Caitriona Balfe talks ditching 'vapid' modelling for the big screen and a role opposite George Clooney
After working for some of the biggest names in fashion CAITRIONA BALFE ditched 'vapid' modelling for acting. Now, with her face back on billboards and a role opposite George Clooney, the Monaghan woman tells PATRICIA DANAHER that she's finally made herself proud
Thirty-five-year-old Caitriona Balfe's face has been gazing down from buses and the sides of major American buildings from Times Square to the Sunset Strip. As the lead character in the TV show Outlander, her image is nearly ubiquitous - yet when she walks into the café where we're having lunch in LA, the slender six-footer glides in relatively unnoticed among the other beautiful people here.
I'm a little surprised, but it turns out that the former model prefers it this way. In fact, she's mildly relieved that everything hasn't changed since the popular TV show aired and her private life remains largely the same.
"By the time all the billboards were up, we'd already left the city, which is probably a good thing, because from my bed in my apartment in West Hollywood, there was one with my face on it and that would have been weird to wake up to every morning," Caitriona tells me. "Lots of my friends have been ringing me saying: 'Oh my God, you're on this building or that billboard.' When I was modelling in New York, sometimes I'd see my face around the place during certain campaigns, but this is very different. This is something I'm much more proud of."
A second season of the hit historical romance has been commissioned, filming on which gets underway in Scotland in April. Until then, Caitriona is in New York filming Money Monster in which she will co-star with George Clooney and Julia Roberts. Due for release later this year, the movie is directed by Jodie Foster. "I put myself on tape for the audition and then I got a call to say Jodi would like to meet me," Caitriona says. "I auditioned for her and then they offered me the part. The role is of the head of PR for an investment bank. She's a really great character, intelligent and strong. A very powerful business woman.
"I have yet to shoot a scene with George but, because he is a producer too, I've met him a few times. He's incredibly nice and down to earth.
"It's a big role, but it's such a great script I'm just so excited to be a part of it. And shooting in NYC is amazing. It was my home for so long that it feels amazing to be back here doing what I love."
Originally from Monaghan, Caitriona was first spotted by a model agent outside the Swan Centre in Rathmines in her late teens. Since then, she has worked for top names including Roberto Cavalli, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, and she became the first Irish woman to model on the Victoria's Secret runway. Although grateful for her modelling success and the doors it's opened for her, her attitude to modelling is ambivalent at its mildest - "vapid" being just one word she uses to describe her feelings about the industry.
She moved to Los Angeles from New York five years ago and, since then, she has steadily been working in independent movies and web series, gradually building her CV and increasing her exposure, landing small roles in the likes of Super 8. Now she's represented by the elite and prestigious William Morris Endeavour agency which is already bringing a host of opportunities her way.
After filming on Money Monster wraps in New York, Caitriona will be living in Glasgow for the next nine months, filming the second season of Outlander. The story is told through the eyes of her character Claire Randall - a World War II nurse transported back to the 1700s Highlands. "This is the first job I've had that's lasted longer than five weeks. I'm delighted the show has been such a success, but there are nine books in the series and if it keeps going I'll be 60 by the time they're finished," she laughs. "The books have a huge following in the US, Australia and Germany and they have very active fan groups. I've encountered grown women who were trembling when they met me, which was weird, but I suppose they've lived with the books for so long."
Caitriona's grandmother, who was a nurse in England in the same era, died during the filming of the first season of Outlander, which added a very personal dimension to the on-screen story. "My grandmother was a nurse during World War II and she was stationed in Southampton. She had all these silly stories I remember her telling when we were young, like there were French soldiers in the hospital beds and they would say "oui, oui" and the nurses would bring them the bedpan! She died during the filming and my mother found a drawing that a soldier had made for her back then. He was a PoW and made drawings of the prisons and war camps. This was a very nice connection for me."
Caitriona's parents have visited her on set in Glasgow. Her mother is a huge fan of the show and watched it all on the internet before it was broadcast on RTÉ. Caitriona laughs that the family has somehow filtered out the sex scenes that she's in for her father's consumption.
While she has plenty of steamy scenes on-screen, in reality she has been single for quite a while now and seems happy enough about it. "At least I get kissed a lot on-screen! Other than that, it's very dull. I'm very close to my co-star Sam, but we're definitely not a couple. We get along so well and we're kind of going through the same experience. We're very supportive of each other. I think he gets asked a lot weirder stuff than I do from the fans. They want to know what's worn under the kilt, things like that. I get asked things about my make-up or nail polish and I never know the names of anything I'm wearing. I find it weird that anyone would care."
After years of modelling and living in New York, Caitriona has zero interest in the nightclub scene in LA and in general her passions are food and live music. On her one day off a week from Outlander, sleep and visiting friends are all she wants to do. She's worried about missing her cat, Eddie, who has been her companion for 10 years. She's thought about bringing him to Glasgow, as she'll be there for the best part of a year, but she doesn't want to put him through the 11-hour flight there and back. Her apartment building in LA is being sold and she's not sure where she will live the next time she gets back. So, for the forseeable, Glasgow will be home.
"Glasgow has cleaned up a lot and the food is a lot better. It's difficult coming from LA where you have all these fresh fruit and veg and kale salads. The first day I showed up on set, I asked for avocado for breakfast and I got a look! Since I've been in the city about four new restaurants have opened and one of them is run by one of my classmates from school in Monaghan.
"One of my best friends lives in Edinburgh and she had a baby last year. I head over to her for a few hours on Sundays and I found having that time with a family to be very healing. I land on her doorstep exhausted, saying: 'Feed me muffins and tea.' It's really nice."
Since Outlander and her huge visibility - which saw her walk the red carpet at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January - Caitriona has been waiting for the big changes everyone warned her about, but so far she hasn't noticed much. "People were like 'oh, everything's changed' and I was like 'fantastic', but I'm still flying below the radar. I don't get recognised that much. People haven't been sending me swag. I have the same friends, the same routines. It's terribly boring. Except that I seem to have come to the point in my life where I seem to be allergic to everything.
"I used to eat and drink anything I wanted and now it's all starting to crumble. Now, I'm suddenly allergic to alcohol, which has to be one of the saddest things ever. I get rashes all over the next day. I must have reached my limit, after all I squeezed in in the previous decade!"
Having transitioned from modelling to acting, Caitriona already has an eye on her next move. "I really admire actresses like Frances McDormand and Patricia Arquette who do interesting work on their own terms. They don't seem to adhere to the rules or other people's expectations of what they should be doing. I am learning a lot on this show and I would love to produce and create good work". But first, she has to figure out what to do with her cat.