Caitriona Balfe Channels Her Mother’s Authentic Irish Experience In ‘Belfast’: “I Value So Highly What My Mum Went Through, And How Strong She Is”
Beloved for her role in Starz television series Outlander, Caitriona Balfe is not a total stranger to the big screen. Her turn opposite Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari was certainly noticed, but it’s only now, with Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, that she’s been given the chance to really show off her big screen chops alongside Dame Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds and Jamie Dornan. A fictionized memoir, Belfast follows Buddy (Jude Hill), growing up during the onset of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Balfe, as Ma, combines the heart and strength of home. Here, she recalls her own Irish childhood and how she implemented Branagh’s vision.
DEADLINE: I am so thrilled to see you in this meaty role. How did it feel for you, stepping into this?
CAITRIONA BALFE: I mean, it’s like a gift, it really is. I feel like I haven’t really had an opportunity in film. I’ve done so few of them and you’re always trying to get something good to do. I feel like with Ford v Ferrari I got a great role. But again, it was quite a small one, but that was the first time I felt like I really got to do something in a film properly. I feel like with this, with the role of Ma, she just felt very familiar to me. The minute I read the script, I felt like I understood her, like I knew her. And aside from the fact that it’s the most beautiful story, and all of the people who were involved, and the fact that Kenneth Branagh had written it and was directing it, as a role, the fact that she was Irish, that I would get to do something Irish, it all just felt really, really special, like a gift.
DEADLINE: You grew up closer to Dublin, right? In the countryside?
BALFE: I grew up right on the border. I was born in Dublin, but where I grew up, it’s very far north. It’s a very different experience. I think being in Belfast, being in the middle of The Troubles, is a very, very unique thing. But being from the border is also a very unique thing, because you feel that presence in a different way. As a kid, we were constantly going in and out of it. So, especially in the ’80s, for some reason, the Irish pound was stronger, I think. I don’t know how it works really, with the currencies. But stronger than the pound sterling. So, everybody in that border region would go shopping in the north. And then in the ’90s, it sort of flipped. And everybody in the border region in the north would come shopping in our town. So, there’s always a seesaw, I think, in border counties. Because of that though, from a very young age, it was very normal for us to go through these British army checkpoints. And it’s not something you sort of think about until much later on, about how bizarre that was. It’d be all galvanized sidings, and soldiers with machine guns, and helmets, and camo. There would be those big crow’s nests, and they would helicopter the soldiers in and out. And so, you’re very aware of the conflict.
DEADLINE: In terms of the accent, regionally, it’s a little different. So, how did you get your head into that?
BALFE: It’s such a fun accent to do. For other people who aren’t from the U.K. or from Ireland, the fact that accents change so drastically every 15 miles, is maybe kind of hard to understand. But definitely, the Monaghan accent is so different to the Belfast accent… Occasionally, there’d be words here or there that Ken would be like, “I think it’s not that. It’s this.” So, I mean, you are surrounded by people from Belfast on that set anyway, so it was very easy to stay in it.
DEADLINE: Did this role bring to mind your own mum? Your grandma?
BALFE: Well, I grew up in the country, so we didn’t have that street feel of everybody being so close. But my grandma’s house, we would go down there. Basically, when I was born, my mum lived very close to all her sisters and everything. And because things were getting so hot on the border, my dad, because he was a Garda Sergeant, got transferred there. So, the idea of my mum leaving all her sisters, and that close-knit community, and that support system, and moving to an area where police were not welcomed. Garda sergeants were not welcomed. Their families were not welcomed for the most part.
I understood a lot why Ma would be so scared of that in the film, why she would be scared about leaving and not being welcomed in a place. Because I saw firsthand, my own mum. I remember one of my first memories is somebody coming to our front door, and my dad might have arrested her husband or something like that. But she knocked on our door just to tell my mum, in no uncertain terms, how unwelcomed we were, and we should go back to where we came from.
I think I value so highly what my mum went through, and how strong she is, and how she raised all of us. My dad was really busy on the border, for years he was working insane hours. And my mum was the one who held down the fort, and she cooked every meal, she did all the cleaning, she washed every nappy by hand for years. I am in so much awe, now especially, because I understand how bloody difficult it is to look after a kid.
DEADLINE: Because you’ve recently had a baby. Congratulations.
BALFE: Thank you. But even before that, I think it’s only as you get older in life that you look back and you really appreciate what your parents have done for you, and the sacrifices that they’ve made. So, Ken also, in the script, has written about his parents, or this version of his parents with such empathy and such compassion. So of course, I thought of my mum for Ma. I thought of my grandmother for when all of us cousins would be down there, running around, and that feeling of a home, and a community, and all of those things. And I understand, having left, and having never really put down roots, proper roots since, at least physically. I understand that idea that Ken has of that being the last time that you remember of life being so certain.
DEADLINE: Tell me about working with Jude Hill, who plays Buddy so naturally, he’s incredible.
BALFE: I mean, I think I’m just going to be so sad when we stop this little train that we’re on, and I don’t get to see him as frequently. He’s such a special kid, he really is. In life, he’s a special kid. As an actor, he’s evidently, incredibly, naturally talented. There is something so wonderful about how he was able to give that performance. I mean, Ken, obviously, is the most amazing director, and saw something in him, and was able to shepherd him through it. But it has to be there. It has to be within someone to be able to give it. And Jude, he’s just so natural, and was so prepared every day, he never complained. He was on set every single day. This film really rests on his shoulders. And when he wasn’t shooting, he was dragged straight into tutoring. And that’s the only time you would ever hear any complaints. It was when he would have to go to school, he was like, “I don’t want to.” But it was a huge ask of any kid, and he just took it all in his stride, and it was incredible to watch.
DEADLINE: Tell me about shooting that really fun, upbeat music scene with people singing and dancing despite The Troubles, and what it meant to you in terms of representing your Irish heritage?
BALFE: Well, life goes on in any place with civil unrest, or civil war, whatever term you want to use. Life doesn’t stop. And I think, especially in Ireland, you go to any funeral, any wake, and inevitably, it ends up in some sort of singsong. It’s usually either a song and a dance, or a fight. Or both, and all at the same time. And Ken really wanted to show how the tragedy and exuberance can live side by side, and sometimes on top of each other. And especially for Ma and Pa (Dornan) this moment was so needed in their relationship, because I think you really feel the stresses on that marriage are starting to really pull it apart. And they needed that reminder that, yes, life is getting in the way, and there’s stresses of finance, and there’s stresses of separation. But underneath it all, there’s a deep and everlasting love.
DEADLINE: Well put, given that the song Jamie sings in that scene is “Everlasting Love”.
BALFE: I sort of walked myself into that one. It wasn’t planned, but it had to be done.
So, we’d been shooting for quite a few weeks where it was just really the core cast. It was like all of Judi’s stuff pretty much was blocked at the top of the shooting schedule as well. Because I think we were all concerned that we didn’t want to put her at any further risk of exposure to COVID than we had to. So, we’d been shooting all of the family stuff up front. And then, this was the day where we had everybody. And I think initially, everyone was kind of nervous. It was like, “This many people under a roof.” But then, once we started, it did have that party atmosphere. Because I don’t think anybody had been around that many people in months and months. And it felt so joyous, and it felt so freeing. And aside from the absolute fear that we had, it felt so wonderful and it’s so romantic.
There’s that moment when he starts [singing], and you see Ma and she’s looking at him being like, “What are you doing? Where are you going with this?” And then, she just can’t help but get swept up in it, and be swept off her feet, literally. And it’s fun. Who doesn’t love to get swung around a room?
DEADLINE: Apparently, Jamie said he wasn’t really a dancer, but was actually secretly really good at it?
BALFE: Well, that’s thing. He would struggle in rehearsal. Whereas, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. No, I got this stuff.” But I have a weird thing in my brain where I can memorize any lines absolutely fine. But there’s something about when you put things to music. The disconnect. Just like I get caught up in the melody, and then I forget lyrics, and I forget beats. So, we would rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse, and he would be moaning and saying, “I’m never going to get this. I’m never going to get this.” Then on the day, absolutely knocked it out of the park. And I would be like, “Oh, no. I’m fine. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good.” And on the day, completely fucked it up so many times.
DEADLINE: Working with Judi Dench, did you have a proper ‘what is happening’ moment?
BALFE: I’m still having it, so I haven’t stopped. And I feel terrible because there’s nothing worse, I think, when you meet somebody, and someone’s going, “Oh my
God.” But I can’t help it.
They broke the mold when she came along. There’s just a radiance that comes from her. And yet, she’s so mischievous. Watching her and Jude, they were just like… They’d chat and you could just see, there’s just mischief going on. It’s just such a brilliant thing to watch. One of our early scenes together is the scene where Judi and I are sitting on either side of the TV, and Ken just asked us to improv a bit. We had our lines that we had, but he was just like, “Try this, try that. Say whatever you want. Keep going. Just keep talking.” I mean, I still can’t believe I got to do that.
DEADLINE: You’re telling a version of Ken’s childhood, so what was that dynamic like with him, and working with him on something so personal?
BALFE: I mean, first of all, he was having such a blast. I mean, his enthusiasm and his joy about getting to tell this story the way he wanted, without any interference from anybody, it was infectious. And because of that, I think, we all just felt so grateful to be part of it, that you feel like we’re all in this to make this the best for him, when you’ve got a leader that you really believe in. So, everybody was like, “Oh, we have to make this the best it can be for him.” Because he’s one of the loveliest, kindest, most patient people I’ve ever met, especially in this business, as a director. I think I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve worked with really amazing people. I’ve never really had a horror story.
Ken’s a very gentle soul. And I think it takes time for him to really open up to people. And so, it was a real privilege for him to open up to us and share so much of his personal life with us. And within that, you really see the gentle soul behind this kind of incredible force that he is. And as a director, I mean, he was amazing. He’s meticulous in his preparation. Our days were perfectly planned out, but never felt constrained, or anything like that. And because he’s an actor, he just has so much compassion and patience for you as an actor. He understands the process. He understands how tough it can be sometimes. So, watching him with Jude, just how gentle and patient he was. And then also with us, because sometimes we needed that too, it was really freeing. And it’s also, I think, watching him with his crew, it was one of the most lovely things. He works with his crew over and over again, so there’s a real loyalty there. There’s a real trust there. And I don’t think he suffers fools lightly. I think if you weren’t bringing your A game, and if you didn’t show up prepared, I don’t think he would appreciate that. But that’s also how I like to work.
It was a really smoothly run film, there was never any… It’s so common, there’s always a shouting match, at some stage on a film set, and somebody giving out about something. And there was none of that. It was just such a smooth run.
DEADLINE: I also wanted to touch on what’s happening in the upcoming new season of Outlander. After what happened to Claire last season, I’m wondering how she is coping. And you’re getting some new characters, aren’t you?
BALFE: I think what happened at the end of last season was so devastating and so tragic for Claire, that we do find her destabilized in a way that we never have before. I think Claire has always coped by compartmentalizing events, and putting things in a box, moving it to one side, moving on. To the point where, in previous seasons, there have been times I’m like, “What is she like? Is she Teflon?” Nothing ever really affects her. And I think that’s a product, partially, of her generation, but also her profession. And it’s always served her, that she’s been able to cope in that way. But this has sort of ruptured that. I feel like mentally and psychically, there was a rupture at the end of last season. And so, she has to figure out a new way of healing, of getting through it, with the help of her family. And so, I was very grateful that that was sort of already laid down partially by [author] Diana Gabaldon but also that the writers were interested in following her healing process too.
We do have new arrivals, the Christies. And their arrival and their story definitely interweaves with Claire’s journey. And it’s really great, tough stuff this season. It’s a truncated season. We are only doing eight episodes, but a lot of stuff happens, and it’s pretty heavy going, some of it. But I think it’s going to be really good. I mean, I’ve only seen one episode, so I’m not sure, because I haven’t seen them all. But again, we play stylistically with how things look for different episodes, which is also really interesting. I love when we do that. But I think it’s going to be a good one. I feel proud of the work we were able to do this season. At least I hope it looks as good as it felt.