Belfast’s Jude Hill: ‘All the celebrities at the Oscars, they were shaking with nerves!’

Jude Hill beat 300 other hopefuls to play Buddy, the boy in Kenneth Branagh’s film. The film is a glittering success – and so is the young actor whose career it launched

Amid all the scandals and controversies dogging Hollywood and the Oscars, a seemingly endless din of accusation and recrimination, talking to Jude Hill feels like a restorative balm. Instead of solemn critique, he reminds you the film industry can be about joy, fun, adventure and talented people doing something they love. He makes an encounter with Anthony Hopkins sound like a hug from a soft, giant teddy bear. This actor is a credible emissary of such outlandish tales because he has just spent a year working the Hollywood machine and emerged untouched by cynicism. It may help that he is 11 years old.

“This has been such a fun ride. I have met a bunch of really, really nice people along the way and I really hope I get to do more acting in the future. I can’t wait for it,” he says. Jude probably won’t have to wait long, given the plaudits for his star turn in Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical homage to his home city.

Jude is speaking via Zoom from his home in a village in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Framed by an artfully hung white sheet, he is composed and articulate and appears ever so slightly older than Buddy, the character he inhabited, but the twinkly exuberance is the same.

“I think it’s starting to sort of calm down around now,” says Jude. “It feels good to just go to school with my friends and play with them in the playgrounds. I always was and will be Jude Hill. But yeah, going back to normality has been a relief.” There is a gleam in the eye, however, lest it be thought Jude Hill is done with fame. “I don’t think I’ll ever go back to normal after this.”

Hey Jude … Director Kenneth Branagh and Jude Hill on the set of Belfast.
Hey Jude … Director Kenneth Branagh and Jude Hill on the set of Belfast. Photograph: Rob Youngson/AP

By this he means a whirlwind that started in 2020 when he beat 300 hopefuls to play Buddy, the son of working-class parents played by Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, who agonise over whether to leave Northern Ireland at the dawn of the Troubles; Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench play Buddy’s grandparents. The riots form a backdrop to a lyrical coming-of-age story that won Branagh an Oscar for best original screenplay. Jude won gongs, too, including the Hollywood Critics Association’s award for best newcomer.

The Oscars have in recent years been tainted by rows over the film industry’s treatment of women, ethnic minorities and whistleblowers, but its newly minted star adored pretty much everything about Tinseltown except the heat. “The people in Los Angeles are really, really nice – they are overly nice, actually, and super funny. You could sit down and be friends with them immediately.” Nobody remarked on his accent despite some US film critics grumbling that Belfast should have had subtitles, a suggestion Jude skewers eloquently. “I don’t think there’s a need for subtitles, to be honest, just paying attention will probably work.”

Accompanied by his parents, Jude found himself on the red carpet somewhat sweaty and completely enthralled. The cast of Belfast surreptitiously shared Twizzlers, American sweets, to sustain them through the evening. “I think it was my first one. It was very nice.”

Jude was astonished to see that veteran A-listers seemed as edgy as he was. “All the big stars looked a bit nervous. I was literally shaking because of the adrenaline and nervousness. I was just like, oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here. I kept pinching myself just to make sure that I’m not dreaming. I think if anyone goes to the Oscars they will be quite nervous because I would say it’s one of the biggest events in the world. All those celebrities ... they were like me – they were shaking, they were jumping around.”

During the ad breaks he wandered around the Dolby theatre exchanging greetings with celebrities. “It was just a perfect night. That’s the only three words to describe it: a perfect night. All of those famous people there laughing, having fun. It was just so cool to be part of it.”

Which brings us to Will Smith. Asked about the actor’s assault on the presenter, Chris Rock, there is a pause. “Well, I love Will Smith myself because I met him at a few of the other award ceremonies and he was probably one of the nicest people I could ever meet,” says Jude. “He complimented my suit and said: ‘That’s fire.’ And I’ll always remember that compliment.” There is another pause. “The incident that night, it was … yaaakh.” The face scrunches, the voice trails off. Briefly, Jude is lost for words. It’s a melancholic moment, a hairline crack in innocence.

“Some of the audience thought it was staged. It was 10 seconds of awkward silence because none of us were sure if it was a joke or not. Everybody was on their phones texting one another to see if it was true. Nobody really knew that night until we all went home.” Jude visibly agonises over how someone apparently good could do something bad. “Personally, I love Will Smith. He’s one of the most fun and exciting and nice people that I ever met.” He is unsure what to make of Smith’s 10-year ban from the Oscars. “I’m just an 11-year-old kid, I don’t really pay attention to social media that much but I did hear that. I’m not so sure what I feel about that. It’s very mixed at the moment, I have to say.”

The smile returns when Jude recalls meeting Anthony Hopkins at the Governor’s Ball after the Oscars. “He was walking past and he gave me a hug. He said: ‘I loved your film, oh my God, what a masterpiece.’” I was frozen in shock, I was saying to myself: ‘Jude, this is Anthony Hopkins, say something, just say something to him.’” Jude collected himself to thank Hopkins and praise his work. “Wow, that was such a highlight. What an aura he gives off. Talking to him I just felt so safe and relaxed.”

Safe and relaxed with the actor who chilled a generation with his depiction of Hannibal Lecter, and for ever transformed how we think of chianti and fava beans? But then The Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991, two decades before Jude was born. He knows Hopkins as Odin, the father of Thor in the Marvel franchise. “In Thor: Ragnarok he was very emotional. It made me cry a lot while watching that film. That man is an actor.”

Film family … the cast of Belfast.
Film family … the cast of Belfast (from left) Lewis McAskie (Will), Caitríona Balfe (Ma), Judi Dench (Granny), Jamie Dornan (Pa) and Jude Hill (Buddy). Photograph: Rob Youngson/Focus Features, LLC

Four months shy of 12, Jude can sound like an old pro. He is no longer fazed when he is buttonholed by strangers. “I’m asked: ‘Are you that boy from Belfast?’ The idea of someone approaching me on the street or airport saying: ‘Oh, I know you’, it’s kind of crazy but I like it. It’s pretty cool.”

Jude’s poise is remarkable. After landing the role of Buddy, he researched Northern Ireland’s history. “Before Belfast I didn’t know what the Troubles were. I don’t think a kid my age would know what the Troubles were unless their parents or grandparents were affected.” Books, films and documentaries filled in the blanks. “That really helped to get into the heads of people from that time. I think Northern Ireland is a lot more peaceful now than it was back then and I’m grateful for that.”

There is a scene in Belfast when Buddy, in essence a young Branagh, is in a cinema mesmerised by the flickering screen. The actor who plays him eyes an acting career in the same way, despite the obstacles. “I know this is a very, very hard path to go down. You don’t get a part every second,” says Jude. He shrugs, smiles. The future is a blank, creamy page. “I’ll keep on doing my auditions and my call backs, and hopefully I’ll get one of them.”

  • Belfast is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 25 April


Rory Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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