- 24 Apr 20
"It’s written like a novel, and it’s not dumbed down in any way," reflects the man who played Thomas J. Carcetti so brilliantly
No way does he look it, but this is the day that Dublin actor Aidan Gillen turns 52. To celebrate, we're bringing you this classic interview in which he lifts the lid on The Wire.
Be warned that if you're re-watching the series - we're currently zooming through Season 3 - it contains spoilers. This afternoon, we'll have a more recent catch-up with the Radiators From Space devotee.
THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE BY PETER MURPHY (March 2007)
Aidan Gillen is the dark horse in the Irish acting sweepstakes. Farrell can brood for Ireland, Rhys Meyers can do Byronic ’til the cows come home, Cillian Murphy can be delicate and deranged in equal measure, but the 38-year-old Drumcondra-born London-based actor is a magnetic and wilfully maverick character devoted to Bukowski, The Replacements, Cassavetes and the ’70s generation of American auteurs.
Since his early ‘90s beginnings with Rough Magic and breakthrough stage roles in Billy Roche’s A Handful Of Stars and Belfry, Gillen has eschewed glitz for grit, alternating stage work with unglamourous but hard-hitting screen roles in Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son and Antonia Bird’s Safe.
He came closest to mainstream recognition with an eyebrow-scorching turn as the predatory Stuart Alan Jones in Queer As Folk, but resisted capitalising on it in favour of heavyweight theatre productions like Pinter’s The Caretaker, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Chekhov’s marathon Platonov. More recently, he attracted serious acclaim stateside with his turn as the Baltimore mayoral candidate Thomas J. Carcetti in the much lauded HBO series The Wire.
Despite this, he remains relatively uncelebrated at home. While the stars of the Irish film and TV industry were quaffing and backslapping at the recent IFTA awards, Gillen was onstage in The Gate, playing the role of Teach in David Mamet’s 1975 classic American Buffalo alongside Sean McGinley and Domhnall Gleeson.
“It’s funny that – I don’t really get invited to things,” he laughs, sequestered in an office in The Gate the day before the official Dublin premiere of Mamet’s play. “But no matter how good an actor is, if you fuckin’ see them doing the same type of thing all the time, you get tired of it. For instance, the first night we did Belfry was one of the highlights of the last 15 years, it just felt like a special night for everybody in the theatre. But after that I did Safe for Antonia Bird, which was a million miles away. I try to keep these things as different from each other as possible, and if you’re not in everybody’s face all the time, people don’t know who you are, so different stuff is gonna come your way. Nearly every job I went in for up until six years ago, when I did Queer As Folk, even though I’d done some good stuff, they just didn’t know who I was, and I thought that was a great way to go in.”
If his performance in the first night preview of American Buffalo was any indication, Gillen may find it hard to maintain such anonymity for much longer. The actor, in classic mid ‘70s street hustler garb (purple strides, leather coat), prowled the set in a funk of pent up frustration and barely suppressed anger, spitting Mamet’s rapid-fire dialogue in a note perfect Chicago twang. Lesser talents than McGinley and Gleeson (both outstanding, the former as the ageing owner of an antique knick-knack store looking to make a buck on a rare coin collection heist, the latter a mewling man-child perenially on the bum) might have had their thunder stolen. It doesn’t take a drama degree to understand why Pinter described Gillen as “dangerous” in a New York Times profile.
“I used to get those innocent, naïve callow parts, but there was a point where that switched around,” he says. “Teach runs on adrenaline, there is a certain amount of physical pacing, he’s always trying to get out of his situation and get ahead. But he’s the one who talks the most about this code of ethics he believes people should live by, not fucking over your friends, keeping business and friendship apart. But when it comes down to it, he doesn’t exactly stick to it himself. It’s America, 1975, Vietnam, not a lot of money around, not long after riots in Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, not the happiest of times. And these guys want to be part of this consumerist society, they’re like hamsters on wheels trying to make it.”
Given that American Buffalo is ostensibly about ethics versus business, legit or otherwise, one imagines Mamet’s script mirrors the realities of the film industry, the difficulties of trying to walk a line between integrity and sell-out.
“Yeah, I mean, I certainly tried to keep my integrity,” Gillen says. “I’ve made a real effort to work on parts I want to play. I would never do an advertisement or a voiceover for anything, no matter if I was completely broke. I don’t really see that it’s a job for an actor. I can see why people do it; you can to earn a lot of money, but I’d rather not. I’m much more interested in people like that musically as well. Once the fuckin’ car adverts and mobile phone adverts come on I’m not that interested. I don’t want to be on Hello! magazine or Celebrity Big Brother.
“I mean, with Queer As Folk we could have done a lot more, but we didn’t. I certainly didn’t want to. I thought that was a four-part series when I signed up, which was longer than anything I’d ever done. It actually became nine parts, but that’s all it was, it was like five months of filming. Time to get out after that and do something different.”
One of the most remarkable (and controversial) aspects of Queer As Folk was its noticeable lack of gay stereotypes, no mincing hairdressers or cuddly queens.
“When I read the script, that was exactly what I thought as well,” Gillen says. “It was not like a fucking ghetto, like Eastenders, where the first gay character they had seemed to have AIDS within weeks. You were never going to get Stuart or any of these characters discussing their sexuality. Why would they? When Russell (T. Davies) wrote it, it could have been a drama about Manchester from his point of view, and he’s gay and that’s his world.”
As a straight male, did he find the sex scenes uncomfortable?
“Not really. I’m just playing a part. Anything that’s as far away from me as possible the better, I don’t care. You have a scene where there’s two guys having sex – what are you gonna do? Not do it? If I had any problems with it, if I thought I wasn’t going to be able to go full on with it, I wouldn’t have taken the job. I just had my first kid. It seemed an interesting area to move into.”
Which was pretty much the same reason Gillen took the Carcetti role in Season 3 of The Wire.
“(The late) Bob Colesberry came to The Caretaker, he was one of the executive producers of The Wire and acted in it, and he’d worked with people like Scorsese and Alan Parker, a really good bloke, and the thing we talked about when we met was John Sayles. He was describing The Wire to me, and I thought it sounded like City Of Hope, it cuts into the cross section of the class tier of an American city, and that was the touchstone we had. And it’s great – The Wire really tells it like it is. You don’t see that many dramas on TV where you see eight-year-old kids on street corners selling drugs in Baltimore ’cos they’re treated with more leniency if they’re caught.
“And because it’s Baltimore, it’s nothing like working on some TV show in LA with stars with blonde hair and white teeth and fuckin’ trailers and execs worried about such-and-such can’t be seen to be like this because of blah-blah-blah. It’s probably the most intelligent show on television over there; it’s a world away from the west coast sheen of something like CSI or whatever. I was very lucky, because they’re the smartest people I’ve ever come across.”
Certainly, the list of screenwriters reads like a crime fiction honours list: George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price.
“David Simon, who’s the creator of it, he was a crime journalist in the Baltimore Sun, which is a pretty good east coast paper. He wrote a book called Homicide, a fact-based book, following this cop Jay Landsman around, and he made it into the TV series Homicide: Life On The Street. After that he hooked up with this guy who was an ex-cop called Ed Burns, not to be confused with the actor, and they hung out on a street corner for like a year or more, just hung with these blokes and wrote a book about it called The Corner, which they also made into a six-part HBO series, a very successful and very honest look at the so-called war on drugs, which bled directly into The Wire.
“The first season of The Wire was sold almost as a cop show, but it wasn’t about the cops being good and the criminals being bad. There was no conclusion at the end of an episode; there might be an arc or a theme for a season. The whole thing takes maybe 48 episodes to tell the story, and because it’s HBO and the writers have been given leeway to do it their way, you can, as Ed Burns said in an interview, sow the seeds of something in episode 8 or 9 that might not come to fruition until episode 35. It’s written like a novel, and it’s not dumbed down in any way, so they did get people like Pelecanos and Richard Price and Dennis Lehane on board, because they could see the quality was fuckin’ amazing. And they’re first rate crime novelists, all east coast as well. Did you read (Price’s) Samaritan?’
I did. Great book.
“Brilliant. But guys like David Simon and David Milch (Deadwood) and David Chase who does The Sopranos, all the Davids, they don’t just set it up and leave it there. They’re totally on top of it all the time. With The Wire for instance, we’ve had directors who do The Sopranos and Deadwood, they come in, do one episode, a two day edit and then they’re gone, and there ain’t no rehearsals, so the script has to be rock solid, and there are different writers, so it all has to go through David Simon.
“It must be the same with Deadwood – it all sounds like it’s written by the same person, it even has its own language. I’ve read interviews with David Milch and he’s obsessive with his creation of this thing. But
All the same, his performance is turning heads. Surely it’s upped his stock stateside?
“I don’t know, because I haven’t had a chance to do anything else apart from a film in Spain, Blackout (directed by Rigoberto Castaneda), which would have pretty much come out of The Wire. You know how it is. If it’s producers in America and they don’t know your name, they look at IMDB or Google you, see what’s there, and if enough shit comes up and it’s current… with film and TV they always have to be able to sell you. If you look at the back of a DVD, no matter who it is, they’ll have: ‘Starring Robert De Niro’ and then in brackets it’ll say Raging Bull. As if you don’t know!”