Kenneth Branagh was nine years old when The Troubles began. As a young boy growing up in Belfast, the bloody riots that incited the decades-long political conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland left an indelible mark on him. Mixing his memories of that violence with the more run-of-the-mill joys and heartbreaks of youth, the filmmaker wrote his most personal work yet, Belfast.
The actor Ciarán Hinds, who is seven years Branagh's senior, was also coming of age in Belfast at that time, a mere mile down the road from Branagh's family. The only son of a doctor and a teacher, Hinds attended Catholic primary school one street over from Branagh's childhood home.
"I do love the idea that we shared the only cinema in North Belfast, The Capitol Cinema," Hinds tells A.frame. "We were equidistant from it and may indeed have been at the same movie at the same time when we were kids."
As adults, the boys from Belfast had only said hello in passing, until the day Hinds received a call from Branagh out of the blue. "He very warmly, very gently said, 'Would you mind if I sent you a script?'"
"When I opened it up and started to read, within four or five pages, I was back home. I was back to my roots," Hinds remembers. "I knew these people. They could have been my own people. I was Catholic lower-middle class, he was Protestant working class, but it's the same breed of people. The same culture. The same odd, wry, ironic sense of humor."
"It touched me deep in my core," he says. "It was very strange, because sometimes you read the script and you analyze it and you look at it rationally. This kind of just came into me."
Branagh wrote the character Buddy loosely based on himself and wanted Hinds to play Buddy's doting grandfather, Pops. For Hinds, there was no way he could refuse. "And then he said, 'Oh, and I should say, of course Judi Dench will be playing your wife."
Irish newcomer Jude Hill was cast as Buddy, with fellow Belfastian Jamie Dornan as his Pa and Dubliner Caitríona Balfe as Ma. Dench was the lone British-born member of the cast. ("I think she was just annoyed that we all were closer to the action," Hinds jokes, imitating Dench: "It's all right for you. I have to work on this accent!") In the first hour of meeting, Branagh asked his cast to share their own stories of their childhoods to develop a familiarity.
"When we'd go to work, we knew each other, rather than acting at each other," Hinds explains. Though work isn't quite the right word to describe the experience of making Belfast. "We talk about 'work,' because that's what we usually do. We try to put on things. We try to take on a character, to put on a costume, take an attitude. And this was very different. This was letting go. Don't put things on -- let things come out."
The role became something of an amalgam, as much Hinds as the character on the page. But always in service of whatever he and his scene partners discovered in the moment.
"Those scenes between myself and Judi, and myself and Judi and Jude, were very intimate. And they kept you on your toes, those two," he chuckles. "Sometimes I was just trying to keep up with them. They were so alive and vibrant and honest -- and sometimes you just have to get in there with them, you know?"
When people say, 'Did you ever dream of it?' No, no, no. I'm much too grounded in reality.
Since Branagh never wanted Hinds to imitate his actual grandfather, the actor was allowed to rely on his own spirit and what he calls "quiet visits from my forefathers." In costume, he saw, in himself, his father. Playing Pop, he saw his own grandfather. "My mother's father was always carving and whittling and making and repairing things because times were hard," Hinds says. "I remembered that from when I was very little."
As proof that in the very specific lies the universal, Belfast was Oscar-nominated seven times over, including for Best Picture, Directing and Original Screenplay for Branagh, Best Supporting Actor for Hinds, and Best Supporting Actress for Dench. It is Hinds' first Oscar nomination.
"It's kind of extraordinary to me to be recognized at this level. It's never something I aspired to. When people say, 'Did you ever dream of it?' No, no, no. I'm much too grounded in reality. And indeed, I'm very grateful to Ken for asking me to be part of this." He laughs, seemingly not quite able to believe it all still, and offers up one final thought: "My dad used to say to me, 'There's no accounting for taste, son.'"