How Caitriona Balfe turned an intimate story of her homeland into her biggest role yet in Belfast
On Outlander, Caitríona Balfe has spent five seasons dubbed "Sassenach," a Scottish Gaelic word for an English person or outsider — but in Belfast, she's anything but one: the Irish actress, 42, portrays a version of writer-director Kenneth Branagh's mother.
Known simply as Ma and seen through the eyes of her 9-year-old son, Buddy (Jude Hill), she is struggling to raise and protect her two children in 1960s Belfast when the nationalist fighting known as the Troubles erupts, plunging their family and way of life into uncertainty.
"It was very present," Balfe tells EW of the threat of violence that was a constant for her while growing up in the Republic of Ireland. "It was always on the news, and we had bomb scares in our town. Even though I didn't grow up in Belfast or the North, it still felt very close."
Balfe had long been searching for a story set in Ireland and was immediately touched by Branagh's original script inspired by his own boyhood memories. "It touches you in a different way when you're doing something that is from your own people," she reflects. "Ma felt very familiar to me, and there were things about her struggle that I could relate to — things people in my family had gone through."
Belfast doesn't dwell on politics, but on the intimate impact a complex situation has on one family. "Very rarely do you get a script that deals with that kind of subject matter that isn't in some way about the ideology," she says. "I'd read so many scripts before that seemed to glorify one side or the other, and I wasn't interested in being part of that conversation. This was something that really looked at the people and how everyday life was affected."
One scene in particular rang true. In the midst of a riot, Ma forces Buddy to return to a grocery store he helped ransack to return a stolen box of cereal. "Anyone who has an Irish mother understands that scene," she says with a laugh. "You will do the right thing and it doesn't matter at what cost."
Shooting the scene proved almost as harrowing to film as it appears on screen. The team had only one chance to get it right because they didn't have the budget to rebuild the shop once it was destroyed. "I don't think anyone had accounted for the fact that we had 20 to 30 stunt guys who had been in lockdown for five months and had a lot of pent-up aggression," she says. "There were shelves everywhere and they were just going hell for leather. I remember just picking Jude up and putting him under my arm and pushing our way through."
Shot in the U.K. between COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, the set was, as Balfe describes, a "beautiful little bubble." The sequestered crew began to feel like a family, finding joy in the midst of crisis. Balfe describes a warm set, full of shared stories, impromptu football matches, and Jamie Dornan (who plays Pa) and Hill messing around with a pair of stilts during downtime.
"There was a freedom on the project," she recalls. "That's something I'll try and take into the next one." Part of that freedom also came from performing opposite children. "Jude's instinctual and is just playing," she says of Hill. "So you have to be the same way. It's nice to allow that to be part of your performance."
After a series of period pieces (including a memorable turn with Christian Bale in the '60s-set Ford v Ferrari), Balfe is itching to do something contemporary. But first, she faces the gauntlet of awards season. She's earned four Golden Globe nominations for her work on Outlander, but is now garnering some of the best reviews of her career for Belfast, a performance of nimble subtlety and abundant heart.
She tries not to think about awards chatter too much. She welcomed a son in August, and, she says, "mostly my head these days is nappies and bedtime and that kind of thing."
"Those things are so out of your control," she adds. "If it happens, amazing. If it doesn't, well, this film is one of the best experiences I've had so far working. You have to just think about that and if anything else comes along, then it's gravy."
For her, portraying Ma was reward enough. "She's so comfortable in her own surroundings and such a force to be reckoned with, but has such fear about stepping into the unknown," Balfe says of the matriarch. "How can you be such a confident person but within this very small space?"
She's legitimately curious about the question. After time-traveling on Outlander and roaming the world, Balfe has gone deepest in a role that's closest to the heart.
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's December issue, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.