Aidan Gillen has a gift for choosing projects. Of the few television series he has starred in, Queer As Folk and The Wire have set benchmarks for the rest of the industry to follow. After spending the last couple of years away from the West End stage, Gillen is back, starring in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Apollo. Matthew Amer met the Irish actor on a blustery September afternoon…
"It's an obvious thing to say, and people always say it, but his stuff is great to act." Aidan Gillen is a fan of David Mamet, the playwright whose piece, Glengarry Glen Ross, he is currently starring in. That would explain then, why he chose to return to the West End stage with this play. "Great part, great dialogue; Mamet's dialogue, actors love saying it. It's a kicking play, so that's why I'm doing it."
I meet Gillen at London Bubble's rehearsal rooms in Rotherhithe. It is where the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross have been holed up, rehearsing all morning, and while the rest of the actors have a well earned break, Gillen joins me in one of the centre's back rooms. It is reminiscent of a jumble sale in a boardroom; a large meeting table dominates the room, clothes, once stored in bin bags – suits, shirts, ties – lay scattered on the floor like the first fall of autumn leaves.
It has been a Mamet-packed year for the Irish actor. Before taking on Glengarry Glen Ross, he starred in American Buffalo at Dublin's Gate theatre. The two pieces have obvious connections; both are set in the world of business and both follow men striving to achieve something in life. As Gillen puts it: "They've got these guys who will stop at nothing to get the slice of the pie that they've been promised by their political fathers; the American Dream, the consumerist ideal, anyone can have it. Which isn't true, because if anyone can have it there should be enough for everyone to have it, but there isn't. You can change that to 'anyone can have it if they're strong, clever, ruthless enough to get to the top.' The honest people and the weak people might get pushed aside, and do in this play."
"Anyone can have it if they're strong, clever, ruthless enough to get to the top"
Gillen plays Ricky Roma in Mamet's tale of real estate salesmen put under ear-drum bursting pressure by their firm; not one of the weak people, but a smooth-talking, highly charismatic seller who doesn't let morality stand in the way of making money. "The character is ruthless and cruel and a liar, but he's also charming and charismatic, seductive and suave," says Gillen. "He's fun to play."
Fun to play, Gillen surmises, possibly because he has character traits that Gillen could never have in reality. "That's why a lot of people are actors in the first place," he concludes, "to live all these other lives, tell these stories, do all the things that they can't do. Pretty intriguing thing to do for a living."
Gillen, who seems a little uncomfortable and withdrawn at the interview's opening, but warms up as the conversation continues, is dismissive of any pressure that may come from fans of the 1992 film adaptation that starred Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin and Jonathan Pryce – who is also starring in this new stage production, though in a different role.
The film, and its stellar cast, has a core following of fans and received much critical acclaim. Gillen's response to it is muted: "I saw it once. I thought it was good." He is quick to make clear that he watched the film many years ago and stresses that if he had seen it more recently it might have affected his decision to take on the role.
This is a theme that is revisited throughout the interview. Gillen, with every job he takes, strives to come to it fresh and give his own interpretation. Any previous production he may have seen threatens that palpably. While working on American Buffalo, a member of the backstage staff brought in a copy of the 1996 film adaptation. This did not sit well with Gillen – who refused to watch it – as not only could it taint his own performance, but, he emphasises, American Buffalo was a play first, not a film.
"A great piece of writing and quite provocative; those are the kind of things I like to be in"
His participation in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, his last London engagement in 2005, was also in doubt for similar reasons. "I was a bit unsure about that one," he says, "because I had seen Stephen Rea doing it, playing that part, but it was ages ago, it was 1990 I think, or 1992. I'm not sure exactly when it was, but it was long enough ago that I couldn't remember exactly what he was doing."
Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me told the story of three hostages struggling to survive in confinement. Though dealing with desperate times, it portrayed "a triumph of spirit over circumstances", so was not too harrowing a piece to perform. The Exonerated, in which Gillen enjoyed a short run in 2006, was a different matter. For him, the piece about six survivors of Death Row held a different emotional strain as he is acquainted with one of the characters, Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, sentenced to death in 1976 for the murder of two police officers, before being cleared nearly 17 years later. "I think it's a worthy thing to write about," he says of capital punishment. "I'm anti-death penalty; I think it's pretty grim, kind of uncivilised, you know?"
Gillen's two Mamet outings this year have been broken by time spent filming US drama The Wire, widely acknowledged as one of the best television dramas currently being made, in which he plays Councilman Thomas "Tommy" Carcetti.
"I could tell it was great when I went to meet [the producers] to talk about it," Gillen enthuses. "I hadn't seen it; they'd done a couple of seasons of it already. It was obvious from the conversation we had that the calibre of these people was sky high; the stuff that they'd been involved with was really classy and the writers they had involved were really classy. It's this big, ensemble, panoramic look at the underside of a poor city in America, it just seemed like a brilliant thing to do. So I had an idea that was going to be really good."
Though acclaimed by every television critic worth his showbiz column, the fifth series of The Wire, which Gillen finished filming the day before he began Glengarry Glen Ross rehearsals, will be the last. I get the feeling that won't bother Gillen greatly, as his track record reveals that he never stays too long in the same role. There have been few television series prior to The Wire, more short theatrical runs and one-off appearances. "I'm not the kind of person who wants to get settled into a long-running anything," he confirms. "I'd get bored, and then there's no point doing it because people will see that."
It was one of his few other television series that really made Gillen a recognisable face in the UK, the Russell T Davies-penned drama Queer As Folk. Rarely has a television drama created as much of a media storm as the tale of gay 20-somethings produced at the turn of the millennium. "Well, I mean, you want that," says Gillen with a wry grin, as he contemplates the adverse reactions to the programme from certain quarters, "that was all par for the course".
"I'm not going to be hanging out in Hollywood looking for baddy parts"
"I just read it and thought it was brilliant, a great piece of writing and quite provocative. Those are the kind of things I like to be in. I did think there was a chance of getting some sort of agro; you've got a 30 year old guy having an affair with a 15 year old boy, and explicit sex between men. I thought there might be a bit of grief from punters on the street, but there wasn't really, the opposite in fact, there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to it."
When he talks about his previous theatrical exploits, it is his performance as Ariel in Jonathan Kent's Almeida production of The Tempest that gets him going. "I swim a lot," he says, "and I can never swim without thinking about it". The reason for this aquatic idiosyncrasy is that the production saw the Almeida's stage transformed into a cunningly disguised water tank, from which Gillen would emerge. Negotiating the tanks was slightly tricky as all movement was through "Man from Atlantis type tunnels with an air lock and all this. If you got caught…" he pauses apprehensively. "There was a stage management girl who was ready to jump in and try to pull you out. It would have been messy." Even with the underwater warren, which he had to scurry through with a wing attached for one particular scene, Gillen still describes the production as "one of the highlights" of his career.
He is less enthusiastic about his one proper Hollywood outing, playing Lord Nelson Rathbone in kung fu comedy Shanghai Knights. "I wasn't expecting to have to wear a black cape," he says, a touch of annoyance slipping into his Dublin-via-Chicago accent. "It was a bit of a panto gig, and I wasn't expecting that; that's not my forte."
He is not disparaging about the film, which he describes as "good fun", but playing the token European villain in a Hollywood blockbuster is never going to be fulfilling for an actor who prides himself on the integrity of his employment choices. He is quick to point out, possibly from fear of alienating himself from any American producers who may be reading this interview, that he is in no way anti-Hollywood – he has, in fact, recently made an American movie, Blackout, half of which was shot in a lift (he must have something for claustrophobic productions) – but for Gillen, I think, acting is about playing real people, not caricatures, and creating work that extends the mind a little more than your average blockbuster action flick.
"The last few years, I've been working in America a lot," he concludes, "but I'm not going to be hanging out in Hollywood looking for baddy parts. Wherever there's a good part I'll go, and if it's there, it's there, and I'll do it." In the meantime, Mamet’s "great part, great dialogue" has brought him back to the West End. em>MA