Why Aidan Gillen won't play the fame game
The shy star opens up about his new film 'Still', returning to big-budget roles and that changing 'Game of Thrones' accent
At this point, Aidan Gillen, 47, is arguably doing a better job of supporting emerging talent in arts than their funding boards. Aspiring filmmakers can only dream of attracting major Game of Thrones actors to their projects, bringing with them their world-class ability and marketing appeal - especially with only the promise of a few quid and first dibs on the sandwich tray as remuneration.
But weaved between his long-term role on the fantasy drama - and The Wire before that - Gillen has thrown his weight behind many newcomers, as proved by appearing in Love/Hate when Stuart Carolan was a relatively new name; his lead role in Phil Harrison's directorial debut The Good Man; and his latest film, Still. The first feature-length film by auteur Simon Blake, he was unknown to Gillen when the script landed on his lap.
"I suppose scripts get through to me, but I don't know if the smaller-scale stuff does get through to other actors because it doesn't make anyone any money," the Dublin actor says, a little uncomfortably backstage at Still's London premiere (its world premiere was last year at Galway Film Fleadh, where it won Best International First Feature).
"I read it and thought it was pretty good. But his showreel was what I was interested in, because it was visually striking. His short films and music videos all looked great and were very cinematic and artistic, so I was keen.
"It also had a few other actors attached, none of whom ended up in it, but that didn't bother me."
Undeterred, he took on the lead role of Tom Carver who, in the midst of an emotional freefall after losing his son in a car accident, becomes the target for a local gang of youths in North London, led by the talented rapper-turned-actor Sonny Green. I imagine it's particularly poignant to play the role of a grieving father, as a dad of two teenagers himself, Berry (16) and Joe (14).
"It's also what made it... not appealing, but possible," he says, after a pregnant pause.
"I wouldn't have taken it on if I didn't have kids and didn't know what that might feel like. I mean, I don't know what it feels like to lose a child because that hasn't happened to me, but my kids did spend their first 10 years in north London so I was familiar with the reality of kids growing up there."
Another pregnant pause. He apologises this time, fully aware of the long, awkward silences we knew to expect. I last saw him at the Game of Thrones world premiere at the Tower of London, when not even an easy interview by the inimitable Sue Perkins could counter his shyness.
His discomfort with the fame game is much-reported; there's even a Tumblr dedicated to 'semi-awkward selfies with Aidan Gillen' in which fans post pictures of them beaming alongside the pained star, who looks like he'd rather be anywhere else, much as he does now.
Still, backstage at the historic Regent Street Cinema, dressed in black, with a salt-and-pepper bedhead on him, it's wondrous to watch Gillen mentally select his words so carefully, and equally engaging and unnerving when he emphasises a point by locking eye contact for seconds, or what seems like weeks.
Raised in Dublin's Drumcondra, he met his childhood sweetheart Olivia O'Flanagan when he was 15. After welcoming their two children, they cemented their relationship with their 2001 wedding. He's been temporarily parted from his family while filming in far-flung places such as Singapore and Baltimore, but the furthest they've moved is Dingle, where he presented Other Voices.
That lasted just four years before they returned to Dublin, where he's regularly seen shopping on Grafton Street or catching a gig at Vicar Street. Undoubtedly, chasing the Hollywood dream isn't for him.
"I feel most at home working on this level," he says. "When you're working on a film like Still or You're Ugly Too, which was shot in Ireland and coming out soon, everyone is doing it because they love working and creating art. It's not about money - the film itself is the reward, but everyone can't afford to work on that all the time, so it's about trying to make it fit into peoples' schedules."
Scheduling has been the flipside to working on two long-running, celebrated TV series. Since 2003, his 'day job' takes up six months of the year, which explains his limited availability for large-scale movies. The Dark Knight Rises is the biggest production on his CV, but even that was only possible because it was a smaller role.
"Taking a supporting role means I can film in a few days. Like in [Brendan Gleeson-starring] Calvary, and small things in America like Scrapper and Beneath The Harvest Sky, I could film my scenes in about a week," he explains.
"So it's not been intentional that I haven't done many studio roles. If four years ago someone had said, 'do you want to be in this big film?', I'd have done it, but I did whatever was happening at the time."
It's only now, 16 years since making his international breakthrough as the uber-confident Stuart in Channel 4's Queer As Folk, that the stars have aligned enough for him to do not one but two major motion pictures, with John Carney's Sing Street a mid-budget bridge.
He's down for The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, a sequel to the 2014 young adult blockbuster. He's also halfway through filming Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, the medieval tale updated by Snatch director Guy Ritchie, with an all-star cast including Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Poppy Delevingne and his Queer as Folk co-star Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur.
"We're about two months into a four-month shoot," says Gillen. "It will be the traditional King Arthur and the knights of the round table legend as interpreted by Guy Ritchie, so it's a bit of a gang caper, which Guy does and does well. It's with a really good cast too.
"I play Sir Bill, who people won't be that familiar with. The character is one of the gang, and a deadly assassin," he grins. "It's fun to do it, and it's going to be fun to watch. What happens in Guy's films is that actors are let loose to bring a bit of fun and personality to the roles.
"The actors already jump out at you, which is why I was keen to be in it."
Meanwhile, he's currently on our screens as Lord Peytr Baelish, Game of Thrones' resident Machiavelli, who, at times, appears to have completed his transition to an Irish accent this season?
"Dunno," Gillen responds before adding, "I don't want to talk about that."
In which case, to avoid awkwardness overload, we swiftly conclude by asking about Gillen's long game for his career. Does he have one?
"I don't. I'm very lucky to have been working pretty much constantly since I started." That pause again.
"I'm not a planner. I don't go off course because I've never had a course to follow."
Aidan's career highs and lows
2000: Misses out on the BAFTA for Best Actor, for his role of Stuart Jones in Queer as Folk.
2003: Playwright Harold Pinter dubs Gillen as "dangerous" when he was up for being cast in a Broadway production of The Caretaker. He got the job.
2004: Bags a plum role in HBO's The Wire, hailed by Variety as "one of the most demanding and thought-provoking series ever to grace television". Fails to secure a Tony Award for The Caretaker - the award went to his future Love/Hate peer Brian F O'Byrne
2010: Begins work on the big-budget fantasy drama Game of Thrones alongside Sean Bean, Liam Cunningham and Peter Dinklage
2011: Aidan's character in Love/Hate, John Boy, is killed off. Music fan Aidan is announced as a presenter for Other Voices
2012: Appears in the final of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, A Dark Knight Rises
2015: Returns to big-budget films in the all-star Guy Ritchie-directed King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table film
'Still' is showing at the IFI, Dublin, from tomorrow