When Aidan Gillen talks about Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, he speaks in the first person. Not gonna lie: It's . . . unnerving to talk to an otherwise amiable and insightful actor when he uses the word "I" to refer to the cutthroat pimp and power broker he plays on Game of Thrones. But the reason quickly becomes clear. Gillen's out to find the man inside the Machiavellian monster, even when it involves the nihilistic speech he delivered – and the murder of Ros, his right-hand woman, which he orchestrated – at the end of last week's episode, "The Climb." As another character put it on The Wire, the other great HBO drama about politics and power on which Gillen has starred, it's all in the game.
That was a magnificently malevolent monologue you delivered there at the end of the episode. When those nightmarish little speeches show up in your scripts, how do you react?
I would say I generally react with glee when some Littlefinger gold is thrown my way. Like any actor who's putting a character together over a number of episodes, or rather a number of seasons, it's always good to have another piece to add to the puzzle. Some might say it's about unlocking the puzzle, but it's probably best if both purposes are served. The audience are maybe getting to understand the character a little more as you try and give some new shading here or there. Like in the books, you get snippets, and there's never any more than you need. There's lots of other stories to be telling, many plates to be kept spinning, so it's kind of a long game.
How do you avoid mustache-twirling supervillain stereotypes while performing them?
Keep the mustache short. That helps. Although there may be room to move with that. With age and wisdom come long whiskers. Have you ever seen the picture of the man with the octopus mustache? Well, obviously I'd never go for that – that's an Iron Islands look. But you know what I mean.
I didn't expect Littlefinger's quest for power to involve accumulating more facial hair.
With Littlefinger, there's quite a lot of meticulous planning, even down to mustache length. I always found Littlefinger quite a likeable, buoyant character. He plays a good game – plays with people, plays with people's fates. There's a lot of play. I'll always endeavor to bring an aspect of play to the table and keep things reined in if I can. The writers don't write in cliche, so if the ham starts to come in thick slices, you can lay it all at my dainty boots.
As a reader of the books, I've long found Littlefinger very frightening, but I can't quite put my finger on why. He keeps so much of his true face hidden from the main characters with whom he interacts.
Littlefinger can be kind of frightening, you're right. I tend to gloss over that, or not pay too much mind. His ambition is second to none, and there's a certain ruthlessness there, [but] these are hardly uncommon traits in the Seven Kingdoms. Everything's borne out of human experience, of course – rejection, humiliation, poverty, whatever. People aren't born bad, no matter how harsh the circumstances. There is a person in there, and that person is not made of ice.
We may see a little more of Littlefinger's face in the show than in the books, but I'd like to think the moments are carefully chosen. And it's almost always a cards-close-to-the-chest scenario, with a crack of insight here or there, but also an occasional smokescreen thrown up. It's nice to have people not know what you're up to.
On the show, as compared to the books, we can see him in all his glory, and you've gotten to create that persona more or less from whole cloth. Do you find that easier or harder than working as a character who's more fleshed out in the novels?
If the character was more fleshed out in the novels I'd have more to be beholden to, I suppose. You can look at that either way, but there are more than enough character clues there if you want them as is. George R.R. Martin created that character, though, not me. All a good writer needs are two or three paragraphs to get the job done – two or three well-chosen adjectives, even. I suppose actors are then cast not just for their ability to play a role from the page but also to bring personality – usually some kind of hybrid of themselves, their interpretation of the written character and God knows what else – to bear. I'm evading the question.
Very Littlefinger of you.
For me, I'd have to say, the more blanks the better. But it's not total blank pages – more like join the dots, or a thousand-page coloring book.
You and Conleth Hill, a.k.a. Lord Varys, are dynamite together. Does it feel that way on set? Can we expect a buddy-comedy spinoff down the road?
Like one where I nail him into a crate and transport him around on the back of a cart for eternity? Every now and then I could throw him a piece of Turkish delight.
Again, very Littlefinger of you.
Only joking, Varys. Conleth and I do have fun together, it's true, and there is much mirth in the air when we shoot scenes together, ourselves alone or indeed in the small council chamber with the rest of them. Although we are from the same small island, we'd only met once before, long ago. Littlefinger and Varys know each other very well, and I think we get away with that one.
Littlefinger's cruelty, his position as a pimp and his sinister interest in characters like Sansa, Ros and Lysa put him at the center of the show's treatment of sexism and misogyny in this world, so you're being asked to carry some very difficult material. I was wondering if that takes a toll on you.
It's true I've been seen at my cruelest in that scene in the brothel from Season Two with Ros, where I threaten her. I would, however, do and say the same if she were a boy. I am a brothel keeper, among other things, yes, and that's a perfect position to hold for someone playing the game I'm playing. As we all know, sex can topple a government. Things are seen and heard in these rooms – clients can be at their most vulnerable. But I'm just doing the things that I do to get where I'm going, and I'm not going to get too misty about it. My relationship with Lysa is colored by many things, as is my interest in Sansa, but as far as I'm concerned, nothing is ever necessarily what it seems. And in the wider picture, some of the strongest and most determined characters in Game of Thrones are women.
If you mean does having to treat people the way Littlefinger treats people get me down, no. I'm playing the role. I'll always try to find justification in what I'm up to, no matter how despicable it gets.
Do you think Littlefinger is nobly intentioned toward anyone, or anything? Is the climb really all there is?
Yes, there are some noble intentions.There's loads of stuff going on all the time, all the underhand machinations and slyness, but there is a certain select honesty and integrity. I'm true to myself, for sure, but that's not exclusive. Is there any tenderness in there? Maybe. The climb is not all there is. But there's dramatic license in me saying that right then. And I meant what I was saying. They may be honorable things to put your faith in, but love and God and kings may lead you to your grave.