Aidan Gillen plays the most deceitful and dangerous character in the "Game of Thrones" kingdom (season five stars on April 12), but the Drumcondra, Co Dublin-born actor also has a softer side. Devoted husband and father in his personal life, his turns in a series of brilliant new Irish films this year show his extraordinary range in full. He tells Cahir O’Doherty that for all his fame, he’d be as happy acting in classic Irish plays as burning up the big screen.
Be careful, people warned me. Aidan Gillen doesn’t like to talk about his personal life. He’s shy, they said (this turned out to be true), and it could be heavy weather (but it wasn’t a bit).
At 46, the Dublin-born (and now Dublin living) actor is the hypnotic star of the international HBO phenomenon "Game of Thrones," now in its fifth season, which means that his bank account is so in the black he doesn’t need to talk to anyone.
By now Gillen, who has also starred in "The Dark Knight Rises" and HBO’s "The Wire," could easily retire on his earnings and tend to his garden if he chooses. But what brings him back to the screen and stage is his undiminished love of acting.
At 17 most young men are still thinking of romance, but Gillen was contemplating his career as an actor. A series of turns in breakout Irish films like "The Courier" (a gritty urban gangland film starring Gabriel Byrne) and "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" gave him his first paychecks and his first real taste of stardom.
“I started out professionally when I was 17 and in the first year I did a couple of small parts,” Gillen told the Irish Voice.
“A film like 'The Courier,' which wasn’t a great film, was a modern urban thriller unlike anything that was being filmed at the time (think of it as an early prototype for 'Love/Hate'). I also had a small part in 'The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.' To me that was a major amount of work already. I was very proud to have gotten the parts and played them. Those were my first paychecks.”
He used the money to go on his first trip to America.
“When I came back from there I was more determined to get more work. There was something about that American trip that made me want to push it a little further, and I think within a week I had an audition for a play in London, got it and went over,” Gillen recalls.
Gillen’s work took him to the famed Bush Theatre, which already had a reputation for producing new plays, often by emerging Irish writers.
“I found myself in London in a play that was a hit. So I started asking around who would be a good agent. I went in person with my photograph and my resume, door to door. Basically hustling,” he says.
“I got offered from three agents and I narrowed it down to two. I’m still with my agent.”
London was in a place where he had to find work because, as he says, “there was no going home to mammy for your tea.” He had to pay the rent but he felt enormously inspired because for the first time he was competing on a much bigger stage.
“There weren’t that many 17 year old actors around town. I tended to be cast in roles that were a little bit older. You’re in a big city were you don’t know anyone. That was a major plus. People don’t know you. That just lends itself to making it up. People don’t have preconceived ideas about you.”
One of Gillen’s breakthrough roles was in series "Queer as Folk," in which he played an Irish gay man living in Manchester.
“At the time I wondered if I put myself on the line in terms of abuse here. It was a quite controversial relationship between the two characters. But I never heard anything but positive reactions to it,” he said.
"You’re Ugly Too," a new Irish film written by Mark Noonan about a troubled man who is forced to look after his sister’s daughter after her death is his latest labor of love.
“It had a great screening at the Berlin Film Festival where it went down really well. I’m in my sixth year of 'Game of Thrones' and so I can afford to do the other ones, and that’s why I try to.”
The genesis of "You’re Ugly Too" came about when the director talked to Gillen’s mother, who told him she would like to see her son play more light comedic roles.
“'You’re Ugly Too' isn’t a comedy, but it has a lightness of touch with a hard edge. But it’s essentially a warm story tinged with a bit of melancholy in the great Irish tradition. I’m very proud of that film.”
In terms of an Irish acting career, he’s particularly impressed with Liam Neeson’s choices, he says.
“I’m hugely impressed with what he did. He brought serious acting skills to work that would have been considered lightweight like the 'Taken' films or 'Run All Night.'
“But an action film like 'The Grey,' where he’s pitted against the elements – I thought that was a great film and I really admiring of what he has done a later stage in his career taking on these action man roles. Those films are just more interesting when a more accomplished actor does it.”
Gillen has serious acting chops of his own, which are seen to their best advantage on "Game of Thrones," where he plays the duplicitous Petyr Littelfinger Baelish, who squares off against the equally slippery Varys (played by Belfast-born Conleth Hill). The scenes between the pair, who are evenly matched, are electrifying.
“They are fun to play. They’re quite easy to do. Conleth and myself are probably around the same age and have come up through the same types of gig,” says Gillen.
“Our paths really didn’t cross much until 'Game of Thrones,' and our characters are masters of manipulation and wordplay and deception. One is as good as the other. It makes it real fun to play.
“Whether Littlefinger and Varys ever meet again, who knows? I mean they could because we have reached a point in the 'Game of Thrones' where the show has caught up with the books, so we don’t know what happens next. (A lot of his work last year was introduced because Littlefinger wasn’t in the books but he was in the series).
“It’s an open page there for the writers to do with as they want. They haven’t messed around and they’ve stayed as true to the books and as loyal to the written word of George Martin as they could. But in order to keep the characters visible they have to keep the plates spinning a certain amount of time. The show characters have taken on a life of their own, and everyone seems happy enough with that.”
For Gillen it’s been a joy watching Sansa (played by Sophie Turner) turn from one kind of character to a woman of a different hue. So what are the surprises for season five?
“I really can’t say. All the Baelish scenes are created for this show so I can’t give them away as it would spoil things. Dramatic things happen but I can’t say. There’s my answer.”
Asked about his recent turn as another deceptive but entirely real character he played, the disgraced former Irish prime minister Charlie Haughey, Gillen says it was a challenging role. The mini-series "Charlie" aired on Irish national network RTE last year to huge ratings.
“It’s probably the hardest I’ve worked in a long time. Once I started watching the footage of him you could see the appeal and the charisma he had. I could see how likable he was to those who liked him, and how despicable he was to those who despised him,” Gillen says.
“You could see why people voted for him. It was something I couldn’t see when I was a youngster in his heyday.”
The show reminds the audience that Haughey was a key player in the emergence of modern Ireland.
“It begins in 1979 the year one million people go to a mass in Phoenix Park. Within ten years no one is going to mass anywhere,” Gillen deadpans.
Asked if a return to Irish theater would be something he’d ever contemplate Gillen says, “I would do a Tom Murphy play. 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel is a serious part. I wouldn’t mind having a go of that sometime.
“Last Christmas for one night I did a full reading of 'The Dead' at the Grove Theatre in London. We hope to do it in Dublin.” Producers take note.