Aidan Gillen interview: Blitz, The Wire, Game Of Thrones, and fighting Jason Statham

Interview Den of 19 May 2011 - 13:48
Aidan Gillen

With British cop thriller Blitz out in cinemas today, we caught up with Aidan Gillen to talk about the film, and fighting Jason Statham...

An actor who’s often specialised in bringing flawed, unusual characters to the screen, including mayor Thomas Carcetti in The Wire and Stuart in Queer As Folk, Aidan Gillen may have found his most strange and unsettling role yet in the form of Blitz’s crazed murderer, Barry Weiss. A swaggering outsider with an affection for bright green shades and outlandish violence, Weiss is quite possibly the most memorable antagonist to appear on the big screen this year.

With Blitz out in UK cinemas today, we just had to find out how Gillen prepared for the role, what it was like to fight Jason Statham, and where he got that extraordinary pair of shades.

Did you base the character on anyone in particular? Weiss reminded me of Sid Vicious.

There’s definitely a bit of Sid in there, but I think that was there from the very beginning, in Ken [Bruen’s] book. Even the name, Blitz, which is also his name of course, is quite punk.

I’ve been accused of looking like Sid Vicious before in a couple of roles, or even John Lydon. That’s as much to do with my inclination to shove tons of dirty biker grease in my hair as anything else, and I am a bit fuck off in attitude, too, I suppose. 

Weiss is definitely as intellectually challenged, yet still strangely shining as Sid Vicious was, and the kind of psychotic that you really can imagine likes nothing better than sitting down with his mum on an afternoon with tea and Jammie Dodgers, again, like Sid.

But I have to say, when I looked at the script, the character seemed fully formed on the page - there were a couple of bits that won’t be apparent, because they didn’t make it into the film, but they were very significant to me. The fact that he was a failed actor was one, and there was a description of him as he leaves one of his first murder scenes, with a look of glazed wonder in his eyes, on his face.

It probably doesn’t matter so much that this doesn’t make it to the screen, but those are two things that really informed the character for me. The acting profession is, by nature, a Mecca for crazies, and if you’re standing in front of the mirror, night after night, doing a shit Travis Bickle, as Barry might be, and that’s the only acting you get to do, it can get blurred and frustrating. Frustrating that no one’s looking at you. And what better way to deal with that than to go out and start blowing people away, for real?

Did you have conversations with director Elliott Lester about the look of the character - his clothes (particularly the absence of shirt and plastic shades) are really distinctive.

Mmm. I kind of showed up ready to go on this one. I was walking down the road somewhere in a garish tracksuit top, and I saw the Day-Glo green shades. I thought, I’m going to buy those now, put them on, and wear them in the film. I did that and walked on down the road.

There was a hardware shop a few doors down that had hammers in the window, so I went in and asked for this dinky hammer from the window. They said they didn’t have any. I said, “They’re in the window,” and the guy said, “No, we don’t have any.”

So I knew the shades were working. Then I was on the tube, and I saw this guy with his jacket open, and nothing under it but dirty skin and scratches, and a word tattooed across his chest. I’m not sure what the word was - I think it was ‘deserter’. He had a big crazy dog with him and a strung-out girlfriend, and everyone looked like they were on cough mixture, so I thought, yep. I didn’t want to go for tattoos, but I did want to have rotting, broken teeth.

So I kind let Elliott [Lester, director] know I was happy with my look now. To his credit, he totally trusted me on it, as did wardrobe and the make-up designers. I left my house to go and do this film with a small plastic bag with a couple of things in it. I moved into Barry’s flat in the tower block and lived there. I had some camera equipment and a laptop because Barry would, but no furniture or cutlery or fridge or any of that. I had air guns. Barry had quite an active online life. I stared a lot at the lights of Canary Wharf from my balcony. I was quite ecstatic during this whole period.

Did you read the Ken Bruen novel as preparation?

No. As I read the screenplay first, and I felt I had a handle on it, that was enough for me.

How do you prepare to do on-screen battle with Jason Statham? And how were the bruises afterwards?

Well, when I first showed up at the base, I ran through a few moves with the stunt team. They like to get a look at you and what you might be able to do. I was put with this stunt guy and we stood face to face.

He said, “Stand far enough away from me so that, with your arm straight, you can barely touch my left shoulder with your right fingertips.” I did that, then he said, “Now, if you throw a punch directly at my nose without moving your feet, you won’t be able to touch me. It’ll be close, but you won’t reach.”

So I said, “Right,” drew back, and punched him right in the face. His nose made a cracking noise.

As far as the stuff with Jason goes, we only really got to it at the end, and there were a few bruises, but nothing I couldn’t live with. There was a set-up we did from the street chase, which didn’t make the cut, where he took me down while running through a tube station - because I had no shirt on, and I had to go on my belly, we couldn’t have any padding, so we just got on with that, it was fine. Anyway, I suppose the answer is that I’m fit enough - I cycle round and swim a bit, and I’m up for a battering if there’s something in it for me.

How does it compare to the set of Game Of Thrones?

That’s all far more sedate, although there are cut-throats and double-crossers everywhere you look. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the look of Game Of Thrones - design and camera-wise - for good reason, so there’s a lot more time spent on lighting, etc. Also, most of that’s studio based. On Blitz, if you had 10 minutes between takes, and you took a walk down Old Kent Road or wherever, you were where you could get a bit of inspiration if you were looking for it.

What is it about flawed characters like Weiss, or Carcetti in The Wire that attracts you as an actor?

It seems to me that most characters, in anything, are flawed in some way, just like most people. You look for the good in the flawed people and vice versa, and then try and make them appealing in some way. It’s always more interesting to take on someone thats going to have hidden sides or a fatal flaw, because there’s going to be more to play with - more conflict, internally or in and around them - but it’s probably the thing of finding the positive in there.

I know there’s not much positivity in Barry, but there’s a certain lust for life (even if that’s co-piloting with a death wish). Carcetti, I would say, seemed just about right for a politician. What was interesting there was that, when we start getting to know him, he doesn’t even really know whats driving him, what he wants.

His political conscience only formed along the way, and then  haplessness starts to creep in towards the end. With Weiss, though, all I saw was this vibrant, wayward, deranged kid, all revved up.

Would you describe Carcetti as your role of a lifetime? Years after the show finished, it’s still being as avidly devoured.

It was definitely the show of a lifetime to be in - people have gone on about it so much, but it does live up to its reputation, thankfully. And I loved the part, but I don’t think it’s the role of my lifetime, no. I was part of an ensemble, and happy with that, but I’ve played more involved roles, and expect to in the future.

Television has given you some very memorable roles. Is that where the most challenging work is for you?

I dont know. There’ve been some good ones, alright - Safe, Queer As Folk, The Wire, Freefall, Love/Hate, Game Of Thrones. I’m happy to work in TV, but want to continue mixing it with theatre and film. I could see from the early days that TV was a populist medium, that if you were discerning about what you did on TV, it couldn’t be any cooler, because there were great scripts being filmed, and  people were actually getting to see it.

The TV companies had a responsibility to produce relevant and quality drama for the people - and were doing it. I was seeing things like The Singing Detective, Alan Clark’s BBC films, and so on. I came over to London from Dublin to do a theatre stint, and stayed with the intention of getting into these kinds of TV dramas as well as doing more theatre. And my first three TV roles were in one-off BBC films for TV.

One of which, Safe, Antonia Bird’s film about homeless kids - written by Al Hunter who wrote The Firm - was also seen in film festivals. It marked a step forward for me, in that it was the first in that line of sensational dramas. So TV’s been good to me.

How quickly did your life change after Queer As Folk? Did Russell ever talk to you about involving you in any of his other projects?

It didn’t really change. People would point at you on the street and say, “you’re him” and stuff like that, but I’d long put it away already. I tend to really engage with whatever it is we’re shooting or whatever play we’re doing, then totally disengage the second it’s done. It was only 10 episodes, and there was talk of doing more, but I myself wasn’t up for it.

I dont think Russell [T Davies] was either, to be honest, but I don’t know - I never talked to him about it, and I think I’ve only met him once since we shot it. I went straight off to the States to do a low-budget indie called Buddy Boy that I’m still very fond of, then came back to London to another low-budget indie called The Low Down, which I’m also fond of.

Then I did two plays at the Almeida in London - so I guess, in a way, I was determined not to cash in on it, and for it not to change my life, which I didn’t want changed. I never talked to Russell about being in anything else, although I saw I was down as a 10/1 shot with [bookmaker] Paddy Power as Doctor Who at one point!

Treacle Jr, a film I’ve recently done with The Low Down’s writer and director Jamie Thraves, has been doing really well at film festivals, and can be seen on some screens in the UK in mid July. I’m very excited about that.

Is there a project you’re keen to develop yourself, on stage or screen?

I'd quite like to do a musical. I'd probably have to develop that myself. Something along the lines of Brian De Palma's Phantom Of The Paradise, maybe. I'd also like to play Alex Higgins. Maybe a crossover of the two?

Aidan Gillen, thank you very much.

Blitz is out today. You can read our review here.

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