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May 14, 2018

The Age of Outlander

Playing a beloved character in Outlander has given Caitriona Balfe several different worlds and ages to play in.

Melissa Byers
  • Starz
  • Starz
  • Starz
  • Starz
  • Starz

When a wildly popular book series is turned into a wildly popular television series, the experience can be quite heady.

With her Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon has created characters and stories that appeal to people all over the world, and Caitriona Balfe was the actress tapped to play the books' protagonist, Claire Randall Fraser, in the Starz series. What makes it all so popular? "I'm not sure." says Balfe. "A lot of it is down to the fact that Diana created these books that really spoke to people, and they were around for a really long time.

"For a lot of the fans of the books, I think there was a lot of trepidation when they heard it was going to be turned into series. And luckily, I think people were really happy with what we did, and it's a show that has so much for so many people, but at the heart of it is this beautiful love story that I think anchors everything else.

But I think what is so great about it is that it's not just one thing. I mean, it's a historical period drama as well as being a love story, and it has light moments, but it also has quite heavy and dark moments. People just enjoy watching it. So, that's quite good."

Even though the character and events have been changed somewhat from the books, Balfe finds the books a valuable resource in creating the television version of Claire.

"The Claire in the show is slightly different from the Claire in the books, but, I feel like there is so much of her internal monologue in the books, and there's so much extra information in there, that it's just, it's so beneficial as an actor to be able to get in and out again throughout the season as well. To have a little bit more context for certain things.

"Certain things it doesn't help, because obviously we've changed how that relationship might have gone, or whatever, and it's always quite funny at the beginning of the season when you start to get scripts, you start to talk to the writers.

"There'd be things that really jump out at me from the book, or that I'm really excited to film, and you're like, 'Are we going to do this bit?' And there's always those moments of ... Sometimes your heart gets broken because they're not going to do certain moments that you thought were the most defining moments for your character, or really important bits, but that's kind of the beauty of it. There's always another bit that you're really excited to film. "

One element of portraying Claire through several books is that, between books two and three, 20 years pass, and Balfe goes from being a young woman to one 20 years older with a grown daughter. Physically, that process is a matter of a bit of hair dye and some make-up. Emotionally and internally, however, Balfe must come to terms with what that really means for Claire.

"That was probably the most exciting challenge of season three. Obviously we touched a little bit on it at the end of season two, but really season three is where I got to really play with that notion of how somebody ages. What does experience and your life experiences do to you, and how do you carry yourself, and all of those things, after a life defining event happens.

"And I got to do that twice, I suppose, in season three. Because when we first meet Claire, it's the woman in the aftermath of losing the love of her life. And she is somebody who has carved out a very successful life, but it's a compromised one. And I wanted to play with the idea that this is somebody who has excelled in her career, and she's very happy in the fact that she's a mother, and she loves her daughter.

"But she is someone who has shelved the kind of intimacy and the passion in her life. And that, I wanted to play around with, giving her ... slightly ... a more brittle and a little bit more of a restrained edge.

"I think Claire before, when we had seen her, especially when she was back in the 18th Century, was so vibrant and full of life, and it was just sort of passion oozing from her, and you saw that especially when she was in the wild. She just felt so much part of that nature, and she was elemental in that way. And it was sort of doing the reverse, and making her so much more reserved, and I think we played with that in the costumes.

"Everything was so much more buttoned up and there was kind of a reservedness to her. And the maturity I guess, that kind of also adds an air of gravitas to her, and that was part of also her professionalism and being a surgeon and having gone through the rungs of that. How difficult that would have been, in that time as well, for a woman.

"And so, that was kind of the interesting thing to work with in the beginning of the season.  When you change all of that, and you re-find the love of your life, and you make a drastic life altering decision where you throw away everything that you've invested in for 20 years to go chase a dream of your younger self. I always felt whenever you go home you revert back to your younger self, at least I somehow do.

"I think of Jamie as Claire's home, and so I wanted her to revert back to that youthful woman that she was with him. And so you kind of see it slowly build the more that she trusts and the more that she trusts their relationship, and you see her lose the really buttoned up layers, and she becomes freer and looser in herself, and her wild nature and her humor come back much more.

"It was just really fascinating to sort of play with that. And I think that age is such an interesting thing to think of, because, internally It doesn't really matter how you are, how old you are physically. And internally, you have a different clock, and it's all about your emotions and how you feel. And your emotional age, I suppose, is so variable. And that's kind of what I was more playing with, I suppose. Or trying to, anyway, throughout the season."

Something else that many find appealing about Claire is that she is a pioneer in both time periods.

In the period when she is in the modern day world, between the 1940s and the 1960s, she was one of the first women to become a surgeon, when medicine for women mostly meant being a nurse at best. A woman with her knowledge and training was completely unheard of in the 18th century. However, while she was very much the "liberated woman" in her career, her personal life was very different.

Balfe enjoyed exploring those dichotomies. "What I loved about the journey  - unfortunately, you don't have so much time to tell that whole story of Claire, the working mother, studying in the '50s and '60s and all of the complications that would have come with that. And we have such a short time to sort of tell those great big arcs, but you see little moments of it.

"And, for me, Claire is sort of timeless. You know, her intelligence and her drive and her absolute belief in her own abilities, I think no matter what time she's in, she would always forge her own path. She's not swayed, really, by what other people think that she's supposed to do. But it's interesting that she had all of this, sort of freedom. She forged this new path in her professional life, in the '60s.

"It would have been so unusual to be in that position in that time, but yet in her personal life she had sacrificed everything, and she wasn't liberated. She was in this suffocated marriage where, yes, she had a lot of love and respect for Frank as a co-parent, but there wasn't any intimacy. Obviously he was cheating; obviously she was living in love with another man's memory. So, in that way, she was very much not liberated.

"And it's interesting that she chose to almost forgo all of her professional advancements and all of that kind of stuff so that her heart could be free. And she chose freedom of that. And I think that, for Claire, her passion is to heal and to care for people in that way, and I think she knows that she would always find a way to do that, no matter where she is, but that it came to a point in her life where she needed to feel free emotionally."

Balfe is grateful for the opportunity she has been given in playing this iconic character. "You know, I think this last season has been a great season to be playing Claire. I think the writers and Diana gave her this youthful arc and this beautiful journey. It's not very often that you get to play such a great storyline, and it's just been so much fun to be able to do that, and I just feel very grateful that we have so much great TV on at the moment and these great roles for women.

"So it's just been a really great season."

Although the Outlander series has only tackled the first four of the current eight books in the series (Gabaldon is rumored to be finishing up book nine), Balfe also looks forward to new challenges in her future.

"I would love to tell other stories. I think, as an actor, you get into this business to be able to wear many hats, and, for whatever reason, we're all people who somehow feel more comfortable wearing other people's skin for a moment in time. But I feel so lucky. This show has given me so much, and this character has been such a great character to play.

"But, of course, I would love to be able to try something very different. It would be nice to try something very modern, or someone who just has a different kind of DNA than Claire. I think just to even stretch myself and see if I can do something completely different. I think we all have to continue to grow and stretch, and of course I want to do that."



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