Interview: Ciarán Hinds on working with Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench on the “protected” set of Belfast

  • Peter Gray
  • February 2, 2022
  • Comments Off on Interview: Ciarán Hinds on working with Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench on the “protected” set of Belfast

Predicted to be a major player at this year’s Academy Awards, Kenneth Branagh‘s acclaimed Belfast (you can read our review here) is the celebrated director’s most personal film to date, a semi-autobiographical drama about a young boy growing up in 1960’s Northern Ireland.

Assembling one of the year’s finest casts, Ciarán Hinds, a decorated character actor, known for his work in such projects as There Will Be Blood, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Justice League, and TV’s Game of Thrones, stars as “Pop”, the grandfather to Branagh’s younger self in the film.  Talking with Peter Gray ahead of its national release, the two discussed the personal connection Ciarán had to the story, the protection he felt on set, and how playing Judi Dench’s husband “could be worse”.

Kenneth Branagh has noted this as his most personal film.  It being set in Belfast where you grew up, how was it for you being involved with something that has such personal connotations?

I guess you could say it was very pleasurable to be brought back to the source, to where I come from.  When Ken sent me the script to read, it really resonated so deeply with me.  All the things we go through with life, the old left, right and centre…it almost took me right back to the root of who I am, who my own family were.  They never disappear, but there was something about the way he had written and constructed this, the way he had drawn the characters that I identified with immediately.

I was going to ask what your reaction to the script was.  It’s set at quite a violent time, but it has this very warm, delicate mentality to it.  When you first read the script what was that first initial reaction?

What I loved about it is that it was the truth to me, in a storytelling form.  It was the essence of it…it was pure truth coming from his own memory.  Of course there’s some embellishment for the art of storytelling, but the heart and the root of it is his own feeling of how he remembered it.  I think Ken has carried it with him all his life.  He left Belfast when he was 9.  This childhood was indelibly printed on him, even though his life then took a different turn.  He was educated in England and became this extraordinary gifted, talented, renaissance individual.

He carried these people.  And it’s not just his own family, but the extended family.  Cousins, second cousins…all the people you see in the film that are so much the part of the fabric of their life at that time.  One of the most emotional scenes for me is when, as a 9-year-old, he has the meltdown about leaving his home.  He’s so innocent and he’s too young to understand the possibility of what’s out there.  He just knows his very centre is being ripped out.  I think Ken, on reflection, though he dealt with it brilliantly, felt that in a way.  That his childhood was ripped away.  Fortunately he’s turned out to be quite a present to the world.

I imagine playing Judi Dench’s husband was one of the major draws for you.  How did this role of Pop come about for you?

I guess you could do worse than Dame Judi as your missus.  That was an added thrill.  And I think Ken cast her first.  They’ve worked together 10 or 11 times through theatre and film.  I think when Ken had the idea of this story, and their affection and love for one another, I think he just thought you’ve got to be my grandmother.  He made a film a few years ago, a beautiful film where he played Shakespeare and Judi played his wife, and now she’s playing his granny.  Different times, evidently.  I was honoured to be offered the role of his grandfather, and when he told me that Judi would be playing my wife…it would just be foolish to refuse an offer like that, wouldn’t it?  That’s a couple of Christmases in one go.  I was very pleased.

Were there any memories that came back to you when making the film?

I clicked with the script right away, which is interesting because sometimes you need to see the visuals because words are words, but he had written it so beautifully and truly.  There are so many things that I didn’t catch until the second (viewing).  I’ve seen it three times.  He’s put all these little delicate sayings and phrases that are true to Belfast life.  When we went to the set to shoot it I couldn’t believe…it just looked like my granny and grandfather’s backyard.  They never just sat around.  They didn’t watch television.  There was always something to be done.  In that way they are incredibly inventive people.  They made the most of what they had.

Apart from the violent times, the economic times were very difficult.  I think at one point in the film it says that Belfast now has the lowest unemployment of anywhere in the UK, so politically and economically it was bad.

And not only are you working with Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh and this incredible cast, you have someone like Jude Hill.  This is his first time starring in a film.  How was it working with him? Watching him navigate the set and collaborating with Kenneth?

It was wonderful.  To watch this young fella who comes from this little village called Gilford in County Down…he’s done a little bit of drama, a little poetry in school, and he’s selected from, like, 300 boys that they looked at bit by bit.  When I was introduced to him I just looked at him and there was this genuine openness.  But there was this intelligence, and the fact that he was an Irish dancer, and I was too back in the last century in my youth, (meant) we connected very easily.  But when we spoke…he’s interested in people.  That’s what it is.  It isn’t like “Oh, I’m bored and need more stimulation”, he’s interested in what people have to say.  It’s a great gift for a young actor, but, as you can see when the camera does a close-up of his face reacting, whether it’s joy or confusion or fear… you see that.  You have to go through that inside yourself.

Just to press the point with Ken, working with him (Jude) was such a pleasure to watch.  He didn’t direct him.  They talked with each other.  They suggested (to each other).  It was a beautiful thing to watch.

What was the experience like making it throughout the pandemic too?  

Nobody had been working on any projects for quite a while, at that stage, and it was one of the first films to get going again.  People were thrilled to work but the manner of working was very focused.  We didn’t share meals together.  We were held in separate rooms, just to be protected.  And older people, like myself or Judi, you know, at that stage it was really effecting the older population, and Ken made very sure that we were all very protected whilst we were trying to work.  Those moments in front of the camera became fun, but very focused.

Belfast is screening in Australian theatres from February 3rd, 2022.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.