Synopsis : BELFAST is a movie straight from Branagh’s own experience. A nine-year-old boy must chart a path towards adulthood through a world that has suddenly turned upside down. His stable and loving community and everything he thought he understood about life is changed forever but joy, laughter, music and the formative magic of the movies remain.
Jude Hill was 9 years old when he discovered and chosen from among about 300 other kids — to play the lead in a highly anticipated film, “Belfast,” which is about Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical black-and-white eulogy for his home town in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.
An Exclusive Interview with Actor Jude Hill on “Belfast”
Q: Kenneth Branagh was nine years old when he experienced those riots in Belfast, so what kind of things did he talk to you about before going into production? Were there any stories that stood out?
Jude Hill: I remember, Kenneth told me a lot of stories about when he was younger and what Buddy would do in those situations. The film isn’t really an autobiography about his life, but he does insert some things from his childhood into the film just to make it more climactic.
Q: I heard that 300 kids submitted audition tapes and Kenneth narrowed it down to six kids. Then, you finally saw Kenneth in person. What was the audition process like? Did you read with other actors?
Jude Hill: The audition process was quite intense but I loved it. There were like five different callbacks and I think the first three were on Zoom. Then the last three were in real life. The first time I spoke with Kenneth Branagh was on one of the callbacks. I just felt like he was a really great guy. You could sit down and have a chat with him about anything.
Q: You also showed him you’re doing Irish dancing at the audition?
Jude Hill: I didn’t send any dance tapes, but on set sometimes, I just danced a little jig on the set, everyone loved it.
Q: The cast did rehearsals a week prior to the start of shooting the film; what kind of bonding did you have with the other actors?
Jude Hill: We met one week before filming and sat down at a table and had a nice chat. Everyone shared who they were and what part they were playing. It was Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan and Dame Judy Dench , Kenneth Branagh, Ciarán Hinds. They’re all really great people and really good friends of mine now.
Q: What things did you talk about when you were in the rehearsal phase?
Jude Hill: I remember we did a few sing-alongs and a bunch of other different things; I liked singing together just for fun. And we’d chat and rehearse over some of the lines that we would be doing in the film. Like for some of the harder scenes that might be a bit more difficult to fulfill.
Q: Are there any elements in your character Buddy that relate to your childhood?
Jude Hill: I think I sort of relate to being Buddy a lot, because we both have the same personality and the only thing that’s different is the soccer teams that we support. I personally support Liverpool (the football/soccer team) and in the film, Buddy supports Tottenham at first.
Q: Which players would be your favorite from Liverpool?
Jude Hill: Probably it’s Mohamed Salah because he’s a really good player. He always hits it in the top corner of the net, and he’s really good at dribbling. He is the Egyptian king.
Q: In 1969, they had riots in Belfast and a lockdown. They had barricades and fences, in a similar way to after us having COVID-19. Did you find any similarities when you researched the history of Belfast?
Jude Hill: The film takes place in Belfast in 1969. Where it’s Catholic vs Protestant during the Troubles With COVID-19 going on in the world right now, it’s so crazy. Kids my age don’t really learn about the troubles and I’m still in primary school.
Q: What kind of research did you do about the history of Belfast? Did you read the book or watch some of the footage on YouTube? Did you tap into the mindset of what it was like back then?
Jude Hill: I remember watching a few films on YouTube, and self-educating myself on the topic. My mom and dad also sat me down and talked to me about it, telling about what it was like back then. I’m glad this generation is past that. This film really does the troubles justice.
Q: Near the close of the film, “Everlasting Song” played in the ballroom and Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe danced to it. It was a memorable scene. What memories do you have of shooting that sequence?
Jude Hill: I remembered that there were multiple cameras and they were all shooting from different angles at different heights. It was really fun to shoot that one sequence, because there were so many people involved and it was fun to just dance along to the song as well. And it was fun to watch Jamie Dornan and Caitriona dance together.
Q: Could you talk about the challenge of shooting the riot scene? It seemed challenging to shoot — what was like on the set? How did you prepare for that?
Jude Hill: With the riot scene, it was a really hard sequence to film, but I loved every second of it, because there was always something going on, whether it was a car driving first, a bomb being thrown, or a window being broken by rioters running on the street. I’m supposed to be acting scared in that scene, but I don’t have to be scared, because it was a scary scene in and of itself.
Q: People say this film will be a strong Oscar contender, and you’ll be up for an award in the lead actor category. Are you excited about the award season that’s coming up?
Jude Hill: I try not to think about the award season, but the film is getting a lot of attention, and I’m also starting to be recognized by people. So I feel a little bit weird. I’m just taking it all in stride, going with the flow at the moment.
Q: What was a memorable scene that you experienced on the set?
Jude Hill: It was my last day on the set. I was a wreck. I couldn’t stop crying the entire time. I didn’t want to leave. The last shot was with the entire family walking down the street, so everybody was there. I remember it was very windy, we were all crying, and the wind made our tears stream down our faces.
Q: In this film, you not only acted with talented experienced adults , but also kid actors as well — so how do you bond with the other kids on a set?
Jude Hill: Among those kid actors on the set, I played a game of UNO with them, and adult actors were telling me how to play in the background. It was really, really fun.
Q: What were the challenges of shooting this film while COVID-19 was full force? It might be very difficult to shoot when the scale of the film is very big.
Jude Hill: This was filmed in summer of 2020, and the film was really well prepared for an attack. We took precautions. Everyone had to wear a mask and hand sanitizer was always on the set. They handled it really, really well, but it was quite a hassle sometimes. But as I said, they handled it very, very well.
Q: Jamie Dornan also grew up in Belfast. Did he talk about his experience there? Kenneth and Jamie both lived in Belfast for a certain period of time, but at different times. What was your experience working with Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe.
Jude Hill: Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe are both basically my screen parents, they were so supportive of me and were really great actors themselves. Yeah, and they were very funny off set as well. Jamie sort of messed around on set a little bit, it was all fun and games.
Q: It’s important to have this film out while we’re still in the pandemic, particularly for its connection to the community showing how we can help out each other. What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
Jude Hill: I hope everyone in the audience learns that family is everything, no matter how far you go, you’ll never forget where you came from. I think that’s still a big deal for a lot of people.
Here’s the trailer of the film.