Irish actor Caitriona Balfe is smiling and happy as she Zooms from London to talk about her new film Belfast. The reason for the Outlander star’s upbeat mood is the reception the film is receiving, as well as the experience she had making it.
Despite being set at the start of the Troubles in 1969 Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy-drama is told from the viewpoint of nine-year-old Buddy and manages to capture the joy and wonder of childhood against a backdrop of strife and tragedy, made all the more vivid viewed in hindsight. You will laugh and you will cry.
“When I saw the film I was in floods of tears,” says Balfe, “because, even though it's a very personal story to Ken, you can't help but think about your own life and your own family and your own experiences as someone who has also grown up in Ireland.”
Balfe plays Ma, mother to Buddy who is played brilliantly by newcomer and child actor Jude Hill, alongside Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Lara McDonnell, Ciaran Hinds, with music by Van Morrison. In cinemas this Friday [21 January 2022] the film premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in October and won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.
What does Balfe think are the themes of the film?
“Definitely family and love, and the innocence of childhood being destroyed or upended by external conflict. I left when I was 18, but I have such nostalgia looking back at my childhood and those years when you look at the world through eyes of wonder. I think that idea of the love of family and community and the innocence of childhood and what disrupts that are the themes of the film.”
The film flies its audience from a contemporary full colour Belfast over The Peace Wall into the black and white world of a lively, close-knit working class street in Belfast as the barricades go up in 1969.
Flashes of colour highlight memories of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Subbuteo, picnics and wooden swords, in contrast with machine guns and mobs as political and religious divisions that are meaningless to a child rip his community apart.
“Even though this is very much Ken's story, there's a universality to it that allows you to see your own. I definitely thought of my own mother in playing Ma. You have this very personal connection and it sort of doesn't feel like I'm doing Ken's mother; it's like I'm doing the mother that I know from this story.”
Growing up in County Monaghan in the 1980s and 1990s, the Troubles still cast a long shadow for Balfe.
“Monaghan is right on the Border and where I grew up in the country we’re only six miles from it. For most of my childhood the punt or Irish pound, was stronger than the pound sterling so we would go into the North to do our weekly shopping, through big army checkpoints with British soldiers with machine guns checking your car, and we had bomb scares in our town all the time, so it definitely felt very present and very real.”
Branagh’s own family left Ireland and he went on to find international fame with numerous hit films that range from Shakespeare adaptations to Dunkirk to Death on the Nile, but this is Branagh coming home, with his most personal film to date.
“I think it's very much a version of what he went through. He would talk as we were filming about his memories of when the barricades went up and it was great to have him there and absorb all this information without it feeling like he's telling you what to do. And Ken's brother and his sister made little cameos too so it just felt very personal to him, which was a really beautiful thing.”
Now that Balfe is a mother herself - she and music producer husband Tony Gill live in Glasgow with the baby they had last summer - did she find that gave her an insight into playing Ma?
“I don't really think so because I'm still trying to get him just to sleep and eat and to keep his nappies dry, that's where I'm at. So those bigger issues about safety haven't really landed as much. Obviously I'm desperate to keep him safe but we're still in early days with motherhood here,” she says and laughs.
“It wasn't exactly the plan to leave it so late, [Balfe was 41] but you know, I do love that I've been able to live a very full life. I'm not a planner, which is gonna probably come back to bite me on the butt now that I’ve got a kid, because I am realising a lot of child rearing is logistics and planning. But I just said yes to whatever opportunity presented itself and in doing so I've been really lucky that my life has been interesting and brought me to many cool places, so yeah, I'll take that with the disorganization, so.”
Working with Jude Hill, who was eight when the film was made, and teenager Lewis McAskie who plays his older brother Will saw Balfe and Dornan spending a lot of off set time with them as it was made during Covid, with filming in both Belfast and London.
“Jude is incredible. This is his very first role ever and it's such a mature performance. Both Jude and Lewis and their mothers are lovely and I spent an awful lot of time with them because we were all bubbled in the same hotel. It was summertime and sunny and Ken had crew and cast playing games of rounders or basketball so very quickly we all had this very familial relationship which I think really bleeds onto the screen. But Jude’s a wonder. Every single day he showed up to set, he was prepared, never complained, and you know the film rests on his shoulders. So proud of him.”
While Branagh’s family left Belfast, if Balfe had been in that position, would she have left?
“Leaving extended family, parents, sisters, brothers and friends, that’s a really difficult decision. It's difficult to say because it's hard to not have the perspective that this conflict continued for so long. I think knowing that, you would. To protect your children you would do something drastic.”
Balfe has been offered roles set in the Ireland of the Troubles before but this was the first she was drawn to.
“You feel such an emotional responsibility doing any project that has to do with the North, that you're not in any way romanticising any side of this ideology. That’s something I've always struggled with, when you get scripts that talk about the conflict because so often they look back with rose-tinted glasses about these kind of patriotic, brave men, and I don't always see it that way.
“I think what's so beautiful about Ken’s script is this is about the real people, and how it really affected families, and there's such a compassion there for that. I thought it was really important to speak to that, especially nowadays when there's a generation who forget what it was like or weren't around when the conflict was at its height, and there's that romantic notion of sort of fighting for a cause back in the ether which I think is really, really sad.”
Belfast is very much a story told from the viewpoint of a child and as such gives equal weight to a female narrative alongside the traditional male.
“Exactly,” says Balfe. “When I was doing my research - there's so much footage about Northern Ireland, so many interviews with women from various different points in the conflict - I would be just crying because those are my people. Those women. And you see how many lives were destroyed. These women were literally living in fear, because people were taking advantage of ideologies and stoking fear for power, money, insurance racketeering whatever it be, and the women were there ones generally who were left to pick up the pieces, whether they lost their sons, their husbands, their fathers, or they just had to watch children dying on the streets or were killed themselves.
“It's so tragic what happened, in such a little country, how we allowed that to happen. The tragedy of it sometimes is overwhelming.”
With the film’s UK release this week, it’s already attracted positive reviews and prizes and is tipped to be among the Oscar nominations with Jude Hill put forward in the Best Actor and Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan and Ciarán Hinds entered into the Best Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor categories.
“That's so far down the line,” says Balfe, “but being so successful at Toronto, that was a special award to get. I'm just happy that it's turned out as beautifully as it has and that it's getting the recognition it deserves because it’s shot so beautifully and the hard work and heart and soul that went into making it are second to none. I'm really glad everybody's work is getting noticed.”
Born in Dublin, Balfe grew up in a village in County Monaghan, close to the Border, and after school studied drama in Dublin. While collecting for charity at her local shops she was scouted by a model agent which launched her onto runways and in campaigns for big fashion brands including Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Burberry, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Armani and Chanel and onto the covers of Vogue and Elle. Acting was always her first love however, and after a decade in modeling, she returned to it in 2009, taking classes in LA then hitting the ground running amassing roles in Super 8 (2011), Now You See Me (2013), Escape Plan (2013), Jodie Foster’s Money Monster alongside George Clooney and Julia Roberts (2016), and Ford v. Ferrari (2019), with Christian Bale and Matt Damon, as she fits things in between Outlander in which she’s starred since 2014.
“Ford v Ferrari was incredible,” she says. “Most of my work was with Christian who, you know he's done a few things, he's known as an all right actor.” She laughs. “Christian’s amazing, and Matt Damon, they’re probably the finest actors of our generation… and it was a subject matter I love, Formula One. I love that kind of racing and sports movies so it was a really fun project for me. And I got to shoot in LA so it was grand.”
Along with Belfast and Outlander, much of Balfe’s work has been period drama but she’s up for doing something more up to date in the future.
“I would love to do something contemporary. It's just the way it’s worked out, though Money Monster was contemporary. I don't know why, maybe I just have an old looking face?”
She doesn’t. And period dramas also have a way of dealing with timeless issues despite being set in the past.
“I think they can be a really great tool for looking at things that are going on today without shoving it in people's faces. I think Belfast deals with some very contemporary issues. At the moment in the world there is a lot of divisiveness over really nothing and I think the reminder that your family and community and the love that's supposed to be there is so vital and important, it’s a message people need to hear again right now.”
Playing Ma was also an opportunity for Balfe to shake things up while she waited to film the next series of Outlander, the role for which she is best known. Starring as Claire Randall Fraser alongside Sam Heughan as Jamie in the Starz historical drama series, she has picked up multiple awards, including a British Academy Scotland Award, an Irish Film and Television Award, two People's Choice Awards, and three Saturn Awards as well as Critics' Choice Television Awards and four Golden Globe nominations.
“I love playing Claire and she has given me so much and been such a huge part of my life for so long. As an actor it's so lovely to be able to go and do something else and that makes you excited to go back.”
With the eight-episode series six about to hit our screens in March, and both Claire and Jamie traumatised by the events of season five, particularly Claire’s multiple rape, and the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) brewing, what can she tell us about what’s in store for the occupants of Fraser’s Ridge?
“It's a truncated but really packed season. There's a lot happening,” she says. “There's a lot of unraveling for a lot of characters, and for me personally for Claire. She’s always got through every tragedy or situation she's found herself in, in some ways unscathed. I think very much due to her doctor's training and medical career she's been able to compartmentalize things and go on no matter what. But what happened to her at the end of season five has really destabilized her and we see her unravel in a way we've never seen before. For me that was really interesting, to approach her in a very different way.”
“It’s a process of healing after that horrible attack. It would have been remiss to not explore that and see her come through. She's a strong woman so ultimately I think she will overcome it all but at the same time she's not Teflon, she has to go through the process, and for her that is the hardest lesson this season. She's not somebody who's used to introspection and allowing herself to be as she might look at it, weak. But really it's broken. To allow herself to be that fragile and vulnerable is a really tough thing but it's something she has to learn and ultimately it will make her stronger.”
“Then we have this looming war on the horizon and Jamie is really struggling, walking a tightrope between supporting the British enough that he doesn't fall foul of them, but knowing they're going to lose this war ultimately and that at some point he has to switch allegiance. So, it's really interesting in terms of his character. And we have new characters that come on the Ridge that really upend things as well.”
Filming on season seven, which will be 16 episodes based on Diana Gabaldon’s An Echo in the Bone, is due to start soon at the studio in Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, and at locations all over Scotland doubling for North Carolina.
“Scotland is our home and we have this great studio where a lot of money has been invested into the facilities, and our Scottish crew are amazing, so we will definitely be back.”
For Balfe this means being at home in Glasgow with her focus very much back on the hit series.
“We have a very long season to film so that's going to take up for the best part of a year. So that will really dictate what else is possible to do. But we never know. There might be time to kind of sneak in something else. We'll see.”
BELFAST is released by Universal Pictures in UK cinemas on Friday [21 January, 2022].
The new season of Outlander will be on STARZPLAY from 6 March, 2022.
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