‘Outlander’ CDs on How They Found Caitríona Balfe—And Who They’re Looking for Next

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

As the visionaries who have populated the time-traveling world of “Outlander” with all those great actors, it’s safe to say that Suzanne Smith and Simone Pereira Hind are crucial to the show’s success. The U.K.–based casting directors have been with Ronald D. Moore’s Starz series since the very beginning. They’re responsible for finding its breakout lead, Caitríona Balfe, and casting authentically French and South African actors for seasons set in foreign countries. Now, they’re back with the highly anticipated Season 6, which premieres on March 6. “It’s always acting first,” says Hind of their search process, detailing the ways performers can get a leg up while auditioning. 

When populating new seasons of a long-running series, how much of finding the right actors is a matter of going back to the drawing board?

Simone Pereira Hind: It’s never back to the drawing board inasmuch as we have our fantastic leads in place from series to series. 

Suzanne Smith: Each season has a different theme or a story. Season 1 was Scotland, and now we are in America. Every season has dealt with a lot of very poignant issues, which are modern. For example, the death of Faith, rape, how family is important. And that’s what “Outlander” is like. It’s like a family, isn’t it? It’s great to be with everybody, our producers and cast who are so welcoming to everybody that’s new. That’s so important with new actors coming in and playing important roles.

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in “Outlander,” Courtesy Starz 

What’s your philosophy around casting period pieces? Are there specific looks or techniques actors should have?

SS: Most of our actors have gone to drama school—not all, but they learn to do period in drama school. But it’s more to do with who that person is and [what they] bring. Like Claire [Randall, the show’s main character]—her eye color was described differently in [Diana Gabaldon’s] books, and of course [casting a role is] not about that; it’s about the essence of the actor. 

In general, it’s more about styling than about the actors. You can often go into drama schools and look at people and think, You’d be great for a period piece; you’ve got an old-fashioned look. But generally, that is about the way they present themselves rather than anything to do with their acting.

SPH: We often have descriptions of characters that we’re looking for, not about how they look. If we have an actor in mind we think is really fantastic but doesn’t fit the brief, we might throw them into the mix and present them to the producers and directors who are open-minded.

How much do Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” novels factor into casting? Should actors study them for clues?

SS: Well, you can’t, really, because the dialogue is different. I do remember when we were first looking for Claire, I did get a lot of actors sort of posting that they could be Claire, and they took dialogue from the book and sent it to me. And it’s a different medium. It doesn’t flow, necessarily.

Speaking of Claire, what do you remember about casting the show’s lead roles? What made Caitríona Balfe the perfect fit?

SS: It’s that sort of mixture of warmth and strength, wit and intelligence, that you had to find for the lead of this show. We searched everywhere. We searched in Australia, Canada, and here [in the U.K.]. And when she auditioned, she was in America. She showed up, she auditioned, and then she had to get a new agent here. And she re-auditioned with notes. We had Sam [Heughan as Jamie Fraser] in place, so we screen tested, and it was fantastic. 

SPH: From memory, I feel you found Jamie really quickly, actually, given how integral he is. 

SS: We did. Because [we had to] find somebody who’s six-foot-three and Scottish. And I knew Sam from drama school. 

You mentioned drama school. Does training help actors stand out in an audition?

SPH: I certainly don’t discount people who haven’t been to drama school. I’ve just been working on some theater; that’s where I think [formal training is] more important. 

Obviously, lots of actors come out of drama school, and they’ve learned lots of techniques. But there’s a point where certain actors seem to become comfortable in their own skin, and it means their acting takes a leap. They learn confidence about what they’re doing—which people often don’t have when they come out of drama school. 

SS: Because, yes, sometimes it’s: “Where do I place my hands? How and where do I sit?” We always give them the option of sitting or standing. “How do I do it?” I often say, practice [scene work] with your peers. Get confident. 

What are your other top audition tips for actors?

SS: Never be frightened. If you are going into an audition with a director or producers and you start off by fluffing, just say sorry, take a beat, and start again. Obviously, it’s difficult if it’s in the middle of something or at the end. But if it’s the beginning, I just say calm yourself. It’s nervous for us! We go in for jobs, too, and it’s just as nerve-racking.

SPH: A bit of advice I give actors at drama school, which I think is really important but really hard to embody, is telling people to remember that they are equal to everybody else in the room. We’re all working together; we all want them to succeed. But I think it’s really hard for people to feel that, especially when they’re just out of drama school and they’re intimidated and desperate.

What about virtual auditions, especially now? And what makes a great self-tape?

SS: Just think colorwise—if you’ve got blue eyes, then wear something that’s got a bit of blue in it, because it will enhance your eyes. Think about what background you’re doing, because sometimes just a white background doesn’t work; sometimes a gray background works better, or blue.

SPH: Sometimes it’s shocking how bad they are in terms of lighting or sound. And you really question whether people have actually watched their tapes back. If you’re having to kind of peer into the dark to see someone, that’s not good. Ideally, people should shoot themselves against a background that’s neutral, so we’re not distracted by looking into their home, [thinking,] Oh, that wallpaper looks interesting. We shouldn’t be thinking that.

Do you have any other words of wisdom for working actors? 

SPH: Hanging in there is good advice. It’s not an easy business to be in. 

SS: Absolutely. I think the public tend to think acting is an easy job, and all actors are incredibly wealthy and successful. They have no idea of how tough it is…. Just keep believing in yourself, and hone and hone and hone your craft.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Jack Smart
Jack Smart is the awards editor at Backstage, where he covers all things Emmy, SAG, Oscar, and Tony Awards. He also produces and hosts Backstage’s awards podcast “In the Envelope” and has interviewed some of the biggest stars of stage and screen.
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