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Kenneth Branagh Spills the Secrets of ‘Belfast’

The writer-director-star tells AARP about his autobiographical hit and life lessons

Kenneth Branagh attends the 94th Annual Oscars Nominees Luncheon

Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

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With his hit film Belfast a magnet for prestigious awards, and Death on the Nile, the follow-up to his $353-million Hercule Poirot mystery Murder on the Orient Express, in theaters and on HBO Max and Hulu March 29, Kenneth Branagh is having the time of his life at 61. He tells AARP how he came to create Belfast, inspired by his childhood in civil-war-torn Northern Ireland.

How did the contemplative effect of COVID isolation shape Belfast?

Certainly the silence of lockdown — no planes in the sky, no cars on the road, and birdsong heard at last — brought introspection, and some inspiration. It took me back to the lockdown of my childhood.

Does aging have actual benefits, like insight into your parents, your young self, your time and place?

Age brought the sense that, regardless of the result, the voices from that time needed to be heard, acknowledged. The years also bring compassion — for ourselves, and others. The quickest route to that is humor.

How come a movie about a national tragedy erupting one day in 1969 is so saturated with sweetness?

Belfast was emotional to write. The whole story was ringed with the deepest sorrow, but it was also joyful to revisit the resilient spirit and humor of the people. It reminded me of where my own capacity to stick at things came from.

Does Belfast’s story offer hope for today?

The scars of the troubles will never disappear. But like the search for hope in the film — trying to find a way through the chaos — the last 20-odd years in Northern Ireland have shown that miraculous change can occur, if love can find a way past the hate, and the history. Easy to say and hard to do, but even though the peace remains fragile, the continuing efforts to maintain and enhance it are strong and inspiring. That’s because of amazing people on the ground, making a difference in their communities. They are my heroes.

Being Oscar-ful yourself — you’ve had eight nominations, including three for Belfast — you are the cause of Oscars in others, like Anthony Hopkins, whom you convinced not to retire. So he won his second one at 82. Should actors retire at some age? Or is it the only business where one gets worse at it with experience?

Actors have no business retiring. As the competition passes on, the parts get more plentiful! Mature actors can also share their vulnerabilities about age, and all the extra nostril hair that goes with it.

You’ve worked with Judi Dench 12 times. Will you ever stop hiring Judi Dench?

With Judi Dench, everyday is Christmas morning. Why would you want to stop working with that kind of generosity?

Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Ciaran Hinds laughing and smiling together on a couch in the film Belfast

Rob Youngson/Focus Features

(Left to right) Judi Dench as Granny, Jude Hill as Buddy and Ciarán Hinds as Pop.

What do she and Ciarán Hinds, playing the grandparents of Belfast’s child hero, bring to the party?

Hinds and Dench bring the free-to-all joys of mutual respect, emotional intelligence and laughter at the thought of death. They are bighearted, large-souled and always funny.

What’s your ambition for yourself at their ages [69 and 87]?

If I make it to their age, I intend to fully abandon any notion of caring about what anyone thinks about me.

Hopkins told AARP that he’s “on a roll.” Do you feel that you are, too?

I think age tells you that if you aren’t “on a bit of a roll,” you should bloomin’ well start rolling before its too late. Roll anywhere, anyhow, and enjoy the bejesus out of it.


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Kenneth Branagh talking to young actor Jude Hill on the set of Belfast

Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Director Kenneth Branagh (left) and actor Jude Hill on the set of "Belfast."

Your parents often used to leave you alone reading Thor comics. Shouldn’t they have been forcing you to read Shakespeare at home? Or was it good preparation for directing the Thor movie?

I spent a lot of time in my youth waiting for my mother outside bingo halls, and my father outside betting shops. I’m grateful. They gambled responsibly. It made them happy, and it gave me a lot of time to dream.

If your character Hercule Poirot met your character Kurt Wallander at a pub, how would it go? What’s interesting to you about each sleuth, and how do they differ or align?

I think Poirot and Wallander would agree about opera, disagree about personal hygiene and completely fall out about pizza. Wallander spends a lifetime losing his soul, and Poirot travels the world trying to find his.

They are both incurable romantics. Neither will admit this. They share rigorous honesty about crime and self-deception about their own hearts.

Got any tips on staying vital and creative at our age?

My advice for dealing with age: Be cheerful. We’re all hurtling toward the grave. Enjoy every bit of the ride you can. And I wish us all health to do so!

Is there any artistic mountain you yet yearn to conquer?

If I manage it, I hope I’ll be able to have a crack at playing Shakespeare’s King Lear — some ancient day afar off. Now there’s a magnificent, silly old sod if ever there was one!

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.