Aidan Gillen: ‘I am trying my best to be as unhealthy as I can’

The actor on filling Donal McCann's shoes in Faith Healer and staying off social media

Over the last year and a half, the pandemic has inconvenienced more than a few actors and directors. But the jolt to the Abbey Theatre's latest production of Brian Friel's Faith Healer must have been particularly bone-shaking. Aidan Gillen, Niamh Cusack and Nigel Lindsay were set to take the stage in March of 2020. They were surely sharpened to curtain-ready perfection when the walls came clattering down. Gillen and I speak a little more than a week before the production finally opens.

“Yeah, we were at the same point that we’re at right now,” he says. “Which was about a week before – or maybe even four or five days – before moving into the theatre and getting it on stage. So that was strange. It just means living with it and thinking about it for quite a long time. I can’t say it hasn’t been a positive thing to have more time to think.”

Well, there is a lot to think about. First produced in 1979, Faith Healer is among the most admired of Friel's plays. It felt modern then. It feels modern now. Structured as four monologues by three characters, the piece examines the ambiguous life of a ragged shaman who may or may not believe himself to have the healing gift. Joe Dowling directed the breakthrough production at the Abbey Theatre more than 40 years ago. Not for the first time since, he has returned to an endlessly fecund text.

I don't want to put any pressure on Gillen. But there are distinguished personalities peering over his shoulder. The very first production in New York starred James Mason as the enigmatic healer Frank Hardy. Donal McCann played the title role in Dowling's 1980 production. Is that hard to put out of the mind?


“Not really. I understand all that,” he says. “I have an awareness of it. But I don’t think you can just stop doing a great play because somebody was great in it once before. So I’m not thinking about that. I’m humbled to be entrusted with this – to be one of the people who have been given this gift. All I can do is work as hard as I can and try and be true to the play and deliver it plainly. Actors say: ‘We’re here to serve the play.’ And sometimes that’s true. I think here it’s the only way to do it.”

Faith Healer feels like a play that speaks strongly to actors. Now deep into middle age, Frank is full of anxiety about his ability to deliver before a crowd. There is a great deal here about the anxiety that comes with vocational performance. Does Gillen connect with that?

“Yeah, of course, I do,” he says with a sly laugh. “How can I not? The play is widely considered to be a rumination or allegory on the life of the artist, the writer, the actor, the hypnotist, whatever. It’s about the doubts and triumphs and maddening anxieties that are coursing through their psyches all the time. That mercurial nature of work – you never know when you’re going to have a great night or whether some calamity will befall you.”

Does that worry fade with the years? Now an unlikely 53 – his sprite-like features remain largely free of ravage – Gillen has been at this lark since an encounter with the Dublin Youth Theatre as a teenager. A clatter of work followed. Few Irish actors of his generation have been quite so busy on stage and on screens of all sizes. He has appeared in three defining TV series of the last 25 years: Queer as Folk, The Wire and Game of Thrones. He has been in films such as Calvary, Sing Street and The Dark Knight Rises. The nerves must have faded a little.

“I feel like every interview I’ve read with an actor or performer recently has them talking about nerves or anxiety,” he says. “Maybe, that’s because they were asked about it. Maybe it’s an editorial choice to put that up front. It depends on the person. Some people are fantastically confident all the time. It changes.”

Raised in Drumcondra, Gillen is youngest of six children. His mother worked as a nurse and his dad was in the building trade. He says that he “almost literally” stumbled into the theatre group around the corner. It was nothing he had ever planned, but he soon “became entranced”. It turned into a job relatively quickly. His parents seem to have been relaxed about it.

“I had no intention or idea that I could have a career,” Gillen says. But by the time I was 17 I did. I had got my Equity permit. I started work almost immediately in England. I was the youngest of six kids. So I could get away with a bit more. I think they were just happy that I was doing something where I was earning a living.”

Gillen is a hard actor to categorise. He is good looking. He has a flexible voice. He has charm. But he has more often played character roles than romantic leads. When required to be the centre of attention he can, nonetheless, comfortably nudge all competition aside. That strand of his talent helped him to the role of Stuart, suave advertising executive, in Russell T Davies’s 1999 series Queer as Folk. It is interesting how attitudes have altered. Nobody much (or nobody worth listening to) would now complain about a series focused on LGBT characters. But the notion of straight actors playing gay roles is today sometimes frowned upon. Indeed, Davies himself seemed to suggest he had come to that view. “You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair,” he said recently. “You wouldn’t black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”

Gillen is philosophical.

“I know what Russell had to say about that and that’s fine,” he says. “But I don’t think: this is a gay actor and this is a straight actor. I don’t think: this guy can only play this part. I don’t think sexuality should be the most defining characteristic. But I get what Russell’s saying and I see where he’s coming from – especially in relation to lead roles in big Hollywood movies. But he did pick three straight actors to play those roles.”

At any rate, however, it came to pass, Gillen found himself at the centre of some extraordinary series. Any click-bait top 50 of most important shows in the modern era will find space for Queer as Folk, The Wire and Game of Thrones. He must have extraordinarily sensitive antennae for shifts in the zeitgeist. I wonder when he grasped that Game of Thrones – in which he played the oleaginous Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish – had really scored with viewers. You couldn’t get away from the thing in the late 2010s.

“I suppose it was after what happened to Sean Bean’s character,” he says (remaining admirably cautious about spoilers a decade later). “That’s when you knew it had really taken off. People were just talking about it around the world.”

When he says “talking about it” he is surely referring to social media chatter as much as anything else. He seems to have avoided Twitter and competing apps. Perhaps madness lies there.

“I stay away from it. I don’t like it. I have a feeling for that world and I don’t like the way people behave on it. There’s no way I’m going to make myself available for people to f**king attack me. I’m just not interested.”

Interesting. Do the people who handle such things for movies and TV series ever urge him to sign up for social media? I have this vision of some smooth youngster saying: “Aidan, man. We need the gen Zs on Insta to generate noise for the project.”

“There was one video game that I did,” he says. “I did notice there was something in the contract about your social media channels and blah, blah, blah. I just said: ‘I don’t do any of this and I am not going to start.’ If that means I don’t do this job that’s fine. No one’s ever tried to get me to sign up.”

Plenty of actors go nowhere near it.

“I think it’s a generational thing,” he says. “Younger ones do. They use it to gain publicity or to place themselves in networks – to even suggest themselves for roles with studios. That happens quite a lot.”

That just doesn’t seem very Irish. We were brought up not to put ourselves forward in such a manner. Our mothers would be appalled if we advertised our desire to play the biggest role coming over the horizon.

“Yeah. I should be the next. . .um. . . Batman,” he jokes.

One imagines nobody will be pressurising him to pump Faith Healer on the social. Gillen seems at ease with the delayed shift back into production. It helps that he has remained busy. Resident back in Dublin for the last decade or so – he has two grown children from his now-dissolved marriage to Olivia O'Flanagan – Gillen managed to shoot a wad of TV and cinema as the world shut down. The crime show Kin was a recent hit on RTÉ. The Mayor of Kingstown, a drama with Jeremy Renner, has just landed on US TV. Now he helps open up Irish theatre with a play by a modern great.

“It might be a really exciting time,” he says. “I’ve been to some music events. And the crackle of excitement and anticipation in the air was off the charts.”

I wonder how he feels about the advance of age. It seems only an instant ago that he was playing youthful blades with money to burn. Now here he is as the battered-down, doubtful Frank Hardy in Faith Healer. How quickly we shift from Hamlet to Polonius.

“I’m doing my best to look jaded and old,” he says. “I am trying to fit into the character of a jaded alcoholic, battered by years of graft and neglect. I am trying my best to be as unhealthy as I can.”

That is the perfect quote to end the interview. “I am trying my best to be as unhealthy as I can.” One couldn’t ask for better.

“As long as it’s not ‘I want to be the be next Batman’. Ha ha!”

Would we do that?

Faith Healer is at The Abbey Theatre from December 3rd.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist