From Tydavnet to Tinseltown … IRISH ACTRESS and SUPERMODEL CAITRIONA BALFE charms PENNY McCORMICK with her style and substance …
With no hint of pretension, Caitriona Balfe, 37, says “If you’ve ever had any dreams of being in the entertainment business, Cannes is up there on a pedestal with the Oscars. It didn’t disappoint.” She continues, “Being with Jodie [Foster], George [Clooney] and Julia [Roberts] and having Bellinis in the Hotel du Cap was fun and glamorous – though I didn’t see as many films as I’d hoped.” Who can blame her; this being her debut on the Croisette for her recent role in Money Monster?
Cannes was also the location where her two careers (that of supermodel and actress) collided in perfect style. She wore a succession of Nicholas Ghesquière numbers on the red carpet. “I feel very fortunate to have worked with designers and got to know them; I knew Nicholas when he was at Balenciaga and at Louis Vuitton,” says Balfe in a way that belies an impressive backstory. She has, after all, walked for every designer from Chanel to Oscar de la Renta in her decade-long career as a model, having been discovered by Derek Daniels of Assets Modelling outside the Swan Shopping Centre in Rathmines when she was 18.
A willowy beauty with piercing blue eyes and an air of mystery, she so enchanted Narcisco Rodriguez he made her his muse, is a regular Dolce & Gabbana darling, got her wings as a Victoria’s Secret Angel and has appeared in advertising campaigns and on the covers of Vogue (US, French, German, Spanish and Italian editions), living in Milan, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Hamburg. In short, while Alison Canavan and Ali Dunne paved the way, Balfe has been the most successful Irish international model bar none. She deflects her success and hopes “Ireland’s First Supermodel” is not the engraving on her tombstone. “Modeling wasn’t a passion of mine so that made it get old kind of quickly. I was getting frustrated,” she said, though fashion remains an inevitable part of her job. She pops up on front rows and at premières and enjoys the red carpet preparation. “I work with stylist Tara Swennen (@taraswennen) who has a great eye. She’ll have a rack of dresses and I’ll go through them. I have a strong idea of what I want to wear.” Recent appearances have seen her in Burberry (at the Evening Standard Awards) and in Ferragamo while she wore a graceful Delpozo column gown for the recent Golden Globes where she was nominated a second time for Best Actress in a Television Series.
The first to acknowledge that she did not transition seamlessly from catwalk to silverscreen, “I just got very lucky. Hard work and luck are a huge part of my success,” Balfe is now reaping the rewards. “The Golden Globes was a fun night out for the pure spectacle. A standout moment was watching Meryl Streep’s iconic speech and bumping into people.” Balfe sounds refreshingly honest and unfazed by her famous friends. Those being Morgan Freeman and Woody Harrelson, with whom she worked in Now You See Me, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (in Escape Plan) as well as Michael Cane. Of the latter she says, “He was charming, a real gentleman; I was so thrilled to listen to his stories.” She adds, “Yes; in my earlier days I had very small roles and definitely felt intimidated but face to face, they are just fellow actors and I was conscious of absorbing their knowledge.”
While diehard fans of the hit Outlander series felt she was cheated at the Globes, Balfe has now acquired an impressive number of trophies for her feisty portrayal of time-travelling WW1 nurse Claire Beauchamp, the heroine of Diana Gabaldon’s fantasy romance novels, who finds herself in an enviable love triangle. Gongs have included two Saturn Awards, the Oscar Wilde Award, and an EWwy. “The People’s Choice award meant the most because it was the fans who voted and without them I wouldn’t have a job. The BAFTA was very special too; I was very surprised by that.” Currently filming Season 3, Balfe is now back in Glasgow and I’m talking to her after a long day; typically she spends 14 hours on set. “It’s nice to be back on this side of the world and even though it’s an American show, we’ve been accepted here. The proximity to home means I get to see my family (in Tydavent, Monaghan) more often.” She has a close relationship with her six siblings telling me how she discusses work life balance with her sisters, how her mother counsels “work is not the be all and end all,” and how when her family visited her on set they got bored really quickly “we shoot takes over and over again.”
Outlander has been described as a “feminist Game of Thrones” with plenty of nudity, violence and steamy bodice-ripping scenes. Balfe acknowledges, “Playing Claire has shown me how much I can handle. I think you filter everything through your own lens. Parts of my life experience have been beneficial and have informed the role. I’ve spent so much of my life living abroad and living alone that I’ve had to be adaptable and figure out how to survive,” Balfe expands. “Obviously I haven’t faced life or death scenarios but I’m resourceful like Claire.” When she’s not in full costume, she admits her style in Glasgow is “more North Face and woolly jumpers! I like to keep it simple. I’m into vintage clothing, jeans and the occasional Saint Laurent piece.”
What most of her fans want to find out, is if real life reflects the onscreen romance with her decidedly gorgeous co-star Sam Heughan, who plays a swash-buckling clansman warrior living in the Scottish highlands. Tobias Menzies (who plays her onscreen husband Frank Randall) is also easy on the eye. Balfe will only admit, “I feel very lucky we are all such good friends as we have such long days. I’ve heard horror stories from other actors where there hasn’t been a good atmosphere on set. Yes, we have chemistry and we’re very lucky.” It’s a tantalisingly ambiguous comment though it’s clear that Balfe’s ambitions transcend her current success. “My credit list is so short – I hope to have a long and varied career.” Citing Gena Rowlands, Rachel Weisz, Cate Blanchett and Diane Keaton as role models, she continues, “I’ve never filmed in Ireland, nor have I done theatre, both of which I’d love to do.” No doubt she will achieve these goals given her luminosity and tenacity. “It’s funny to think back when I watched television as a child, I was disgusted I wasn’t a child actor as it was always my dream. I just got very lucky.”
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