Aidan Gillen is a versatile sort of fellow. Now 47, the Dubliner has barely rested since signing up with Dublin Youth Theatre three decades ago. He’s done Shakespeare. He’s done horror. He’s inhabited fantastic lands and disinterred a controversial taoiseach. But the consistent thread has been that pinched class of intensity. You get the sense that Gillen lives with these parts.
“It all depends what it is,” he drawls. “It depends what the schedule is. I do think about the roles. I have tried that when I can. There is no fixed rule.”
He speaks in a manner you’d recognise from screen incarnations. He is slow and deliberate, but is interested in answering honestly. Like Neil Jordan, he has that odd habit of throwing the question back to you. “Isn’t that right?” he’ll say.
What about living with Charlie Haughey when playing the old rogue in the recent Charlie? That must have been a strange experience. "I was really acting there," he says slightly mysteriously. "I don't always like to do that. But there was no other way. When you ask people who were close to him they don't know what he was like. A common thing was that there was a shifting persona."
Whatever the mechanics of the operation, Gillen has, over the past 20 years, carved a truly extraordinary career. He broke through in one of British TV's riskiest and most influential dramas, Queer as Folk. He took significant roles in two towering US phenomena: The Wire and Game of Thrones. At home he has appeared in two series that occupied as much space in the news pages as they did in TV listings: Love/Hate and Charlie.
How the heck has he managed it? Good eye for a script? Good agent?
“Well, I do have a good agent, but the agent doesn’t always make these decisions. I can read a script and know it’s right. And I know to go after it. I think I have a good eye for identifying a good character in an ensemble.”
The good looks – lean, long face; pinched, sad mouth – have adapted well to the trials of middle age. In his latest film, Mark Noonan's You're Ugly Too, he plays a troubled man, recently released from prison, who is forced to care for his alert, back-talking niece. Gillen, despite so many commitments, has made a point of supporting such interesting smaller projects. He doesn't need to appear in low-budget Irish productions.
“Yeah. I have always done that. Though I don’t think of them as smaller films.” he says. “It’s just the other end of the spectrum. There have been maybe five or six in the last few years. It is a conscious thing. It’s exciting. Obviously the people working on the bigger projects are passionate about what they’re doing too. But the people working on a film like this are only there because they’re passionate about it. It’s good to be around that energy. That’s why I got into this in the first place.”
Raised in Drumcondra, he was drawn first to Dublin Youth Theatre and then began working for the Dublin Shakespeare Company. He moved to London in 1988 and secured the role of Stuart Alan Jones in Russell T Davies's Queer as Folk at the turn of the millennium.
"I did a spell on a building site but I didn't like it," he laughs. "But Queer as Folk did get me recognised on the street."
The Wire got him recognised in a few more well-informed locales. But Game of Thrones, the continuing adaptation of George RR Martin's fantasy epic, is a different class of beast altogether. His role as Petyr Baelish, arch manipulator, has made his face familiar in streets from Rangoon to Vladivostok.
“Yeah, it’s huge. Isn’t it?” he says in that way he has.
Part of the fun of the series comes from its ruthlessness towards its own characters.
In the past an actor could be sure that, if his character was popular, he'd remain in the show. Not so in Game of Thrones. He must wait for the new script with some trepidation.
"No. But the security has to be super tight. Particularly now we've reached the point where we've gone beyond the books. I had my email hacked. I managed to stop it within seconds. I got one of those annoying messages – "Somebody has logged onto your devices" – while I was actually logged on. When I was in The Wire we used to shred the scripts. Wish I'd kept them now."
Come on though. He must be just a little worried that Baelish may be eaten by a dragon.
“No. No. They have always written well and, when that moment arrives, it will be interesting to see how it happens.”
You’re Ugly Too opens Friday