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Jude Hill was only 9 years old when he discovered he’d been chosen — from among about 300 other kids — to play the lead in Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semiautobiographical black-and-white eulogy for his home city in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.
The first-time actor recalls the moment he found out: His mother, Shauneen, kept “very quiet” after picking him up from school in the small Northern Irish village of Gilford and waited until they got home before showing him the life-changing email. “I just had a wide-eyed expression. … It was crazy,” says Hill, now 11 and as charming and well-spoken as his onscreen character, Buddy.
The casting came about after a lengthy audition process, starting with a self-tape (“I had to cry,” says Hill), followed by numerous Zoom calls, and finally one with Branagh. At the time, Hill and his family knew little about the film beyond it “being an autobiography of someone,” but as soon as they were told it was actually about the noted actor and director himself, Hill says he “went straight to Google to find out where he comes from … it was just so cool.”
Filming on Belfast began in September 2020, after Hill had turned 10. During the shoot, Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe, who star as his parents, acted the part a bit between takes as well. “They made sure I got the umbrella” when it rained, says Hill. Meanwhile, Judi Dench, who plays his grandmother, “always had a joke up her sleeve.”
Hill’s trajectory began when his mom heard her eldest child — then 4 years old — read aloud a poem (“Roger Was a Razor Fish,” from the book by Jill Bennett) at school. “He was actually unreal just in terms of the delivery and his expression,” says Shauneen. She soon signed him up for speech and drama classes, and it wasn’t long before he was winning competitions at local events. “Then the auditions started coming through,” he says. “I never thought I’d actually land one, but Belfast was the first.”
Hill has since also filmed the British TV series Magpie Murders alongside Leslie Mann, playing a boy who was “drowned underwater,” he says. He spent much of his time shooting in a cold lake.
As it happens, Hill may herald the arrival of a new acting dynasty. His sister, Georgia, 9, who he jokingly says is “kind of a copycat,” has been shooting a preschool show for U.K. network Channel 5. And his brother, Jonah, 5, has begun filming self-tapes (and is practicing “Roger Was a Razor Fish”). “If he gets hurt, he can be very dramatic,” Jude says.
The news that Focus Features will be campaigning for lead actor consideration for its youngest star hasn’t phased Hill, who notes with impressive Hollywood know-how that the “last kid to be nominated for a [best actor] Oscar was in the 1930s” named “something Cooper.” (It was Jackie Cooper for the 1931 comedy Skippy.) “Just as a kid trying to get that, it’s such a faraway dream, but if you work hard enough, you can get it, and that’s what I’m trying to aim for,” he says. As for spending several hours with his dad traipsing around shops in London trying on outfits for THR‘s photoshoot? “It was torture,” he says.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Person of Interest