With the return of Game of Thrones fast-approaching, the IFTA Award-winning Aidan Gillen talks to George Morahan about the show’s second season, presenting Other Voices and the current state of Irish television
Standing outside the Powerscourt Centre on a mild Saturday morning, Aidan Gillen cuts an anonymous figure. Coffee in hand, wearing a black hoodie and a clean pair of grey Converse, you would be inclined to think he was teenager rather than a celebrated actor, but the forty-three-year-old’s famously boyish looks are hidden behind tiredness and a wary glower; the flecks of grey in his hair also give him away.
Everything about Gillen seems an attempt at deflecting from his relative celebrity; he describes himself as “vaguely recognisable” and proves to be extremely uncomfortable with the public’s attention, especially for an actor. After spending the past fifteen years in central roles, at home and abroad, on shows such as Queer as Folk, The Wire, Love/Hate and Game of Thrones, one would expect him to feel at home in the spotlight, and, despite his awkwardness, he is never less than thoughtful and articulate. Considering his suspicion of publicity, his latest role as host of RTÉ’s Other Voices is a rather fitting one. “I thought from my side of things that it’d be free and easy non-limelight type work; I could just be myself, watch people I admire play good music and throw the odd comment in here and there. When you get left in charge of the shop you just have to get on like you know what you’re doing, don’t you? That’s how you learn, I think.”
By all accounts, Dingle in early December, during the Other Voices festival, is a magical place to be, and that feeling certainly hasn’t bypassed Gillen. “I do love Dingle at that time of year when they’ve got the bare bulbs strung up along the streets, and it’s cold; it’s just about ok to start calling it Christmas officially too. Then it’s nice when you see the first few scuzzy rock ‘n’ rollers walking down the street.
“I’d say being involved has been a highlight of my recent life … It was a real privilege to be able to watch these acts from the balcony of St. James’, the tiny church where the show’s recorded, and it’s very low key as far as these things go, so there’s a bit of hanging out and everyone’s accessible. There were nice chats and cups of tea, but also late nights with TVs out the windows of rooms and painted goats running through the corridors of Benners Hotel.”
That kind of intimacy is rarely seen between the performer and the fan – certainly not in the past, but perhaps more so today with the ubiquitous rise of social networking. However, Gillen’s work on The Wire, in which he played ambitious politician Tommy Carcetti for three seasons, inspires irrepressible passions amongst many he crosses in daily life.
“It was really noticeable how many people in Ireland had been watching it, mostly on illegal downloads, just before TG4 started showing it and the box set vogue, ’cause they’d come up and talk to you about it. It’s the kind of show that people like to talk about and discuss, ’cause there’s plenty to talk about. And if you’re in a pub or on the street in Dublin and someone walks along that’s been in the show you’re going to talk to them, why not? So I was always keenly aware of the amount of people watching it and exactly what they thought of it.”
Often revered as the Great American Novel for the twenty-first century, The Wire is still very much a cult affair. Over six years and five seasons, former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon’s grim take on the modern cop drama was rabidly consumed by a small, devout following, but its legend continues to grow, over four years after its final episode aired and in spite of its complex and esoteric nature.
“Its reputation was always growing, still is, incredibly. I think Season Four brought in a lot of new viewers. The plights of the teenage kids featured there – Dukie, Michael, Namond and Randy – were impossible for viewers not to take to their hearts. That’s where it really kicked off, despite the fact that it was brilliant from episode one … Sometimes people don’t like the mirror to be held up as steadily for so long, but that wouldn’t put them off. We should be thankful for that.”
Gillen’s willingness to indulge the fandom is surprising, and pleasantly so, but it becomes clear during the conversation that he is just as big a fan as any of those drunken revellers who accost him in Dublin’s pubs. “My favourite character was probably the kid, Michael, but I liked Prez a lot too, particularly when he’s a teacher. My favourite scene was when Dukie got money off him in Season Five. He says it’s for college; Prez gives it to him and says ‘Well, if it is, I’ll probably see you again, and if it isn’t, I guess I won’t.’ Heartbreaking.”
The Drumcondra native’s enthusiasm for his respective series extends to his latest HBO production, Game of Thrones. Having read all five brick-sized novels in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, upon which the show is based, Gillen is an authority on the quasi-medieval kingdom of Westeros and its many compelling inhabitants, and, so far, the television adaptation has lived up to his expectations. “I like the wide scope of the show, that there are so many strands in play – I like that it’s tough, sad and funny. And that it’s all rooted in real human experience with something like magic now starting to filter in. It’s been earned and so can be believed.”
Gillen plays the Machiavellian Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, a far more cerebral, tricky and possibly facetious character than he is used to playing, but he is quick to contest the character’s villainous credentials. “I’m actually trying to get out of playing villains now – maybe signing up for six seasons as Littlefinger goes against that, but I don’t see him as a villain, more a brilliant strategist and survivor in a cut-throat world.” Details of Game of Thrones’ second series are sparing for those who haven’t read the books, although Gillen doesn’t mind giving away a few spoilers. “There’s some strong new characters (there always are with George R.R. Martin, and they’ll just keep coming) – Robert’s [Baratheon, former King of Westeros] brother Stannis being a very obvious one to note. We see Littlefinger branch out and go on some travels too, and it’s nice to get out of the house.”
With Tyrion Lannister (played to hilarious effect by the Emmy Award-winning Peter Dinklage) inserted as the chief advisor to the repugnant King Joffrey, many are anxious to see Gillen and Dinklage go tête-à-tête in a battle of the schemers, however, the message Gillen preaches is one of patience in the viewer. “I have some dealings with Tyrion – he’s really dominating the scene in King’s Landing now … There’s always a lot going on and there’s no rush to pair everyone up with everyone. Having worked on The Wire, I know the merits of playing the long game. It’s more interesting, not patronising.”
Show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have a difficult task in adapting the beloved fantasy series, and having to condense each book into a mere ten hours of television only complicates matters further. Cutting through the sheer density of Martin’s texts has been made easier with the use of ‘sexposition’ – a portmanteau of sex and exposition credited to TIME television critic James Poniewozik. In its common usage throughout the first season, ‘sexposition’ helped to make large information dumps seem less tedious to the uninitiated viewer, and without lessening the show in Gillen’s eyes. “There was always a lot of talk and a lot of sex in the books, so I guess they dovetailed that way, and it’s a convention that works in TV drama,” he says. “Of course, I run a chain of brothels in the series, so there’s always going to be something going on, but hopefully, it won’t be too distracting. We have dragons now, anyway.”
Despite his hectic schedule, filming in far flung locations such as Dubrovnik in Croatia, the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland and, ahem, Belfast for Game of Thrones, Gillen has also found time to star in two series of RTÉ’s gangland drama Love/Hate as gang boss John Boy Power.
Considering the esteem in which Gillen is held, and the opportunities he has in better-acclaimed television industries abroad, why would he choose to star in an Irish TV show?
“Well, why not? I am Irish, it was well written and bang on as far as topicality goes. There probably was some risk there as we just didn’t have a brilliant tradition of TV drama, but risk is good. The thinking being that it’d be good to be part of something that pushed the boat out. It took ’til the second series to properly find its groove, but we all knew that and worked towards achieving it. [Love/Hate creator] Stuart Carolan is an incredibly talented writer and it’s quite a world he’s drawn up there – not a bit of it farfetched. ”
Obviously, Ireland does not have the money to invest in an expansive television industry, and the consistent standard of Irish programming has hardly set the world alight, but the warm reception that has greeted Love/Hate is certainly promising. However, Gillen doesn’t believe that Irish television needs saving. “The Riordans was very sophisticated and groundbreaking TV by anywhere’s standards, and that was produced here in the seventies,” he states. “I don’t think you need loads of money to make sophisticated TV either … There’s no need for TV to be crap.” With that said, he is not shy about proclaiming how important he feels Love/Hate is in reflecting contemporary Ireland.
“For a city the size of Dublin or a country the size of Ireland, there’s a ferocious scene going down as far as drugs, gangs, guns and murder go. All related directly to widespread consumer demand for said drugs. Faltering economy equals things getting leaner and nastier in that business … Not to doubt the originality of the thinking behind this series, Stuart’s dramatising something that’s on our front pages every day. We are depressingly familiar with this world.”
Photoshoot over, Gillen looks relieved and certainly a lot more at ease as conversation turns to TCD student and Game of Thrones cast mate Jack Gleeson (“Have you seen the cartoon GoT on YouTube? He’s good in it – he’s got a big bling chain around his neck with DICKHEAD written on it”). Polite farewells are exchanged before Gillen shuffles down the steps and out of sight, just how he likes it.