Caitriona Balfe's Outlander Transformation Takes More Wigs Than You Think

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

For nearly a year of my life, I started each day by staring at Caitriona Balfe. More accurately, it was a floor-to-near-ceiling photo of Balfe, a print from an early-aughts Harper's Bazaar editorial shoot. Propped right in front of the magazine's office doors, she (silently) greeted me every morning during my time there as an editor. Although the Irish actor and former model's face has been familiar to me and the fashion world for years, Balfe is now becoming an American household name. Recently, she's co-starred in Oscar-nominated films such as Ford v Ferrari and Belfast, last year's sweeping tale of the violent religiopolitical clash in 1990s Northern Ireland. But Balfe is most well known for her starring role in Starz's smash drama Outlander, based on the best- selling romance series of the same name by Diana Gabaldon. Balfe plays Claire, a World War II nurse who accidentally time-travels from 1948 to Scotland's bloody revolution — that's 200 years into the past, give or take.

"It's not jarring, usually. Not until you see it on screen," says Balfe of the cosmetic aging process that hair and makeup artist Kerry Skelton has used to make Balfe (age 42) appear to be in her mid-fifties for the past two seasons. The show's frequent flashbacks often roll back the clock on Claire's appearance — or are they flashforwards? Time isn't linear in the Outlander universe — the series' sixth chapter picks up right before the start of the Revolutionary War, with Claire more visibly in middle-age.

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"[Skelton] is amazing, and she has these magic little tricks that she does that highlight the things that [make you look older]," Balfe says, noting that the transformation doesn't solely benefit the viewer. "Anything that can bring you closer to the character and remove your ego in the process is a good thing when you're an actor. I relish the opportunity that we get to tell this story of a woman over this expanse of decades in her life."

Balfe in Revolutionary War-time clothing and a grey-streaked wig while shooting scenes of Outlander's sixth season.

In that regard, Balfe is luckier than most of her Hollywood peers. Over the series' soon-to-be six seasons, her character doesn't just travel from continent to continent — she bounces from century to century, purposefully and otherwise. That means donning the wardrobe, hair, and makeup that's historically accurate for each place and time she lands in: think the tartans, woolen bodices, and practical braids worn during the Jacobite uprising, lightweight linens and sea-salt-crunchy waves for sailing the Caribbean seas, or the naval-grazing necklines and bejeweled updos of Regency-era Paris. Balfe, though, has a clear favorite when it comes to the beauty aesthetic she most loved channeling.

In season two, Balfe wore bold eyeliner, fuller brows, and voluminous hair to replicate sixties' biggest beauty trends.

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"Hands down, the sixties. Hands down!" Balfe gushes, referencing the flashbacks to 1960s Edinburgh and Boston that interpolate the show's second season and beyond. "It's just such a glamorous time, and we were able to tell the story of where she was at in her life through her makeup and her costuming. I think that's such an important thing; you really get a sense of somebody's internal status and external status," explains Balfe. "Everything about her felt very put together, but it was just all a little bit twisted. There's not a hair at a place and her makeup is perfect, but it was a mask she was wearing. She was somebody who was very accomplished, professional, but had a rigidity to her because there was a loss of passion."

That lack of passion may have lasted (spoiler alert) twenty years for Claire, but Outlander viewers are rarely deprived of bodice-ripping romance for longer than a week. The show's core relationship, that of Claire and eternally-hunky Scottish highlander Jamie Fraser (played by Sam Heughan) remains one of the steamiest on modern television. But what distinguishes this couple from their ship-worthy peers is the agelessness of their desire. Their mutual attraction doesn't wane as each other's bodies change, whether that's due to pregnancy, battle scars, or the passing of time. If anything, it intensifies: think woman- on-top sex in the third trimester, an aphrodisiac-fueled romp to reintroduce each other to their more mature bodies after two decades apart (turtle soup, anyone?), and literal rolls in the hay complete with close-ups of grey hair, age-wrought glasses, and deep crows feet. It's real-life intimacy through the female gaze, and Balfe says she's "hugely proud" of the show's age-authentic representation of sexuality and desire in an industry that idolizes youth.

Balfe and Heughan in a still from Outlander's upcoming season.

"This concept of what a normal person looks like at 50 or 60 or 70 is so foreign and alien because we see it so rarely on screen," she explains. "We've entered such a strange time in our society where people don't age, right? At least, they don't age naturally." Much like the movie-editing magic that can instantly shave twenty years off someone's appearance, the filtered, perfected images on social media have skewed the way many women (and girls) approach getting older.

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"Anything that can bring you closer to the character and remove your ego in the process is a good thing when you're an actor."

Regardless of Claire's on-screen age, wigs were incorporated into her hair and makeup protocol to achieve the character's look. While those wigs became an everyday staple on-set from season three onwards, Balfe's own hair was originally used to create the hairstyles that captured the beauty trends of each time period the characters adventured through.

"In season one, my own hair was permed and hot-rollered every day," Balfe recalls, revealing she'd spend about an hour and twenty minutes in the stylist's chair getting her hair set in heated curlers to achieve both the brushed-out, 1940s-style waves and the wild, untamed curls one might see on the Scottish moors in 1743. Season two brought even more glamorous updos from an era long past — with some help from hair extensions. When the series' storyline brought Claire and Jamie to King Louis XV's Versailles, hairpieces were used in Balfe's hair to recreate the intricate updos that adorned the heads of the French aristocracy. Regardless of style, though, achieving these looks required hours in the hair and makeup trailer.

Claire's season one windswept curls, which were achieved by using hot rollers.

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One of the intricate updos styled for season two using hair pieces.

"Yeah… I'm glad we ended up going with wigs in the end," Balfe laughs. "I'm really lucky. Once the wigs are set and done, [the styling] is usually not happening on my head. That's the great part: you get your head wrapped, and then they just stick them on."

Balfe also suggests that some of these wigs offer a sneak peek into her character's journey in upcoming episodes. "What's great is that going forward in this season, we have some [episodes] where Claire and Jamie are not on the Ridge," she says, referring to the Fraser family homestead in Revolutionary War- time North Carolina. "They go to more formal gatherings, and you see these much more intricate updos." In that regard, Balfe praises Skelton once again: "She's able to create these beautiful pieces, and I'm the lucky recipient of being able to wear them."

Claire's beauty looks have started to influence Balfe's own simple yet sophisticated off-set beauty routine. "Claire wears things with confidence, which is always the best thing, right? She normally wears such minimal makeup, which is how I roll anyway," she jokes. "Generally, if you ask what's in my makeup bag, it's probably a mascara and a lip balm on the best of days."

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Balfe keeps her skin-care simple, too: “I tend to take good care of skin. I think that's the one thing you can give yourself, so I use a lot of lovely serums. I use a face wash by Sukin." Balfe also credits her glowy skin to "lots of moisturizer, and lots of water," adding that she's used NYDG Formula 119 Cream "for a very long time."

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While makeup inspiration is a healthy takeaway, the emotional toll of the period drama's heavy subject matter is understandably tough to leave on set. Balfe's Claire is an Army medic-turned-surgeon, which means scenes that depict gory, pre-anesthesia procedures — and on a larger scale, entire episodes addressing war, loss, and sexual trauma and assault. That's one reason Balfe has learned to set boundaries after clocking out.

"I've learned over the years to leave work at work. If you've had a really emotional day at work and you've been crying all day and standing out in the cold, you can just feel physically really fragile as well as emotionally," explains Balfe, noting that she's got her own tricks to keep her spirits high.

"A hot bath with lots and lots of magnesium salts is usually my go-to. Also, I've got to have some good chocolate in the car for the drive home," she specifies, a self-care routine that firmly plants Balfe back in 2022.

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