Proper Charlie: Aidan Gillen on how acting and children keep him young
He has had some fantastic roles in 'The Wire', 'Game of Thrones' and the hit Irish drama 'Love/Hate'. Now Aidan Gillen is gracing our screens on Sunday nights as the intriguing Charles Haughey. He pushed for the part and transformed himself into the former Taoiseach, a man who was once described as the black prince of Irish politics. The Dublin-born actor tells Ciara Dwyer about his drive, his undimmed passion for acting, and reluctantly reveals a little about his life off-camera. Photography by Kip Carroll
Aidan Gillen is running late. He should be the one in a panic, and maybe he is, but in the meantime we all await the actor with bated breath. The helpful staff in the Morrison Hotel are on alert for "Mr Gillen's" arrival. Messages are sent to him through an intermediary, and we are told that he is within the vicinity. Finally, he phones directly. We hear that he is mere minutes away from us. When he does appear, his face is taut with tension. He is extremely apologetic, tells me that he is never late -although he probably knows that I'm not sure if I can believe that - and then he explains the reason. There was an incident at his kid's school, someone was hurt - his child - and so it had to be dealt with in a meeting, which ran over time.
All of a sudden, that changes everything. It doesn't matter if the reservation on the room for his photo shoot has expired; or that he seems in no fit state to be photographed, never mind interviewed. The photographer and I both show concern and then tell him to catch his breath. This isn't a tactic to endear ourselves to him. But simply, when you hear that someone has their priorities straight and that, as a parent, he is like a lion defending his cub, it is utterly understandable and admirable. There is more to life than the acting world, and it's good that he knows it.
Gillen is notoriously private about his family life - he has a daughter, Berry (16), and son, Joe (14), with fellow actor Olivia O'Flanagan. He probably hates divulging the school incident, but sometimes, honesty is the best option. While he is off being photographed, I think of the scene that morning in the school. These days, in Ireland, he is probably best known for his role as John Boy Power, the powerful drug trafficker in the Dublin crime series Love/Hate. His sinister character was only in the first two seasons of the show and yet it had a lasting influence.
From former prisoners to people who have stayed in hostels for the homeless, to ordinary Joe Soaps in the suburbs, a multitude has talked to Gillen about the part. Did his child's teachers have the baggage of that fearsome gangster in their head when he appeared in front of them? They're probably too grounded for that nonsense. But, also, Gillen looks different to that screen character.
His hair is cut tighter and he looks more boyish in real life than on the screen. He has a lively, light-footed walk, as if he is very fit and on the cusp of breaking into a sprint. His hair is dark, almost black, with white patches at the temples. Most people don't go grey in such an elegant way - I call it the Gabriel Byrne way of going grey - but film and television companies seem to think they do. His hair is probably dyed for his part of Littlefinger in the hugely successful HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. One of his kids describes this role by saying, "My Dad is a medieval pimp." It's a pretty accurate character description. That's why you'll often see him sporting a moustache. But he is off to Finland to film something else next week, so it might be for that, too. You never know with actors.
Gillen does the photographs first and then, he appears in front of me dressed immaculately in dark-coloured, well-cut clothes. He apologises again and is keen to make up for all the messing.
"At the end [of the shoot], the photographer said to me, 'Any chance of a smile?'" Gillen says. "I thought I was smiling all the time."
Far from offended, he is amused. This makes me laugh, but I'm not surprised. I've always thought that Aidan Gillen has a sulky-looking face and, maybe, that's partly why he ends up playing a lot of nasty roles. It's not that they are always bad guys but there is often something outspoken and courageous about the characters he plays. They are never comfortable, cosy individuals. He is well known for his role as Tommy Carcetti in the US series The Wire, a character he described as "flawed but driven."
Even though he says that he has always been attracted to bold, risk-taking parts, he tells me that he has also played softer characters and that, of late, he has actively gone after them. But they don't seem to get the same exposure. Perhaps it's because they are on smaller budget projects. But in the end, it is the more severe ones for which he is best known. He's great at doing menacing speeches. Right now, he is on our television screens in the three-part drama series Charlie, playing former Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
The drama covers the period from 1979 until 1992, when Haughey departed from politics, famously quoting Othello - "I have done the State some service."
Looking at him in front of me, Gillen wouldn't seem like an obvious choice for the role. There are no physical similarities and he wasn't on the list of potential actors for the part. He tells me that someone suggested he should go up for the role and when a casting agent, who knew him of old, told him that he was right for the part, he went after it.
This, I discover, is typical Aidan Gillen. He has always been proactive in pursuing parts, making sure he got into auditions for which he wasn't even called. He tells me that you don't do it in an irritating way, but you just do it.
This was how he got one of his first big breaks: English director Robin Lefevre was auditioning in Dublin for actors for a Billy Roche play - A Handful of Stars - which was to be performed at the prestigious Bush Theatre in London, which is famous for championing new writing. Gillen wangled an audition, got the part and that was his launching pad. He tells me that agents in the US are very proactive in pursuing parts, so he was only doing what has always been done.
But back to Gillen as Haughey. Looking at the photos of him in character, somehow he has become a dead ringer for Haughey. It's not just the long-haired wig of familiar scraggy hair, or the suits, but watching some of the series, the accuracy of his movements and posture is remarkable. He has Haughey's gimlet-eyes, the strange stare, the gestures, and even the walk is spot on - very upright and with an air of importance. It is uncanny.
So, the big question is: how did he do it?
"I didn't want to take it on unless we were sure that we were going to get away with it," he says. "It wasn't my intention to do an impersonation because you can do that really well, but that'd be too much. With such an iconic figure like Haughey, you've got to go half way. I reckoned that if I got an approximation of what he looked like and sounded like, we could go with that. And people will remember the events portrayed and some of the speeches, like the belt-tightening one."
"One of the first things I looked at in my research was the documentary Haughey's Ireland," Gillen says, "which really gave you a good impression of how he wanted to be perceived by Irish people and people outside of Ireland, "he says. "He seemed to see himself as part of a lineage that went back to almost mythological figures. He grew up in Donnycarney, but his father was from Derry, and he was born in Mayo, so he was from many places. This was all part of the appeal. He had the common touch. Some people had a great devotion to him and other people weren't having any of it. As an actor, you're very interested in what kind of a character could evoke these widely divergent opinions."
"This drama is not about being judgmental," he adds. "It's about exciting times in the life of our State and the emergence of a modern Ireland, with Haughey at the forefront. I was intrigued by his journey from Donnycarney on the northside of Dublin, to a life in an ascendancy mansion and all the rest of it. It was quite a lavish lifestyle. I'm not talking about the money and where it came from. I'm talking about why would you want to and what did your family think about it? What did your mother think about it? Did people think you were getting above yourself? I remember seeing a news reporter saying, 'Well, someone has got to live in that house, it might as well be one of us.' It was an interesting point."
"Haughey was very controlling and very effective and he was a shrewd player and knew exactly what he was doing. And of course, he was ruthless," Gillen continues. "He was very charismatic and very persuasive. I approached it as an actor, not as a politician or a commentator. It is a well-written script by Colin Teevan and it has a Shakespearean narrative. It's all about power. It's about how a brilliant political mind gets sidetracked and how this powerful man ends up isolated."
"I studied him quite a lot, and watching him over a period of time, by osmosis you obtain some of his mannerisms, probably mannerisms that suit you and your body. I wasn't going for a grandstanding performance but I was interested in his thought processes. Why would he do that? Yes, there is an actress playing Terry Keane, but it's handled sensitively, not sensationally. It's not the Terry Keane and Charlie Haughey story. We're not being judgmental. I think people have already made up their minds."
Growing up in Drumcondra, Aidan Gillen wasn't too concerned with politics. For him, these were men in brown suits on posters and he wasn't interested in them. He couldn't see their appeal and he couldn't relate to them at all. Besides, he had other things on his mind.
A friend of his went to Dublin Youth Theatre (DYT) on Gardiner Street and, soon, Gillen joined him. The appeal was more than the presence of girls.
"Suddenly you were exposed to people from areas like Dalkey and Crumlin and Ballymun," he explains. "I acted in a few plays with DYT and there was a great team working there."
His performance in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Project changed everything. The audience responded to him and laughed at him and that was the epiphany he needed to point him towards his future career. By 17, he had his actors' union card and it wasn't long until he was living in London.
"A real impetus to work was that you had to pay rent and put food on your table," Gillen says, "But more importantly, I lived in a place where I didn't know anyone and people didn't know me, and for an actor, that's good. They don't have fixed ideas as they might have in a smaller town."
He did a lot of new plays and then television work came his way too. There were single dramas which reached vast audiences and eventually, he was cast in Queer as Folk, a TV series, a love story in which he played a gay character. The night before we met, I watched a scene from it in which he has a powerful monologue, where the character comes out to his family. It is fine writing and delivered with great conviction. I tell him that he was so young and baby-faced in it.
"That was one of the first jobs I did after becoming a father," Gillen recalls. "It seemed like a good move."
The series had some intimate love scenes, so I wonder if it fried his brain doing them and then going home to his wife and newborn baby.
"It didn't fry my brain," he says. "It was such a strong drama."
They say that work begets work and in Gillen's case, that has been true. Also, the fact that he was based in London meant that there was more work. He tells me that he is not very good at auditions, so it is just as well that people have seen him in plays and films. He acted with Harold Pinter and later, went on to do his play The Caretaker on Broadway. From that, came the part in The Wire.
Gillen is happy to talk about his acting work, but he has also managed to have a life outside work. He and his family amoved to Dingle for four years after he had done The Wire. Now, they live in Dublin.
"Dingle was really invigorating. It was four of the best years of my life. It wasn't me deciding to leave and live in the wilds but, over the years, I have found that wherever you live, the work is always somewhere else. During that time, I worked a lot in London and I was doing Love/Hate too. When we were living in Kerry, my kids were the only ones who hadn't seen Love/Hate."
When he was living in Kerry, he got involved in presenting the music series Other Voices, but he explains that it was a local thing and also, Gillen is big into music.
Ask Aidan about his life outside work and he tells you that work and thinking about it, takes up a lot of time. He likes to read, he cycles, and he likes to go on holidays to places like Mexico, when he gets the chance. But he doesn't go on holidays that often.
"Because work takes up a lot of time, you have to choose your moments for really letting rip," he says. "I hang out with my friends and my family and I spend time with my kids when I'm not working. They don't see my being an actor as exotic. For them, it's just an everyday thing. Sometimes it's amusing to them and other times, embarrassing."
"Becoming a father has made my life a lot more interesting. It's like everything slows down because time goes slower and you notice that you're actually awake for so many more hours. Your waking hours elongate because you're doing things at a child's pace. You look at things and say things that you would have forgotten about and it gives you a second chance to explore those. But on the other hand, it makes things speed up, because you have to be in more places and do more things. You have to work more and provide more."
Listening to Gillen, he sounds very driven. He enjoys working hard. I tell him that he must be on the gravy train with The Wire and Game of Thrones but he questions what that is and says that he doesn't feel complacent. He will always have to work."I'm lucky enough to have worked in different countries but I always feel I'm only starting out. My energy about acting is quite young," he explains. "I feel exactly as I did when I was 16."
Moments later, he tells me that his parking meter is over by 45 minutes and his car is probably clamped. So he had better go. I ask why he didn't go out to feed the meter and he tells me that because he was late, he didn't want to cause any more hassle. Somehow this makes amends for the high-drama start. Later that afternoon, I asked him if it had been clamped and he sent me a photo of the notice on the window not to move the car. I tell him that I'm sorry, but he takes it on the chin.
I guess he lost track of time because he was talking about his passion.
'Charlie' continues at 9.30pm Sunday on RTE One