INTERVIEW:Aidan Gillen has built a sterling acting career, most recently on ‘ The Wire’. Next he’ll appear in RTÉ’s new drama series, ‘Love/Hate’, which starts tomorrow. EOIN BUTLERmeets the actor in Dingle
IT IS A BRIGHT, clear morning in mid-September. Aidan Gillen’s battered BMW rattles along one of the bumpy backroads that snake across the sun-kissed Dingle peninsula. Ahead, the Atlantic Ocean sparkles in the summer’s last hurrah. But the driver is ill-at-ease. He offers some intermittent commentary: Dingle is touristy, but it’s also a proper fishing town. Brandon is the highest peak in Ireland, outside of the Macgillycuddys. I must be looking at the wrong mountain, I tell him. The one I’m looking at is tiny. No, no, he insists. Once we get over this hill, you’ll see it properly.
I tell him Niall Toibin’s old gag about Carrantuohill being located in a hollow. There is stony silence in the car. Toibin signed Gillen’s Equity card when he was starting out as an actor, he eventually volunteers. There follows another lengthy silence. How was my hotel, he asks? Fine, I tell him. The room had one of those bath/showers. When he rang this morning, I slipped on a bar of soap and landed on the tiles. He laughs at that. It was incredibly painful, I add. I almost wasn’t able to stand up. He thumps the steering wheel in appreciation. Then he notices the mobile phone in my hand and his mood darkens. Is that thing recording?
With two decades of stage experience (including critically acclaimed performances in the West End and on Broadway), as well as a string of high-profile TV roles (including Channel 4’s Queer as Folk,HBO’s The Wireand upcoming RTÉ crime drama Love/Hate), Aidan Gillen is one of Ireland’s most accomplished actors. But the Drumcondra native has never been comfortable in the spotlight.
He is distant. People know who he is, but he is hardly familiar. (“I’m Garbo-esque?” he smirks. But he doesn’t dispute that characterisation.) He has a dry sense of humour, compounded by a tendency to leer when it might be more profitable to smile. The facial hair he is sporting is for a role in the upcoming HBO series Game of Thrones(billed as “ The Sopranosin Middle Earth”), currently shooting in Belfast.
His character, Petyr Baelish, is a shadowy, mercurial figure. “So I based this look on Peter Mandelson circa 1984,” he says.
His agent has made clear that Gillen will not be answering any questions about his private life, a precondition laid down with such emphasis that my curiosity is piqued. The actor’s home is a modern two-story house with a view of the sea. There are some bird skulls by the window. An Xbox on the floor. Some Talking HeadsCDs and a Raymond Carver novel on the shelves. I would hazard a guess that he has children. (Well, either that or a bizarre enthusiasm for Tonka trucks.) But that is about as salacious as it gets.
We chat while the kettle boils. I inquire about how he got his start in acting. He followed a friend along to the Dublin Youth Theatre when he was 13, he says. His first role was in a production called The Do-It-Yourself Frankenstein Outfit. He was cast as a robot and it ran for a week. One night he didn’t bother to turn up and nobody noticed. “I’m more disciplined than that now,” he deadpans.
He went to school in St Vincent’s Christian Brother’s School in Glasnevin, but soon lost interest in his studies. Towards the end of his final year, he was thrown out of class for trouble making. He climbed on to the roof of the school gym. “It was a beautiful afternoon in May,” he recalls. “The sky was blue. That’s when it hit me, and it hit me pretty hard. Those teachers weren’t in charge of me. They didn’t control my life any more.”
He sat his Leaving Cert in 1985, and his views on education have mellowed somewhat in the intervening years. “I’ve got more respect for teachers now. It’s one of the more admirable things you can do in life.” He takes a sip from his mug of coffee. “As long as you’re not a sadist.”
We talk for a couple of hours and, for the most part, Gillen seems intent on merely reading his CV into the record. His talent has allowed him to pick and choose the roles that most interest and challenge him, and he has not been out of work, other than by his own choosing. He mentions almost every production he has been involved with. Each had either an “incredible writer”, a “talented director” or some “excellent actors”. He delivers these plaudits not in the manner of a Hollywood luvvie, but more in the style of a seasoned professional footballer who simply sees the world in terms of solid centre-halves and reliable keepers.
Of his most famous roles he says nothing particularly revealing. He was cast as the ambitious Tommy Carcetti in the third series of The Wireafter producer Bob Colesberry caught his performance in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker on Broadway. He’d never seen the show before that. “I watched a couple of episodes after they cast me and you could tell that it was different. You could tell these people were serious about portraying the city they lived in, the city they loved, even if that portrayal was negative.”
His breakthrough role, for television audiences at least, was as the promiscuous man-killer Stuart Jones in Queer as Folk. He was attracted to that part by Russell T Davis’s script. He saw it as a story of empowerment for the 15-year-old character Nathan, who overcomes the bullying he suffers in school through his acceptance by the older, more decadent Stuart and Vince. I refer, light-heartedly, to an interview in which he recounted his mother’s reaction to some of the more graphic gay sex scenes. “Are you asking me about my mother?” he asks. That’s the end of that.
Pinter once described Gillen as a “dangerous” actor. Does he have any idea why? “No idea,” he says. “We met when I did [the film version of Jez Butterworth’s play] Mojo. We both arrived on set half an hour early. We sat together at a table like this and didn’t speak.” Did he sense that Pinter would be more comfortable with silence? “Nah, he was uncomfortable alright. But I had nothing to say. I hate small talk.”
Gillen brings a certain indefinable quality to every role he plays. There is Stuart Jones, preening on the dancefloor in a gay club, knowing he could have any man in the place; city councilman Tommy Carcetti, with the audacity to dream of being the white mayor of a black city; and John Boy, the ruthless crime boss of Love/Hate. Gillen endows each character with a steely self-assurance, but in real life he is self-conscious. He labours over answers to the most throwaway questions. He starts to say one thing, thinks the better of it, and says something else instead. There are innumerable long pauses. I’m reminded at times of Garrison Keillor’s uncle, the one reputed to have “unfinished sentences dating back to the Hoover administration”.
On the surface, then, he seems like a cold fish. But judge the man by his actions, rather than his manner, and a different picture emerges. He changed the originally scheduled date of our interview because he felt it wouldn’t give me enough time to write up this article. He picked me up from my hotel and bought croissants for us. Before I leave, he gives me instructions about getting back to Dublin. (I came by way of Mitchelstown; he wisely suggests I return via Limerick.) He even emails a few days later to clarify his response to a question he feels he didn’t answer satisfactorily. This is a level of consideration uncommon among people of his stature. If he resents having a complete stranger in his home, asking dozens of nosy questions, I can’t say that I blame him.
I ask about Stuart Carolan’s Love/Hate, the reason he has agreed to this interview. It’s an excellent four-part drama set in Dublin’s gangland and his first foray into domestic television drama. “Yeah, I’d never worked on television in Ireland before. I wasn’t averse to the idea, it just never happened. But I really felt like it was coming into its own with stuff like Pure Mule and Prosperity.”
It was (again) the script that attracted him to the role. “I knew Stuart’s writing from before. It’s bold, daring. And the subject matter is red hot.” When I query the casting of the angel-faced Robert Sheehan as one of his gangster acolytes – even when he vows revenge after his brother’s murder, Sheehan’s character is never more than a finger click, or an “Oh baby”, away from being the newest member of a boy band like JLS – Gillen defends his co-star. “That’s just what he looks like.”
He attributes most of the credit for the lavishness of the production to Donal Gilligan, the director of photography, who had an uncanny knack for shooting at speed and on budget. (Three days after our conversation, the 46-year-old cinematographer died of a heart attack.)
I ask Gillen if he will be appearing on The Late, Late Showto promote Love/Hate. He isn’t sure. “I appeared on Ryan Tubridy’s show when The Wirebox set was about to come out. But I’m not dying to do it again.” Was he uncomfortable being interviewed on television? “Yeah.” Why? “Because you’re not acting. You have to be yourself. The first few times I did any press, I was intensely uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to act. I’m still not that polished.” For most people, it wouldn’t be an act. You’d just answer the questions. “Yeah, but it’s talking as yourself.” Most of us never speak as anyone but ourselves. “Yeah, but you don’t live your life sitting in a television studio being asked personal questions.
“I acknowledge that publicity is essential when you’re playing the lead part in something. But if I had my way, I’d let someone else do it,” he says. “It’s like the curtain call in a theatre. My mother always says to me, ‘you looked really miserable up there’. You’ve just spent two hours being someone else and then, right at the last moment, someone has literally whipped your f**king clothes off.” He looks out the window and is silent.
Love/Hate, a four-part drama series, begins on RTÉ1 tomorrow night at 9.30pm