Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, chances are that if you’re a TV lover, you’ve watched Irish actor Aidan Gillen manipulate someone. Whether as the sexually aggressive Stuart Alan Jones in Queer as Folk, the politically slimy Tommy Carcetti in The Wire, the smirking criminal kingpin John Boy in RTÉ’s Love/Hate, or, of course, the opportunistic striver Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in Game of Thrones, Gillen has taught audiences over and over again that he is not a man to be trusted.
But those scheming backstabbers couldn’t be farther from Gillen himself—and in advance of this Sunday’s Season 7 premiere, the Game of Thrones star got on the phone with Vanity Fair to both set the record straight and weigh in on whether this is still a show where someone like Littlefinger could ever wind up on top.
“I’m often mistaken for a villain—a moody type—which I’m not really,” the actor explains in a relaxed Dublin accent that sounds as different from Baelish as can be. While Gillen admits there are echoes of all those villains inside of him—“everything an actor does exploits an aspect of their personality”—he says a lesser-seen project, a 2011 British film called Treacle Jr., is more in line with who he really is. “I played this quite lovable, optimistic character called Aidan, conveniently enough,” he says, sounding almost wistful for a project where he wasn’t actively backstabbing anyone.
The best evidence for Gillen’s calm, unruffled demeanor is his unwillingness to complain about a single aspect of the Game of Thrones filming experience—which can be notoriously grueling, cold, and uncomfortable. Was there ever a moment when the long days and nights got to him? “To be honest? No,” he laughs, then adds helpfully: “I could make something up.”
Gillen acknowledged that sometimes his co-stars moan publicly about the cold, the food, or the heat of the various Thrones locations. “There was one point,” he recalled, “where everyone had these refrigeration units under their costumes, but I wouldn’t go there. Liquid nitrogen going through a tube in the vest. It just would have taken me out of the moment, wearing a fridge inside my tunic.”
But ever the gentleman, Gillen is quick to let his discontented colleagues off the hook. “It’s just one of those things to talk about when you’re in a position when you can’t really talk about the plot or what’s going to happen this season. You’ve got to find something to talk about, so you bitch about the weather, you know?”
That mandate of secrecy applies to Gillen as well, of course, but we do know a few things about his role in Westerosi politics this year. Having watched his protégé and the object of his creepy affection, Sansa Stark, rise to the top of the Northern political set (both because of and despite his machinations), Littlefinger is poised to go full Iago—skulking in the shadows and purring poison in her ear. “Don’t fight in the north, or the south,” his character intones in the Season 7 trailer. “Fight every battle everywhere. Always. In your mind.”
But with Team Stark on a seeming upswing, dropping Freys like flies and treating Boltons like dog kibble, this latter-day version of Game of Thrones no longer feels like the same morally chaotic world where Littlefinger once held a dagger to Ned Stark’s throat. While the Stark ascendency is popular with many, there is a contingent of viewers (usually fans of the George R.R. Martin novels) who miss the unconventional fantasy world where someone like Littlefinger could wind up taking the Iron Throne. “Yeah, me too,” Gillen agrees with a laugh.
Just because the Starks are on the rise, though, Gillen promises we shouldn’t count his clever, calculating character out yet: “Littlefinger’s one of the most determined characters—ruthless and rigorous. His drive isn’t diminished in any way.” He also adds that there’s a long way to go yet, and he’s right. With super-sized episodes this season as well as rumor of feature-length installments for Season 8, there’s plenty of time for everything to go wrong for the Starks—and for Littlefinger to wind up back on top.
But even with expanded running times, the unavoidable fact is that the behemoth HBO series will come to a close sometime soon. And Gillen, ever the survivalist, is already ready to move on to the next thing. In fact, he has literally already moved on to join Season 4 of the BBC/Netflix series Peaky Blinders, about a Birmingham criminal empire set in the 1920s and starring Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. As is the case with Thrones, Peaky Blinders demands total secrecy from its stars—but Gillen can say he plays “a guy who shows up, is called in to help solve a problem, if you like.” And for fans of Gillen’s accent work, he teases, “I’m playing an English character, not from Birmingham, though. Kind of North Country.” In other words, he may wind up sounding a bit Starkish.
Gillen’s decision to wrap up Thrones with his foot already out the door is an approach he likely learned from years rebounding from one culturally iconic show to the next. Like Littlefinger, he’s a survivor. “I don’t know how I’m going to feel when it ends or whatever,” he says, contemplating the close of nearly a decade on Thrones. “With Queer as Folk, The Wire, or indeed at the end of any theater job, one thing I’ve always really liked is to just forget about—just stop thinking about it, forget about it and just walk away. And that feels pretty good, you know?”
But surely he won’t walk away from such a massive career moment without something to remember it by—perhaps a memento? “I definitely want the mockingbird pin,” Gillen says without hesitation, noting that there are multiple versions of his character’s self-designed sigil jewelry. He wants them all.
“I have snaffled a few little things along the way over the past few years. I’ve snuck a few things out in my sleeve,” he admitted, even while observing that the art department usually keeps a close eye on items to make sure they don’t go missing. Isn’t that a little. . .Littlefinger of him? “Yeah, it is Littlefinger,” he laughs. “I didn’t feel bad about it. I just stuck it up my sleeve.”
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