Ciaran Hinds has played his share of intimidating roles on screen — but it’s as a sweet-natured grandfather in Belfast that he has earned his first Oscar and Bafta nominations.

Ciaran Hinds in 'Belfast'

Source: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Ciaran Hinds in ‘Belfast’

From all the baddie roles, the strongmen, the bold and brave characters that Ciaran Hinds has played over his 47-year career, it is hard to believe that he could walk timidly onto a set.

“Sometimes at work I’m quite fearful,” says the Belfast-born actor with that striking face that has lent itself well to myriad roles including tough-as-ice leader of the free folk Mance Rayder in Game Of Thrones, quiet spy Roy Bland in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Julius Caesar in Rome. “I don’t go in brimming with confidence. Maybe it stems from my Catholic upbringing — that fear of letting people down.”

Since his demeanour in real life is soft, kind, pensive and endearing, this can only mean one thing: that Hinds is extremely good at his job — though don’t tell him that, as it will only make him blush. Word is certainly out to the long list of top-tier directors he has worked under: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Steven Spielberg (Munich), Martin Scorsese (Silence), Sam Mendes (Road To Perdition), Noah Baumbach (Margot At The Wedding) and Michael Mann (Miami Vice), to name a select few.

If there is one thing these disparate directors have in common, Hinds suggests, it is that whatever fear he may have built up in anticipation of working with such talents, it was dissipated as soon as he was in the room with them. “They make you feel at ease,” he says. “I realised I wasn’t afraid. They all have this super intelligence, but it’s quiet intelligence, it’s not demonstrative. Also, they seem to have a great regard — and I mean ‘regard’ as in the idea of looking at things in a wide vision. And then the great filmmakers can also home in on the very specific.”

It is the specific-in-the-universal story­telling mantra that encompasses Belfast, the film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh in which Hinds co-stars with Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan and Judi Dench. The semi-autobiographical story is about a family living in the titular Northern Irish city during The Troubles, struggling with the choice of whether to stay or leave. Hinds plays Pop: wise, kind grandfather to the film’s protagonist Buddy, played by 12-year-old newcomer Jude Hill.

“Ken is an extraordinarily gifted man,” says Hinds. “And because of all his experience, his natural warmth and wit, he’s able to sit back and allow people to work instead of making them work. It’s an atmosphere in which the creative process can really [happen]. He gave us that space in which to become a family.”

It is the role of Pop that has garnered Hinds his first Oscar and Bafta nominations. The character is a departure of sorts for him — but it was not part of a career strategy that Hinds took on Pop, nor does he care to ponder what roles he has or has not played yet, nor how any of them stack up against each other. “It’s not like I have a burning ambition to take on something as a challenge,” he says. “I find it all challenging.”

Less is more

Being substantially a character actor, someone who comes in for supporting roles, has its advantages. Hinds has had lead roles, especially in his long theatre career, but a character actor is always working and the work is always varied. Also the competition is less, and the available parts more.

Hinds thinks that his popularity (our word, not his) as a character actor began after he played Larry in Closer— first at London’s National Theatre (in 1997) and then on Broadway (1999).

“It sort of brought me different attention,” he says of being in a play on Broadway, where US filmmakers often find new talent. But he went back to Europe and continued there in theatre, TV and film.

“I had done a fair bit of strong television work in England, which was mostly classical stuff like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë and Thomas Hardy,” says Hinds. “I got stuck in the 19th century for a decade. I was never out of britches. Then they went medieval on me and put me in Ivanhoe — even further back in time.”

Hinds credits HBO’s Rome (from 2005) with getting him the kind of international attention that cements an actor’s career, though he still does not feel fully comfortable making broad statements about his life’s work or his ambitions other than doing the story justice.

“It’s hard to know what people make of your career,” he ponders. “From my perspective, I just turn up, try not to mess it up, and really connect to [the story] to give people something that’s worth watching. I’ve had the same agent since I’ve started, and we work in a way that’s just very honest, true to who we are, not setting our sights where we’re aiming for. Maybe that’s why my career’s a bit eclectic… barking mad?”

Hinds recently turned 69, and while “retirement age” does not seem to exist in the 21st century, acting is certainly one of those jobs that does not come with an expiration date. Still, “I’m gonna slow down,” says Hinds, evidently trying to persuade himself more than anyone else. “I’m determined to convince myself that I’m going to slow down. When you’re in life in the present and you keep going and you keep going, suddenly you realise, ‘Whoa! It’s exhausting now.’”

Ushering in a new and “brilliant generation of actors” has been at the forefront of Hinds’ mind lately. And his daughter, Aoife Hinds, is included. She came into the profession later, having studied international relations before realising her path might follow that of her father and mother (Hinds’ wife Hélene Patarot is also an actress). The two even played father and daughter in the upcoming indie drama Cottontail, about a Japanese widower who comes to England.

“I was anxious, of course,” says Hinds about his daughter following in his footsteps. “Like a father would be, knowing what the employment rates are, knowing how many talented people are out there, knowing the difficulty of finding of job. But you can’t kill anybody’s bliss. And I never wanted to suggest what she would do. As much as I love her as a daughter, I consider her a young woman with her own choices and her own responsibilities.

“If she came to me for advice, I’d proffer it probably like Pop would,” he adds. “And then she’d take that with a pinch of salt and probably do something totally different.”