definitely how we approach work is both different and very similar. But he gives himself up 100 percent to Jamie and he commits just 100 percent. And I think in that regard, we both love to work in that way. Like, he goes for everything just 100 percent and he’s always just so prepared and committed and I always know that he has my back as an actor, as a character. I always know that if we’re going to do a scene, you’re never going to have to question Sam’s commitment or his honesty or his truthfulness and that’s something great. I mean, to never have to worry about that ever as an actor, I know so many actors who were in shows with other people and they didn’t get along and I just can’t even imagine what that must feel like. I think what he brings is just his heart and he’s got such a big heart as Sam, and obviously, Jamie, that’s why we all love him so much is that purity of heart. 

GD: That’s nice. Final question about Claire is she’s a strong woman, we love her for her spirited nature, she’s smart, she’s intelligent. There’s so much about Claire that we love. Where does she go to from here in your mind? You’re going to obviously play her in Season 6. We know what the book says. But have you already started to think about where she could possibly go to from such a horrible low? 

CB: Yeah, and I think the psychology of someone like Claire, I think it really brings us back to that speech at the end where she was like, “I’m supposed to be broken by this?” I think that that’s such an interesting thing to explore is somebody who has always prided themselves on being so strong. How do they cope with pain and vulnerability and the idea that they don’t quite know how to get through this? And I do think that Claire can sometimes suffer from an inability to accept her own weakness. Weakness as in her vulnerability or her pain or her sort of not being okay. And I think that that gives me something really interesting to work with because I think that Claire doesn’t always consciously know what’s going on within her, that it has to come out in other ways for her to actually understand it. That’s actually, I think, going to be really rich material, at least for me to kind of get my head around. 

GD: Yeah, we are so looking forward to that. Caitriona, congratulations on a really strong Season 5. Your performance as Claire was pretty amazing. And we have so much more to look forward to watching you and your co-star Sam on our television screens. 

CB: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. Thanks for being so supportive as well. 

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