Judi Dench Felt ‘Tremendous Responsibility’ Playing Kenneth Branagh’s Granny in ‘Belfast’

Dench explains the “glorious” experience of coming together with cast and crew during the pandemic to bring to life a coming-of-age story based on their director’s own childhood

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"Belfast" (Focus Features)

Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh have known each other since 1987, when they met on a BBC TV production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” and got kicked off the set for getting a case of the uncontrollable giggles. (Blame costar Michael Gambon for tickling their funny bone with as banal an utterance as “Pass the potatoes.”) Since then, they have tapped into their shared sense of humor, love of Shakespeare and close friendship to work together 11 more times — from Branagh’s 1989 film directorial debut, “Henry V,” to 1996’s “Hamlet” to 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” to, finally, their most recent collaboration, “Belfast.”

Directed by Branagh from a script he wrote inspired by his own childhood, the movie tells the story of a tight-knit clan in Northern Ireland struggling to keep each other safe as sectarian violence explodes in 1969. (Branagh and his family emigrated to England from Belfast that year, when he was 9.) In September, the movie won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and since then, it has been celebrated many times over as one of the top films of 2021: by the New York Film Critics Online, the Broadcast Film Critics Association and many other prominent groups. This month, it earned a SAG nomination for best ensemble cast.

At the center of the coming-of-age tale is Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy in love with the cinema who watches his neighborhood fall apart (and is clearly based on Branagh). He is looked after by his no-nonsense Ma (Caitriona Balfe); practical Pa (Jamie Dornan); tender-hearted Pop (Ciarán Hinds), and warm, witty Granny (Dench), a delightful font of old-fashioned wisdom. Playing a woman based on Branagh’s real grandmother upped the stakes considerably for Dench — no matter how far back the two of them go. “It is good, always, to know somebody so well that you have a kind of shorthand with them, which I have with Ken because we’ve worked together for such a long time,” Dench told TheWrap. “But this was a very personal story to him and we all, I think, felt a tremendous responsibility to him to get it right. And I hope that’s what we did.”

Dame Judi chatted with us via Zoom from London about “Belfast,” reuniting with her “Notes on a Scandal” director Richard Eyre in her next film and her future as a hip-hop star.  

Judi Dench in “Belfast” (Focus Features)

TheWrap: How much did you speak to Ken about your character, since she is based on his own grandmother? 

Judi Dench: I didn’t speak to him much. Because I now have difficulty (with my vision) and can’t read, he came down and read me the whole screenplay, just he and I. And I was incredibly moved by it. A lot of my family — my mother’s side was from Dublin and because I had relations also in Belfast, I understood a great deal about it. And so, I instantly understood the world we were in. And then it was up to me to understand the character of his grandmother.

She is so warm and witty, the grandmother we all dream of having.

That was, I believe, his grandmother. And being a grandmother myself, I understand very much being part of a family where you have a young grandson in it and the workings of that family. I understand that very well, not in any of the same circumstances, but nevertheless, I understood that very close family that had a responsibility to each other and were just part of that world, you know, with the community they lived in.

You shot this while Covid was raging and we’re still of course in the thick of the pandemic. How did it feel to have a creative outlet during such a bleak time?

Yes, it was just beginning. And I think that maybe the very, very first thing that knit us so much as a family is that none of us were working at that time and we were all brought together. And Ken took incredible care of everybody. We were all tested every single day, every single person on set was tested every single day. And there were special marks on the floor for us to walk around. The lighting and the set (crew)… would go into the house and finish and come out, all separately, so that nobody crossed, nobody crossed lines at all. And so, perhaps it was the rigor of that that brought us together very much as a family very quickly. And it was glorious to be working at that time and on something that was very important to all of us, but extremely important to Ken.

One of your most poignant scenes is in the bus with little Buddy, when you wistfully talk about the cinema, the 1937 Frank Capra film ‘Lost Horizon’ and ‘Shangri-La.’ What was it like to shoot that opposite young Jude Hill?

Well, as you say, young child, but (chuckles) brilliant actor who knew exactly, knew fantastically how much to do, how much not to do, took direction so brilliantly from Ken. Ken must have been very, very like that as a child. And so, there was no kind of feeling of an adult and a child about that scene or any of the scenes I did with him. It was like just acting with another actor. Well, not even acting in his case. (Laughs) It’s not fair!

Just being, in his case.

Just being. That’s what he was.

You are the last shot of the black-and-white portion of the film, before it cuts back to present-day Belfast in color. The emotion you convey there, resting your head on the window of the door, apparently made Kenneth gasp. Were you aware of that at the time? 

Not at all. Not at all. He kept the gasp very quiet. (Laughs) I’m thrilled. I’m delighted.

I think you have your answer there about whether you succeeded in doing justice to his story.

I hope. Well, I hope. We’ll see. 

You were talking about the family and the closeness, and with Ciarán Hinds, here is a man who is still so in love with his wife after all these years. Can you talk about your scenes with him?

I’ve admired Ciarán for a very, very, very long time. I’d not ever had the opportunity to work with him and so I looked forward to that enormously. He’s everything and more than I imagined it would be. He was the man that I’m sure that Ken’s grandfather was like and he was a very, very real, believable, lovable, brilliant person. It was a feeling like that within the whole film. It did feel like a proper, real family who knew each other very well, understood each other very well, and had had a life together. 

The film has been so well received. Are you able to enjoy the celebration with your castmates? 

I haven’t seen them, actually. I haven’t seen any of them since there was a showing at the Royal Festival Hall a while ago, and that’s the last time I saw anybody. And so I look forward to catching up a bit, I must say, and seeing how they are.

You have done so much in your career: You’ve directed, you’ve played so many rich characters. Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to? 

I don’t know. I never know. I just wait and hope that something will turn up! (Laughs) And then suddenly, you see, you get very lucky and Ken comes along and says, ‘Would you like to play this part?’ So it’s the unexpected, really, that I love, and being lucky enough to be offered something.      

Next you have the movie ‘Allelujah’? 

I’ve finished doing ‘Allelujah,’ which is an Alan Bennett story, directed by Richard Eyre. So yes, that is what is next. And I have got a film that’s been hanging over for quite a long time. I don’t suppose I’m allowed to say what it is, but that’s meant to happen at the end of February. I hope it does. 

Can you say a bit about who you play in ‘Allelujah’?

I play somebody called Mary Moss. It’s all in a care home and she’s somebody who is given an iPad because a press team come in to record what’s happening in this care home, and she’s given the responsibility of taking some films about what’s happening. I’m not going to tell you any more because otherwise it will blow the whole story! (Laughs) But that’s what it was and it was with Richard Eyre, who I know very, very well — I’ve also worked with (him) lots of times in the theater, at the National [in London]. And [costars] Julia MacKenzie and Jennifer Saunders. It was a lovely cast. I wasn’t there for very long, not a very big part, but we did have the joy of one day, Alan Bennett walking in and we saw him for a while. And that was a great treat. 

I have one question left, which is: Will you ever do more rapping? 

Oh yes, rapping. With Lethal Bizzle, my friend Lethal Bizzle. Well, he hasn’t asked me again, but I hugely enjoyed rapping with him when I did. I think he probably thinks I’m not very good at it, but I enjoyed it! (Laughs)