EXCLUSIVE: News24 lifestyle editor Herman Eloff sits down with the stars of the Oscar-nominated film, Belfast, to talk about love and family in a time of unrest and extreme turmoil.
"He’s an incredibly talented actor, but he’s also just one of the most lovely men you’ll ever meet," Irish actor Caitriona Balfe says in praise of her Belfast co-star Jamie Dornan.
"He has such integrity in his work. It was so easy between the two of us," she adds via Zoom during our virtual catch-up.
The 42-year-old star, perhaps best known for her role in the hit series Outlander, is wearing a formal black blazer over a black top with her hair effortlessly swept back in a stylish bun. A beautiful pair of chunky gold earrings round off her elegant look.
"He wanted the best out of every scene, as did I. It just felt that we constantly met at the same point when we were talking about scenes. We had such a laugh. We really did," she says in her signature Irish accent as the letter r rolls dutifully off her tongue and pops in the air with a hint of excitement.
Caitriona, Ma, and Jamie, Pa, take on the lead roles in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical black and white film that has raked in a staggering and well-deserved seven Oscar nominations.
"She’s got one of the most evil laughs in the business," Jamie, beaming onto my screen from a separate room, tells me with a mischievous smile when I ask him about working with Caitriona.
The handsome actor, who had many swooning with his steamy performance in the erotic drama Fifty Shades, is wearing a fitted short-sleeved black button-up shirt that shows off his defined forearms and the silver watch around his left wrist.
He adds: "It’s amazing her laugh, and I heard it a lot."
Set in the late 1960s amid The Troubles, laughter might seem wildly out of place on the set of a film that deals with hefty topics like politics, religion, and violent conflict. But, Belfast, seen through the eyes of a young boy named Buddy, portrayed by newcomer Jude Hill, examines conflict and political turmoil through a very innocent perspective.
"It’s amazing how Ken was able to hold those two things in his hands at once," Caitriona, balancing her hands out in front of her teetering them from one side to the other, says in praise of Branagh’s genius in masterfully creating a soft, nurturing, and loving film set against the backdrop of the darkest and most complex of topics – warfare.
"The beauty of being able to tell the story through the eyes of a child is that you don’t have to get bogged down in the nuances of the politics or look at it through an ideological or paramilitary lens. His experiences as a nine-year-old was very much his world being turned upside down, and he never really understood why.
"What’s important to a nine-year-old are the things like your football team, the girl you fancy, what’s happening within the confines of the four walls of your own home. I think everybody who lives in a place of civil unrest can understand that alongside danger and alongside these heavy moments, life goes on. There’s still brevity, there’s still love, there’s still laughter, and they’re even more important."
From Northern Ireland himself, Jamie felt it was essential to look at history from a different perspective.
"To be honest, it’s really important for someone from that part of the world to showcase that, because the other versions have been told before, and they have their rightful place. There have been brilliant movies made about that conflict, about The Troubles, and often through a very political lens, sectarian or tribal lens, violent lens, and while it’s good to see that and there’s so much truth in that, it’s also really necessary to see how just an ordinary hard-working family were affected by something like this.
"That is a story that hasn’t been told yet and for me personally, someone from Belfast who has travelled the world for 20 years telling people I’m from Belfast and seeing all kinds of different responses to it, it’s very important that that story is told," he says with that iconic brogue that can knot sentences together like a trusted fisherman's rope can keep a boat tied to a dock.
On playing Pa, Jamie – a father of three daughters, had to place himself in a completely different era to fully understand his character’s perspective.
"I think fathers today are probably more tactile than they were in the Sixties. Particularly where I come from in Belfast," he reflects, adding, "But I was very lucky to have a very loving, tactile father, and I like to think I’m the same, probably."
The 39-year-old star shyly glances off-camera and smiles as he adds: "You know, it’s alarming how many times a day I tell my kids I love them, but that was my experience too.
"I liked speaking to Ken about his own father – he was sort of somewhere in-between, you know. He expressed love to the kids - more so than other men at that time. He was all about his family. He was trying to make the right decisions for his family. I think that’s something that’s true even for a parent today. You are always putting the kids and the family first,” he gestures forward with his hands, momentarily giving a glimpse of his wedding band on his left hand. Jamie has been married to English musician and composer Amelia Warner since they said their vows in a private ceremony at a beautiful country house in Somerset in 2013.
"I think that aspect was the biggest aspect I could relate to – having to make difficult decisions. Not because I faced the beginning of what would end up being a civil war, but even with what we’ve all experienced over the last couple of years and navigating that with kids has been difficult. So you’re able to draw on that a bit."
Caitriona’s character, Ma, has a different journey to Jamie’s Pa.
"I think one of the things that I love about this character so much and the way Ken wrote her was that she does feel like she’s all-encompassing. She’s a mother, she’s a wife, but she also has this very personal battle that she’s going through that’s very much an independent thing that she has to overcome that’s just very much about her.
"One of the things that really struck me when I read the script is that we see Pa with his very stable family. Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench) are always there; you get the sense that he has innate confidence in life. That’s he’s able to sort of move forward and go anywhere he wants because he’ll always have this to fall back on. Whereas with Ma, and this is stuff that I talked to Ken about, she never had that stability.
"She lost her mother at a very young age, her family life was always chaotic, but she’s always had her sisters and her siblings – and I think that this house with Pa, with her two boys, is the first time she’s really had stability. So for her to imagine leaving that and leaving these streets where her identity is so wrapped up in, it’s really difficult for her to even imagine a life beyond this.
"It was a really great key for me into her, because on the one hand, she is this very ferocious, confident person in this place, but that’s kind of where her limitation is. There’s a little girl inside her that, beyond that, it’s sort of beyond her capacity. It was a lovely complexity to kind of wrestle with."
Caitriona in 2021 became a mother herself when she welcomed a baby boy with husband Anthony "Tony" McGill.
About his co-star, Jamie says: "She just has real ease about her. A real grace. But, as you see in the movie and her portrayal, she can be fierce and sort of very stoic and has a toughness to her that I think is often found in Irish women," he pauses before adding with pride; "and Caitriona is an Irish woman."
What does this Irish woman think of her co-star calling her infectious laugh the evilest in the business?
"I’ll take that," she says without the slightest hint of hesitation before letting out a joyful chuckle.
It must be true then what they say about the magical powers of laughter. Sometimes, like in Belfast, all we need in the darkest of times is a laugh so great that it can break open the floodgates that will finally let our tears flow freely.
Belfast opens in South African cinemas on Friday, 4 March.