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Actor Jamie Dornan discusses Northern Ireland conflict film 'Belfast'


Academy Award nominations will be announced soon, and Kenneth Branagh's film "Belfast" is mentioned a lot as a contender. It opens with a little boy playing in the street, people marching, a bomb going off and parents running out of their homes, screaming the names of their children and fending off rocks from a mob with garbage can lids.


JAMIE DORNAN: (As Pa) Get the kids inside.

CAITRIONA BALFE: (As Ma) Get away from here.

DORNAN: (As Pa) We don't want any trouble.

SIMON: The film, set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, 1969, is tough and beautiful in black and white, but subtly balance between a coming-of-age film, family drama, social realism and, yes, romance. It stars some of the best actors in the world, including Dame Judi Dench, Caitriona Balfe and a couple of people from Belfast - Ciaran Hinds and Jamie Dornan.

Jamie Dornan joins us now from Los Angeles. Thank you so much for being with us.

DORNAN: Thanks, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You play the father - Protestant, working-class family - who is inspired by, even modeled after, the father of Kenneth Branagh, the director and writer.

DORNAN: Correct.

SIMON: Gosh. How intimidating was that?

DORNAN: (Laughter) Way, way, way less intimidating than you'd expect it to be - Ken, he wanted to keep a bit of a separation between the truth of his story and what we were putting down. You know, he's always said that it's a semi-autobiographical piece. He's always said that this is how I remember it as a 9-year-old boy, writing it down 50 years later. Ken always trusted us to bring our own instincts as actors, as people who have a built-in understanding of people from that time and people from that place because we're from there. Well, Ciaran and I are from there. Caitriona's from, you know, an hour and 20 minutes down the road. And Judi Dench isn't. But she's Judi Dench, so who cares where she's from?

SIMON: (Laughter) She can be from wherever she wants.

DORNAN: Yeah. Listen, she can be from Timbuktu putting on a Belfast accent. I don't care. You know, a lot of it is built in to me because I am a man from Belfast, and so was my father and his father. And every father in the line of Dornans before them are all from Belfast. So I have a deep understanding of people from that part of the world. And Ken really trusted that.

SIMON: You - however, as I understand, your family - you weren't from the Catholic or the Protestant...

DORNAN: Yeah. I mean, I guess officially, if we're getting official about it, I would have been Protestant. But I wasn't raised Protestant. I was raised in an agnostic, you know, household. We were never told we were anything.

SIMON: Well, at the heart of the story, your character, Pa, the father of the family, he's told, are you on our side or not?

DORNAN: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: He has to try and resist that. I'm very touched when he says to his son, there is no our side.

DORNAN: And listen, that is the true standing for many, many people. And I can't tell you, Scott, like, how important it is from someone from that part of the world to show that if you're from that part of the world, it doesn't mean you're heavily politicized. It doesn't mean you're sectarian. For the most part, there's lots of just hardworking, normal people who weren't happy with the division. And I think it's really important as someone from Belfast who's been traveling around the world for 20 years since I left and seeing people aghast at the fact that I'm from there. It's complicated. So I think this film helps to shed a bit of light and understanding on the people and the place.

SIMON: May I share something with you from our family experience? As you know, my mother was from Belfast. And in Chicago, we used to get teenagers who would come to us over the summer during these very years you're talking about, in the '60s and early '70s. And my cousins from Belfast were all afraid to come to Chicago (laughter).

DORNAN: Oh, my God. Really? Like - well, there you go (laughter). You know, that sort of sums up what I'm saying a wee bit there. You know, it's not that there wasn't - you know, we're talking about conflict that went for 30 years here. But there is much joy and humor and peace, actually, as well. You know, whereas the footage being beamed across the world on the news was horrific. And you just build this idea of Belfast being a war zone. And that's not every day. You're not living that every day, for the most part.


DORNAN: (As Pa) This is a time to think about making a new start.

BALFE: (As Ma) I know nothing else but Belfast.

DORNAN: (As Pa) Exactly. There's a whole world out there. We can give these boys a better chance than we ever had.

SIMON: There's a line from "Belfast" - more than one, but one in particular that keeps playing on me - when a character says, the Irish are born for leaving.

DORNAN: We're good at that. I did it. Ciaran Hinds did it. Caitriona Balfe did it - for generations and generations. Often it's, you know, through the same eyes that we see, you know, Buddy's family in Belfast and getting away from a disturbance. We are spread across the world. I've traveled a lot. I can't think of a place where I haven't met an Irish person. And it's a nice thing 'cause I feel like I have this sort of community and support everywhere across the world because you'll always find - Jesus, it's embarrassing how many times you find yourself in an Irish pub.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you - OK - hope you're nominated?

DORNAN: (Laughter) Well, put it this way - it's nicer to be in those conversations than not be. It's new territory for me. I'm going to enjoy that. It's an exciting thing. It's not why you do it. And it should never be the reason you do it. But when you make something and you work really hard and you have an amazing feeling on set, for us, that's what it's about. Like, that would have been enough. Just the experience is enough. And then, yeah, should - does it get this response it's had critically and how much it seems to be touching people? That's just all extra bonus stuff that's really exciting. I hope, for Ken above everything else, that the film itself gets all the recognition. I'd just be delighted. But I think it's best to have no expectations going into these things.

SIMON: Jamie Dornan - I think we can say, one of the stars of Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast," which might be soon nominated for a whole raft of awards - thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Dornan.

DORNAN: Thanks, Scott. I appreciate it, man. Thank you.


THE CHORAL SCHOLARS OF UNIVERSITY COLLEGE DUBLIN: (Singing in Irish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.