When Ciarán Hinds accepted the role of ‘Pa’ in Kenneth Branagh’s fictionalized memoir Belfast, he felt honored to step into the writer-director’s personal story, and to be cast opposite Judi Dench. Belfast centers around Buddy—played by breakout Jude Hill—a character based upon Branagh’s young self, growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Hinds would essentially be playing a version of Branagh’s own father—a tough call for even the most skilled actor. But fortunately, he had something of an ace in his pocket given that he grew up just down the street from Branagh.
DEADLINE: You didn’t really know Kenneth before making this film. How did he approach you?
CIARÁN HINDS: I’m 68, Ken’s just turned 60. He’s a young whipper snapper. And we come from the same part of the world, I live in the same city, but also, we grew up half a mile away from each other.
I don’t know if Ken knew that, but I knew that, having read about him. I was just half a mile up the road. And in our youth, we actually would have gone to the same cinema, the Capitol in the Antrim Road, which, alas, is no more, but it was one of those old 1920 cinemas. And Ken, I knew, was always fascinated, him and his family, by the pictures. And we too, my family, were also great cinema lovers. So, we had that connection without ever meeting, and also because we were born on other sides of the famous religious divide in Northern Ireland. He was brought up protestant and I was brought up Catholic, so, we would never have met because of the segregation in schools.
Ken got in touch via my agent. I was with my wife in Lyon in France, because she was rehearsing a play, so we spoke by Zoom and he told me how he had written this story of his childhood in Belfast and how he carried it around with him, the memory of these people that he was so close to, and because of circumstances had to be, in a way, ripped away from them in a positive manner to create a new life for the family.
He said, “Would you mind if I sent you this script?”
DEADLINE: What was your first impression?
HINDS: I read it and within a page or two or three, I understood that this had come from someone who really knows the city and obviously has a huge emotional memory of the time then. And because it communicated itself to me in such a manner that it placed me back in my childhood as well and the people that I was surrounded by. So, I connected it with it almost straight away. And I saw how beautifully structured and scripted it was and the rhythm of the speech and the color of the characters. He said, would you consider playing Pa? And I said that more than consider it, it would be an honor to accept it. And he said, “Good. I’ll just proffer you up the information that you have Dame Judi as your wife.” Well, I nearly went through the roof. I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to light a candle now to make sure that I don’t let anybody down.’ The stakes had suddenly got very high. He’s so gifted. And he’s such a soft, intelligent man, but he has this great warmth to him and a naturalness that then makes our work easier.
DEADLINE: Was it triggering or painful to read about that time for you? And everything that brought up?
HINDS: There weren’t any painful memories, but it does of course shoot your mind back. But at that time, when he wrote this, setting it in August 1969, I was 16. And what they call the Troubles kicked off. At the beginning, it was very exciting, weirdly, for a 16-year-old. Belfast was a town that not only was closed on Sundays at that point. Even the parks were locked up. And not only were the parks locked up, the swings individually in the park were locked up, and the slides were barred.
DEADLINE: So, it was a no-fun zone?
HINDS: That was a kind of a mindset. So, when things have kicked off, you go like, well, something’s happening. But we didn’t, at that stage, really recognize the malignancy and the hatred and the violence that would follow and kick off all this stuff that had been suppressed for such a long time. And I do remember that was then followed by a lot of horror and misunderstanding because when it arrived, it arrived in a big way. But my father was a doctor, and his surgery was on the Springfield Road. And his patients were divided between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road. So, as a doctor, of course, you treat everybody. And he was having to go out at nights on calls. And I think he kept a lot to himself, what he saw or how he dealt with the situation.
DEADLINE: Did you draw on your own dad and other family members as an inspiration to play Pa?
HINDS: Yeah, they came to me rather, not insidiously, but they just crept up on me. We went to a costume fitting, the first time with the designer Charlotte Walker, and she started putting clothes on me, that put me in mind of my father and my mother’s father, so my grandfather, who we called Papa. Just the colors that she chose, and the material and I guess, of course, as a designer, she knows the period, but this would’ve been back in the ’40s or whatever, but I guess people, once they get their style, they keep it all their life. She’s fantastically gifted. And, also, in that time, people didn’t keep changing their fashions. They set them, [and] they kept them.
There’s a scene in there where Judi and I have a little bit of a shimmy together. And that would’ve been a bit of my father, not my grandfather. If my mum was getting a bit touchy about who knows what, he would say, “Come on and just have a little dance.” What I loved about the relationship and then working with Judi was I found that deeply, there was a kind of historical man. He loved her deeply. And at this stage she kind of tolerated him. It was very matriarchal set-up in the household back then, wasn’t it?
Yeah. And she ran the house. That scene, just by the window, that Ken shot so bravely. Just the two of them in the window. He wrote this beautiful line, “When you’ve gray hair, no one ever thinks your heart skips.” And he’s right. There’s such delicacy in his writing in the midst of all the Belfast talk and the drive and the energy. He’s even managed to sneak in a bit of Yeats. How did he get him to quote that? Just summed up the situation as he felt it at the time: “Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.” And he puts that in, and uses it in a conversation, reflection and moves on. That’s the art of great writing of just a thought and it zapped out and it’s gone. And that’s what I found through the script, beautiful bits of mixing between truth and art, I think. And the way he filmed it as well. It was so beautifully crafted and framed, and the choice of where he went and keeping back. And then just those beautiful still shots of Caitríona Balfe, just looking so beautiful and glamorous and yet real. I was so struck. I first saw it in a screening just with two people. So, it was the first time I saw it and I was just struck by, it was a beautiful film we’d made. Then when I saw it the second time, when we had to go to the London Film Festival and sit with 2,000 people, then another thing happened. As the connection, as 2,000 people started to feel the weight of this family, and what they had to do in this situation. And 2,000 individuals coming in, and bit-by-bit, humanity bonding together. And they’re caring for the humanity in front of them. It was quite emotional when I saw it with all those people.
DEADLINE: Did Kenneth talk to you about aspects of his own father, about Pa, the real man?
HINDS: No, that was very interesting. He might say something like, “My grandad used to do that,” but not in a way of who his grandfather was or who his grandmother was. I guess, because he didn’t want to confuse or burden us having to think that we might have to portray this or add this on as another level or another layer. The [main] character’s called Buddy. I mean, it is based on his story and a lot of the incidents happened in his life, but not all of them.
DEADLINE: It’s a fictionalized memoir.
HINDS: That’s the way to put it. And inside that he was just looking for the spirit of the people to live again. I think that’s what his aim was. And he’s such a master, not a manipulation—or maybe it is brilliant manipulation—but of just allowing things to happen or guiding people in a way that things can connect together and then he can capture.
DEADLINE: So, obviously, you aged up for this role.
HINDS: Well, I told Judi, I said, “I’ll tell you what, we’ll meet halfway.”
DEADLINE: Because she could pull off playing a younger part.
HINDS: Oh yeah. “If you come down a bit and I’ll go up a bit.”
DEADLINE: You definitely have a slower way of moving in this role. Maybe that just comes to you intuitively through working on stage and the physicality of theater acting.
HINDS: Yeah. I had to deal with that as well. But also, the idea of, when we find out at one stage that he has to have go to the hospital for a checkup. [Because] when he was working in Leicester and he used to be a coal miner—remember all those guys suffered so badly, so it was when the emphysema starts. So, that idea of moving slowly is to save the breath a bit.
DEADLINE: How was working with Judi?
HINDS: She was very funny and she would always say, “It’s all right for you, you’re all from Belfast. I had to put [the accent] on. That didn’t sound very good. Did it?” I said, “Yeah, it was close enough. Go on. Don’t worry about it.” Caitríona is from Monaghan, which is more of a Northern Ulster country accent as opposed to [a] Belfast [accent]. But you wouldn’t know it when you hear her. And the same with Judi, because when she came in, when we all met for the first day, we were all across the width and the length of a very big table. So, we weren’t getting close and [were wearing] masks. And Jamie and Caitriona and myself were there already. And then in came the great Dame, wearing a tiger mask. The tiger mask was kind of ferocious. Like, well she means business.
DEADLINE: Are you talking tiger print, or did it actually have teeth?
HINDS: Teeth. That was her Covid mask. But it was such an introduction and done with such ease and panache, and then you know, she’s up for fun. Her work is… It’s her instinct, her constant search for the truth of things and no bullshit. But not to take yourself too seriously at the same time. I think we all understood what this meant to Ken. We were all very gratified for him that this has elevated itself into something that I suppose he wasn’t sure how it would land. And because we all know the work he did and how he brought everybody together, what it meant to him, the fact that it’s been celebrated in this way, we just talked … about generally how thrilled we are for him.
DEADLINE: How was the experience of screening the film in Belfast? What did it mean for you all to watch it there?
HINDS: That was an extraordinary night. I mean, I’d arrived at two days before to see my sisters for a bit. And so, I hadn’t seen [the] company until we all arrived at a little bit of a red carpet. A red carpet in Belfast is a big thing, as you imagine. And we were in the Waterfront Hall, and I think about 1,600 people were there. It was Jamie and Caitríona. And we had this frisson of anxiety, excitement, saying, we’re bringing it home, because we’re from Belfast. I mean, it’s kind of exciting, but we know they call a spade a spade… They call it very basic, very straight, when their heart’s been taken by it you know? But for us it was exhilarating. There’s a certain point, I think, having seen it twice, that it sort of takes the audience and holds them and everybody’s just given themselves up. And when that happened, we sort of knew we were in the right place. And it’s about hearts opening [to] the story and for right, or for wrong, whatever agendas people arrived with, letting them drop, and just being human. And this is not an agenda-driven film. In the North, we have too many agendas and they’re all specific and everybody… and good agendas, bad agendas, but sometimes it’s better just to be human and feeling. And that night, it really felt that that opened up, which was a joy to behold… and for Ken as well.
DEADLINE: And Jude Hill is a phenomenon.
HINDS: He’s a gift to us all. And in real life, he’s a gem, he’s a dote, he’s funny, he’s smart. And we just enjoy listening to him talking. He’s a little boy from school, who did this part so beautifully. Did he think a year ago, [he was] even on your radar? Hollywood beckons? It’s kind of magical actually. And to me, the story of Ken is quite magical as well.
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