Caitriona Balfe is best known for playing gutsy time traveller Claire Fraser in Outlander. The historical series is set to return with its fifth season next year, which fans are impatiently counting down the days to. But, in the meantime, Balfe has been busy taking on a new role – and it’s a far cry from the billow and breeze, island and seas of Outlander.
Le Mans ’66 is the new car racing movie that tells the story of racing driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and car designer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon). It’s a triumphant yet bittersweet real-life tale of how the friends overcame personal demons to become icons in the racing world. It’s also a very male dominated film, with only one listed female actor role.
Balfe plays Mollie Miles, who is married to Ken. Although her role is supportive, she is very much an equal partner in the relationship, with some strong scenes showing her defiance against the 60s housewife stereotype (one of which involves Molly terrifying Ken by driving his car at high speed).
But it definitely wasn’t a shared passion for motors that drew Balfe to the role…
The real reason Caitriona Balfe took on the role of Mollie Miles
“I actually didn’t start driving myself until I was 30!” the actor tells Stylist ahead of the film’s release. “And I can’t say I actually know very much about cars. But I love sports films and I always have, and I think that they can tell you something about the human spirit and human endeavour.”
She’s right: the film did have me (a cyclist who doesn’t possess a driving licence) internally whooping and cheering for Ken during his Le Mans race towards the end of the film. And, as the matriarch figure in the story, Balfe’s character is key in emphasising how much that race affected Ken’s family.
How Caitriona Balfe researched her role in Le Mans ‘66
“One of the great things I saw while doing my research was a documentary about Ferrari in the 50s and 60s when it had real dominance,” Balfe explains, when talking about research for the role.
“It showed how many young drivers had died in that decade when Enzo Ferrari was really pushing the car to its limits,” she continues. “One of the beautiful things about the documentary was that it had a lot of interviews with the girlfriends and the wives of these drivers who had died.
“It was just so striking that at that time it was just such a common occurrence that women had to put their ambitions aside. Whatever their dreams were, whatever their hopes were, once you got married or once you started going out with somebody, they were a secondary thought and you had to put that aside to facilitate the ambitions of the men that you’d attach your life to.”
Caitriona Balfe’s own inspirational story about being a 60s housewife
Balfe also mentions her own mother when talking about how she chose to prepare for this specific role, saying: “My mum was a stay at home mum, she was and is amazing – and she was 60 when she finally went and did a psychology course. A lot of women at that time had to suppress a lot of themselves in a professional way just to facilitate their families.”
She adds: “So I think that it was really important to show the teamwork of Mollie and Ken’s marriage. Although, in many ways, this is a story about Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, Mollie was the backbone of that family and that marriage.”
Caitriona Balfe takes on another new accent
The most nerve-wracking thing about this new role, according to Balfe, was the accent. Outlander fans will be familiar with her character Claire’s Oxfordshire accent, and we’ve never seen her in a role where she speaks in her native Irish tones. She’s clearly a master of tongues, so why did she find the northern England one in the film particularly tricky?
“I think that was the thing I was the most nervous about, she reveals (after I tell her that, as a Leeds girl: I approve). “They went back and forth on what they wanted us to do. They’re a very working-class family, but when I spoke with the real Peter Miles, he said that his mother Mollie used to put on quite a posh accent – it would get much posher depending on who she was talking to.
“So we sort of decided on this more middle-class accent of the time. It’s one thing presenting that to the American audience but when you come home to the UK you’re a bit like ‘oh God!’. It’s definitely going to be under worse scrutiny.”
Watch the trailer for Le Mans ‘66
Caitriona Balfe reveals the one special place she hasn’t filmed in
As being Irish is part of Balfe’s identity, the actor also revealed that she’d love to film in Ireland, and in a role that uses her natural accent.
“I’d love to work in Ireland,” she says. “I’ve never actually done a job there. I left Ireland when I was 18, but it would be great to go back and do something there – and I’m sure it would feel actually quite different to putting on an accent that helps you remove yourself from the roles in some way. And if I was doing it in my own accent, first of all I’d have to figure out which one it is because it’s a bit mid-Atlantic. It’s funny. I like to attribute it to the fact that I say I have a musical ear. But my husband says it’s about a lack of moral core [laughs].”
With the ongoing success of Outlander, and Le Mans ’66 set to be a hit – we wonder what time period and accent she’ll be getting lost in next.
Le Mans ’66 is out in UK cinemas on 15 November 2019.