- 09 Jan 19
Days off in 2018 were at a premium for AIDAN GILLEN as he went from shooting a new UFO drama in Canada to being part of the Bohemian Rhapsody juggernaut. Freddie, Mick ‘n’ Keef, Dave Allen, Microdisney, dystopian teen dramas and a whole lot more are on the agenda as he talks STUART CLARK through his incredible year.
I shouldn’t be encouraging you to risk your hard-earned cash, but if any bookie’s taking bets already on next year’s Irish Film & Television Awards, I’d strongly recommend sticking a ton on Aidan Gillen to win Best Actor for his small-screen portrayal of Dave Allen, the Dubliner who was an alternative comedian before the phrase was even coined.
“He inspired all the new wave Brit comics like Ben Elton and Rik Mayall, but whereas they now look dated, Dave Allen’s monologues and sketches are still as funny and relevant as they were in the ‘70s when he became one of the BBC’s biggest stars,” Aidan reflects over a cuppa in his Mum’s Drumcondra home. “Even today, you’ve got people like Dylan Moran who’s very like Dave Allen in his stage persona.”
With a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Allen would park himself on a stool and regale the live studio audience with stories about sex, race and religion, which managed to infuriate both the Catholic Church and the IRA who sent him a death threat. In March’s Dave Allen At Peace TV movie, Gillen doesn’t so much play as inhabit his hero. Aidan reckons that it could have been even better, though.
“It would’ve been great to have had another hour, and access to the actual material, which we didn’t get,” he explains. “We couldn’t replicate things exactly, which meant it wasn’t as dark and sophisticated as it might have been. I’m not being picky here. I just loved playing him so much that I wish we’d had a slightly bigger canvas.”
While Dave Allen At Peace might have flown under your radar, there’s been no missing Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury biopic in which Aidan plays Queen manager John Reid.
“The project had been in gestation for a number of years, but when it happened it happened fast,” he reveals. “I knew Rami Malek was playing Freddie, and he does an outstanding job. The producers of this film wanted it to have a wide audience. There could have been a darker film about Freddie Mercury, but this isn’t it. You either do it straight with a great performance like Rami in Bohemian Rhapsody, Kurt Russell in Elvis or Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line or go completely leftfield like the Bob Dylan film with Cate Blanchett, which I loved. But, anyway, they said, ‘Do you want to come along and play John Reid?’ The role isn’t massive, but it’s part of the machinery and I had fun. I met John and he gave me his seal of approval, which was good because he is picky. I saw him again a few weeks ago and he goes: ‘Did you know that Richard Madden is playing me in the Elton John film, Rocket Man – John managed Elton for 25 years – and I think he’s enjoying it.’”
Actually, while you’re on to Paddy Power, stick another hundred on Rami Malek to win an Oscar.
“By his own admission he’s not a method actor, but anytime I saw Rami on set he was talking and walking and being like Freddie,” Aidan divulges. “It’s a difficult accent to pull off for someone who’s American and that’s the way you’re going to do it; stay in character all day. It was kind of chilling looking at him up close during those scenes. What was even more chilling, and which hasn’t been reported in the media surrounding Bohemian Rhapsody, was what happened when they shot a scene in the EMI offices. Mike Myers is playing this record company executive, Rami is in there with the band and the Queen gold discs jumped off the wall something like six times.”
With a first fortnight take of over $110 million, the producers and director Bryan Singer have certainly got the wide audience they wanted. What are Aidan’s favourite music films?
“The Kids Are Alright, the Kurt Russell Elvis movie I just mentioned, The Filth And The Fury, Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz, The Song Remains The Same and Gimme Shelter,” comes his rapid-fire response. “The Stones at Croke Park was also one of my gigs of the year. You can’t go wrong when your first three songs are ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, ‘Tumbling Dice’ and ‘Paint It Black’! It was nice and sloppy - but in a good way. I had a regular pitch ticket but somebody got me into the pit twenty feet away from Ronnie Wood. I never appreciated how much he does in the band. He was the star of the day. It was a tremendous gig and there was a lot of love on the stage.”
In the end it isn’t Jagger/Richards but Coughlan/O’Hagan who top Aidan’s Stand-Out Shows of 2018 list.
“You know when you’re looking at something thinking, ‘I never thought this would happen’? That’s how I felt about the Microdisney gig in the National Concert Hall. I felt like I was floating watching them do ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’ and all those other classic songs. Another show I loved was Echo & The Bunnymen in Vicar St.”
Hot Press readers might recall a picture of Aidan looking like all his Christmases had come at once as he shared a backstage bevvy with Ian McCullough and Wil Sergeant. Sticking with matters rock ‘n’ roll, has he read any good music books recently?
“I’m halfway through The Replacements biography, Trouble Boys, by Bob Mehr. It’s a great account of a band who didn’t give a shit or know how to go about things. Some of the stuff in there would make your hair stand on end. Full of danger. And they loved the Stones too!”
Aidan spent the first half of 2018 in Vancouver shooting Project Blue Book, a “sci-facts” drama, which premieres on January 8 on the History channel. With Watchmen and The Man In The High Castle’s Laura Mennell and Michael Malarkey of Vampire Diaries fame co-starring, there’s a definite whiff of smash hit about it.
“Project Blue Book is set in the 1950s and centres around the emergence of the UFO phenomenon,” he reveals. “Concerned about this phenomenon and the hysteria it was creating, the US Air Force and the government set up an agency to take reports and follow them up. I’m playing Allen Hynek, the guy they hire to front it who starts out a thoughtful sceptic and becomes one of the leading proponents of the UFO movement or ‘UFOlogists’ as they were known. One of his books, The UFO Experience, inspired Spielberg to make Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Allen Hynek was the technical advisor and appeared in it.
“The guy who made Back To The Future, Contact, Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis, is behind it. It’s popular entertainment but not saccharine. A lot of good directors and actors, and an interesting period to be dealing with. Post-World War II, people in America were looking forwards, backwards and upwards. They were optimistic but also, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in dread of what could be coming out of the sky at them next.”
Arriving back in Dublin after wrapping Project Blue Book, Aidan went straight from the airport to a garage at the back of Herbert Street, where young actor-director Laoisa Sexton was shooting her debut “un-romantic comedy” short, I Didn’t… I Wasn’t… I Amn’t.
“She’s a good actor, great with dialogue and deserves a break,” Aidan says benevolently. “A few of the things I’ve done in recent years like this and You’re Ugly Too have been with friends of my brother, JP Murphy. He wrote a play, which she acted in in New York. It’s something smaller and it’s with friends, which is always fun.”
Currently enjoying a break from filming Series 5 of Peaky Blinders – talking to us about what Tommy Shelby, Alfie Solomons, Luca Changretta, Aberama Gold et al will be getting up to in the New Year is strictly verboten – Aidan added to his air miles this year with a trip to Cape Town to reprise the role of Janson in Maze Runner: The Death Cure.
“Every now and then somebody says, ‘Do you want to come to Albuquerque for four weeks and play a villainous type in a teen dystopian fantasy?’ And you go, ‘Yes, sure.’ Then the sequel comes up and it’s, ‘Do you want to go to South Africa for six weeks?’ Again, ‘Yes, sure.’ Cape Town is worryingly not what you expect. My mind was blown by how divided the wealth still is. I didn’t see anyone apart from white people on the beaches. It was astounding actually that the shadow of apartheid is still there.”
Having managed to locate the fifth week in the month and the thirteenth month in the year, Aidan joins Declan Conlon, Gavin Drea, Catriona Ennis, Paul Reid and Seána Kerslake in We Ourselves, the Paul Mercier film about a group of youngish Irish people reflecting on the choices - good, bad and sometimes very bad - they’ve made in life.
“It’s dense and intricate with seven or eight people offering different recollections of something that happened twenty years ago,” he explains. “The first plays I saw during the ‘80s in the SFX were Paul Mercier ones like Drowning, Studs and Spacers in the SFX. I was only 15, so it was the acting equivalent of a punk rock moment. Like Roddy Doyle who was also coming through at the time, Paul had been a teacher at Greendale Community School and was on a mission to contemporise Irish theatre. He succeeded.”
Does Aidan actively seek out diverse parts or is it just the way the casting cookie crumbles?
“Is there method to the madness? There’s no masterplan, but I’ll maybe try to do something a little different to what’s come before. I try to balance out big things like Game Of Thrones with a smaller film or indie project. I did another short this year in Dublin with a friend of mine called Rose Plays Julie. It’s a kind of an identity revenge thriller.” Aidan has also been muscling in on yours truly’s territory - just wait ‘til I pip him one year to an Oscar - by conducting an interview with Mark Kozelek, which can be perused on the Sun Kill Moon website. Annoyingly, it’s extremely good.
“When Dan Hegarty did his Buried Treasures book, I picked a Sun Kill Moon album called April,” he explains. “Kozelek got wind of this when somebody showed it to him at a boxing match – he’s a massive fan - in Las Vegas. He approached me saying, ‘I’ve a new album coming, would you like to interview me about it?’ He’s done a similar thing in the past Cameron Crowe the director and John Connolly the novelist, so we did a back and forth over a couple of weeks and because Mark’s such a fascinating person it turned out really well.”
The same goes for you, Mr. Gillen!