Three years ago, as theatres and cinemas went dark, and thousands of actors, make-up artists, dancers, stagehands, cinematographers and horse wranglers found themselves furloughed, at least one actor remained busy.
Aidan Gillen, Ireland’s most unassuming star of stage and screen, soldiered through a Covid-related closure of the Abbey Theatre’s acclaimed 2021 revival of the Brian Friel play Faith Healer. Before that, at a moment when no one seemed to be making anything, he starred in Barber, an Irish film noir from Fiona Bergin and Fintan Connolly, the producer and director behind The Trouble with Sex and Flick.
Against all odds, the carefully calibrated lockdown shoot wrapped in October 2020.
“It was a small thing that started even smaller,” Gillen says. “Initially, it was a really micro-micro-budget thing – as in, we didn’t have anything. We just set out to do this on the streets, and then the film board did give us some money. The making of the film is a story of goodwill. It did attract an unlikely bunch of great people. We said, ‘We’re doing this thing. We don’t know what it is yet. Do you want to be involved?’ We ended up with Nicolas De Toth, who edited one of the Die Hard movies. Fintan, being Fintan, called up Carter Burwell to do the music. He was busy, but we got his protege, Forrest Gray.”
The closing credits don’t read like those attached to a microproduction. Gerard O’Keefe, in the camera department, has worked on The Green Knight and The Pope’s Exorcist; the film’s sound mixer, Robert Flanagan, contributed to Cocaine Bear; and Nikki Moss, Barber’s sound designer and an alumnus of the Sullivan Bluth animation studio, worked on An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven. Barber’s cinematographer, Owen McPolin, makes an underpopulated, locked-down Dublin sparkle.
“The locations looked like a zombie movie,” says Gillen. “People who had no option but to beg and panhandle weren’t getting any money or food. The birds and animals you’d see around the city weren’t getting their usual feed of burgers and chips and leftovers. I remember walking around a corner into a fox with a seagull in his jaws. He was two feet away and had no fear.”
Barber may feature Liam Carney and Gerard Mannix Flynn, but the production was not quite as starry as Neil Jordan’s Marlowe; the rival gumshoe production, based on John Banville’s Benjamin Black book The Black-Eyed Blonde, and featuring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger and Jessica Lange, began shooting not long after Fintan Connolly’s project wrapped. Both films, in common with most of the genre, see the private detective of the title hired by a woman (who is not entirely on the level) to assist in a missing-person case.
“I had never seen a gumshoe film set in Dublin,” Gillen says. “And then I’m reading about Benjamin Black and realise that two have come along at once. It’s a great genre: Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye; Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. There are obvious neonoir classics, like Chinatown, and slightly less obvious ones, like Angel Heart – because I idolise Mickey Rourke. And there are great TV versions, especially Columbo. I watched a lot of Columbo during lockdown. People like John Cassavetes direct some of the episodes. And they are just brilliant.”
Possessed of a wry sense of humour and a fair whack of frankness, Gillen seldom dodges questions and is amusing where another artist might be defensive. On that controversial Oscar-winning editing sequence in Bohemian Rhapsody – in which he plays Queen’s early champion John Reid – he talks through the rising waters that the crew had to contend with on the day. On that final, much-maligned season of Game of Thrones: “Oh well,” he says, laughing. “I wasn’t in that season.”
Aidan Murphy, as it says on his birth certificate, grew up the youngest of six siblings in Drumcondra, north Dublin. (He took his mother’s maiden name as his professional name as another Aidan Murphy was already registered with the Actors’ Guild.) Aged 14 he joined the National Youth Theatre. Aged 16 he received favourable notices playing Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Project Arts Centre in Dublin. Despite brief appearances in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Courier and Wanderley Wagon, a career on screen, he believes, wasn’t really on the cards.
“Things were starting to happen,” says Gillen. “People like Joe Comerford, Bob Quinn, Pat Murphy, Lelia Doolan, Cathal Black and Neil Jordan were proper pioneers. I’m not really an authority on that era. I wasn’t a huge part of it. I was just trying to get a line here and there.”
London was an exciting place to be for a teenager. Lots of things were happening, and it was welcoming to young Irish. That was a surprise
Aged 18, having never been outside Ireland, Gillen set sail for London, where he quickly landed a role in Billy Roche’s Wexford Trilogy at the Bush Theatre, followed by a stint in Juno and the Paycock at the Royal National Theatre.
“London was an exciting place to be for a teenager,” the 54-year-old says. “Lots of things were happening, and it was welcoming to young Irish. That was a surprise. I didn’t really know what to expect. But the arts are a very welcoming place.”
In the 1990s Gillen found increasing success on television with small-screen adaptations of the Wexford Trilogy and the lead role in Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk. It is, he reckons, his most favourable medium.
“Careerwise, my biggest breaks have all been in television,” he says. “You could earn a slightly better living than in theatre in the 1990s, and the projects were less likely to fall through. And the work was seen. I was in a few one-off TV things in the early ‘90s. I worked with Antonia Bird and Al Hunter Ashton – who wrote The Firm – on Safe. That was big for me. That was a thing that made me want to stay in acting, to do more in acting. It was very exciting watching people like Kate Hardie and Robert Carlyle work.
“There was an idea at that time that TV and film were very separate things and that TV was a poor relation. I remember an interview with Christopher Eccleston in which he talked about the importance of good television and the duty that a state broadcaster has to provide good television. That’s still correct. At that time, everybody saw work by Jimmy McGovern and Al Hunter Ashton. There were plenty of films made at the same time that nobody watched.”
Gillen dismisses any suggestion that he is a movie star, yet he has clocked up an impressive array of film credits, including as Jackie Chan’s imperialist nemesis in Shanghai Knights, a CIA spook in The Dark Knight Rises, a nefarious arms dealer taunting poor John Cena in 12 Rounds and the enigmatic Janson in the Maze Runner sequence. On much lower budgets, he has collaborated with Jamie Thraves on three experimental features, and with the Irish conceptual artists Desperate Optimists on Mister John and Rose Plays Julie.
“Over the last 20 years I haven’t been actively pursuing film,” he says. “I enjoy working with Jamie Thraves. I enjoy working with Desperate Optimists. I’ve been in four of their films, with proper roles in two. I’ve just worked with them again on two episodes of Kin.”
He laughs: “The producers were saying, ‘We really want to speed it up.’ So they hire Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, the Desperate Optimists, masters of glacial, cool, palatial pacing.”
Gillen’s career has happily dovetailed with the emergence of blockbuster television. He was there at the very inception of the genre in David Simon’s gritty, influential The Wire. He subsequently found seven seasons of work in Game of Thrones as the arch-manipulator Littlefinger.
“There’s a sense of escape after those TV roles,” says Gillen. “I had a brilliant time and a real adventure. But it was liberating to get out a little earlier than the rest of them on Game of Thrones. You don’t want to just get used to doing the same thing or being underused. You can get into a position of comfortably going from one thing to the next and feeling a part-timeyness, you know?
“When I did Faith Healer I felt like I needed more of a challenge. Even this last year I’ve been going back and forth on a couple of different TV things because of contractual obligations. I’m not complaining about this in any way. I had this commitment here and a commitment there, and because of that they kind of had to spin your story out a little, so you weren’t really there. But I was feeling like a part-timer. And if I have any ambitions for the future it’s to become more of a full-timer.”
Sitting down with Gillen, I’m reminded of a public interview I conducted with him in 2014, after which, emerging from the cinema, he was mobbed by Game of Thrones fans. They haven’t entirely gone away, you know.
“It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the job,” says Gillen. “I still get fans of The Wire, and I get the occasional Charlie Haughey fan, which is a good one to talk about. I’ve never been to Egypt, but if I’m at the pyramids and somebody comes up, it will be for Game of Thrones.”
Barber opens on Friday, April 14th.