Aidan Gillen steps into the shoes of a depressive-leaning gumshoe to stalk the streets of Dublin, Ireland, in Fintan Connolly’s noir thriller Barber. He plays the titular character, a former Garde who has come to accept that his line of work is in seedier and mundane cases. That is until he’s hired to work the case of a missing teenager. Drawing him out of the dull doldrums of trying to catch adulterous spouses or insurance fraud cases, the unexpected investigation takes him into the seedy underbelly of Dublin’s elite.
Gillen has a knack for sombre or subtle characters in the midst of despair. I have a fondness for his work with filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, especially their first collaboration, 2013’s Mister John, where he plays Gerry Devine, who leaves his rocky marriage behind and travels to Singapore to take care of his deceased brother’s business and family. He sinks into an existential crisis in a foreign country, alone and isolated. Following that, he played Peter, the celebrity archeologist in Lawlor and Molloy’s 2019 mystery Rose Plays Julie, a wickedly unlikeable character.
Gillen played the fallen idealist, Thomas J. “Tommy” Carcetti, councilman turned Baltimore City Mayor in David Simon’s series The Wire, as well as other roles that have seen him flex his antagonistic presence. These prior roles contribute to the appeal of his turn as the sullen but accepting gumshoe, Val Barber – a man with values in a city preyed upon by the unscrupulous.
Meanwhile, in relation to characters like Devine, Gillen explores the nuance of the sombre and depressive range. There is, however, another side to the actor that sees Barber distance him from his transformative characters of Petyr Baelish, aka “Littlefinger” in the television series Game of Thrones, and Aberama Gold in the BBC period drama, Peaky Blinders.
With these two signature characters, he showcases his mercurial talent. We are aware that we’re watching Aidan Gillen, yet the aura of Littlefinger and Gold onscreen distorts that recognition. He’s an actor who can transform, either hiding behind his characters or performing in plain sight. Even in the context of the latter, he has the presence of mind to manipulate the aura of his characters while not undergoing such a significant metamorphosis.
Gillen tells me his approach to choosing roles hasn’t changed. “I’ve got more experience, and it’s amazing how quickly you go from being the cast’s youngest member to the oldest. But I wouldn’t profess to think I know everything – it’s all a learning process. I treat every job like it’s my first.” He adds, “Sometimes you find that you’ve almost literally done a role before, and in a way, that’s nice because you can just chill and not do too much. Most of my favourite actors either don’t do too much or a lot – they’ll flip from one to the other.”
Not surprisingly, the first actor he mentions is Al Pacino, with his trademark explosive presence, yet who is “great” at being quiet – the same with Robert De Niro and theatre actors, says Gillen. He also describes Joaquin Phoenix’s presence – how he is able to transition unpredictably from “nothing to something, and then back again.” He gives particular attention to Mark Rylance, whom he describes as not being afraid to be big and to engage the audience by throwing them lines while looking directly at them. Gillen attributes this acting method to the Shakespearean stage actor Edmund Kean (1787-1833), as well as the big theatricality of American stage and film actor Paul Muni, who played the original titular gangster before Pacino in Howard Hawks‘ 1932 gangster movie, Scarface.
The unpredictability of these actors appeals to Gillen, and while he believes going large should be commended, he remarks, “I’m just as happy watching someone who does not do too much.” Then, with a swerve of his own, he admits, “I’ve said I’m going to slice it thicker than ever on my next gig.”
Gillen worked in tiny London theatres early in his career and was “very choosey” about the roles he would accept from the outset. He was willing to wait for “sensational” roles. “I thought, ‘I’m going to wait it out’, because maybe in six months’ time, I’d get something that had a spark to it. I got the roles I wanted.” Gillen describes how Barber was borne from venturing out onto the streets of Dublin with director of photography Owen McPolin to shoot a little promo. As it happened, it was at night while raining – they realised they were in noir territory.
“Barber started off as something tiny in scope, and we ended up with a bigger production than we thought, and Owen makes it look even better.” He continues, “Every actor who we asked to come along to do a scene showed up, which was nice. During the pandemic, people were happy to leave the house and return to acting.”
Gillen sees this as an example of the organic nature of the film. Although they had support and enthusiasm, they didn’t have a script; someone had to write one. That’s where director Fintan Connolly and his wife Fiona Bergin came in.
“It had to have all the gumshoe, noir stuff in there, but we tried not to overdo it, or at least show moments of character, of people watching and talking to each other, living their lives and walking around the city,” explains Gillen. “We were trying to showcase what Dublin is really like because sometimes it’s presented as this dark and gritty place, and sometimes it’s the opposite – sheeny, where everyone has a mochaccino. It’s neither of those and both and loads of other things in between. We were trying to make a bit of a love letter to the city.”
There are tropes of the detective that have become romanticised, much like the anger of the stand-up comedian or the angst of the creative type. The detective can be overwhelmed by depressive feelings of despair, prone to existential anxiety, and possessing an introverted nature with a broken family whose life seems sparse outside their work. You know the type – work is the only thing that gives their lives purpose. The opposite can also be true for the detective character, and as Gillen says about Dublin, it’s neither of those and both and other things in between.
An existential anxiety haunts Val Barber, but the dial is turned down. Divorced, he has a close relationship with his daughter Kate (Aisling Kearns) and a civil relationship with his ex-wife Monica (Helen Behan). As with any engaging character, he’s shaped by his experiences – people and events have left their mark on his soul. Connolly, Bergin, and Gillen mute some of the more depressive aspects of their detective character, instead heightening other tones to emphasise his inviting warmth, even if he’s a brooding character whose work takes him in and out of life’s seedier shadows.
“I was adamant that we wouldn’t see this character always on the job, trying to solve a crime. The family background informs who this guy is”, says Gillen. “He’s not that demonstrative. He’s quite muted, but not in a despairing way, as you say. He never gives away too much information, but it’s not about being, ‘Oh, I’m a detective, and I have secrets.’ It’s not in his nature to talk too much. He’d rather watch and listen.” He adds, “This method shows that this character is a good person, even if he’s not the world’s greatest communicator. We were definitely trying to get warmth in with the droll, hung up, gumshoe type.”
Barber is a character caught between the past and the present – the intolerance and bigotry towards the LGBTQ community and the progress of the present day. There’s a reference to the MeToo movement via his daughter Kate, and there’s toxic corruption and lack of accountability from inside the police and political establishment. Barber strikes thematic cultural beats that have a broad resonance – the noir reality of Val’s Dublin reflects the present-day dystopian mood and desire for social and cultural progress.
Gillen acknowledges this presence in the story but explains they weren’t trying to shoehorn it. Instead, true to the organic nature of the project, one thing led to the other. Speaking about his character’s sexuality, he recalls the moment they stumbled into the decision Val should be bi-sexual. “We were just out walking and shooting around Dublin. Mind you, I was wearing the same clothes and walked into a drag bar in Dublin. The cast and crew decided to make his bisexuality a surprise about the character.” He continues, “We weren’t trying to be sensational or make a big deal out of it – it wasn’t like we’re going to do an issue-based thing here.”
The way in which Connolly, Bergin, and Gillen choose to feature Val’s sexuality emphasises a certain acceptance that runs through the story. Val faces hostility from inspector Quinn (Liam Carney) that dates back to when he was a Garda. In one scene he tells Quinn that things have changed within society, and he doesn’t have to feel ashamed about his bisexuality. When he comes out to his daughter Kate, her response is an unexpected mute acceptance, albeit she’s angry that he’d lied to her mother for so long.
The acceptance around Val’s sexuality is mirrored by an impression that he has accepted his monotonous life, his days filled with what Gillen describes as “boring” cases, “Following people around walking their dog, tracing cell phone conversations, hacking phones, waiting outside to see if an insurance applicant is using that crutch or not. Waiting outside a nightclub looking for some guy with his mistress.”
At this point in our conversation, I recall an idea American actor Ted Raimi shared with me when I interviewed him about his role in Alex Kahuam’s crime film of this year, Failure. He dismissed the philosophy of light at the end of the tunnel for such characters, saying instead, it is about choosing the hell they want to live in. This seems to apply to Val Barber.
Gillen says, “That’s pretty heavy. I certainly wasn’t thinking too much about it, but there’s an acceptance there for sure that his life will probably not change.” He continues, “I don’t feel that Val’s life is hell, but it is downbeat and has a depressive angle to it. He’s just accepting of that.” He continues, “Maybe that sounds more exciting than I thought, but it’s not high octane. It’s not the stuff that movies are made of – it’s work-a-day, and he’s a work-a-day guy.”
The actor sees his lead role in Barber as a continuation of previous projects. “I’ve done a number of projects of this size or smaller in Ireland that are all the same kind of thing – just people doing stuff. There’s always drama in there, and there has to be something. You can’t just have people walking around drinking cups of tea. But that can be interesting, too,” he laughs.
Towards the end of our conversation, he admits one thought will stay with him. “That a character chooses which hell he’s going to live in – I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about that now.”
Barber was released in select theatres in the US and on VOD on Friday, 22 September 2023.