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The women of 'Outlander': Sex, violence, no wallowing

As Starz’ time-travel show returns, we talk with the woman who plays its indomitable heroine, Claire, and with the one who invented her.

* OUTLANDER. 9 p.m. Saturday, Starz.

MORE THAN six months after Starz's "Outlander" left its time-traveling heroine the half-naked (and very much afraid) prisoner of a sadist, the series returns Saturday to find Claire (Caitriona Balfe) right where it left her.

And some of you thought "Droughtlander" was long?

"We shot that over two days. That was very intense," Balfe said, in an interview, of the scene with Tobias Menzies that bridges the two halves of the show's first season.

"We had two days in that room . . . so, yeah, it was tough, and I definitely came away with some cuts and bruises."

Not that she's complaining. Much.

Part of the attraction of playing Claire, said Balfe, was, "Wow, all of these things happen to her, but she just gets up and keeps going and sort of fights. But when it came to portraying them, it was quite hard to put aside the modern-day sort of self-pity element. . . . Because we're so used to, after something traumatic happens, you know, we need to wallow in it."

Balfe couldn't have had much time for wallowing, because that dustup with Menzies (who plays both her 20th-century husband and her 18th-century enemy) is only the first of several intense scenes in Saturday's "The Reckoning." There's a particularly dicey one between Claire and her new husband, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), for which fans of the best-selling Diana Gabaldon books have been waiting a long time.

Let's pause to welcome those for whom "Outlander" is a crossover SUV and not the wildly popular story of a former World War II nurse who accidentally travels back to the 18th century and commits bigamy with a hot Scotsman. (Assuming you can call it bigamy when one's first husband hasn't been born yet.)

Gabaldon, a former scientist, had been entertaining show-business suitors since her first book, Outlander, was published nearly 24 years ago, waiting for someone who understood a work that combines history, romance, time travel and a "MacGyver"-like approach to medicine. The winner: Ronald D. Moore ("Battlestar Galactica"), whose adaptation has already won a second-season order from Starz.

She's happy enough with the series, and especially with the casting of Jamie Fraser, to have used Heughan's last name for a minor character in her most recent book, Written in My Own Heart's Blood.

And she's unapologetic about all the nakedness and fighting.

"These books are about a lot of different things, but one of the things they are about is about sex and violence," Gabaldon said. "And I don't mean that they include sex and violence as a means of, you know, drawing the audience in or titillating them. I mean it is about sex and violence, what those mean to people and how they handle them."

Claire "never sees herself as a victim," she said.

Balfe calls it "an interesting discovery to sort of put aside my own ideas" of how someone might react to violence.

" 'Wow, she's just been attacked. She would carry that with her for quite a while.' But she didn't have time to. She didn't have the luxury of sort of holding on to that. Not to say that these things don't affect her, but it's a different way of dealing with it," said the actress.

"I think if it was me, I'd have laid down and died," she said, laughing.

"I think she's seen so many horrific things that, for her, it would be an indulgence, and it would be a disservice to anyone who suffered to kind of wallow in self-pity. And again, it's hard to discover how that trauma or whatever affects her. But I think you see, as the time goes on, she does get worn down a little. But again, it's just that she has that fight in her: . . . 'I'm not going to let this define me, or take me over.' "

Once a top runway model, Balfe grew up in Ireland and has lived in the U.S. for the past 12 years.

In "Outlander," she's playing a 20th-century Englishwoman living in 18th-century Scotland.

"We have an on-set dialect coach. But I grew up with British TV. In Ireland . . . we had the whole six channels we used to have there, but two of them were Irish and four of them were from the U.K.," Balfe said.

"I've had them in my ear. I like to do accents, anyway. We played around a little, deciding what her accent would be. Because of that time and of her sort of social status, her class, if she'd gone to a proper finishing school, she would have a very clipped RP [Received Pronunciation, considered the standard for a British accent]. But, you know, Claire in the books . . . didn't go to school. She had her uncle rear her, and she traveled all over the world, so I wanted her to feel very earthy."

Earthy may also be a new experience for Balfe, who's 35 and said she didn't really start acting until she was in her 30s.

"Sometimes you wish," she said, laughing, " 'Could I not have been younger, before it all started to crack?' - but I think that that's what's great" about playing Claire.

In modeling, "you have to make sure that no matter what the angles, that you still look good. Whereas with acting, that all has to be thrown out the window, because you can never care about what you look like, because you should be too invested in either what you're feeling or what your objective is. I loved the fact that I got to throw all of that worrying away."

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