AAmid all the scandals and controversies that plagued Hollywood and the Oscars, and the seemingly endless fray of accusations and accusations, talking to Jude Hill felt like a healing balm. Instead of serious criticism, he reminds you that the film industry can be about excitement, fun, adventure, and talented people doing something they love. She made meeting Anthony Hopkins sound like a hug from a giant, fluffy teddy bear. The actor is a credible emissary of such whimsical tales as he has just spent a year working on the Hollywood machine and emerged untouched by cynicism. It might help that he is 11 years old.
“It’s been an enjoyable trip. I have met many very, very good people along the way and I really hope I can do more acting in the future. I can’t wait for that,” he said. Jude may not have had to wait long, given the praise for his star turn in Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical homage to his hometown.
Jude speaks via Zoom from his home in a village in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Framed by a beautifully draped white sheet, he is composed and articulate and looks a little older than Buddy, the character he inhabits, but the glittering excitement remains the same.
“I think it’s starting to calm down a bit now,” said Jude. “It feels good to just go to school with my friends and play with them on the playground. I have always been and will be Jude Hill. But yeah, getting back to normal is a relief.” There is a glint in the eye, however, lest it be assumed Jude Hill is done with fame. “I don’t think I’ll ever go back to normal after this.”
What he means by this is the whirlwind that began in 2020 when he beat 300 nominees to play Buddy, the son of working-class parents played by Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, who was confused about whether to leave Northern Ireland at the start of Troubles; Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench play Buddy’s grandparents. The riots formed the backdrop for the come-of-age lyrical story that won the Branagh Oscar for best original screenplay. Jude has also won awards, including the Hollywood Critics Association award for best newcomer.
The Oscars in recent years have been marred by infighting over the film industry’s treatment of women, ethnic minorities and whistleblowers, but the rising star adores almost everything Tinseltown except the heat. “The people in Los Angeles are very, very kind – they are very kind, actually, and very funny. You can sit down and make friends with them right away. No one commented on his accent although some US film critics grumbled that Belfast should have subtitles, a suggestion Jude poked eloquently. “I don’t think there’s a need for subtitles, to be honest, just paying attention might work.”
Accompanied by his parents, Jude finds himself on the red carpet somewhat sweaty and completely blown away. The Belfast cast secretly handed out Twizzlers, American sweets, to prop them up through the night. “I think it was a first for me. That’s very good.”
Jude was astonished to see that the veteran A-listers looked as tense as he was. “All the big stars seem a little nervous. I was literally shaking with adrenaline and nervousness. I was like, oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here. I kept pinching myself just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I think if anyone went to the Oscars they would be very nervous because I would say it’s one of the biggest events in the world. All those celebrities… they’re like me – they’re shaking, they’re jumping up and down.”
During commercial breaks, he wanders around the Dolby theater, exchanging greetings with celebrities. “It was just a perfect night. There are only three words to describe it: perfect night. All the famous people there were laughing, having fun. It’s really cool to be a part of it.”
Which brings us to Will Smith. When asked about the actor’s attack on the presenter, Chris Rock, there was a pause. “Well, I like Will Smith myself because I met him at a few other award ceremonies and he’s probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” said Jude. “He complimented my suit and said: ‘That’s fire.’ And I will always remember that compliment.” There’s another pause. “That night, that… yep.” His face contorted, his voice lost. In short, Jude was at a loss for words. It’s a moment of melancholy, a hairline crack in innocence.
“Some viewers thought it was staged. It was an awkward 10 seconds of silence as neither of us were sure if it was a joke or not. Everyone on their phones messaged each other to see if it was true. Nobody really knows that night until we all get home.” Jude looked sad to see how someone who seemed good could do something so bad. “Personally, I like Will Smith. He’s one of the nicest and nicest and funniest people I’ve ever met.” He wasn’t sure what earned Smith the 10-year ban from the Oscars. “I’m just an 11 year old kid, I don’t pay much attention to social media but I hear about it. I’m not really sure how I feel about that. It’s very diverse at the moment, I have to say.”
That smile returned as Jude recalled meeting Anthony Hopkins at the Governor’s Ball after the Oscars. “He walked past and he hugged me. He said: ‘I love your film, my God, what a masterpiece.’” I froze in shock, I said to myself: ‘Jude, this is Anthony Hopkins, tell him something, just tell him something.’” Jude gathered himself together. to thank Hopkins and praise his work. “Wow, that was a highlight. What aura is he giving off? Talking to him, I feel very safe and relaxed.”
Safe and relaxed with an actor who chilled a generation with his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, and forever changed the way we think about chianti beans and fava? But then The Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991, two decades before Jude was born. He knew Hopkins as Odin, Thor’s father in the Marvel franchise. “In Thor: Ragnarok he was very emotional. It made me cry a lot while watching that movie. That man is an actor.”
Four months before the age of 12, Jude could sound like an old professional. He was no longer bothered when he was hollowed out by a stranger. “I was asked: ‘Are you that boy from Belfast?’ The idea of someone approaching me on the street or the airport saying: ‘Oh I know you’, it’s kind of crazy but I love it. It’s pretty cool.”
Jude’s composure was extraordinary. After landing the role of Buddy, he researched the history of Northern Ireland. “Before Belfast I didn’t know what Trouble was. I don’t think kids my age will know what Trouble is unless their parents or grandparents are affected. “Books, films and documentaries fill the void. “It really helps to get into people’s heads from then on. I think Northern Ireland is much more peaceful now than it used to be and I’m grateful for that.”
There is a scene in Belfast when Buddy, who is basically a young Branagh, is in a movie theater mesmerized by a flickering screen. The actor who played him viewed his acting career the same way, despite the obstacles. “I know this is a very, very difficult road to walk. You don’t get a share every second,” Jude said. He shrugged, smiling. The future is a blank and soft page. “I’ll keep doing my auditions and calls back, and hopefully I’ll get one of those.”