Watching Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill interact off-screen, you could be forgiven for thinking that they are related, writes Maureen Coleman
There’s an ease to the actors’ back-and-forth bantering that suggests familiarity. If 11-year-old Hill is in awe of his Belfast co-star he hides it well, constantly ribbing the actor who plays his Pa in Kenneth Branagh’s movie.
“Pa reminds me a bit of my own dad, except mine is better looking,” quips Hill.
Dornan doesn’t bite. “Your dad is good looking,” he agrees.
Playing father and son in Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast means the pair are now well acquainted. Not only did they bond on and off set, but the core cast members and their director have since travelled to various international film festivals together, promoting the much talked about movie and consolidating friendships formed during the 2020 shoot.
The Golden Globe-nominated Dornan, currently starring in the BBC One ratings hit The Tourist, may be the star attraction but there’s little chance of too much fame going to his head with Hill around.
“Is Jamie good at giving you tips on how to handle all this?” I ask the Gilford schoolboy.
“He hasn’t sought my advice yet about anything,” laughs Dornan, before Hill can reply. “He just ridicules me.
“Anyway, no one wants my picture now. Jude’s the guy in the posters.”
Of course, that’s not quite the case. The ever-humble Dornan is hot property in terms of his Hollywood profile and matinee idol good looks.
Recent turns in the US comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Belfast and The Tourist have allowed him to free himself from the shackles of the Fifty Shades franchise and show what a versatile actor he is. Indeed, when Branagh began casting for Belfast, he had the 39-year-old Co Down man in mind for the role of Pa from the start. Dornan finds this mind-blowing.
“Ken will claim I’m the only person he ever considered for the part; it’s what he told me, and I’ve noticed that it’s what he keeps saying in press interviews, which is very thrilling,” says Dornan.
“I think if you’re from here, you have a lower expectation of yourself and the impact you might be having than people from other parts of the world. Maybe.
“I think Irish people in general don’t like to blow their own trumpets. I was under the impression Ken wouldn’t even know who I was and then when I spoke to him, he had seen every single thing I’d ever done.”
Dornan lowers his voice and angles himself away from his young co-star.
“Well, he might not have seen Fifty Shades but luckily, he’d seen enough.”
Hill’s ears prick up.
“What’s that?” he asks. Dornan sidesteps the question and quickly changes the subject.
“During the first lockdown, I’d had to pull out of a job so then that went away, and I was sort of twiddling my fingers, thinking, ‘Ok, what’s the craic? When am I going to be working again?’
“Not only does this job come up that was about to shoot — which was hard to believe because nothing was filming — but it was just a brilliant package and about my hometown.
“Also, it had Branagh and Judi attached which was obviously a very alluring prospect. I really didn’t have to think too much about it.”
Belfast, set at the end of the 1960s, was written and directed by Branagh. It tells the story of a working-class family living in the north of the city, through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy — a fictional version of Branagh himself. As the decade draws to a close, Buddy’s childhood dreams turn into a nightmare. Simmering social discontent explodes in Buddy’s own street and escalates into a city-wide conflict. His Pa works away in England and his Ma struggles to cope with the changing world around her. With riots and rising tension providing the backdrop, Buddy’s family is faced with some tough decisions about the future.
In various interviews, Branagh has said the single most important piece of casting was of Buddy, whose viewpoint and imagination lie at the heart of the film.
With an infrastructure in place, thanks to the global success of Game of Thrones and the thriving film and television industry in Northern Ireland, the casting team was able to see around 300 young boys for first auditions.
That was then whittled down to 30, then 12 then to a final shortlist with auditions taking place over Zoom.
Speaking about Hill, Branagh said: “In Jude Hill we found a boy whose talent was ready to blossom but who was still enjoying himself as an ordinary kid.
“Playing football was as important to him as making the film and that’s what we wanted. At the same time, he was always very serious about the work, very prepared and very open.
“I was asking for a curious combination — I wanted him to just be himself and I also wanted him to be able to make all the tiny performance adjustments that I was also asking for. And he really delivered.
“He has an extraordinary openness and is so natural in front of the camera that it was sometimes hard to believe this is his first film.”
Hill recalls the auditioning process as “quite intense.”
“I had numerous callbacks, but we didn’t know who was making the film at the start,” he says. “Then when I found out it was Ken, my brain went onto autopilot, and I worked and worked really hard.
“I started to educate myself about The Troubles. Mum and Dad told me what it was like back then and what everyone was feeling and that really helped.
“I didn’t always know some of the terms they were using, but Ken, Ciarán [Hinds] and Jamie helped me.”
Dornan’s own upbringing on the North Down coast was a world away from that of Branagh’s in the Mountcollyer area of north Belfast but he was all too aware of the historical setting of the film.
“I’ve never shied away from the fact that I probably had the most charmed, middle-class upbringing you could have in this part of the world,” he admits.
“But I still have a very strong understanding of the reasons the conflict began, the events that filled those 30 years and everything that has gone on since because it’s important to me to know that.
“Yes, living in Holywood is different to living in working class Belfast, but you can’t be born in this place in 1982 and not be affected by the conflict.
“Sometimes I hear myself telling Americans that I’d been going into town to meet some mates and would have to cancel because of a bomb scare. All that stuff we just took for normal. You realise now what lunacy that really was.”
While some shooting took place in Belfast, the pandemic meant Branagh had to improvise. A large space at Farnborough Airport in Hampshire was transformed into an entire street. A nearby empty school became the hospital and school.
Filming was intense and lockdown meant the cast couldn’t go out every night for dinner or drinks, so much of the bonding took place on set. Branagh, a famous Tottenham Hotspur fan, encouraged playing football between scenes.
“We pretty much had a football all the time,” says Dornan. “We were able to play proper football with nets and everything, so we did loads of that and that was a brilliant bonding thing. I’m a very easy person to please. If you give me a ball, I’m happy.”
Dornan, who has three young daughters with wife Amelia Warner, says he had fun teaching Hill to play football, but the young actor is indignant.
“Remember that time we were playing football and I did a thousand keepie-uppies?” asks Dornan.
“No,” replies Hill, a staunch supporter of Liverpool. “You planted your foot into the ball, and it hit off the make-up van.”
Were there pranks on set?
“Jamie was going in for make-up and I gave them a whoopee cushion,” says Hill.
“He was supposed to sit on it, but he sat on the wrong chair.”
Dornan says: “Yes, I’m a prankster too so I can sense when these things are coming.”
Pranks and teasing aside, the cast, which also includes Hinds, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench and Lewis McAskie, all got on well and became like a family unit during the shoot. Dornan says in a weird way, Covid restrictions brought them even closer.
“We were going through this weird period in everyone lives, getting this movie made and I think that did bond us,” he says.
“Then there’s been such an insane reaction to the movie worldwide and all the love it’s been getting and, you know, I think that’s brought us even closer.
“We’re all seeing each other a lot more and doing all this press and that’s going to continue for a while, so yeah, there’s a lovely bond.”
Hill agrees. Despite the A-list status of the actors he’s been involved with, he sees them as friends. Even Dornan, he adds mischievously.
“They’re all my friends now,” he says.
“People ask me, ‘How come you’re so chilled with them?’ but they’re just chilled people that you can sit down and have a chat with. They’re all kind of normal.”
In his current project The Tourist, which has been well received by television viewers, Dornan gets to keep his Belfast accent. In the BBC drama, he plays a Northern Irish man with amnesia, who is lost in the Australian outback. But it’s his role as Pa which he says is the ‘most archetypical Belfast man’ he’s ever portrayed.
He recognises qualities and characteristics in Pa from his father’s family who grew up in the Donegall Road area. Because of this, he says, he felt more relaxed on the set of Belfast than he’d ever done before.
Much like Branagh, it’s the opinions of the Belfast people which means the most to Dornan. While the global accolades have been plentiful and gratefully received, The Fall star admits that he wants audiences here to enjoy the film.
“I think we are the best people in the world but we’re also quite cynical and quick to judge,” he points out.
“We’re wary of that. We really want people here to like it. That matters so much because the film is for those people.”
Hill says he cried the first time he watched Belfast. His tears began early on, when the opening sequences switch from colour to black and white. That really got him, he says, and unexpectedly so.
For Dornan, watching the movie provoked a myriad of emotions. Naturally he was proud but having lost his own dad to Covid in March 2021, Dornan was also heartbroken. Professor Jim Dornan was a much-loved and hugely respected obstetrician and gynaecologist, and his death came as a terrible shock to the community.
“I definitely shed tears for lots of different reasons,” says Dornan.
“I’ve had a tough year personally with everything that has happened since we made the film and I’ve been dealing with my own stuff.”
We discuss what a positive and inspirational man his dad was and Dornan’s voice breaks as he fights back his tears.
“He was never short of telling me that he was proud,” he says.
“Men can wait a whole lifetime to hear that from their parents, particularly from their fathers.
“Dad told me every day of my life that he loved me, so I am all too aware of how lucky I am, but it’s been so hard.”
He sees the same pride and grounded approach in Hill’s parents and says that level-headedness will help the young actor as he navigates success and fame.
“It’s a lot to be happening at that age so it will really make a difference to be surrounded by good people who know the craic and won’t get carried away,” Dornan says.
Playing Buddy in Belfast will undoubtedly open more doors for Hill, who was recently named best newcomer by the Hollywood Critics Association. He’s also been signed by talent agency UTA and Berwick and Kovacik and continues to be represented by local agent Shelley Lowry in the UK. Dornan, meanwhile, won’t be short of offers either and has even been mooted as the new James Bond, something which he denies he’s been approached about.
The actor wants to try his hand at making his own movies now and has co-written a script set in Belfast in 1990 with fellow thespian Conor MacNeill. He can’t reveal details yet except to confirm there’s ‘a bit of a rave’ in it, as part of the exploration of a young girl’s life.
Is there a role for Hill in the movie?
“There’s a part in it which he’s too young for now, but by the time we get round to making it, he might be the right age,” laughs Dornan.
Hill says starring in Belfast was the ‘most fun thing’ he’s ever done in his life — despite the hard work — and that he’d happily work with Dornan again.
“Oh yeah?” Dornan says.
“Now you’re finally being nice to me.”
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