Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, October 2 2010

“Readers will have to live without his thoughts on the the retirement of Micheal O’Muircheartaigh and the suspicious longevity of Fungi the Dolphin…”

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. To our right stands Mount Brandon. Ahead, the Atlantic Ocean sparkles in a summer’s last hurrah. But the driver is ill-at-ease. I’m a journalist. He doesn’t like journalists. You can tell. He offers some intermittent commentary. Dingle is touristy, but it’s also a proper fishing town. Brandon, meanwhile, 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 his equity card when he was starting out as an actor, Gillen 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? (It isn’t.)

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 Wire and upcoming RTE 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 Sopranos in Middle Earth”), currently shooting in Belfast.

His character in the series, 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. That is an absolute no-go area, I’m told. Now as a rule, I never ask the people I interview about their private lives. (It’s not a principled stand or anything. I just genuinely could not care less.) But this precondition is laid down with such emphasis that it rather piques my curiosity. What is he so sensitive about?

The actor’s home is a modern two-story house with a view of the sea. When he disappears into the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee, I snoop around. There are some bird skulls by the window. An X-Box on the floor. Some Talking Heads CDs 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 if he has a deformed twin brother hiding in the attic, well, it is on its best behaviour today.

We chat while the kettle boils. This portion of the conversation is off the record, so readers will have to live without knowing his thoughts on the retirement of Micheal O’Muircheartaigh and the suspicious longevity of Fungi the Dolphin. Finally, he returns with two mugs of coffee and we settle down to business.

I ask about how he got his start in acting. He followed a friend along to the Dublin Youth Theatre when he was thirteen, 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 he soon lost interest in his studies. Towards the end of his final year, he was thrown out of class for trouble making. He climbed onto 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 anymore.”

He sat his Leaving Cert in 1985, although by then he was only going through the motions. His views on education have mellowed somewhat in the intervening years. “I’ve got more respect for teachers now,” he says. “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 fucking sadist.”

We talk for a couple of hours and, for the most part, Gillen seems intent on merely reading his CV into the record. He has been a fulltime actor for a quarter of a century, appearing mostly in theatre, one-off television productions and independent films. 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’s been involved with. Each had either an “incredible writer”, a “talented director” or some “excellent actors”. He delivers those plaudits not in the manner of a Hollywood luvvie, but more in the manner of a seasoned professional footballer who simply sees the world in terms of solid centre-halves and reliable keepers.

One could ask such a footballer, yes, but why tog out in shorts and chase an inflated ball around a field in the first place? But the question would not make any sense to him. He’s been doing this since he was a teenager. It’s the only life he knows.

Of his most famous roles he says nothing particularly revealing. He was cast as the ambitious Tommy Carcetti in the third series of The Wire after 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’ scrip. He saw it as a story of empowerment for the fifteen year old character Nathan, who overcomes the bullying he suffers in school through his acceptance by the older, and 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 snarls. And 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.”

It’s odd. If you’re familiar with Gillen’s acting, you’ll know that there’s a certain indefinable quality he brings to every role he plays. Whether it’s 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 major of a black city; or even John Boy, the ruthless crime boss of Love/Hate, he endows each character with a steely self-assurance. But in real life he is conspicuously lacking that confidence.

aidan gillen
He is self-conscious. He labours over his answers to even the most throwaway of 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 him 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 to have with our coffee. Before I leave he will have given 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.

That might not sound like a great deal. But it is a level of consideration for the humble writer uncommon among people of his stature. If he resents having to allow me, a complete stranger, into his home, to listen while I ask dozens of nosy questions, well, I can’t say that I blame him entirely.

I ask about Stuart Carolan’s Love/Hate, since that’s the reason we’re having this conversation. It’s a really 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,” he admits. “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 supposedly hardened 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 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 will die tragically of a heart attack.) I ask Gillen if he will be appearing on The Late, Late Show to promote Love/Hate. He isn’t sure. “I appeared on Ryan Tubridy’s show when The Wire box set was about to come out,” he says. “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 they asked you. “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 fucking television studio being asked personal fucking questions.”

“I acknowledge that it [publicity] is essential when you’re playing the lead part in something. But if I had my way, if it was up to me, I’d let someone else do it. 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 fucking clothes off.” He looks out the window and is silent.

See also here.