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Exclusive: Kenneth Branagh Reveals Why He Cast Caitríona Balfe & Jamie Dornan as His Parents in Belfast

Director and writer Kenneth Branagh’s new movie Belfast tells the story of his own childhood growing up in Northern Ireland. Young Branagh (“Buddy”) is played by Jude Hill, and we see the story of heartbreak, family, loss and love through his eyes at age 9. We caught up with Branagh at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival before the festival screening of Belfast, where he received the Lifetime Achievement in Acting and Directing Award. He filled us in on why he cast Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan as his parents, plus a few other tidbits about Dame Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, and Jude Hill. He also gave us the inside scoop on all the dancing that happens in the film.

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Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan Rob Youngson / Focus Features.

So, how did Branagh decide that Balfe and Dornan would play his Ma and Pa? First reason: because they’re ridiculously attractive. He says this half-jokingly, but then adds when he was a young boy, his parents were super glamorous to him. “Who’s more glamorous than Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan?” Branagh asks. Can’t argue with that. But he adds that they are both good people and very “clever.” Beauty inside and out. (Why am I now picturing Balfe and Dornan facing off in a spelling bee?)

The real reason he cast them, besides being clever and beautiful, is simple. He binged. He loved watching Balfe in Outlander and Dornan in The Fall. Correct, Kenneth Branagh binged Outlander and The Fall. He is all of us. But he called it “research.” (I also binge shows for research for my job, sorry! Some of us are just lucky in life.)

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Caitríona Balfe and Jamies Dornan Focus Features.

As Ma and Pa Branagh, Balfe and Dornan dance quite a bit in the film, and Branagh reveals that this dancing was in fact true to life, as his mother loved to dance. He goes on to say that he grew up in a time where there weren’t phones and you got only a few TV channels, so dancing was how they entertained themselves.

Balfe and Dornan both have recently said they were mildly terrified having to learn how to dance for the film. And by mildly, I mean they were fully terrified. When asked if Branagh sat in on any of their dance rehearsals, he admits, “No I didn’t want to scare them, that can be quite intimidating.” He had them rehearse on their own together (with a choreographer), because when they did it on set, he wanted everyone, including himself, to be surprised. The dance scenes in this movie are truly a highlight and Balfe and Dornan both equally shine. So their terror is well-hidden! And Balfe and Dornan aren’t the only ones cutting a rug (Millennials and Gen Z, that means dancing). Dame Judi Dench, who plays Buddy’s grandmother, and Ciarán Hinds also dance it up.

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Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Ciarán Hinds Rob Youngson/Focus Features.

At the Q&A after the screening, Branagh revealed a bit more about his film. He said at the heart of it, Belfast is about the beauty of the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child.” He reveals that with this cast, they managed to make the “mundane into magic.” While the film focuses on the moment Branagh’s childhood changed and covers the violence in Northern Ireland as seen through the eyes of a young boy, you’ll find yourself feeling mostly joy. Pure joy.

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Kenneth Branagh and Jude Hill Rob Youngson/Focus Features.

Belfast is a movie that makes you remember why you love movies. It’s that good. While the entire cast does exactly what Branagh says they do — make the mundane into magic — it is Jude Hill and Caitríona Balfe that are the heart, fierceness, and strength of the piece. Both are getting Oscar buzz, and rightly so. Balfe has earned four Golden Globe nominations and won BAFTA Scotland and IFTA awards for Outlander, but with Belfast, she shows us she’s captivating no matter what screen she’s on. Dame Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, and Jamie Dornan are also powerful, but has a whole cast ever been nominated? Maybe Belfast will be the first.

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Caitríona Balfe and Jude Hill Focus Features.

The real question is: Who does Branagh think is the better dancer, Balfe and Dornan? If you think he didn’t answer, you would be wrong. Watch the full video above to find out. Belfast opens in theaters across the U.S. on November 12th.

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