'Outlander': Caitriona Balfe on Sex, Violence and Time Travel

"There's a bad version of our shows where it's very much a bodice ripper," says star of popular cable-TV romance, "and none of us want to make that."

Caitriona Balfe, star of the popular historical drama/time-traveling romance series 'Outlander.' Credit: Sony Pictures/Starz

At first glance, the premise behind Outlander — the hour-long series now in its second season on Starz — sounds kind of ridiculous. A married World War II nurse time travels back to mid-1700s Scotland, falls in love with a rugged, dashing Highland warrior and becomes involved with the Jacobite uprising against the British? Huh? Based on the popular Diana Gabaldon book series — the first of which was released 25 years ago (and is still going) –  there's far more to this fantastical time-traveling historical bodice ripper than kilts and corsets. Full of bold, erotic and unflinching storytelling, it's easily one of the most substantive guilty pleasures on television.

And it hasn't been without a little controversy. For starters, the violence easily rivals that of Game of Thrones – at one point, the show's Scottish hero, Jamie Fraser, takes a whipping so brutal that his flesh peels away from his back. Plus there's the sex, and lots of it; a first-season episode featured not one, not two, but three extensive hot-and-heavy scenes, the first of which featured its era-hopping heroine Claire Randall Fraser deflowering her hunky Highlander on their wedding night. Gird your loins, for they will be on fire.

At the center of it all is Irish actress Caitriona Balfe, who's performance as Fraser is radiant, brave, beguiling, and more than deserving of her Golden Globe nomination. Now midway through Outlander's second season (with at least two more confirmed seasons on the way), Rolling Stone chatted with the breakout star about the show's success, its bold approach to sex and violence – including a particularly notorious, horrific rape scene — and whether trying to stop history from unfolding is such a great idea.

Were you a fan of the Diana Gabaldon series before you started working on the show?
When I first got the audition, I didn't even know about the books. I had two scenes sent to me, and you don't really get full context. But as soon as I found out that I was going to be testing, I went out to my local bookstore in L.A., Book Soup, and grabbed a copy of the first novel; the guy at the counter was like, "Oh, you know they're going to make a TV show out of this." And I was like "Oh really?" It was quite a lucky omen.

What did you think of Claire?
She's one of those great female characters — she's funny, she's kind of stubborn, she's hot-headed but she's also very empathetic, very intelligent. She just felt like a very well-rounded, fully-formed character. It felt like it would be a really exciting experience to portray her.

The book series has been around for 25 years and has a pretty diehard fanbase.
I think if I had been aware of the magnitude of the fanbase and all of their expectations, I would have probably stumbled or been a little overwhelmed by it all. It was nice to go into it not knowing — then my Twitter account started exploding.

"Sam [Heughan] and I fought to keep the [pregnant] belly bump in — because why don't you see that in a sex scene? Why should that be a taboo? You see so many boobs all over the bloody TV."

What have the reactions been like?
I think the initial reaction to my casting was like "Well, she's too tall, and she's too skinny, she doesn't have brown eyes and her hair's not curly!" The thing is, everyone has a subjective vision of what these characters are supposed to look like. When you're casting anything, hopefully they're looking for people who embody the character in an essence way rather than just the physical. But  once the show aired, the fans have have really transferred their love over from the book series to our show, which is fantastic.

Outlander has been called "feminist Game of Thrones" in that it has as much, if not more, violence and nudity, but avoids being exploitative even at its most brutal or unflinching — what do you make of that characterization?
I think our shows are very different, but I don't think we would have gotten a place on the air if hadn't been for that series opening the doors for genre shows and fantasy shows like ours. So in that context, thank you very much, Game of Thrones!

We never made a conscious decision to go out there and make a feminist show. But our source material is written by a woman, who is so accomplished and so feisty. Half of our writing room is female, and we try to get female directors when we can. And our heroine, the woman at the center of it all, Claire, she's quite a feisty woman too. So I think almost by default we have a feminist viewpoint. Ron [D. Moore, the show's creator] was adamant from our very first meeting that Claire is a sexual woman and that's a big part of her character — it's not something she shies away from. But if we're going to have sex on the show or violence, it's going to tell a story. It's going to be there for a reason. And we all fight very hard to make sure that it's kept that way. 

It's a great example of the impact a diverse staff can have on the quality and depth of the final product.
What you get is this great, balanced view of relationships, instead of a male-centric experience and viewpoint, where the female characters are just so thinly drawn and two-dimensional. So you never really get an honest look at what a male-female relationship is like on those shows. With Season Two, I think some people are like, "Where's all the sex?!" And it's like, well, we're telling a different story. We're not telling the story of two people falling in love and the lust of new passion — this is now a marriage.

What did you make of the episode where Jamie beats Claire for disobeying him?
In some ways, my job was easier – just the idea of a man beating Claire to punish her brings up such anger and indignation. So it was easy to channel what Claire feels. But Sam [Heughan, who plays Jamie] had to play this guy who just feels that he's doing what he's supposed to do. It's only when he sees how psychically wounded Claire is by his actions that he realizes that he needs to change his ideas and his opinions. You see that emotional evolution, how smart and emotionally intelligent he is — he's able to step outside the norms of his time and evolve.

Creators of period pieces tend to justify rampant misogyny in their storylines with "that's the way it was back then"...
I think there's a bad version, definitely, of shows like ours where it's very much a bodice ripper. The heroine, even though she's supposed to be strong, is still always this damsel in distress. None of us want to make that show.

The thing about fantasy is that you have these wonderful, wide parameters within which to explore great themes — but the difficulty is making it believable. To get people really engaged, you also have to bring it down to the ground and make it as truthful and as honest as possible. I always feel that people are very much as they were — you know, we haven't evolved that much as human beings. We still have the same dreams and hopes and fears and wants. Even though we've evolved technologically or in an industrial way, our human spirit is quite similar.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the show is the show's healthy attitude and appetite for sex that prioritizes female pleasure. And there's scene where Jamie and a pregnant Claire have sex ...
Yeah, we loved that scene! Sam and I fought to keep the belly bump in — I think there was some worry about whether or not you could see the prosthetic — because yeah, you don't see that! And why don't you see that in a sex scene? Why should that be a taboo? You see so many boobs all over the bloody TV. It's the one safe space for them in this time where they're kind of estranged from each other, and they've been struggling with their intimacy — and the fact that this is what brings them together, this unit of a family that they've become … I think it's a very sexy thing. 

What's your perspective on the series' rape scenes? Notably the one between Jamie and Black Jack ...
Those scenes are very hard to watch. I've only seen each of them once ... obviously, they're quite intense. But I also feel that they were justified — you need to see how broken Jamie is and the way that Black Jack [played by Tobias Menzies] was able to poison the one safe space in his heart and his soul, which is his relationship with Claire. Jamie is a man who can take a physical beating; he has many times. Black Jack's perversion is that he wants to break Jamie's spirit. So many people were like, "Oh is he gay?" No! It's not about that – he's a sadist. It's all about power.

And then there's the aftermath.
The book had a very different timeline than where we started Season Two, where it had been a long time after Jamie and Claire had left Scotland and they were having lots of sex again. Everyone on the show was like, No, we can't do that. We need to allow him time to heal from this. It's impossible for him to be intimate, because Black Jack has poisoned that sanctuary for him. I thought Sam did such a beautiful job portraying that PTSD.

Rape is not an exclusively female problem. This is something that happens to men and women, boys and girls, and it's horrific. It's a dangerous thing when you incorporate rape into any kind of entertainment, because you don't want to sensationalize it in any way or form. But sometimes by showing stuff like that, what you can do is provide a forum for a conversation about it and maybe help some people understand it a little better. I think everyone on our show tried to deal with it with the sensitivity that it deserved — it wasn't entered into lightly at all.

Another "hot button" issue that shows up in Outlander is that of abortion — but unlike every other TV show, it hasn't been used as a primary plot point or been at the center of drama. It's merely integrated into the show as a fact of life. Was that approach purposeful?
Claire was a nurse in the 1940s during war time — that's something she probably came across multiple times. I do think women throughout the ages have always dealt with the problem of unwanted pregnancies, whether or not they were "allowed" to do anything about it. One of the great emancipations of women was having control over our own reproductive rights, be it with birth control or abortion. We saw it being talked about in Season One, where the character Geillis (played by Lotte Verbeek) talked about a certain herb or berry that can bring on "your flux," and then again in this season where Louise asks Claire for help. We should look at abortion in a non-hysterical, non-religious way because it's often a practical solution.

The time-traveling aspect of the series is almost an afterthought until the second season, when Claire and Jamie charge head first into trying to change the future and save the Scots. Neither seems particularly concerned about the butterfly effect of altering history — until Claire realizes that if Jamie kills Black Jack before a certain date, her future husband Frank will never be born ...
Owww, my brain hurts! [Laughs] That's the beauty of fiction. Diana created this world where these time travel rules apply only in this dimension and therefore don't have to be logical. In Season One, Claire is thrust into this new world and everything happens so fast and so furiously that she doesn't really have time to absorb any of the events. She's kind of this reactionary character, so it's only at the end when their whole existence is in peril that she then goes "Wait a minute — maybe we can change time!" The girl has gone in blind, what can I say? We've got to cut her some slack!