‘Belfast’ Stars Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe Drew From Personal Experiences to Play a Married Couple Caught in a Tumultuous Time
For Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan , working on Focus Features’ Belfast was unlike anything they’d done before. The actress, who plays Ma in Kenneth Branagh ’s film based on his childhood, felt drawn to the story when she saw that the script was focused on ordinary people instead of the politics and ideology of Northern Ireland — which she often sees in projects that come her way. For Dornan, who plays Balfe’s husband, Pa, Belfast was set in his hometown, and he was enticed by the truthful story of a family struggling with crippling decisions, grief and unconditional love.
Plus, they got to work with a cast that included Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds and 11-year-old newcomer Jude Hill, whom Balfe and Dornan describe as a joy to work with. The duo reveal to THR how much freedom they had in portraying Branagh’s parents onscreen, how dancing was the most challenging part of the film, and how much rehearsal Dornan had for his “Everlasting Love” rendition — one of his two musical performances last year that took the internet by storm.
How did you get involved with the project?
CAITRíONA BALFE I think I was one of the last of the main actors to come on board. When I was first approached, I was told all of the lovely names that were already attached, and that was incredibly intimidating. I was sent the script, and it’s not that often you read something and you instantly … I felt like I knew Ma. I felt like I recognized my own mother in her but also many other women that I knew from Ireland. And also the subject matter. There’s been so many films made about Northern Ireland that deal with the politics or the ideology, and of course, there’s a place for that, and they’re vastly important. There was nothing that I’d read before that sort of focused on everyday people and with such compassion and with such empathy, so I was just blown away.
JAMIE DORNAN In any given circumstance, if Kenneth Branagh wanted to make a movie with you, with Judi Dench — who was the only other actor that was attached when it came my way — I’d say yes probably without even reading the script. But this time, it was not only those people but a story about my hometown. Also, in the time of the pandemic, when there was sincere fear that I was never going to work again — I certainly didn’t know where the next job was coming from, so it was a particularly tantalizing prospect, given all those circumstances. And then to round out the cast with Ciarán and Caitríona was just incredible. The response and some of the nights that we’ve gotten to share together have been just unparalleled from what I’ve experienced so far in my career.
Given that it’s based on Branagh’s childhood but not an autobiography, did you have leeway to play his parents or did he give you some guidelines?
BALFE From the beginning, one of the first things he did was he sat Jamie, Judi, Ciarán and myself in a room. And he just got us all to speak about ourselves or our childhoods, our parents or grandparents. It became very apparent from this that he wanted us to draw on our own experiences. And he was obviously posing different scenarios that had a relevance to the film, but he wanted us to look at it from the lens of our own lives. And that was such a gift of freedom, to be able to make it our own and not feel like we were trying to reach for a certain note that we felt he was looking for. Ken is such an intelligent director. And as an actor as well, he’s incredibly clever about how he gets you to a place where he wants you to go. He was always just gently guiding us places rather than kind of like, “Well, no, my mother is like this” or “My mother does this.” It gave us a lot of freedom, and a lot of it just made us feel like he had confidence in what we were giving him.
You two play a young married couple who are at times quite distant during the film, physically and emotionally. How did you portray that in the scenes you share, and how did you balance those two aspects of the relationship?
BALFE So much of it was on the page. And it was really beautifully written. It felt fully fleshed out. There were a couple of things that didn’t quite make the end of the film. There’s one scene where they’re sending Buddy and [his brother] Will to church. In the original script, when we have Buddy leave the house, he looks back, and he sees them close the curtains, and you know that they’re having a little Sunday afternoon delight. That was great because you knew no matter what the stresses and strains on the marriage were, we do have quite a few scenes that show that underneath it all, they still have this very deep connection and this real love, and I think that was really important. Jamie and I have both said this before: We found it very organic. It felt very easy. Jamie’s such an open actor, and when we met, we were both just very at ease with each other. We found that no matter what the scenes were, we were always step-by-step and on the same page.
DORNAN It’s not all chance — Ken has picked who he has picked based on what he’s seen in our work and from our personalities. There weren’t any blockages ever at any point in feeling that that family was real. Everyone was giving such a truthful portrayal that was, luckily, cohesively aligned with what everyone else was doing. I can’t stand working with people when they have done a lot of in-the-mirror acting preparation, and they’ve just come up with a plan and they’re just going to do it that way that they’ve practiced a lot because they think that’s right, even though it’s not at all in tune with what your scene partner’s doing. … We did a lot of stuff in one take, so any time something changed or went off in a slightly different direction from the previous one, then the other person reacted accordingly.
What would you say was the most challenging scene for you both?
BALFE I think when you read a script, as an actor, the first thing you focus on is the dialogue — that gives you a sense of what it is. Then, the second pass, you might start reading some of the stage directions. But I think we both glossed over the fact that there were these dance numbers. First you read, “They dance,” and you think, “Oh, they’ll just bop a little.” I think on our first day, the second AD came up and was like, “So you’re going to do this, this, and then you’re going to have a dance rehearsal with Jamie.” I was like, “We’re going to have a what?” I think it’s not in our natural wheelhouse. But in saying that, Jamie Dornan complained during all the rehearsals about how bad he was and how bad it was and then on the day was absolutely perfect. I was the one with two left feet. Those were probably the most challenging.
DORNAN We should say that there used to be more song and dance in the film, but only really “Everlasting Love” made it in there. So there was more that the world was spared.
BALFE Well, I think we can say that all the people are very excited about Jamie Dornan’s singing.
Which song required more rehearsal: “Everlasting Love” or “Edgar’s Prayer” from Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar ?
DORNAN God save Ireland! ( Laughs .) “Everlasting Love” was quite intricate in its movements, and it was very rehearsed. I felt like I had to get all of it right — the main focus of it being what is being said in that scene between Ma and Pa and where they are, the tumultuous time of the relationship and in their lives with these huge decisions hanging over their head, and the grief, and wanting to say, “We are in a terrible place, but Jesus, I love you, and it’s going to be OK.” That was all at the forefront of it. So there’s loads to think about.
With “Edgar’s Prayer,” you’re just, like, “How can I make this as funny and as absurd and ridiculous as possible?” There were no limitations to that. I did have some dance rehearsals for “Edgar’s Prayer.” … But then we’d get to the beach in Cancun, and I was like, “I can’t even do that because the sand is too thick.” But any suggestion I’d have — “What if I did this?” — they said, “Try it!” So it’s this free rein to just be as silly as possible, which I love.
It’s so good. Every time I need a little pick-me-up, I watch your dance sequence with Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo set to the Titanic song remix.
DORNAN I’d forgotten that we used that remix to that song, and someone said something about the Titanic remix, and I was like, “What?” I had to watch it again — or my kids obsessively watched it for a while. And then I said, “Oh my God, that’s what we danced to,” and we danced to that on the night, and I’d just forgotten.
My kids are always requesting that we listen to “Edgar’s Prayer” [in the car], so they blasted it really loud in our friend’s driveway. And this car we’ve been given here, for some reason, even if you turn off the radio, it still continues, and we’re trying to say hello and greet our friends. And I was singing really loudly. It’s a terrifying thing.
BALFE Somewhere, somebody’s like, “I just pulled up next to Jamie Dornan, who is singing his own song in a car on Sunset?”
What was it like shooting such an intimate film during the pandemic?
BALFE In the beginning, we were all just so terrified that we would get Judi sick. So there were really strict protocols in place. We were testing every single day. I think, at that point, Batman had started filming and we were filming. We were the only two real productions in the U.K. that were up and running. A lot of people were looking to us to see what protocols we were using and how they were working. A lot of credit has to be given to our crew, who were all in different cohorts. They had one-way systems around the sets. All of our props, dressers and everyone, they all had their time on set, and then they would have to leave and the next person would have to come on. We were also filming at the height of summer, it was a crazy heat wave, and especially our hair and makeup department, they were in full PPE with goggles and shields. It made us have to go that extra mile to connect with each other.
Your co-star Jude Hill is incredible, and it’s his first film role. What was it like working with him, and how did you both establish this rapport with not even just a young actor but a new-to-film young actor?
BALFE He’s just amazing. The fact that this is his first role is quite incredible. He came with this absolute openness; he has no reference point for anything else, and so he was just game for anything. He is one of the most prepared and present kids you’ll ever meet, and he, in the entire time that we were shooting — and he was pretty much on all day, every day — he never complained. There was never any hyperness or grumpiness. He’s the most well-mannered, just funny, lovely, open kid. I think one of the beautiful things was to watch his relationship with Ken. Ken was so patient with him, and the way he was able to guide him and his performance was such a good lesson to watch. I’ve seen it working with other actors who are incredible at what they do. And they allow themselves to be guided without taking it on as a critique. That’s such a thing to remember: Sometimes when you’re given a note, if you feel like it’s not what you’ve been doing, it sometimes can help you. … It was beautiful to watch that openness and freedom, and it’s such a lesson as an adult to try and retain that childlike just-rolling-with-it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard
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Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
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Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, The Tragedy of Macbeth
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This story first appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.