‘It touched the hearts of almost everybody’: Ciarán Hinds on ‘Belfast’, his first Oscar nomination and Tayto sambos
Born in Belfast in 1953, Ciarán Hinds spent the best part of 20 years exploring the city’s streets and though he hasn’t lived there for many years, joining Kenneth Brannagh on his most recent project felt like coming home.
Getting his start at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre in a production of Cinderella in 1976, Hinds has had an illustrious career spanning almost 50 years – and he has no plans to pack it in just yet. In fact, his recent portrayal of Pop, the beloved backyard philosopher in the critically-acclaimed Belfast, might just be his best performance yet.
Speaking to me from his hotel room in the City of Angels, it’s clear that he’s taking it all in his stride… that very exciting Oscar nomination included. Getting word that he had been put forward for his first Academy Award while on the train from London to Paris, Hinds said that celebrations were limited to answering all of the 140 texts that “kept flying into [his] phone”. “That evening, I broke the news to my wife, Hélène, and we carried on as normal,” he laughed.
Belfast marks a very different type of role for Hinds, who joins the likes of Troy Kotsur, Jesse Plemons, J.K. Simmons and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the Best Supporting Actor category. However, despite pundits naming him a frontrunner – Variety places him as one of the top three vying for the win – it’s clear that Hinds hasn’t lost his self-deprecating nature, telling me, “If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t put money on it.”
It’s not just the critics who have loved Belfast either though, and the film manages to draw people in regardless of age, race, gender or social standing. First seeing it with 2,000 others at the London Film Festival, Hinds said it was “extraordinary” to witness how the story impacted people.
It manages to find the universal in the specific, he agrees. “All these individuals come into the cinema, and then suddenly everybody was engaged with his family and the dilemma of do they leave their home for a better economic future and because of all the malevolence? Or do they stay because that’s their home, the only place they know?
“But what was wonderful was, you see all these 2,000 people really starting to feel the dilemma of the family and as it went on, people were almost in communion with the whole story. But they’re also getting the humour. So, there are these lovely spurts of life and recognising that kind of dry, sardonic wit that the Nordies have, but then at the end, a lot of people find it really emotionally engaging.”
While both director Kenneth Brannagh and Hinds are from Belfast, bringing the movie to the city itself was always going to be daunting. “We were all a bit nervous, of course, coming to a town called Belfast, with a film that has big, brazen capital letters reading ‘Belfast’. I was a bit anxious, I thought it could go either way,” he admitted. Thankfully, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive so far. “It’s seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old child, you know. There are no political agendas. There’s nothing about the rights and the wrongs – we all know the versions of history that have gone on – but, this was a story of humanity, that just happened to be set in the northern town of Belfast.”
On the topic of peace, Hinds says, “it’s always a delicate process”. “There are still grudges around, and there are still some people carrying the weight of history around with them. But there doesn’t have to be an argument – look and see what happens when there is, terrible things. There’s no reason, we’ve got a lot in common. We have much more in common than we have against each other. It’s just this kind of old tribal thing that’s been exploited, you know, by a few extremists who have their hardline attitudes. And, you know, when push comes to shove, so many people have to take sides.
“Peace and reconciliation are delicate, they’re ongoing, but through this integrated education movement happening up north, it’s moving in leaps and bounds and it’s very healthy.”
Released at a time when people are still coming to terms with the effects of the past two years and being away from friends and family, Hinds said it was lovely to see how many people have been moved by the film. For younger people, it’s the loss of youth that they’ve connected to. For older viewers, it’s because they’ve lived through that period and recognise the characters and places they see onscreen. Its reach goes beyond just an Irish audience though.
“People from Asia, from Africa, from South America, they’re all coming to the film and recognising that the heart of the story is kind of an everyman story. Every culture has had its struggles, and that idea of having to leave home, you know, it’s a worldwide issue. We’re seeing it happening again now. These are terrible, terrible times – but that’s why I think this really hit, not just Irish people, but it went out into the world and touched the hearts of almost everybody.”
When it came to character interpretation, Brannagh left that up to each individual actor, but one thing was certain; it wasn’t intended to be an impersonation. That wasn’t the point of the story, Hinds tells me. “It’s about a feeling. And I think that’s why he cast Caitríona, Jamie, Judy and myself, because he saw qualities in each of us separately, that reminded him, somewhere, of his own family.” Believable chemistry was intrinsic to the story, but how does a team build rapport on such a tight schedule? “We got to know each other, the four adults, over the course of one hour.”
“Each of us recounted a story from our own childhood, in 15 minutes or so. We talked about our siblings, when we got in trouble, how dodgy it was at school. So, suddenly, the four of us knew each other, very, in a way, intimately. Going back into all of our individual childhoods was a fantastic and brilliantly economic way of using the time because it was really tight for time. It was a very small budget. Ken is a master of organisation, and also being an actor himself, he’s able to let actors get on with what they need to do and not interfere. He was just guiding and observing and gently watching. And so in the end, I guess, he left it to our own imagination to come up with something.
“He was very adamant that he really wanted us to truly connect with each other and hopefully the camera would catch that, because it’s quite illusory, sometimes, to catch the truth of a real connection.”
Basing his interpretation of Pop loosely around memories of his own parents and his mother’s father, Hinds says that he remembers his own grandfather as being a bit of a “bog philosopher” – wise as they come and always out in nature.
“He was an outside bog philosopher. Always ruminating and thinking,” he says fondly. “The weight of Pop’s experiences and the way he was drawn so delicately, so beautifully – it was my job to try and just invest it with the truth and let it out.” According to him, the script was so masterfully done, that his part was relatively easy. Referencing one particular scene between himself and Judy – before Pop goes to hospital – Hinds says that a Yeats line (from the poem 1916) is weaved in so seamlessly that most people probably didn’t even pick up on it. “They’re talking in the window with a cup of tea just before he goes to the hospital and he says, ‘Too long a sacrifice, can make a stone of the heart.’ There’s that idea of the philosopher, who might just quietly study a bit of poetry.”
Already with quite a varied body of work behind him, Pop is significantly different to some of the other characters Hinds has played in the past – which include voiceover work in Disney’s Frozen, a part as Aberforth Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II and a slew of feature film appearances. What’s next? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.
“I never actually go seeking roles out. It’s just not my nature,” Hinds confesses, later saying that he’s always “amazed” when extraordinary directors invite him to “be part of the story”. “I love the idea of concocting or creating a story together, to be part of it with other compadres, all of us working towards the same moment to share, you know, a big arc of the story. I’m always very, very, happy to be part of that.”
Theatre is still his one true love though. Due to appear in a West End performance of Uncle Vanya back in 2020, everything was shut down just as lockdown hit. Already halfway through the run by that point, the team were forced to adapt plans given the circumstances and crew decided to film the show for TV instead… but, in very kismet timing, Brannagh got his word in first and Hinds had already agreed to do Belfast by the time Uncle Vanya could proceed. “I don’t mind missing things or not getting jobs or whatever. But that kind of broke my heart,” he told me of having to pull out of the theatrical production. One Oscar nomination and several other award-wins later and I think it’s fair to say that the heartbreak was worth it.
Now living between London and Paris with his wife (and his daughter, Aoife, when she’s around), Ciarán left Belfast behind him when he was very young, but there are many things he misses. “Tayto Smashies”, are not one of them – which Hinds confirms are not a Belfast thing, but a Jamie Dornan thing. “In my day, you’d just pop them down your gullet,” he laughs in response.
Local delicacies aside, it’s the people and places that hold the key to his heart. “I’d always go back to Belfast when my mom was alive. She passed away about five years ago, but we’d always go to Cushendall in the Glens of Antrim – that’s where we always went for our holidays. Every summer, we were always there for the month of August. The whole family there, with its tiny little golf course and the rocky old cove and it was just lovely.” It’s actually where his mother eventually retired to, and trips home still involve a quick hello to his sisters before a few days in Cushendall just lapping up the solitude.
Naturally, Covid has scuppered more than a few of Hinds’ travel plans over the past few years though and he’s only managed to grab a couple of stolen moments in Ireland since the onset of the pandemic… but as Pop once wisely told his grandson Buddy, Belfast will still be here when he gets back.
This article was originally published in March 2021.