Monday, January 11, 2016

The Globe and Mail

John Doyle: A likeable woman: Caitriona Balfe, Golden Globe nominee for Outlander

The woman is Irish, as am I. Her accent is there, but soft. Unlike mine, which isn’t really there until drink is taken and then is strong, especially when strong views are expressed.

I have strong views on Outlander. The romantic fiction conventions upended in it, the damsel-in-distress made savvy and soundly competent. It’s a powerful excursion into heady themes of love, love of country, sex, sadism and atonement. Outlander, off the radar for many critics, has three Golden Globe nominations, including Best Drama, which is deeply gratifying to the millions who watch and admire it in countless countries around the world.

The Irish woman is Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire, the canny heroine thrown back in time from the 1940s to the tumult of Scotland in 1743. She is nominated for a Golden Globe on Sunday for Actress in a Drama.

Balfe, age 34, is tall and dark-haired. She sits across from me briefly amused by the fuss the publicist makes about what chair Balfe should sit in. I tell her I won’t keep her long. “Ah, don’t worry,” she says, the rhythm of speech of County Monaghan, where she was born, surfacing in those few words.

She fixes her eyes on me. She looks at me coolly. I know the look. I grew up surrounded by such Irish women, aloof eyes and a stormy heart. Warmth under it, though, the poetry of amusement and passion. She’s the perfect Claire for Outlander.

I ask her what Claire is and what she represents, but do it sideways. Once, I wrote that Claire is a true super-heroine. Diana Gabaldon, who wrote the Outlander books, wrote to me to say, “Mr. Doyle, she’s not a super-heroine, she’s just a very competent woman.”

Balfe says this is true. “To be a super-heroine means having superpowers. Claire has no special power, she is intelligent and able to adapt to situations that befall her. She is a woman of the 1940s, when the war meant that women had jobs they had not been entrusted with before, and able to leave the home. She’s seen a lot, was a nurse in wartime, and she’s strong in any situation.”

I ask if any of the history, in which Outlander is steeped, surprised her. “What surprised me was how advanced they were in the eighteenth century. We think technology has changed everything, made us sophisticated, but people are remarkable in their ingenuity. Sometimes when we think of our ancestors and what they went through, we assume they had a different emotional make-up or thought process, to handle things. But they didn’t. Family structure and family dynamic hasn’t changed. Love hasn’t changed.”

“I was surprised by some the details and events of Scottish history. I grew up not knowing about it. In Ireland we learn a lot about Irish and European history, not about Scotland. Its history is astonishing; it’s bloody and full of heartbreak. You just can’t help but be moved by it.”

Does her Irish background inform her work as Claire? “Everything that I absorbed through my life informs my work. But obviously being a Celt and spending much of my childhood in the countryside, when we started filming in Scotland it felt like a homecoming. Sam [Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, her lover and then husband in 18th century Scotland] and I have talked about this. Sometimes, you simply have to look at the landscape, to be in it, to feel a kinship with the history. Claire is an Englishwoman who finds her home and heart in Scotland.”

My time with Balfe together is brief so it’s necessary ask bluntly about the Golden Globe nominations and what it means for her and for Outlander?

Another one of those very direct, cool looks as she answers, but with a billow of amusement: “For me, it’s kind of wild,” she says, laughing gently. “Before this I had five or six acting credits to my name. Two of which I didn’t even speak in. It’s a personal milestone, you might say. It puts me in a place when I have more opportunity, and it comes from this wonderful opportunity.”

“For the show, for everyone involved from the crew in Scotland to Diana, to everyone, it brings more attention, something Outlander deserves.”

We finish, but there is a lovely, illuminating postscript. We get up to leave and she says, “Your accent? Where in Ireland are you from?” And I tell her, “Born in Tipperary, lived in Leitrim [which is close to Monaghan], grew up in Dublin.”

She beams. ”Oh, Leitrim! Poor, lovely Leitrim.” And she adds, “I grew up in Monaghan.” As if I wouldn’t know that.

I ask her if all Monaghan people are devotees of Patrick Kavanagh, the great Irish poet from that area, and who write so much about it. “Kavanagh!” she exclaims. “I grew up with Kavanagh drummed into me.” And then she recites: “O stony grey soil of Monaghan/The laugh from my love you thieved/You took the gay child of my passion/And gave me your clod-conceived.”

She’s beating out the rhythm with her foot, her head thrown back, delight on her face. The publicist is agog, wondering what the hell I’ve just done to Caitriona Balfe. But I know. I grew up surrounded by such women.

Balfe shakes my hand. I thank her. She laughs. Her eyes are merry now. I liked her a lot, as I knew I would.

Caitriona Balfe in her youth.. During her modeling career

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