Outlandish fortune

Matt Suddain sits down with Caitriona Balfe, star of epic swords and man-skirts drama Outlander.

This show has a simple concept, really: a married former World War 2 battlefield nurse, Claire Randall, discovers an ancient stone circle and accidentally travels through time, where she becomes embroiled in the Jacobean wars and meets her love-match: a kilted young warrior called Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).

OK, so the concept doesn't sound that simple. But the idea is simple.

To transport the audience - mostly women - out of their everyday lives and into an alternate world of fantasy, adventure and generous amounts of sex.

When I met Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire, in a posh hotel in central London, I asked her if she had any idea why these fantasies about escaping to another time are so popular, and why time travel is such a go-to idea for film and TV.

‘‘Well, I suppose because we have so little control over events in our life. I think people love to fantasise about the ability to go back and do things differently. I'm more of the theory that no matter what has happened, everything brings you to the place you are right now, and so you've learned something, or you've grown from it.''

I can't help pointing out that every time travel show or movie has things turning out incredibly badly.

‘‘Exactly! Because things turn out the way they're supposed to.''

The show is wildly popular. The books on which it's based have sold more than 26 million copies worldwide.

And the TV adaptation has turned cable network Starz into a major player, eclipsed in subscribers only by HBO.

The first series of Outlander limited itself largely to the Scottish Highlands, but certainly didn't limit itself at all in terms of how many racy scenes it included.

In season two the action shifts to France, adding a dash of political intrigue to the hot-and-cold-running sex.

‘‘Obviously, at the core of our story is the huge element of fantasy, and it's nice that in the land of fiction you can play with these things and you can explore massive themes. But placing it at a real historical moment really grounds it and allows audiences to go there with a suspension of disbelief and put themselves in that place.''

The feverish devotion of Outlander's fanbase is slightly terrifying.

Fans have divided themselves into competing camps. They call themselves ‘‘Caitriots'' and ‘‘Heughligans''.

They get very upset if the show they love changes, or if a character they admire vanishes.

So is there a message Balfe would like to give to her audience as this new season swings into action?

‘‘Oh, there's loads I'd like the fans to know, but I've been handcuffed to secrecy. We have to be very careful of spoilers. But in terms of television as compared to film, this is a long story we're telling. Sometimes fans freak about the little things they miss, you know? So I think my message is that it would be nice for them to be patient and look at the big picture.''

Reading between the lines, it's hard not to wonder if she's hinting at the return of a character, or characters, fans assumed they'd lost forever.

But it isn't clear, and she won't be drawn on details.

‘‘I think that fate is a big part of this new season, and also maybe learning to accept things rather than fight them. But it's hard because we only just finished filming. I think you need a bit of distance from what you're doing to really see what it's about.''

Balfe and Heughan stand alone this season, having left the Highlands and most of last season's cast behind.

‘‘Yeah, it has been an endurance test in a lot of ways, physically and emotionally. And it takes a lot of stamina. But I think both of us relish that, and we feel very lucky to have such an amazing team around us.''

But though the show is hard work, she'll definitely never get bored.

‘‘The show has always been complex and interesting. But this season, going to France, there was a moment that we had to take to figure out, ‘Whoa, what is this show now, and who are we?' Also because most of our regular actors weren't there, and it was a completely new set of people. But it mirrored our characters' journey, because they were also very uneasy in this new world. The show has kept things fresh for the actors, but also for the viewers, as well.''

 ■ Season one of Outlander is available to stream on lightbox.co.nz. New episodes of season two are available every Sunday.

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