Ken Branagh says resilience of Northern Ireland people is inspirational ... 'a great shining example to the world'
Sir Kenneth Branagh has paid tribute to the resilience of Northern Ireland people, saying that in the midst of political uncertainty they remain one of the "great shining examples" to the world.
The Belfast-born actor and director was home on Saturday to promote his new film, All is True, where he takes on the role of William Shakespeare.
Sir Kenneth grew up in the Tigers Bay area of north Belfast but moved to Reading with his family at the age of nine to get away from the Troubles.
However, Belfast had a major impact on him and he speaks passionately about how it influenced his work.
But the thing he notices most when he comes back is the changing landscape.
Last year he was proud to return to receive the prestigious honour of the Freedom of Belfast and spent time on the North Coast filming Artemis Fowl, the film adaptation of the best-selling books by Irish author Eoin Colfer.
"I always notice new buildings, the landscape of the city," he says.
"I noticed the weather again, which was fairly lively.
"When I grew up here, I was very much a city boy and the streets of Belfast were what I knew. Latterly I've been getting to know a bit more of the larger Northern Ireland and that's been fun - but usually accompanied by varieties of weather."
Sir Kenneth's first big break came in the 1980s when he was cast as Billy in Graham Reid's trilogy of Billy plays about the everyday life of a Protestant family. They were broadcast nationally as part of the BBC's Play for Today series.
"I remember clear as day seeing an ad in the stage newspaper," he recalls.
"'Young actor wanted, to play 16 to 18-year-old capable of authentic working-class Belfast accent'.
"I thought, 'well, I think I could do that'.
"I didn't have a CV, I hastily printed one out, I had one photograph up on the wall of my drama school, I got the train up to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), went to the wall and said, 'I need to take it down'.
"They said, 'We need it' and I said, 'No, I've got to take it down'.
"I took it to the BBC at Shepherd's Bush and two days later they gave me a call, I went in there and then a month later I got my first job. And it was coming back home."
Sir Kenneth says he has felt immense support from the people of Northern Ireland - from that very starting point of his career.
"It's a very Belfast thing to make sure people don't get above themselves," he adds.
As he slips back into a Belfast brogue, he smiles: "Or as my father would say about certain people, 'I think he's forgot himself'. I was here 'til I was nine, so you can't help having something of the place absolutely in your bones and DNA. And I do know that, with that teasing, mickey-taking that can go on, there is also an intense pride, and I felt it really from the moment on my very first job as an actor playing Billy. It was one of the first working-class dramas that did not concentrate on political conflict and social conflict set here."
Throughout his glittering career, Branagh has been no stranger to Shakespeare and his body of work, having starred in and directed countless productions both on stage and on the big screen.
But he felt this role, which sees him star as the playwright, joined by an incredible cast of Dame Judi Dench playing his wife, Anne, and Sir Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton, was the perfect way to showcase Shakespeare's human side.
The film is a portrait of William Shakespeare during the last three years of his life, as he leaves London and returns to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. It follows Shakespeare as he strives to bridge the distance between himself and his family, recover from the loss of his son, and come to terms with his legacy.
The simmering tensions in the family that have been contained during his absence, while he spent two decades working in London, gradually surface.
Sir Kenneth adds: "A look at the man was really key and the chance to immerse myself and absolutely high-dive into this look, with the high forehead and long hair and very different nose."
He continues: "I knew that what we were after ultimately was not a period reconstruction in authentic detail, but more importantly a sense of a real family. Real problems, entirely recognisable.
"We wanted a film that our audience today could look at and reflect and say, 'I wanted to say that to my father', or 'We've had some pretty interesting times when the secrets and lies in our family suddenly got exposed and that reminds me of that'."
The notion of genius and legacy is a key aspect of the film, but when asked what he hopes his will be, Sir Kenneth says he is happy as long as he brings people joy through his work.
He adds: "I hope the work I've done has entertained a few people - that's enjoyable.
"And particularly related to Shakespeare, I've been grateful and pleased when often, very young people have come up to me and said they 'got an hour-and-a-half off normal lessons because they had to watch one of our Shakespeare films' so either I gave them a chance to daydream or, in some cases, you've changed a few lives." Recently someone told him they went to Queen's University after getting into English Literature through his acclaimed films, which became the "backbone" to sparking their interest.
He adds: "So being part of that, it's not something you see, but if it's a result of your own passion for the work, it's pretty rewarding.
"But I'm not really in the legacy business, I'm happy if people watch this film now, that's great.
"And the power of film is that people, especially if films don't work, you are always surprised that for somebody in some corner of the world it might have been the thing that they've loved most about what you have done, and that's always rewarding.
"If you've had an audience and you sustain an audience and you sometimes hear from your audience on your travels - that's living legacy enough, I reckon."
Despite reaching the heights in the world of the film industry - holding a prestigious Michael Balcon Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), receiving five Academy Award nominations, and, in 2013, receiving a knighthood for services to drama and the community in Northern Ireland - Sir Kenneth remains humble, as he says he was never in pursuit of accolades.
"I was so lucky and happy that I was in the game at all.
"As I left Belfast, never in one million years would I have thought that I would have a career in showbiz.
"Once I got in it, for me, just to work occasionally was the goal. There was no idea of fame or opportunity on the level that I've experienced, and it wasn't the pursuit, the pursuit was doing something I loved and trying to earn a living at it."
In these uncertain political times, as Sir Kenneth continues to represent Northern Ireland on a global stage, he says he remains inspired by the resilience of its people.
He adds: "It's miraculous and inspirational.
"Across my lifetime, the political and social developments here have been massive, and the changes and the progress made, even with all the bumps in the road, including the current ones, have still been amazing.
"Resilience in the face of uncertainty, here, is now set in the context of a much greater uncertainty in England and the rest of the UK, in America, across all sorts of political environments across the world.
"That actually means, I think, as knotty and as thorny as the problems are - that the resilience and the belief which has now been earned, and proven by that very resilience - that progress can still be possible, in the most difficult situations is one of the great shining examples that Northern Ireland gives to the world."
Sir Kenneth Branagh's All Is True is out in cinemas now