Caitriona Balfe on Belfast, Outlander, and Playing Resilient Mothers Onscreen

The actress discusses starring in Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar frontrunner and filming Outlander S6 while pregnant.


In Kenneth Branagh’s evocative, semi-autobiographical drama Belfast, Caitriona Balfe plays a resilient but increasingly scared woman facing an impossible choice. Named in the script only as Ma, Balfe’s character is the matriarch of a working class Protestant family in 1960s Northern Ireland, whose day-to-day existence becomes increasingly dangerous amidst The Troubles.

With her husband (Jamie Dornan) often overseas for work, Ma is usually left to parent their two young sons, Will (Lewis McAskie) and Buddy (Jude Hill), alone, and as the environment becomes more and more unstable, she’s forced to consider uprooting the family altogether and fleeing to England.

“The script was so emotional, and it was really evocative. Even though it’s very much Ken’s story, I was sobbing by the end of it as somebody who’s left Ireland, as somebody who grew up in a very big family, and I’m now away from them,” Balfe told ELLE.com on Zoom last month.

“There was also just the tragedy of what I know went on in Northern Ireland. I think there’s something about seeing the world through the eyes of a child, and [Branagh] has really perfectly captured what it’s like to see the world at that age,” she added, referring to nine-year-old protagonist Buddy. “There’s a myriad of things that can happen to us where we have this loss of innocence, and I think that’s something that everybody can relate to in one way or another.”

Below, Balfe, who just earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, delves into how she and Dornan bonded on the Belfast set, her experience of filming Outlander season 6 while pregnant with her first child, and the key difference between Ma and Outlander’s Claire.


The marriage between your and Jamie Dornan’s characters in Belfast is seen mostly through glimpses, or snatches of conversation that their son overhears. What was the experience like of creating that dynamic?

Jamie and I didn’t really know each other before this. We’d met once, I think, through a mutual friend. So one of the first days, Ken had us all sit down in a room, Judi [Dench], Ciarán [Hinds], Jamie, and myself. We shared just a lot of information about our childhoods, our parents, our grandparents…Ken’s brilliant, he has these Wizard of Oz ways of getting people to be at the right place to get what he needs to get from them.

So from that first day, I knew more things about Jamie than probably someone who’s known him four or five years or 10 years might have known—personal, vulnerable things, and him likewise, the same with me. So we started off from a very open place with each other.

Then, the next thing we had to do was dance. So we had a dance rehearsal, and that’s also something that’s very, I don’t know, I suppose exposing, and makes you very vulnerable. So very quickly, we just had this very cool bond with each other and everything else just built organically from that. I think we both approach our work in a very similar way. We both are very meticulous about our preparation, but then very easy with how we are on set. I think we both try to be uncomplicated with how we work, and just show up ready to play and not have to make too big a deal of it, if that makes sense. That was really freeing.

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