Irish actor Aidan Gillen plays Petyr Baelish, a sometimes villainous schemer nicknamed Littlefinger, on HBO's "Game of Thrones." Once humiliated in a duel with Lord Brandon Stark for the hand of Lady Catelyn Tully, Baelish now seeks out Catelyn's naive daughter Sansa and nephew, Robin Arryn. Rising from obscurity to become the master of coin on the king's Small Council, he has since been given a castle and named Lord of Harrenhal.
Baltimoreans might best remember Gillen, 45, from his role as Mayor Tommy Carcetti on "The Wire." As "Thrones" is set to start its fourth season, Gillen talks about Littlefinger's softer side, "The Wire's" legacy and whether he knows the mysterious origins of the heroic "Thrones" character Jon Snow.
How do you think your character has evolved over the three seasons of the show?
For Littlefinger, there very much is a climb out of his very meager circumstances, his meager beginnings. I don't think he's so obvious about what he's up to all the time. He's a long player, probably more so than anyone in [George R.R. Martin's] books. He's laid these pretty long-term plans, which even go across generations. It's becoming more apparent in the current season we're shooting now. He's taking more interest in characters like Robin Arryn and Sansa Stark. A more paternal, maybe even sweet side of Littlefinger is going to emerge in Season 4.
How would you describe Littlefinger's approach to the game?
He's definitely a strategist, definitely a long player. Slow and steady. He's very calculated. The climb is what he enjoys. I don't think ultimate power is what he's after. It's too dangerous. It's better to be close to it. He loves the thrill of seeing his plans enacted through other people.
In the books, Littlefinger develops a strong interest in the much younger Sansa Stark, which is interesting because he had once been in love with her mother. How are you handling that relationship on the show?
Sansa is the daughter of Catelyn, the one woman Littlefinger did love. A big part of his drive is that rejection and the humiliation of what Brandon Stark did to him years back. There is an interest in her as the daughter of Catelyn Tully. But there's also other interests in a political way. We're not playing it as a creepy relationship. It's more avuncular or paternal. I think she's playing him to a certain degree as well.
That's actually never occurred to me — that Sansa might be toying with Littlefinger.
I've never really discussed that with anyone. That's the first time those words have even come into my head, but I think she might be playing me.
Hopefully, people won't see that things have fallen too much into a pattern, like there's going to be a shocking thing in Episode 9. Almost everyone on Season 4 is on a journey or in exile or trying to get home. There are so many parallel story lines that have yet to dovetail. These things are headed to each other still, four seasons in.
You played Tommy Carcetti on "The Wire," another schemer. What similarities do you see with those characters?
There are some similarities. Machiavellian things. Shadowy things. When we first meet Littlefinger, his role is much more political. He's a politician, the master of coin. Even the look we have for Littlefinger, I based on the British politician Peter Mandelson. So I was thinking of him as a politician. They're both players, for sure. I think Littlefinger is a little more hard to read.
When you were playing Carcetti, how much did you model him off Martin O'Malley?
I wasn't that familiar with O'Malley or even American politics before I came to Baltimore to shoot "The Wire." But I was very aware that with [creator-producer] David Simon and [writer-actor] Bill Zorzi, I was in good hands. Of course, everybody knew it was at least in some way based on O'Malley. Bill Zorzi wrote a lot of the Carcetti strands. He gave us a crash course. He was available all hours, day or night, as was David Simon, to answer questions about details in the script. I wanted to know what I was talking about. I wasn't physically basing myself on O'Malley. When we were shooting it, I was the same age as Martin O'Malley was when he was elected mayor. I don't think it was 100 percent based on O'Malley, but certainly elements were. I don't know what the percentage was, maybe 50-50. It would be stupid to say it wasn't based on O'Malley because we all know it was.
O'Malley was never a fan of the show, arguing it painted the city in a negative light. What do you think the lesson of the show was?
It's made by people who are from Baltimore, who do love Baltimore and do care about it. You don't have to only show the positive things about a city. O'Malley was trying to turn the city around and get people to come to the harbor, and probably the last thing people on those kind of committees want is the wider viewing audience to think it's all murder, guns and drugs. It was a big, complex story. I don't think it was purely negative at all. After Season 1, O'Malley asked them could they move the show someplace else. They said, 'We could move the show to Philadelphia, but we're going to say it's Baltimore.' I don't think it was a negative portrayal myself. I can see why he would. There was a certain aspect of Baltimore in there, but it's made by people who want better for Baltimore. It doesn't have to be all sunshine, because that's unrealistic and people aren't going to believe that.
When you were shooting here, where did you hang out?
To be honest, I really got to love Baltimore. As far as the places that acting brings you in our career, that was definitely No. 1 for me. I had an in into the heart of a city that I'd only passed through before on the bus. I lived in the same neighborhood, in Fells Point, for three seasons. I used to like just walking along the harbor. I used to spend a lot of time at the Charles Theater watching movies and at Club Charles. I used to cycle my bike along the trails by the river, the Gwynns Falls Trail. When you're shooting a thing like that, you do feel like you're part of a family. I look forward to getting back to Baltimore. I really do love it.