Ciaran Hinds Says ‘Yes’ to Everything, but It Took ‘Belfast’ to Make Him an Oscar Nominee

After 45 years in theater, television, and films, the Irish character actor is finally having his Oscar moment.
Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciaran Hinds in "Belfast"
Focus Features

Ciaran Hinds has reached what Miss Jean Brodie would have called his prime. From his days as a romantic lead (“Persuasion,” “Jane Eyre”), he’s put in 45 years working in theater, television, and films, and now lands juicy roles in studio and indie pictures alike as president, Roman emperor, “Harry Potter” wizard, many villains, and, this year, as a grandfather in Kenneth Branagh’s heart-tugger “Belfast.” This brought the 69-year-old Irish actor his first Oscar nomination.

“It’s better than a puck in the garb, as we say back home,” he told me on Zoom. “I’m pretty quietly thrilled.”

Does Hinds take everything he’s offered? “I was brought up,” he said, “if somebody offers you something, say ‘Yes, gracious me,’ and off you go!” He can hold his own opposite Benedict Cumberbatch as “Hamlet” at The National Theatre, or against Nic Cage in “Ghost Rider.”

“I live on a day-to-day basis, as I turn up like a bad penny, hither and yonder, in various guises and projects,” said Hinds, “And I’m still wondering, ‘How did that happen?'”

“Belfast” feels like a natural fit: Hinds and Branagh grew up a half mile from each other, haunting the same movie theaters and parks, although Hinds went to Catholic schools and Branagh was a Protestant. “Almost equidistant between both our houses was the cinema,” said Hinds. “There was only one cinema in North Belfast, where we’re from, called The Capital. I have seven or eight years on Ken. So we might have been watching different films.”

Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar in ‘Rome.’HBO

The two men had met on the theater circuit, but had never worked together before Branagh sent Hinds the autobiographical 1969 screenplay he wrote during lockdown. “Really,” Hinds told Branagh, “I’m far too young to play your grandfather.”

The script took Hinds “back to his roots,” he said, “deeply back into my own culture, the colors of the characters, the rhythm of the language, the sly, soft humor, the toughness of the people — but not hard. They had to be tough and stoic because that was Belfast at that time. And in ’69, it was the most economically depressed city in the whole of the U.K.”

From the start, Branagh made it clear that Hinds and his old theater colleague Judi Dench, who is eight years older than Hinds, were not expected to impersonate his real grandparents. “We agreed to meet somewhere in the middle with no specific number in mind,” said Hinds. “It was about the spirit of them, the nature of these people, who they were. He did a simple exercise the first time we met all together at a big table. He got each of us to tell in about 10 minutes each the story of our childhood. So within half an hour we knew each other quite well.”

There was no need to improvise on Branagh’s script. “There was the rhythm and the truth of it,” Hinds said, “but it was also slightly heightened at times, to be played truthfully. He’s got all these little colors going on. And we may have invented one thing, or two. I’d ask him, ‘Would you mind if I just threw in this little riff?’ But there was no need for it really, because the script in itself was so lean, but connected.”

Belfast Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and writer/director Kenneth Branagh on the set of “Belfast”Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Dench and Hinds create a believably long-married couple who adore their grandson (newcomer Jude Hill). In one poignant moment, Pop reminds his wife, “When you have gray hair, nobody thinks your heart ever skipped.”

The movie “is a love story to Belfast,” Hinds said, “and a love story between these young parents who are fractious, but loving, and these grandparents. It’s all about love, through thick and thin, and the clashes. Granny is kinda hard with Pop, at times, always poking on him. And he knows why: because in his day, he’s been a bit of a scamp, too, like ‘You’re a bit long coming back from the pub.’ You realize that they’ve had a history, but they’re still sticking it out. At this stage, he sings and gets her up to defuse things when she’s getting a bit grumpy, with a kind of charm. He has a little dance.”

When Hinds screened the movie he felt it turned out well, but the Belfast premiere was the real test: “When you bring ‘Belfast’ to Belfast, they’re gonna say, ‘What have you said to the world about us? We will be the judge of whether it’s worthy or not.’ That’s fair enough. I was thinking it could go either way. And then the film opened, and Van Morrison started singing. Suddenly, a great silence descended in the house. And then all that wry humor warmed everybody up. And this huge collective experience was going on. That was exhilarating. And then it ended. I am getting quite emotional at the memory of it!”

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