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Saturday 15 December 2018

Monaghan native Caitriona Balfe tells why she made the right move

She was a catwalk sensation, but now she's an actress climbing towards the A-list.

Stephen Milton

When Caitriona Balfe moved to Paris, she had barely unpacked her bags before she landed her first catwalk job for fashion label Kenzo.

The daughter of a Monaghan garda sergeant, only days into her 20s, was a wide-eyed fish out of water, thrown headfirst into a maelstrom of haute couture mere months after being discovered by a model scout while collecting for charity outside Rathmines' Swan Centre in Dublin.

"Kenzo were celebrating their 30th anniversary and they did this big, huge show in Paris and invited back all the models who'd walked for them in the 30-year era. How I found myself in the mix, I'll never know," she says with a charming chuckle, one that regularly punctuates our chat.

"I remember standing backstage and I was going to follow Iman down the runway. I'd flat shoes that were way too small and she's standing there with David Bowie and I remember being so awestruck. Come on, it was David Bowie and Iman.

"I had to waddle down the catwalk after her in my flats and she's like a gazelle in these gorgeous heels. It was really just quite crazy. And I was a kid, so green. I hadn't a clue what was going on, this little girl with my big bogger Monaghan accent. It was one of those early moments where you think, 'How did I end up here?'"

Officially Ireland's first supermodel, a title she mockingly baulks at – "let's hope it's not on my tombstone" – Balfe was initially intent on acting, studying her craft at Dublin Institute of Technology.

But Assets boss Derek Daniels spotted potential in the gamine brunette. She worked in Dublin for several months before catching the eye of a visiting Ford Model scout, who promptly whisked her off to the French capital.

"It was fun and new and somehow I managed to convince my dad to let me drop out of college for a year to try it out. And that year in Paris just kept getting extended."

What followed was a lucrative eight-and-a-half-year career, gracing the covers and pages of 'Vogue' and 'Elle' and commanding international runways for Calvin Klein, Gucci and Chanel. Fashion houses adored her willowy 5'10'' stature; photographers fawned over her captivating blue eyes and sculpted bone structure.

She moved to New York, becoming a darling for Dolce & Gabbana and the muse for designer Narciso Rodriguez.

She even earned her wings as a Victoria's Secret angel, striding alongside Gisele, Tyra, Heidi and Naomi.

I imagine Balfe entertaining her supermodel cohorts backstage, delighting fiery Ms Campbell with her warm brand of Celtic humour.

"Emmmmm..." the 34-year-old slowly pauses with a dry snigger. "Yeah, not so much. Those girls are of a different generation and I don't think I was ever on the, 'Hey Naomi, what's up?' level. But you'd see them at shows and they weren't horrible people, they just weren't the ones that I knew. My friends and I, we were more the blue-collar girls."

Despite profitable pay cheques and a fabulous existence, Balfe wanted to return to acting. "Modelling wasn't a passion of mine so that made it get old kind of quickly. I was getting very frustrated."

Five years ago, she made for the lights of Hollywood, bravely attempting a move from fashion to film in her late 20s, a veritable geriatric by Tinseltown standards.

"The consensus is they only want young ingenues and it's ridiculous to start at this age. That was the voice going around in my head, not that it was ever said outright to me, but that was the feeling there."

However, Balfe, who grew up in a family of seven in the tiny village of Tydavnet, swiftly charmed the industry with her trademark humour and poise.

'Star Trek' power player JJ Abrams was so impressed he cast her in a small role in 2011's alien blockbuster 'Super 8', making sure Paramount wrangled the illegal alien actress a working visa. "He really went to bat for me, which was amazing considering it wasn't even a speaking role."

A largely unseen web series, 'H+', followed before she landed the part of Michael Caine's daughter in sleeper hit, 'Now You See Me', opposite Morgan Freeman and Woody Harrelson. Once again, however, she found herself mute on screen.

"I would've been a really big silent movie star," she laughs, "would've been huge in the 1920s. They're like, 'She's great but don't let her open her mouth.'"

The actress eventually found her voice with two massive, and more importantly, verbal starring roles.

Balfe is currently shooting in Scotland on a big-budget series of Diana Gabaldon's best-selling fantasy romance novels 'Outlander' – where she talks to me from her new flat in Glasgow. She will also hit cinemas this weekend sandwiched between the intimidating powerhouse duo of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in action thriller 'Escape Plan'.

"At one point, I'm on a beach in Louisiana with Arnold and Sylvester and they're hilarious and being so friendly and I'm pretty much dumbfounded. I was standing in the middle of Arnie and Sly, how'd you get your head around that?"

Balfe plays a mysterious lawyer for the CIA who hires Stallone, an expert at finding flaws in maximum-security prisons, to test out the US government's latest impenetrable facility.

Double-crossed, he finds himself officially incarcerated and plots an escape alongside Schwarzenegger's crimelord king pin.

And while both had advice for their young co-star, it was the Governator's words of wisdom that left their mark. "I'm sitting with Arnold and he was like (adopting a deep, brilliantly deadpan impression of the Austrian Oak), 'So, how is theez all going for you? Vhat are you doing next?' And I'm like, 'Oh, I don't know, just have to wait and see.'

"And he's, 'Ya, ya! It's always that vay, always vaiting for the next job.'

"And I'm thinking, 'Really Arnold?! Do you wait for your next job like the rest of us?'"

Fortunately, the wait was relatively brief after landing 'Outlander', which was picked up by US network Starz for a 16-episode run.

Fans of the romantic novel series expressed their delight at Balfe's casting as heroine Claire Beauchamp, a WWII British Army nurse who time-travels back to the Scottish highlands in the 18th century, where she lands in the middle of a battle zone and falls for a clansman warrior, played by newcomer Sam Heughan.

"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 is 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. I can't say too much, but it's incredibly exciting."

While her current relocation to Glasgow offers the freedom to regularly visit her parents in sleepy Tydavnet, Balfe misses her West Hollywood apartment. "The weather's great, like every day's a holiday. It's all hiking and brunches, a really healthy lifestyle and I have a great group of friends."

After a lengthy relationship with Dave Milone, a guitarist with the US band Radio4, she's presently unattached, considering it an advantage given her pressurised schedule. "A single lady right now and terribly depressed by it... joke," the star quietly chuckles.

"Had I been in a relationship, it would've been difficult to leave someone in LA. But I don't worry about it too much. Leave that up to my mother."

With her screen career steadily climbing towards the A-list, has she fully turned her back on fashion? "Unless it's friends of people I've worked with before, pretty much done.

"I'm just so glad that I started acting when I did because I had this wealth of life experience. I don't know if I'd have been able to handle it, had I gone out to LA at 22.

"The hardest part when I decided to move into acting was trusting I'd made the right decision. But I'm so happy now doing what I'm doing. I'm really much more content all round."

'Escape Plan' is in cinemas nationwide

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