LAST year, as we were all coming out of lockdown, Kenneth Branagh and his wife Lindsay Brunnock decided to go on a trip. They packed their bags into a jeep, stuck a tent on the roof and set off for a jaunt around Scotland.

Driving through Perthshire, Branagh said to his “missus” that he wanted to visit Pitlochry Festival Theatre.

“She said, ‘Well, you know it will be shut,’” he recalls today.

“I said, ‘I know it will be shut, but I just want to walk around it.’”

Understandably, she asked him why. Because, he told her, back at the start of his career – this is long before he became the new Laurence Olivier, before he set up his own theatre company and acted and directed in his lauded big-screen version of Henry V, before he married Emma Thompson and they became “Ken and Em” to the tabloids, before he moved to Hollywood and won Baftas and Emmys and became a Sir, before all of that – he had written to the theatre in Pitlochry looking for a job.

“And almost the greatest thrill I ever had in showbusiness was when …”

He pauses and looks directly at me before continuing. “I’m not fibbing about this … was when a Pitlochry Festival Theatre envelope landed at my door. Out of 100 letters [sent], it was one of two, I think, that offered me an audition to go and be in that company for the season of 1982.”

“As it happened, I got a big break in London out of the blue and couldn’t do it, but for me that would have been a total result.”

HeraldScotland: Jude Hill and Jamie Dornan in Belfast, Kenneth Branagh's new film based on his own childhoodJude Hill and Jamie Dornan in Belfast, Kenneth Branagh's new film based on his own childhood

And so on his Scottish trip Branagh walked around the Pitlochry Festival Theatre building, really excited, picking up whatever leaflets he could while his slightly bemused wife looked on.

“It’s a fine-looking building,” he says, his eyes still gleaming with the memory.

Kenneth Branagh (Sir Kenneth, if you want to be formal) tells me this story towards the end of our conversation this October morning. It arises perhaps because I’m in Scotland (he knows how to play to his audience) and perhaps because Branagh’s past – recent and distant – has been the subject of our conversation for the last half-hour.

Now 60, Branagh is as busy as ever. Next month sees the release of his long-delayed Hercule Poirot movie Death on the Nile (which he both directs and stars in as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective). Later this year he will play Boris Johnson in the Covid docudrama This Sceptred Isle. The first pictures of him in the blonde wig have just emerged.

But it’s his other new project, Belfast, we’re here to talk about today. It is the most personal film he has ever made. But then it is based on his own childhood.

HeraldScotland: Jude Hill, who plays Buddy in Belfast, based on Kenneth Branagh's own childhoodJude Hill, who plays Buddy in Belfast, based on Kenneth Branagh's own childhood

And that was a Northern Irish childhood. There are some (my sister-in-law for one) who have always assumed that Branagh is English, but, as Belfast, widely touted as an Oscar prospect, reminds us, Branagh is from Northern Irish Protestant stock.

I have that and Tottenham Hotspur in common with him. (He has a season ticket; neither of us are optimistic about this season. “I suspect we may be mid-table boys if we’re lucky,” he reckons.)

I’ve come to our Zoom meeting (which takes place during the London Film Festival) hoping to talk to him about ideas of identity; Irishness and Britishness and trauma and alienation. He is open to all of that. But first, we start with the pandemic.

Belfast the movie, Branagh admits, is a product of Covid. He had always wanted to write about his home city in some way and lockdown gave him the time and space to do so. He also realised that the pandemic present had some resonances with life in the city that he left when he was still a young boy as the Troubles began in earnest.

Then, as now, life transformed overnight. Born in 1960, Branagh grew up in in north Belfast. His extended family lived in and around York Street, near the docks, where Catholics and Protestants lived alongside each other. Or they did until sectarian tensions began to rise.

Starring Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe and Dame Judi Dench, and with newcomer Jude Hill effectively playing the young Branagh, Belfast begins with a vision of that paradise lost, a street scene of working-class lives in Belfast that is suddenly disrupted by a Protestant mob putting in the windows of Catholic families.

Branagh, then just eight years old, saw this happen first-hand. The memory is still vivid in his head more than half a century later.

It began with what he thought was the sound of bees, he explains. “I remember it so clearly. I’d just been playing. I was on my way in for my tea. I’d been called by the jungle telegraph that sent all the messages trying to find me down the old back alley and then [there was] this sound, and it turned out to be people running towards us.

“I was really slow on the uptake until, literally, I was lifted up by my mother.”

By that night there were barricades at either end of his street and his neighbours were on guard to try to ensure the violence didn’t happen again.

HeraldScotland: Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in BelfastCaitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in Belfast

“It felt to me like I was in a scene from a Western where there had been an attack on the homestead and now all the local families were getting together, and the wagons were being lined up at either end of the street,” Branagh says now.

Until that point all he cared about was Spurs, the movies and the girl he liked. Afterwards, he and his family were in constant fight-or-flight mode.

“Frankly, it felt like life changed in about 15 seconds and it was never the same again.”

The rest of the film finds the surrogate Branagh family torn between the pull of home (both of Branagh’s parents came from big families), the fear of what was coming, and the growing pressure to pick a side.

In the end, the family moved to Reading in England where Branagh’s father had a job. It was to be a difficult transition for Branagh and his brother and sister.

“If you went back and told me, ‘We’re staying,’ I would have been absolutely thrilled,” the actor says now. “The film is partly about how you cope with loss – the loss of an identity, the loss of place, the loss of loved ones and in this case the loss of home.”

Has he ever wondered what would have happened to him if his parents had decided to stay?

“I think one would have perhaps led a much more contained and protected life. Certainly, for everybody through all of those painful years that followed, there was a negotiation. I would see it myself. I did my first job back there. The Troubles were still well on. One thing that struck me was this constant concern about where you were, where anybody in your family was, how you were getting home, and did you have company?

“What it would have led to in terms of a career, I have no idea.”

It’s only since he finished the film that the emotional weight of the story it tells has hit him. “Since it’s been finished, I’ve often been quite close to tears,” he admits.

HeraldScotland: Branagh in the film DunkirkBranagh in the film Dunkirk

“I’ve talked to Jamie Dornan. He feels the same way. Something in it, now that it’s cooked, does trigger a lot of things. Making it, I was fairly impervious to that, but as it’s finished it has surprised me by hitting me in the solar plexus quite a few times.”

It’s the next chapter of the story that I’m interested in today. What about that young boy who found himself in another country? How did he cope?

“It was very disorientating to be honest. We went to a place where there were a lot of army families living nearby, people who suffered and were not crazy about people from Belfast at that time. The violence was on television every night and we were reduced to a nuclear unit rather than this massive extended family.

“I think both of my parents had any sense of support removed and I think we felt isolated for a long time and became pretty insular, both as a little unit and individually ourselves. It was definitely a rupture.”

Perhaps understandably, the young boy he was had to reinvent himself in this new environment. “I think what I did, just intuitively, was hide.

“I think I had quite a vivid imagination. As a kid I was quite playful. Daft I would say, really. The usual combination with actors; quite shy, but when feeling comfortable and secure you are a happy show-off, you know?

“That all sort of got dampened down and I think my instinct was just, ‘keep your head down and do not stick out, don’t show off, don’t make jokes. Do the things that quietly allow you to have a quiet identity in the crowd.’

“I was lucky to be very interested in football and reasonable at it as a kid. It became something to slip into. Then, the edges of the accent got sort of smoothed off.

“I disappeared. I went into disguise, basically.”

Branagh’s “Englishness” starts here. How English is (was) he, though? Very, according to some. In the early 1990s the author and screenwriter Ronan Bennett, who himself was born in England but went to school on the Falls Road in Belfast, suggested that those who had emerged from Northern Irish Protestant culture inevitably had to reinvent themselves as something else to find any traction in the wider world. And so, Van Morrison (who can be heard on the soundtrack for Belfast) had to become effectively Irish (Celtic certainly). Branagh meanwhile, Bennett suggested, reinvented himself as English, a Shakespearian actor claiming his place in the pantheon by making his own version of Henry V before he turned 30.

But listening to Branagh today, I wonder if there isn’t another way to explain the young man who burst into the public consciousness in the 1980s?

When, for example, he formed his much-admired Renaissance theatre company, in which he teamed up with the likes of Dench and Derek Jacobi, was he possibly looking for some kind of return to family, a return to what he had lost when he moved to England?

“I think it was, you know. I had an inherent DNA part of me that believed in community and that a trouble shared was a trouble halved.

HeraldScotland: Branagh as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient ExpressBranagh as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express

“I liked getting like-minded people together and my shoulders dropped in those kinds of situations, so I think it probably was some kind of innate yearning to be back in a situation where I felt comfortable to be myself, as opposed to hiding myself.”

That said, even surrounded by some of the greats of English acting in the Renaissance company, and later when he started making movies, Branagh was always first among equals. In his twenties he was a meteor, travelling far and fast. Where did that drive and ambition come from?

“I suspect there was a tremendous drive … you might say it goes all the way through to this film … to please my parents, to somehow thank them for making that massive sacrifice that I knew had cost them,” he suggests.

“I think my drive was somehow partly to say it was worth it. This would never have happened if we’d stayed.

“Ultimately in ’97 I went to the White House. We had just made a film of Hamlet. Jack Lemmon was in it, and they asked me to go and speak about Jack.

“I took my mum and dad, and we were walking up the steps to the White House and my mum, obviously overcome by the whole thing, turns to me and says, ‘Jesus Christ, this is a long way from York Street.’

“I don’t know if that made up for being wrenched out of 10 brothers and sisters and knowing everybody and not having to worry about who you were. But maybe it went some way.”

HeraldScotland: Kenneth Branagh with Emma ThompsonKenneth Branagh with Emma Thompson

Branagh had a rollercoaster 1990s, all told. He became a name in Hollywood, separated from Thomson, had a relationship with Helena Bonham Carter, prompting more tabloid headlines. He made some good movies and some terrible ones. The bright new thing became the familiar face.

“Inevitably, you feel you lose your way a few times,” Branagh says, switching to the second person to talk about himself. “Around the time of Henry V, you ended up doing a lot more publicity and press, probably more than a wise man would have done. So, for a minute – it was literally only for a minute – you were literally overexposed.

“And I remember feeling that this was not me, that side of it. There was too much of it, really, and I didn’t understand how to handle it and I could easily understand now how that would have irritated the bejesus out of a lot of people.

“But there’s nothing I would have been able to do to control that.”

There have been other moments when the shine came off everything, he thinks. At the start of the century, he made a film version of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and no one wanted to know.

“Maybe I had just run into a brick wall.” That’s why Belfast means so much to him now, he says. Branagh knew it was a story he had to tell. Necessary is the word he uses.

HeraldScotland: Branagh in Belfast City HallBranagh in Belfast City Hall

“Something like Belfast is a return to a galvanically focused creative direction, of knowing the story for me was necessary; necessary to tell in a certain way, to make in a certain way, and with a kind of openness and directness and honesty that very much responds to the way I was brought up and, if you like, my Irishness.”

And that’s how he sees himself now? As Irish?

“I just think when the Jesuits say, ‘Give me the child until seven and I’ll show you the adult,’ there is something in that.

“I feel a by-product of the film was to fully acknowledge the ungetawayablefromness from my … I suppose I would say … my 100 per cent Irishness.”

Kenneth Branagh left the city of his birth half a century ago. But it’s still part of him. What does that make Belfast the movie? A kind of homecoming perhaps.

Belfast is in cinemas from Friday