Jamie Dornan on making ‘Belfast’ with Kenneth Branagh: ‘There was never a day one, we were eased in’

Jude Hill, the adorable 11-year-old Northern Irish actor who has earned kudos as Buddy, in Kenneth Branagh’s memory drama “Belfast,” managed to steal the hearts of his director, costars and viewers during a recent Variety Zoom conversation. “I think, me and Buddy can relate a lot,” said Hill with a sunshine warm smile.  “I saw myself in these pages of the first draft of the script. A couple of words into the script, I immediately fell in love with it and to have my first project being this important, and with all of these fantastic people in the cast as well who I met along the way. I just felt so lucky to be there.”

For good reason. Ever since it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Belfast” has been on path to multiple Oscar nominations. “Belfast,” which has received several critics’ awards honors, is up for 11 Critics Choice and two SAG awards. Branagh recently earned DGA and PGA award nominations, and the film received guild nominations for its editing and black-and-white cinematography.

“Belfast,” which Branagh also wrote, is a coming-of-age story set in the Northern Ireland capital in 1969 during the “Troubles.”  Besides Hill, the drama stars Jamie Dornan as Pa, Caitriona Balfe as Ma, Ciaran Hinds as Pop and Judi Dench as Granny.

Branagh saw 300 boys to play his cinematic alter-ego. “Jude was incredibly patient,” he said. Looking at Hill, he added “what was the most frustrating part of the audition procedure, Jude? Did you get fed up at the beginning? Did you ever go, ‘I’ve had enough? I’ve done this so many times?” “No,” said Hill. “I just loved every single Zoom call, every single video tape. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every single one.  When I found out that I’d gotten it. I was so happy.”

Hill continued: “I think my first Zoom [audition] was with Ken. It was the scene where Buddy and Pa are a Pop’s work. And they’re having a talk about Pop. It’s all very emotional. And that scene, even in the draft, you could definitely read a few words in and know that it’s very important to both characters.”

“Jude and Jamie and Ciaran [and Catriona] they made their parts their own,” offered Branagh. “They brought things to them that surprised me. Ultimately it became a much more emotional experience when I put it all together. But in the doing of it I was sort of continually surprised. I loved them. They were very open, these actors.” Before production officially, Branagh had what he called a test day where there was no “pressure and no anything.” But most of the footage shot on the test day ended up in the movie. “It was Ma outside the house. Pa with Buddy.”

He also told his cast, “I’m just going to yell some things at you. I know you’ve never been on the set before or played a word of this part before, but could you just respond? They did. Of course, in so doing, they started to respond as their version of Ma, their version of Pa and started to own the parts and set a kind of tone. All of these actors were so game and brave and with that came a sense of fun and play, which also goes into the atmosphere of the film. “

Dornan noted it was “clever’ for Branagh to “do it that way. There’s an easing of pressure, not seeing that day as day one. That actually then maintained the whole shoot. As a result, we felt like there was never a day one and we were eased in. There’s a comfortableness amongst us all. That took lot of pressure off. It was all very well thought out by Ken. It felt like before you knew it, you’re off and running and you had formed these relationships.”

“Do you know what, Jamie?,” noted Branagh. “Years ago, I worked with Sir John Mills, the legendary actor. He’d done a hundred or so movies. I said, ‘What have you found to be the biggest problem?’ He said, ‘Fear. Fear’s no good to any bloody actor. It’s what we feel all the time.’ So, a lot of my directing…. how you can make the actor less fearful and genuinely enjoy things.”

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