For Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, making “Belfast” felt like coming home. When writer-director Kenneth Branagh approached the Irish actors about his new drama amid pandemic closures last year, it was an easy decision.
“It was a beautiful take on that place and the people who are from it at that time in history,” recalls Dornan, speaking with co-star Balfe during the London Film Festival. “There was so much very fast positivity around the whole idea of the project — who Ken was already talking to, the other cast. It just felt like this gift, really, that fell upon me.”
“I remember my agent calling me and saying, ‘Look, there’s this project and this is who’s doing it and who’s already attached,’” Balfe adds. “He was like, ‘I’m going to send it over for you to read.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to say yes before I read this.’ It’s such a beautiful script. The way Ken had written it, there was so much love in it and so much emotion. I had been looking for something to do in Ireland for quite a while — thinking we would film this in Ireland. Once I read the script, I was in tears by the end of it.”
“Belfast,” which actually filmed last fall in Surrey, England, is a deeply personal story for Branagh, who based the script on his own upbringing in Belfast during “The Troubles.” The film is set in 1969, as the 30-year Northern Ireland conflict began to affect the city’s communities. It follows a young boy named Buddy, played by Jude Hill, as he realizes his tightknit neighborhood might not be the safe haven he’s always known.
Dornan and Balfe play Buddy’s parents, dubbed Pa and Ma, respectively, and they are joined by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as Pa’s parents, whose decades-long relationship shows genuine warmth and often comic relief. The familial connection between the actors wasn’t manufactured; the cast lived in a bubble while shooting and found a real sense of commonality — aided by Branagh.
“On the first day of rehearsal, Ken brought Jamie, Judi and me into a room,” Balfe remembers. “He just asked us lots of questions about our childhoods, about our parents, about how we would react to different situations or how our parents would react to different situations. Instantly, then, we all knew something very intimate about each other. That breaks down a lot of barriers and creates an instant bond. He’s very clever, Ken. Just in a subtle way he’s needling out the things he wants you to start thinking about or bringing into your performance, without it feeling like he’s giving you a directive.”
Balfe, who grew up about 90 minutes outside Belfast, and Dornan drew on their own experiences being raised in Northern Ireland to find the conflicted emotions of their characters. Branagh’s story juxtaposes moments of joyful celebration with marital tensions, and political and societal tumult, allowing Ma and Pa to experience a complex range of reactions to their situation.
“This focuses on the beginning of a particular conflict that lasted for 30 years, a conflict that had a huge influence on both of our lives,” Dornan says. “We were both born into it. That is something that has shaped us, growing up in a conflict environment and a post-conflict environment, which it still very much is today. It’s a world that we recognize in a big way compared to other worlds we’ve tried to inhabit with our work.”
The actors looked at YouTube interviews and news reports from the late ’60s, and binged the BBC Two series “Pop Goes Northern Ireland.”
“There’s so much footage from that time of real people,” Balfe notes. “You hear them talking and arguing. It was really emotional going back and watching all that stuff. To see the inception of something that lasted for so long and is still not resolved, there’s a sadness to it.”
Along with Branagh’s careful direction, Balfe and Dornan found an immediate ease with each other, which resonates throughout their performances. Despite the surrounding cast, their work feels undeniably like a two-hander.
“Ken’s cleverly crafted his cast,” Dornan says. “He puts people together he thinks will make sense, energy-wise, based on whatever algorithms he’s concocted in his mind. Sometimes you’re working with people where it’s more of a challenge to make it feel like you’re friends or you have a relationship or whatever. But we just fit.”
Balfe responds, “You and I have a very similar approach to what we do. You do all of your research and you do all of your prep, and then you come to set and it’s like, ‘Let’s play. Let’s not overthink. Let’s not make it more difficult than it has to be.’ You just show up, and you’re open and you’re ready to try whatever is needed.”
The two are aware it’s a once-in-a-lifetime project, and while everyone involved took the work seriously, it’s also the most joyous experience the pair have had on set.
“I want to have fun all the time at work — you don’t become an actor not to,” Dornan says. “Some things you do on paper probably aren’t that fun, but this is one of the ones that it felt like you should be having a laugh and we really did.”