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Jamie Dornan on Belfast, Branagh and the brilliance of working in TV and film

The Belfast actor speaks exclusively about his latest hit movie.

Jamie Dornan on Belfast, Branagh and the brilliance of working in TV and film
Marc Chacksfield
21 January 2022

Jamie Dornan is an actor that's dominating both the big and small screen at the moment. Fresh from hit BBC show The Tourist, he's back playing the wholly different role of Pa in Belfast, the semi-autobiographical movie written and directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh (well, just Ken to Dornan).

Set among the backdrop of The Troubles in the late '60s, Belfast is a movie close to Dornan's heart, given it's based in the city he grew up in, and his Oscar-nominated performance shines in a movie that's packed with beautiful performances.

Here he chats to ShortList about the importance of the film, why he wants to continue doing both TV and movies and his search for the perfect Indiana Jones hat...

Jamie Dornan on Belfast, Branagh and the brilliance of working in TV and film

ShortList: How did you initially get involved with Belfast?

Jamie Dornan: It was a text message. I didn't know that Ken [Branagh, director of Belfast] was developing the story or anything like that. It was at a weird time because it was during the first lockdown and, speaking from my industry, we didn't know when things were going to start up again, if and when we'd be working again and then suddenly, I got a text from my agents and was asked to read for a film called Belfast on Zoom.

I didn't even know what Zoom was at that stage, so I think the first Zoom I ever had was with Kenneth Branagh!

SL: What was it like playing Pa in the movie, portraying somebody that's obviously very close to Kenneth Branagh’s heart?

JD: I was lucky in many ways with this as I'm from Belfast, my dad is from Belfast, his dad is… we come from a long line of men from Belfast. So, the idea of what constitutes a man from Belfast, what sort of makeup they have is within me, thankfully, and I understand the resilience and the humour that you usually find in people from that part of the world.

When it comes to the aspect of playing Ken’s own father, he was amazing in wanting us to bring our own instinct to the roles. He was never trying to pigeonhole me or or Caitriona [Balfe, who plays Ma] into playing a sort of memory of who his parents were to him. It was the opposite of that. He was like: ‘What do you guys feel these people to be? I want to see that and if it's way off from what I want, then I'll let you know.’

For the most part, he gave us the freedom to do what we wanted to with it, which was important and liberating. On the same note I am respectful of the fact that although he wanted us to bring our own thing, we are still portraying his parents here, so being able to have Ken there as a sounding board was brilliant too.

Also, YouTube is your best friend when you're an actor. There's a load of really great news footage from around that time at the beginning of the conflict of obviously bewildered, hard working people being interviewed in the street about what is kicking off in their neighbourhood. So we were able to draw on a lot of those characters and then mix that with what we could talk to Ken about and what we wanted to bring to the role ourselves.

SL: Belfast is great at showing that real mix of uncertainty and resilience in a situation that nobody should have to go through.

JD: I have been someone who's spent 20 years travelling around the world, telling people with great pride that I'm from Belfast and seeing all kinds of reactions on people's faces when you tell them you're from that part of the world. So I think it's really important for a wider audience to understand that there were lots of normal families that didn't ask for this. They weren't tribal, they weren't sectarian - they didn't want unrest. And they certainly didn't want that for 30 years and for 3,500 people to die as a result of this. It's important to see normal, hard working people through this lens.

Jamie Dornan on Belfast, Branagh and the brilliance of working in TV and film

SL: The cast and crew of Belfast is fantastic, what was it like to work with both Dame Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh?

JD: What's cool is that they are both really accessible, funny people. I’ve heard horror stories of actors who have knighthoods - you've probably heard the same stories - where you have to refer to them as Sir. I personally wouldn't do that. I'm not someone who would be comfortable with that, I think it's fucking ridiculous someone asking you to call them Sir. So it was nice to be with people who are so grounded, approachable and fun.

What a treat to say that you've shared screen time with the likes of Judy Dench. It doesn't come much bigger. It is something I'll never forget.

SL: And the flipside of that is first-time actor Jude Hill who is a revelation as buddy. Did you give him any advice on the set?

JD: He didn't ask me [laughs]. He obviously didn’t think I was someone he would follow in the footsteps of. But he's just a class actor, above everything else. He's really good at what he does, even though he hasn't been at it very long.

He's an unbelievable listener. There's so much of the movie shown through his perspective, so much of it plays on his face and what a face he has. We as an audience are reading the goings on through the reactions of his face and that's a big thing, to be able to hold the audience like that, particularly when it's your first film but he just has it, whatever it is and he has it in spades.

SL: The production of Belfast was actually in England, how was that for you?

JD: I plan to tell stories from the north of Ireland for the rest of my career, if I'm given the opportunity - it's very important to me. So when I first spoke to Ken about Belfast I said: ‘have you shot anything there before? Because you are going to love it. The crews are so great.’ And he was very diplomatic about it and he said, ‘well, you know, we'll hopefully get to shoot some stuff in Belfast’. But the reality was, we were in the beginnings of a pandemic.

They did get a shitload of exterior stuff shot there. The opening of the movie that's all in modern day Belfast, and it looks unbelievable. But the reality is once we get into the film and all of the bits in black and white, we shot that on a set that was built in Berkshire.

I've had people from Belfast not even realise that it wasn't shot there. The authenticity of that set was incredible but it was very strange bringing all these Belfast actors over to England to play a movie that's called Belfast.

Jamie Dornan on Belfast, Branagh and the brilliance of working in TV and film

SL: There are some beautiful scenes shot in cinemas in Belfast, showcasing the beauty and escapism of film - did you have any moments like that in your childhood, watching something that made you want to get into the movies?

JD: Indiana Jones for me was my pure escapism. I loved it so much that I had a whole assortment of hats when I was younger, trying to find the right one like his. You can literally buy a copy of the Indiana Jones hat now in lots of different stores or online or whatever, but in the '80s and '90s we didn't have access to that, so I remember making my parents buy me any hat I saw that looked like it could be like Indiana Jones. Looking back at family photos, none of them were right, they were all made of straw and stuff but they let me believe I was him for a while.

That was the closest to escapism I got, but it's a ludicrous thing to think that you can do acting for a living. You have to be a bit bonkers to believe that you can make a career in movies.

The only time we ever went as a family to the cinema was exclusively for Steve Martin films. My dad was a massive Steve Martin fan so we saw Parenthood, Father Of The Bride… they were our family trips to the cinema.

SL: You've got a nice mix of TV and movies on your CV, do you prefer one medium or the other?

JD: I love both and I feel really fortunate that I have, so far, had great opportunities in TV and film. Even right now, the two things I have out are Belfast and The Tourist. They're both wildly different and I love that.

I feel with television you can probably afford to be a bit bolder. If you do something that's a bit wacky in a movie, it's harder to convince people to go to the cinema to see that. So much of the best writing is in television right now. Thankfully the snobbery of film actors not doing TV has gone. As soon as Meryl Streep turned up on a TV set, I think everyone went, ‘alright, okay’.

So, I want to continue to do both. In my immediate future that’s what I’m doing and I'd love to try to keep that going if I can.

Belfast is out in cinemas now, courtesy of Universal Picture.