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Saturday 18 November 2017

Aidan Gillen comes to terms with fame

The star has adapted to being greeted familiarly in the street by strangers, but he still struggles with the camera phones

The many phases of Aidan Gillen: The actor has become used to strangers greeting him by name.
The many phases of Aidan Gillen: The actor has become used to strangers greeting him by name.
Aidan Gillen as John Boy
Aidan Gillen as Lord Petyr Baelish
Aidan Gillen as Charles Haughey in Charlie

Aine O'Connor

Sometimes well-known people can be different in the flesh but Aidan Gillen looks and sounds exactly as you would expect. He's really attractive and feels clever. He's been described as shy, he doesn't seem shy, "Nah, that's just something I tell people," he says, deadpan. There's a lot of deadpan. He leans in for the discussion of his new film, You're Ugly Too, and maintains constant eye contact, he answers every question carefully and no matter what tangent a story takes, he comes back to the original question. He also flags quotes that he has given to other interviewers, which is a nice touch.

Back in the 1980s, when a permanent pensionable job was considered a career gold standard, Civil Service Exams were an important part of any school-leaver's considerations. When Gillen got the Civil Service exam letter he hid it. During his teens in Drumcondra he was in both the Dublin Youth Theatre and the National Youth Theatre. By the time he left school he had done a hands-on, ground -up, kind of apprenticeship in theatre that left him very clear about wanting to be an actor. "I really didn't want to do other jobs and I didn't want to go to college and I didn't want to join the Civil Service." Which is why he hid the letter.

His acting plan went well from the outset. "I got my Equity card in the summer when I left school and started getting small professional roles when I was 17," he adds that "It was a little bit difficult to get taken seriously, there weren't a lot of young actors at the time."

As the name Aidan Murphy was already registered, he used his mother's maiden name and in 1987, at 19, he moved to London and worked across stage, TV and film. The roles gradually got bigger, he was cast in Circle of Friends and Some Mother's Son, then came the role that first got him mainstream attention as charming sociopath Stuart Alan Jones in Channel 4's ground-breaking Queer As Folk in 1999.

Work comes to him now, and his reasons for choosing jobs can vary. He has said before that he took the role as a CIA agent in The Dark Knight Rises to impress his kids. "We went over to the premiere and they were impressed but do you know what they were really impressed by? The free bags of Minstrels. And also they got to meet Joseph Gordon Levitt."

After many years living in the US and UK, he moved to Dingle where he lived with his wife, actor Olivia O'Flanagan, whom he had met as a teenager, and their daughter and son, Berry and Joe who are 17 and 14. The couple separated some years ago and Gillen is back based in Dublin, which he is enjoying. "I'm still travelling a lot and working away a lot but I left when I was a teenager so it is nice to be spending so much time back in Ireland now."

While he still does stage work occasionally it has been a career mostly built on film and TV so that now, thanks to roles like Mayor Tommy Carcetti in The Wire and Petyr Baelish in the juggernaut that is Game of Thrones, Gillen has one of the most recognisable faces in the world.

The reaction to his recognisable face is different in Ireland than in other places. He's on the phone on the street in St Stephen's Green when I arrive and I see two people do double takes as they walk past. He is known to be a private man, which is somewhat at odds with the fame. Passers-by now call him by his own name, "That's a relatively new thing and people greet you like they know you. I don't really have a problem with it, it's just not something that I ever thought was going to be happening to me."

He finds it a bit daunting to be approached by people wielding camera phones, especially when he is with other people who are ignored in the photo transaction. "The kids are quite good about it, but it can be a bit… irritating. They don't really want to talk to you, they want a pictorial record of what they did. But you do meet people who will give you a bit of decent chat and most times it's fine."

For years however people on the street called him by character names, Tommy, Stuart, Littlefinger, Lord Baelish and, in Ireland, John Boy (from Love/Hate). "I quite like the character thing because it means that they have bought it. Though one day, I was walking down the road and someone said, 'Here's your man, Charlie Haughey' and that was one of the strangest things I'd ever heard."

He'd grown up with Haughey dominating the political landscape, and it was a measure of the huge anticipation about Charlie, the three-part RTE drama, in which Gillen played Haughey and for which he won an Ifta "I knew from the outset that it was a risky undertaking, that no matter how I do this it's not going to please everybody, that's for sure." He was pleased with how it turned out, "I thought we did a good enough job and the reaction from people on the street, anyone I talked to anyway, was almost overwhelmingly positive." He reads reviews, "not all of them, not all the time," but he did read all the press reactions to Charlie and it was what he expected, "Quite mixed and quite inconsistent. It doesn't bother me, it's interesting to see what people are saying, especially about something like that."

He still likes to do small projects and Irish projects. It was while he was living in Kerry that he got involved in the RTE music programme Other Voices, which he has presented since 2011. Although he doesn't play music it is a great love. His most recent project is the small but beautifully formed Irish film You're Ugly Too, writer-director Mark Noonan's debut about a young girl who, following the death of her mother, is put in the care of her uncle Will, the role he plays. Will is let out on compassionate leave from prison to look after her and the two attempt to make a fresh start in the Midlands. There's a story that Gillen's mother met Mark Noonan and said she'd like to see her son do more light comedy and that You're Ugly Too is born of that conversation. It has funny moments, but it's hardly light comedy. Is it true? "According to him, yeah. I haven't asked my mother actually, I must give her a shout."

Gillen and Noonan had talked about working together before on a short film that didn't happen. Then one of his brothers - he has three, and two sisters - gave him the script for You're Ugly Too. "I just read it and said 'Yeah, love to do that' and within a few months we were doing it."

It was a three-week shoot in Roscommon and he is justifiably pleased with the result. Eleven-year-old Lauren Kinsella does a great job of playing Stacey, Gillen's onscreen niece. "We hadn't really met before the film, it was orchestrated that way, I thought it was a good idea to catch as much of that stuff on film." Stacey is wise and there have been a couple of suggestions that she is too smart for her age. Gillen disagrees, "She was supposed to be a particularly, smart, wise kid who has no parents and has probably been brought up in tough circumstances. Her way of surviving that was to be clever."

Perhaps kids today are also just emotionally wiser? "I think adults talk to kids a lot more now, I certainly know that with my own kids. I don't remember talking to adults like that. Actually I don't remember talking to adults that much anyway. The generation gap was bigger."

The film has had a very favourable response so far, receiving nominations in several categories in different festivals Including Berlin and Galway. Gillen himself has had his fair share of accolades but is somewhat ambivalent about awards, "To me, the awards thing doesn't mean that much but people do notice that stuff and it doesn't do any harm."

And if nothing else they vindicate that decision to hide the Civil Service exam letter.

You're Ugly Too opens on Friday

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