In last night’s Game of Thrones episode — one already stuffed with head-turning, jaw-dropping moments — the sight of Lord Petyr Baelish’s smirking face on the ship that came to “rescue” the wrongfully-accused-of-regicide Sansa Stark ranked high on the shock-ometer. The scheming royal advisor better known as Littlefinger has an elaborate explanation for everything he does, up to and including murdering those who do his bidding. But the actor who brings this charming villain to life, Dublin-born Aidan Gillen, usually plays his cards even closer to the vest, preferring email interviews to real-time conversations and quiet time on the set to chattering with the cast and crew. (If the character actor looks familiar to HBO viewers, it’s probably from his tenure on The Wire as the sleazy politician Tommy Carcetti.) A rare opportunity to sit face to face with Gillen revealed big plans for Littlefinger, big surprises for his new ward, and big ideas about the show’s addictive appeal.
Littlefinger’s steering clear of King’s Landing this season. That’s a big change.
It was exciting for me to get that ship and sail away. Littlefinger has such long-laid plans — stretching away not just geographically, but over time. What his relationship with Sansa becomes is quite interesting. I don’t want to give too much away, but her character and personality is surprising, and that really excites me. Or rather, it excites Littlefinger. [Laughs]
The actor who plays her, Sophie Turner, once said that if any of the other Starks had been in her position, they’d probably be dead by now for trying to fight back. Sansa has been prevented from becoming an active participant in her own life the way, but perhaps that’s a source of strength.
Especially compared to Arya: The way that character exited episode one is amazing, isn’t it? That was a long time coming. It’s a strange thing to see people cheer a child murdering somebody. But I felt that surge too: “Oh, here she is!” For me, her and the Hound? Quite a moment.
Sansa is cleverer than we may have given her credit for As much as Littlefinger enjoyed being in the small council chamber, you are dealing with people like Varys. It can be stifling to have somebody as smart as you sitting right beside you. You’re watching him, he’s watching you….There may be cleverer people wherever Littlefinger’s going, but it’s nice not to know that there are. It’s unknown territory.
For Littlefinger, there’s a certain thrill to being in dangerous and new situations, finding new people to try and psych out. It’s about the journey. Like he said: “The climb is all there is.” Arriving there is not so important. It’s not about being in a position of absolute power, which can be dull, and a heavy burden — and very dangerous. But to be close to that is exciting. And he likes to play games, especially with new people. To have an effect on Sansa, and to see her blossom as a player herself — to show a dark streak, or a daring side, or a playful side….
Littlefinger enjoys the game as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.
That’s his defining characteristic, so I hope I’m getting some of that across. It’s not about being there. But you’ll get to see different sides as time goes on. If you haven’t declared your full hand, and Littlefinger certainly hasn’t, you can throw a new shade on here or there. I think there’s something genuine in his new surrogate-parental role in Sansa’s life. There’s something kind of sweet about it.
Back in the day, his feelings for Catelyn — and Catelyn’s sister Lysa’s feelings for him — were real, weren’t they?
Indeed. The Catelyn/Lysa/Petyr Baelish relationship — that goes way back, [when] they were kids together. Pre- the Brandon Stark event [when Ned’s older brother defeated him in a duel for Catelyn’s hand], he wasn’t as cynical or as driven then. He’s driven by that rejection and humiliation to get in a position where that’s not going to happen again.
And we don’t know where it ends, either, which is the other great adventure of being in something like this. The last two books haven’t been written yet! As actors playing parts, we’re invested in it just like so many people who are watching it, and we don’t know where it’s gonna go. To play a part in something that’s now a pop-culture phenomenon that’s open-ended is so exciting. You don’t want to know how it ends!
You don’t do a lot of talking off-screen, usually.
Oh, I’m chatty enough. When I’m working on something I tend to be quiet. You can fall into using all your energy up chatting about “When I was doing such-and-such a show in the West End…” and all the rest of it. It can be quite sapping. But in terms of answering questions in interviews, I normally do like to do it by email, because it gives you a few seconds to think about it. There’s a certain amount of shyness in my personality, so I like to have even a 10-second buffer to articulate what I’m actually thinking as opposed to getting caught up in a mess of words spiraling out of control. [Laughs] It’s just easier, but that’s me.
Does playing a secretive guy like Petyr Baelish make you more closed off yourself?
Not really. I think I’ve gotten used to it. I should have gotten used to it by now, since I’ve been working as an actor for 20 years. But when I was first required to do publicity, I totally didn’t get it. “Why would they want to talk to me about that?” It’s like a curtain call in the theater: Suddenly you’re supposed to be you, standing there and taking a bow. I’ve always found that really weird. It’s the equivalent of somebody just ripping your shirt off. Doesn’t that destroy the illusion a little bit? You’ve been somebody else for two hours, and suddenly you’re not, and you’re waving to the crowd.
Nowadays there’s so much content required, because there are so many websites. So much information about things is imparted before you get to see it. If there’s a film I’m going to see, I’ll never read reviews or interviews or anything like that. You want it to be surprising. Actually, I never read that many interviews with actors. Even if people are being careful about what they say, you get so much from an interview.
Does it surprise you that this is such a voraciously consumed show?
I’m aware of that appetite is for teasers and trailers. I’m aware of the huge number of people following the saga and how much they now have invested in it. It’s quite an emotional story, so people are very wrapped up in it. Quite a lot of people. I guess I understand. What’s your theory on that? Why do people want to know all this stuff now as opposed to next week?
I don’t know if it’s from nerd culture’s origins in serialized comic books and epic fantasy series, or simply because TV drama now has short, heavily serialized seasons people follow from week to week where every episode is an event. But I think a lot of people now value anticipation as much as the art itself.
There’s also social media — you can get the stuff now and spread the word about it now. It’s part of how geek culture has moved forward. There’s so many things people can do now that they couldn’t do 15 years ago, particularly people who are less confident. I’m not talking about extreme ends of geekiness — I mean even asking someone out on a date. It’s completely changed the mechanics and dynamics of all of that, which I think is a good thing.
As a person who was a nerd growing up, to walk past Lincoln Center and see a life-sized dragon out front during the Game of Thrones premiere made me feel like I’d won.
That’s good! [Laughs] Have you ever interviewed George [R.R. Martin]? I was watching him backstage at the premiere, watching him watching the dragon, and I have a feeling he felt the same way about the dragon in front of Lincoln Center.