'Outlander': Caitriona Balfe's Journey To Claire

That's a wrap. Production on the first season of "Outlander" was completed in Scotland earlier this week. And, as the freshman series heads into its mid-season finale on Saturday night, it does so on a new high. Last week's wedding episode (where viewers watched Claire and Jamie say, "I do") brought in the highest ratings of the season.

So many things had to fall into place to make the drama's initial roll out a success – from producers who loved, understood and were passionate about bringing a story Diana Gabaldon wrote more than two decades ago to life, to finding two captivating leading men. But undoubtedly at the center of it was finding the right woman to play Claire, something that proved to be no easy task.

That search took months. Four months after Sam Heughan was locked in as Jamie (the first actor cast on "Outlander"), and not long before production was set to begin, Caitriona Balfe, an Irish actress based in Los Angeles, walked into her audition. "We knew from the second that she came in to test and she left the room that she was the one. She had to play Claire Randall," Sam previously told Access Hollywood.

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As the Season 1 episodes have debuted week after week on Starz, Caitriona has been spellbinding to watch as Claire, bringing a vitality, passion and an unmistakable strength to her performance as the 1940s combat nurse trying to survive, keep up hope and figure out her heart in 1743 Scotland. The character of Claire ranks up there alongside television's meatiest female roles, like Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison on "Homeland" and Julianna Margulies' Alicia on "The Good Wife."

By Hollywood standards, Caitriona is still somewhat of a newcomer, but her acting roots are deep.

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"I just think it was something that I just always wanted to do. I mean, as a little kid... my parents [tease] me about it now, but I used to go 'round the house doing Margaret Thatcher impressions," Caitriona laughed as she spoke to Access Hollywood on the phone from Scotland, while production on Season 1 was still in full swing.

Growing up around Monaghan, Ireland, Caitriona had acting opportunities, but not always as the leading lady.

"I grew up kind of in the countryside, outside of a small town, so there wasn't a huge amount of that kind of stuff, but we had a small youth theater group that I was in since I was, I think 7 or 8. I think the first role I ever played was Mr. Bumble in a production of 'Oliver,'" Caitriona laughed, as she recalled taking on the character who Oliver approaches with the famous line, "Please, sir, I want some more."

"I do remember having a pillow shoved down a big coat to make me have a big fat belly," the now statuesque actress added of how she transformed into the burly male part as a youth.

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But, while studying acting in Dublin a few years later, an opportunity came up – to model – and she couldn't turn it down.

"I was studying theater, so the original plan was always to be an actress, and then, when I got scouted, they kind of offered me [the opportunity] to go to Paris, and you know, I was kind of looking at another year of exams in Dublin, studying or I could've gone to Paris, so I chose Paris. And then it started this whole other career for me that I ended up doing for about 10 years, but, you know, it was never a passion of mine, so I think it was always the plan to get back to acting at some point. It just took a little longer than I had anticipated," she said.

That decade though, provided her with a wealth of opportunities, including magazine covers, fashion shoots, catwalks and the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show runway.

"Most of the girls who do it are Brazilian bombshells and all very tanned and va va voom, and I think I was a sort of a pasty, pale little Irish girl, but it was really fun. ... It was a huge kind of extravaganza. There was like, just so much press and so much kind of hoopla around it, but... I was working with a bunch of girls that I did shows with sort of regularly, so it was kind of nice," she recalled. "It was sort of all of us as friends doing this big kind of spectacle, but it was also a bit nerve wracking because I wasn't used to kind of walking down the runway in just small lingerie so..."

One has to exude confidence in modeling campaigns and on the catwalk, but returning to acting was something Caitriona said she worried about.

"When I took time out and was modeling, it was kind of a tough decision to figure out if I could go back to it and if I was any good, so that was kind of scary, but I started taking classes in New York first, and it seemed to -- it was just what I loved doing and it made me really happy, so I kind of felt like that was the only option, so I moved to LA and then, yeah, started doing it full time," she said.

Before "Outlander," Caitriona took part in two pilot seasons, co-starred in a web series ("H+"), had small roles in films like "Super 8" and "Now You See Me" (she played the girlfriend of the illusionists' benefactor), and a bigger part in 2013's "Escape Plan," with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Those experiences, her decade of traveling as a model, and her small town roots all helped shape her into not just the right actress to play Claire Beauchamp/Randall/Fraser, but someone with the maturity to carry this kind of show.

"I believe that things happen when they're supposed to and especially in my twenties, when I was modeling, I mean, I don't know if I would have had the maturity – it's a big responsibility and it's a lot of work as an actor. There's a lot of money on the line, you know, and people expect you to show up on time and know all of your stuff, and you have to bring so much life to characters to really do them justice, and I don't know that I had the maturity to do that in my twenties and I'm kind of glad that I got to sort of spend that time doing another career," she said. "It was equally a tough job, but I got to travel and build up enough life experience so that, I think, when I got this opportunity, I was very ready for it, you know?"

A tough job and a big one.

"It's kind of unusual, this job, because so much of it is told through Claire's perspective and I think it's unusual to have a show where you have kind of one actor who's predominantly in every scene. So there's a responsibility that comes with that just because you're on set all the time and you have to – I mean, I hope that I set a good tone on set and as much as you need the crew to rally you, you also to have to be there to rally the crew sometimes," she explained. "But I think that's one of the great things about this job is that it's really shown me that I can step up to the plate and do something like this and it's been a really incredible experience."

And she impresses her producer daily.

"I have like enormous amounts of praise and admiration for Caitriona," Ronald D. Moore told Access earlier this week ahead of the final cut on Season 1. "I think the show literally lives and dies on her performance in year one and she's a trooper. She's been in every scene, every day, which is an enormously taxing job and it's hard to even emphasize how much fatigue and difficulty goes along with being [in] every scene, every day on a show like this, out in the elements, every day, having to learn lines, come and do it again the next day. The rest of the cast comes and goes and Caitriona was there day after day after day and she was always the one on the set cracking jokes, and she's always on target in every scene. She has an intention, you can watch her think, she's just – she's amazing. She never lets us down and you know, she is the show."

Caitriona's earliest audience and supporters – her family – are proud to see her thriving as an actress.

"My parents have come to set. .. They came and visited when we were up at Abbey Moor and I think they had a really great time, and my sister has been over with her kids and they got to see it, which is quite funny because the first 15 minutes they were very excited and then they realized how boring film sets are when you're not actually doing anything," she laughs. "But, yeah, everyone's just really happy and very proud. They've seen me kind of take a chance and sort of move to LA and start from the bottom... start from scratch again and I think they're all just really happy that it sort of has worked out."

WATCH: The 'Outlander' Cast Share Their First Impressions Of Each Other

A little over a year ago, Caitriona was waiting to hear back about two roles she was up for.

"You get your hopes up and you sort of want to be in these shows, but I always think that you get the job that you're supposed to," she told Access. "You know, it's funny, I'd been up for another job the same week I was up for 'Outlander,' and we were trying to figure out which was going to go first, and I got the job that I was supposed to get, I believe, and I'm very happy that I did."

And so are we.

"Outlander's" mid-season finale airs Saturday night at 9 PM on Starz. The show will return for the second half of Season 1 on April 4, 2015.

-- Jolie Lash

 

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