chat room

Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe on Feminism, Fans, and Love Triangles

Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

As the cast of Outlander was shooting the last block of the show’s first season in Scotland, they got the good news: Starz had picked up the show for a second season. To celebrate, actor Graham McTavish broke out the whisky “for a kind of tasting,” as lead actress Caitriona Balfe puts it during a call the following day, by way of explaining that she might be a little out of sorts. “Sorry, the whisky is stopping me from finding words!” she laughed. “The whisky’s kicking in!” It has been a whirlwind year for Balfe, who was cast in the part of the time-traveling protagonist Claire Randall and immediately whisked off to the Scottish Highlands to start filming the series, with nary a break since. Balfe chatted with Vulture about good omens, oral sex, time-period feminism, and her Twilight-related worry.

How much did you know about this series before you went in to audition? Had you read the books?
Book Soup in L.A. is my local bookstore when I’m there, it’s this great little independent bookstore, and I had gone in to try and see if they had the books because I was about to test. And when I was buying it, the guy was like, “You know they’re making a TV series out of this.” And I was like, “Oh, really?” I didn’t want to be saying, “Yeah, I’m about to audition for it …” And he was like, “Yeah, I wrote my thesis on the guy who’s doing it, Ron D. Moore.” And then we had this very interesting, funny conversation about it, and he was going on and on about Ron, and I was just kind of like, [to myself] Hee hee, I know. I know all this. It was a nice little omen. I felt like, Okay, this is, this could actually happen … And my test was so close to the wire. I think they just gave up, trying to cast Claire! [Laughs.] They went, “She”ll do! She’s the best we’ve got!” [Laughs.] When we’re all done, I should bring Ron to the bookstore! But I haven’t been in Book Soup since because I left that week and I was trying to tie up all these loose ends, like sell my car and stuff like that. So I haven’t been back yet, but I will. Now, when I go back, our photos are on the book! [Laughs.]

Sam Heughan has the Heughligans, but you have your own contingent of rabid fans. What did you think when you heard about the Caitriots?
Like of Caitria nation!? [Laughs.] Very inventive — I don’t think I was ever so imaginative. And it’s been really nice. It’s just a bit overwhelming and a bit humbling sometimes. I got, I don’t know how many pages there are, 15 to 20 pages of printouts of all these greetings and well-wishes from the Caitriots. Hundreds of notes from people you’ve never met, that you don’t know, and they’re all just wishing you well and saying congratulations! And both groups are selling TV shirts and donating to charities that we support in our name, and you’re like, Wow.

They turned out in full force at the 92Y advance screening of the pilot episode, and there was a moment that got them cheering in particular: when Frank goes down on Claire at the castle. Do you think the scene caused such a strong reaction because it was a sign that Frank and Claire have an equal relationship, at least for 1945? 
I don’t know … was it? Or is that just people thinking that? The way I kind of feel about it is, what was really important for us, and this was something we talked about with Ron from the beginning, is that we want to show that Claire owns her own sexuality. I think that’s why we liked that scene, and we liked that she was the one sort of asking for it, and she was the one directing Frank what to do, and I think it shows quite an important side of her character. Like we’re so used to seeing women being objectified, and as objects of desire of men, but it is very rare when you see a woman owning her own sexuality, and directing it, or orchestrating the sequence of events! I think that’s one of the very cool things about Claire, and it’s not a big issue or a big deal to her. It’s just a part of who she is. She’s just a very passionate person, and that manifests sexually and in every other aspect of her life. Claire is asking for pleasure, and that’s the modern thing about her.

And [what] we also felt really strongly about was that even though there was trouble in their marriage, in that they were disconnected slightly, there was still a lot there. She was very much in love with Frank. He was the first man in her life, and there is a lot of love there. And we also wanted to show how much, because the first half of the season, her drive is to get back to her husband and her own time, and if you don’t have that strong thing, if you don’t see what she’s lost, then it doesn’t really give it the momentum and the drive that it sort of needs.

Perhaps Claire wouldn’t have identified herself as feminist at that point in time, but do you think she is?
I think it’s interesting that people having started using that term to describe Claire and to describe the show. I think so many women of that time, it was a real emancipation of women. During the war, women went to work. They worked in the factories. They were doing the jobs that the men were doing before. And they were in ownership of their lives at that point. It was a time when women felt useful outside of the home, not to detract from anyone who does that. I think it’s important to show that at that time, that’s kind of where women were at. It’s quite funny how there was a reversal in the ‘50s. But she is this modern woman. I mean, women of that time were feminists. Because they adapted to doing everything. They had to do everything.

Well, the women she encounters back in 1743 have to do quite a lot as well. There’s not a lot of free time.
No, they don’t have the luxury of chitchat!

In an upcoming episode, there’s a moment where Claire helps some women gather wool, and I just thought it was so interesting — kind of both repulsive and fascinating — that they actually used their own urine to set the dye! That they would all drink the whiskey, and then take turns peeing, and use the hot urine as they waulked the wool. I had no idea!
Yeah, I didn’t realize that, either! It’s funny that that was an embarrassing scene to film, when it’s such a small thing, you’re like, Oh, God! It’s such a private thing that everybody does, to go to the bathroom, and to do it, but not really, but to simulate doing it in public was quite funny! But the wools, they’re so of the place, and it was an interesting thing to see that process, the making of these heavy wools, because it was so needed in that time. The winter here, when we’ve been filming, you see how functional all these costumes are. There’s a scene where I was outside and it was snowing, but I had this great coat that Terry [Dresbach, the costume designer] had made, and it really keeps you warm! All the crew was standing around with windbreakers and all of that, and I think I was warmer than most of them. And the shrugs and the little woolen pieces are just incredible. I personally love the ‘40s clothes Claire wears. That blue coat is fantastic! And that nightgown I got to wear in episode one, it’s so devastating that I only got to wear it for one scene because it was just fabulous! It was silk chiffon, and sort of 1940s Hollywood glamour. It was the one thing that we had decided that Claire had bought for her trip away. Even at that time, they were still rationing, so a lot of the ‘40s stuff is still from those patterns, those austerity patterns, but this is the one thing she had kind of splurged on, you know?

Jamie is kind of an idealized man that fans of the books and now the show have massive crushes on. Have you seen that extend to Sam?
It’s so funny, because Terry [Dresbach], the costume designer, and I were talking about this, and the way they talk about him, if it were men talking about women like that, we would be outraged! They’re like, “Like, oh my God, can you just take off your shirt?” It’s such objectification, and look at him, why?! [Laughs.] No, but it’s just funny to see women are just as disgusting as men when it comes to that.

People love their love triangles — soon there will be Team Jamies and Team Franks, the way Twilight had Team Edward and Team Jacob …
Does that mean everyone is going to hate me now? [Laughs.] Doesn’t everyone hate Kristen Stewart? Am I Kristen Stewart? [Laughs.]

Caitriona Balfe on the Feminism of Outlander