Crime does pay for rising star
... but Irish actor Aidan Gillen, star of The Wire and Love/Hate, tells Paul Byrne that TV does not glamorise the lifestyles of the thugs he plays on screen
Turn on your TV right now, and chances are Aidan Gillen will be smiling back at you. Or, at the very least, giving you a wry, crisp and dry sneer. Having recently played DI John Bloom in Ed Whitmore's cop drama Identity, Gillen can also be currently seen in RTE's highly impressive Love/Hate four-parter and Sky1's none-too- shabby-either new series Thorne.
In Love/Hate, Gillen is Johnny Boy, a Dublin gangster who rules with a velvet glove and an icy stare, ready to take Robert Sheehan's smart young buck Darren into the big-time, whatever the human cost.
In Thorne -- directed by 24 vet Stephen Hopkins -- Gillen plays medical examiner Phil Hendricks, with co-producer David Morrissey in the lead as, yep, a maverick detective (who just so happens to hail from the same neck of London as novelist Mark Billingham).
Having one decent show on TV is admirable; having two is verging on reckless. Then again, it just goes to show how in-demand a good actor can be. "You never can plan these things," says Gillen of the actor's lot.
"You do the work that you feel good about, and you just have to hope that it works, that you get it right, and that the audience gets it. You have no control over quite a lot of it -- especially when exactly these things are released into the wild -- but you can choose good scripts, and good people to work with, and that's what I've always tried to do."
And it's an approach that seems to be working, leading Gillen -- who broke through internationally in 1999 with Channel 4's groundbreaking show Queer As Folk -- to The Wire, one of the most celebrated TV series of the past ten years.
Cathode ray critic -- and now regular TV host -- Charlie Booker likes to joke that it's the greatest TV show of all time, but there's every chance his tongue isn't in his cheek for this bold pronouncement.
Created by former Baltimore Sun crime journalist David Simon, The Wire is certainly right up there with The Sopranos, The Larry Sanders Show and Garda Patrol.
"It's a wonderful piece of work, and I would have been happy just to walk by in a scene or two, just to be on set," smiles Gillen. "To get to play such a juicy character as Tommy Carcetti as he worked his way up through local office, that was incredibly thrilling, and satisfying."
And it proved to American audiences too that this is an acting talent worth taking notice of. Having previously popped up in an episode of Law & Order, and played the baddie in the Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan action comedy Shanghai Knights, Gillen does seem to be drawn to that eternal clash between good and evil when it comes to his roles.
"There are a few battlefields out there that are endlessly fascinating," he nods. "And most of those battlefields come down to a simple clash of good and evil. And that's where great drama happens. It's where betrayals occur, where bonds are made, where egos get to run rampant. That's fantastic material for an actor."
But he doesn't agree that the show glamorises the lifestyles of thugs.
"I don't think anyone would look at the life of the criminals in Love/Hate as something to aspire to," says Gillen.
"These are not happy people, and they're not leading happy lives. I think the show's creator Stuart Carolan can answer this question better, but I don't think anyone could watch this, or The Wire, or pretty much any decent show out there that deals with crime, and think it's a wonderful life."
Not even Scarface?
Here's a movie that has been taken on as an inspirational video for certain communities out there.
Then again, even Tony ends up paying the heaviest price there is.
Time to change the subject.
Born Aidan Murphy in Drumcondra, it was the local Dublin Youth Theatre on Gardiner Street that was to prove the turning point. Following a friend through the door one fateful day, the 13-year old Gillen was hooked.
By 17, acting paid a wage, and a role in the Project Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream shortly after Gillen left school garnered the sort of reviews the budding thespian felt might just impress Equity. Especially when he convinced Niall Tobin to sign his proposal form too. The surname change (taking his mother's maiden name) came about because there was already an Aidan Murphy on Equity's books.
"To be honest, much of what I knew about acting in those early years was learnt from watching movies," Gillen explains.
"Around this time, I just watched movie after movie after movie. It was the 1980s, video players had arrived, and it meant that I could spend just about every waking hour watching all that cinema had to offer up to that point. I couldn't get enough of them..."
Favourites from this period include The Deer Hunter, The Falcon And The Snowman and Heaven's Gate, along with Irish offerings, such as Pat O'Connor's Cal and Neil Jordan's Angel.
"I remember just thinking, I can do this, if I just put my mind to it. So, you know, I did..."
Such thinking led to a role in Billy Roche's play A Handful Of Stars in the West End, kicking off a series of productions there that gave Gillen the opportunity to hone his craft.
One of his first screen roles, in Antonia Bird's Safe, was to teach him the importance of casting, and how acting was often simply about the right person for the right role.
If Queer As Folk put Gillen on the map, he was still content to do small work with good people. As opposed to big productions with bad people.
"It can only be about the work," he says.
"Sure, you might have to pay the rent occasionally, or a few weeks in Prague shooting a big budget movie can be a welcome break, but once you truly care about the work, you can't go wrong. That's how I got The Wire. I was in New York at the time, doing a play, when I got the part."
The play was Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, for which Gillen picked up a Tony nomination. Not that our boy is interested in chasing awards. Or fame, for that matter, preferring to live the quiet life in picturesque north Kerry with the two children, Berry and Joe, he shares with fellow Dubliner, Olivia O'Flanagan.
"I don't have that kind of ambition," he states. "Thankfully. I think fame and awards and all that simply distracts you from the work itself, and it pulls you out of the roles too, as people become more and more aware of who you are. An actor needs to be anonymous, and to follow his instincts, not some kind of career plan.
"That way, you'll have a wonderful life. And no real regrets..."
Love/Hate is on RTE1 Sundays at 9.30pm. Thorne is on Sky 1 Sundays at 9pm