Few women on television have been through more than Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser. A nurse who was in the thick of it during World War 2, Claire was re-connecting with her husband, Frank, in post-war Scotland when she was transported back to the 18th century via a circle of mystical stones.
The ever-practical Claire made herself useful among the clans of Scotland and connected deeply with Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), whom she eventually married. The war between Scotland and England drove the couple to France, and in the second season of the Starz drama, Claire and Jamie mixed with the high society of Paris while enduring a bruising series of personal and political setbacks. The end of the second season saw them back in Scotland as a defining battle loomed, and then separated when Claire returned to her own time — without her beloved Jamie.
Caitriona Balfe’s unerring ability to communicate Claire’s complex inner life while the character went through all those changes is one reason the lush drama has been such a hit. Balfe talked to Variety about what it was like to take on such a complicated and challenging role as a newcomer to television, what stuck with her most about Season Two, and what’s to come for Claire and the people she loves.
With this role, at times it almost seems like you’re not really just playing one part or appearing in one show — it’s almost like you’re doing multiple shows, because there are so many timelines and the settings can be so different. Does it ever feel that way for you?
I mean, definitely, some days it can be a little confusing. I think when we came back to Season Two and we were in Paris, and we had all of the Parisian sets and it was a whole new set of characters, it was quite jarring in the beginning. Essentially your character remains the same, even though they go through such different situations, and you have Claire with Frank in the ’40s and then she’s with Jamie and then she goes back, so it can be quite confusing in some ways. But I’ve always thought that Claire retains her center, no matter where she is, and that’s one of the things I love about the character.
How would you describe that center?
For me, Claire is such a survivor. It doesn’t matter where she ends up or what has happened to her, she finds a way to get on with her life and make it something great. That’s what I love about her. In Season One, where she first goes through the stones and arrives in this dangerous and dirty place, she doesn’t just cower and fall down and get destroyed. She finds her place and she finds a way to make herself useful, and she finds a way to enjoy herself and then to create a life.
And again, when she comes back into the 20th century, even though she’s lost the love of her life (as far as she knows), she doesn’t just disintegrate. She gets herself together, and she becomes a surgeon in a time when there were very few female doctors. So it’s just that strength that she has inside — that no matter what befalls her, she will find a way to [draw on] the best of herself.
As you play her, have you learned from her? Have you taken any of that from the character as you go through this experience with her?
I think you can’t help doing that, in some ways. This whole experience and this whole journey — I mean, it was something that was incredibly new for me. I’d never done any TV before, and any job I’d had before, they were small parts. I think the longest I’ve ever been on anything was five weeks on an indie film. So you don’t go through an experience like this without growing personally in an enormous capacity. But I do think playing someone who is so resilient and who has such a reserve of strength — it makes you examine yourself and it makes you, I think, aware of strengths that you weren’t necessarily sure that you had before.
When you first took on the role, how far had you read? I think my question really is, how much did you have a sense of what you were taking on?
I had no idea. Before I tested, I’d read the first book and when you’re reading it and it’s just this idea that maybe you might do well in the audition — you’re not really thinking in terms of the reality of filming what you’re reading. What I was struck by was how exciting it was, and all of these different experiences this woman goes through. “Imagine, you’d be riding horses and running and there’s action and there’s heartbreak and there’s love!” It just seemed like an amazing role.
But in terms of what that entails to film and what that was going to mean — I had no idea, and I think ignorance is definitely bliss when it comes to that. Because for the first five or six months, I was running on sheer adrenaline. We were shooting 11-day fortnights, which is something that they sometimes do over here. So you’re shooting five days on, two days off, six days on, then one day off, and then back into it. And we were outside for most of it. It was cold. It was wet. I was wearing barely anything. But because you don’t know what the next week is going to be looking like, you just keep going, and it was fun and it was exciting, so that definitely carried me through those times.
Scotland is amazing, but there’s a particular kind of cold, wet damp there that just gets into your soul.
It just gets into your soul and it doesn’t leave.
I have memories of being cold in Scotland where I just thought, “I love this place and these people, but I will never be warm again.”
A long hot bath is the only thing that will cure that. Believe me.
So much happened to Claire in Season Two — what were some of the scenes that for you, had the most resonance, or the ones that really stood out for you?
In the first half of the season, definitely losing her child was probably the huge defining moment in Claire’s life. It’s such a catastrophic event for her personally, but for her and Jamie, there is also so much unease between the two of them. The first half of that season, they’re so apart and they’re so distant, and they’re struggling to try and find that bond and that connection that they had. The one thing that did sort of bring them together was that pregnancy and this potential life that they were bringing into the world.
And then for them to have lost that — it was one of those moments where, this couple may not survive that. And for Claire personally, as a woman who lost her child, especially in such a late-term miscarriage, it was catastrophic. [“Outlander” writer] Toni Graphia wrote one of the most beautiful scripts. When I first got that script, I was sobbing reading it, and I emailed her straightaway, and I was like, “What have you done to me?” There were such powerful themes to read and then to film.
And then to have a lot of women who had seen the show reach out afterwards and say how it had spoken to their own experience or it had touched them in a way, because they’d gone through something similar — that was an incredible thing to be a part of and it was very humbling. And also in Season Two, we also had the wonderful scenes with the PTSD, where the writing again was incredible. Matt [Roberts] wrote that.
For me as an actor, one of the more interesting and great challenges was then jumping forward 20 years and playing 1960s Claire. We were filming that alongside a lot of the lead-up to the Battle of Culloden and the goodbye to Jamie. That was a fantastic script too, and it was pretty challenging as an actor to go through that. But it’s the kind of material you just hope to get, and I felt very lucky.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the 1968 version Claire in the Season Two finale. How did you approach taking that on? She’s had more experience, she’s basically had the love of her life taken away from her. She’s built this new life and as you said, she’s been very successful. But I think you did a great job of conveying that underneath, there was still a lot of unprocessed emotion and heartbreak.
Thank you. With Claire, I feel part of her ability to forge ahead and be strong and make the best of any situation is an ability to compartmentalize. For her to be able to put her love for Jamie and that experience in a box — she didn’t have the ability to talk about it, to share it with anybody. It was a side of her that, in many ways, she shelved, and then threw herself full force into her career and raising her daughter. And that comes with a price.
I was interested in finding how that affects her, and what is it to have been such a passionate woman in terms of romance and sexuality, and to have shelve that side of yourself for 20 years. The looseness that I feel that she has when she’s back with Jamie, and that that kind of elemental side of her, when you see her out in the wild and she just fits in that countryside, and you can feel that she’s part of the earth in that way, I wanted to sort of [tamp down] that side of her. There’s a stillness, and she’s much more closed off than we’ve maybe seen her before.
But the research that I was doing for her was fun. I watched some of my favorite actresses. I watch films that they’ve done early on in their careers, and then later on, and it’s interesting to see – we change, but we don’t. We think we change so much, but it’s about noticing those little things about how people carry themselves, or what edges get smoothed out or what remains. It was also trying to cram that in a very short space of time, but that’s what I was interested in finding for her.
Are you in production for Season Three, and if so, what has that been like so far?
We’re almost halfway through [Season Three]. It’s been great. Obviously Sam [Heughan] and I — our storylines are quite separate for the first few episodes, so I’ve been filming a lot with Tobias [Menzies] and Sophie [Skelton]. And it’s been quite interesting. We’re trying to tell sort of vignettes of a person’s life over the space of 20 years, and it’s been really fun. But I think we’re all ready to get back to the Scottish Claire of it all.
And at some point, you get to trade the damp but beautiful Highlands for some adventure in Jamaica, is that right?
Yes, South Africa, which will be standing in for Jamaica. We go there next year, so that will be interesting. I don’t know what all of us are going to do when we have sunshine on tap.