Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe has a “slight theory” about why period shows are so popular at the moment. “We know everything about everyone in our own time period right now,” she says. “We have so much reality TV, we’re so saturated with social media, and we’re so open about our lives.” But with period pieces, there’s still room for mystery and discovery. As her heroine Claire keeps rediscovering, sometimes that sense of mystery can be both a blessing and a curse — her accidental time travel, back to 1743 Scotland, introduced her to new love Jamie, but it’s also put her in constant danger. She’s been almost raped at least three times, twice by her husband’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall. Of course, once Claire gets to a semi-safe place at Lallybroch, it’s Jamie who’s in jeopardy, and Claire who comes to the rescue. Balfe chatted with Vulture about Claire’s near-rapes, why she fell in love with Jamie, and what role Craig Ferguson should play for a cameo.
The last time we talked, you mentioned that you’d had a nip of whisky to get through a difficult scene …
[Laughs.] There might have been a little whisky drinking on set. You know, it’s Scotland. It’s the equivalent of having a cup of tea. I have some whisky occasionally, but I never have a place to carry it! It’s always the boys with a hip flask tucked away in their costumes. I would never say a name … Sam Heughan! [Laughs.] Obviously, we don’t drink our way through our jobs. But occasionally … You just have to be careful when you go to those emotional spaces. You want to access them, and you want to take the pressure off, but sometimes it’s better to stay in focus.
Claire’s had it a little rough lately. First she was almost raped again by Black Jack Randall, then she was physically punished by her husband, then she was accused of being a witch. What did you think about the battle of the wills over the punishment?
Shooting it was very physical. For both of us, we really like to go there. You can choreograph and you can block out a scene as much as you want beforehand, but once you’re in a scene and the adrenaline is going, you know, things get messy. You know that there are marks that you’re going to hit, but within that, it’s not perfect. And it shouldn’t be. Because if you want to get it to look and feel real, you have to just go for it.
But I think this is why she fell in love with Jamie — his emotional intelligence! I love that they showed Jamie’s perspective, too, so you understand that you have to come at that scene from the perspective of someone from 1743. In that way, even though it’s not an acceptable act, you can understand the reasons. This is how he’s been brought up, this is what he’s been taught, this is what you should do. You understand that it’s not that he wanted to do that, or that he was relishing the fact, but that it was his code of honor. But because he’s able to see that the punishment obviously really traumatized her, he can realize that maybe for them, there’s a different road. Once she sees his willingness to evolve and grow and change, she allows herself to forgive him.
Do you think her forgiveness and trust there helped him swallow the idea that she’s from the future? I mean, it’s not like people from that time were as accustomed to time-travel stories …
He could see that she’s telling the truth. And it’s not like he hasn’t heard the stories about the fairy ring. People did have an acceptance for the magical in that time. Today, we’ve become much more cynical, but in that time, people did have more of a place for magic in the world.
But no matter where Claire goes in this time, she seems to be in danger of rape. You have so many near-rape scenes, how do you prepare for them and recover from them? It’s got to be tough, emotionally …
I mean, in that time, sex was used as a weapon. And unfortunately in some parts of the world today, that’s still the case. But in terms of preparing for that, it’s just part of the usual process you have to go through as an actor, preparing for some of that violence. It’s never the easiest thing to film, but once you trust your scene partner and crew, and everyone’s very respectful, you try to do it as quickly and safely as possible. You try not to get too hurt, although that doesn’t always happen. But there was a lot of rape — it was just a reality of the time, and it’s important to show.
The hardest thing I had to do this season — and there’s been a lot! — was one scene with Tobias Menzies, as Black Jack Randall. Tobias might have wounded me a few times. I think I had an actual knife cut, a little one, and I had this thing with a fine line of stitching, and every time he ripped it off, I got friction burns. So I was getting all these burn lines all over my neck from it. That’s just a day in the life!
What about the psychological side of it?
Having to put yourself in that place is tough, to sit in that emotional space, especially when you’re doing it day after day. But in another way, it’s really nice to exorcise those shadows in yourself! You spend so much time in your everyday life making sure you don’t bring up that side of yourself, so to be able to, in a safe environment? To have that catharsis? That’s the reason we all become actors. We all have our own way in, our own methods, and we’re all there for each other as friends. We all check in with each other and ask, “Are you doing okay?” But I don’t think there’s a “Near Rape Manual” or a “Rape Manual,” where you can go, “Here you go, hon!” [Laughs.] It’s interesting, this show, because it’s so epic in a sense. There are so many different catastrophes, and for any one person in a normal life, you’d think it would haunt them for years and years!
It’s not all sturm und drang. Without spoiling under what circumstances this happens, you sing in an upcoming episode.
Yeah, they did it to me. [Laughs.] It was really fun, but I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know how it’s going to sound at all, but very early on, we decided that Claire is singing not because she’s a fantastic singer, but because she needs something, so it’s a necessity rather than an episode of Glee! It’s really a fantastic episode, and it’s sort of sweet. I was nervous about doing it. Well, actually, I was terrified. Learning the song wasn’t as hard as singing in public, but it ended up being a lot of fun.
Since you shoot in Cumbernauld, Scotland, and that’s where Craig Ferguson grew up, what about getting him on the show for a cameo?
Come on down, the price is right! [Laughs.] Maybe he could be a cleric? Or what about Jamie’s uncle Jared? That would be a good character! Uncle Craig Ferguson.