Aidan Gillen stars as notorious gangster John Boy Power in acclaimed Irish crime drama Love/Hate (Channel 5, Wednesday). We caught up with him to talk about growing up in Dublin, whether he’s any good in a punch-up and how his character would fare in the world of Game of Thrones…

Tell us about your character – how does he fit into the story?

“He’s an austere gang leader and big brother type. The John Boy moniker won’t go unnoticed by anyone who’s ever seen The Waltons on TV – there’s definitely an allusion here to that older, wiser, more responsible big brother type from that series. Although of course people would say what John Boy is up to in Love/Hate is irresponsible; to him it’s not. 

“Someone with their head screwed on has got to be in control in an outfit like this – there are always going to be loose cannons and people coming undone when there’s that much money, drugs and paranoia around. Love/Hate is, also, a type of family drama, albeit within the crime genre. It’s not your traditional ‘cops and robbers’ fare, as the cops barely make an appearance until pretty far into the series. It concerns itself primarily with the group dynamic of a drugs gang and their day to day lives. 

“They’re just doing their thing, providing a product that’s much in demand in a society that’s had some excess cash for a while, with folks looking to accessorise their flash lifestyles with drug thrills. Of course at the time the story is happening, ie now, there’s suddenly a recession and things are tightening up in that game – competition is suddenly fierce; tension and violent threat ramps right up.”

John Boy seems like a nasty piece of work in the first few episodes – does he have any redeeming features? What appealed to you about portraying him?

“I think there are some nastier or sneakier characters in there.. Redeeming features? Probably. He does what he says he’s going to do, he’s loyal to his wayward brother Hughie, takes a chance on Darren. I was attracted by the script really, Stuart Carolan writes tightly and it was well researched. This story is not far-fetched at all in relation to Dublin gang life – these kinds of stories are in the papers and on the news every day in Ireland so it was shouting out to be dramatised.  

“The appeal with John Boy was here was a good character in a good script. Its non-judgmental stance appealed to me, too. Audiences are smart enough to decide for themselves what they think- they don’t need all the heavy ‘this is bad and this is good’ signalling you can get sometimes in a drama. And you can never really pin people down either – people can be quite contradictory – Stuart recognises that and factors it in.”

Having grown up in Dublin yourself, was this a role you really wanted? Were you aware of the city’s criminal underworld in your youth?

“I was definitely keen to do something for TV in Ireland that would be good. The tradition of TV drama in Ireland (apart from a few notable exceptions, stuff like Strumpet City, made ages ago) hadn’t been great. For someone like me, who’d been working away a lot, that might have been a deterrent, but I saw that as an opportunity. Whatever anyone thinks about it, Love/Hate became the most successful TV drama produced in Ireland. 

“Ireland is small, Dublin is small, so you’d be aware of this and that going on – there were a few quite well known crime figures when I was growing up, like the Dunne family who are credited with flooding Dublin with heroin in the early 80s, or Martin Cahill (whose life was portrayed in John Boorman film The General), who were on the radar for sure – there’s a paper in Ireland called the Sunday World and one of their mainstays has been hounding gangsters – so they were definitely in the public consciousness. 

“It’s more in later years when there was more money around due to the economic boom, more guns in the country, more thug confidence and less church that things really blew large. There’s a clip somewhere of one of the Dunne Brothers, Larry maybe, being led off to jail where he shouts out ‘if you thought we were bad, wait til you see what’s coming next’, and he was right.”

The show is full tough bastards – how tough do you consider yourself to be in real life? When was the last time you cried?

“I’m not tough in a street fighter way. I’m not going to punch my way out of a confrontation. Well, I would if I had no choice, or I’d give it a shot at least. I’m tough in some ways though. Last time I cried? Probably when Richard Dormer sang Sonny Bono’s Laugh at Me at the end of the film Good Vibrations. It’s an achievement in a music film with some iconic tracks sung by iconic bands in it. The lead character, who’s not a singer or a musician at all has the real standout musical moment.”

Is it disappointing that Love/Hate has taken so long to reach UK audiences (it’s now on it’s fourth season in Ireland)?

“No, it’s good – it prolongs the life of the series. I don’t think we were ever making it with the export market in mind, which is a good thing.”

Many (but not all) of your roles are as bad guys. Is that something you are actively drawn towards, or just the product of a good script that interests you?

“There are lots of good bad guy roles out there – I must be drawn towards them in some way, or maybe that’s the way people think of me, or the kind of thing I might do well, I dunno. It’s something I have thought about recently though, and wondered how did that happen.”

We can’t ignore the hugely popular Game of Thrones. So many actors from this side of the pond making a splash in the States. How have you found working in Hollywood and have things changed since The Wire?

“I’ve worked back and forth between America, the UK and Ireland since about 1999. I’ve enjoyed it all in equal measure I’d have to say, and I’ve exploited the opportunity to escape from one to the other if the heat on something gets too high – I moved to the US to do off-beat indie stuff after the success of Queer as Folk in the UK, and after The Wire lived quite rurally for a while. I’m aware of the fact and acknowledge that I’ve been given great opportunities in these different regions and I hope to continue tarting around between them.”

How do you think John Boy Power would get on in King’s Landing (Game of Thrones)?

“Well, the hairstyle is pretty much good to go so that wouldn’t be an issue. I think he’d need to be either more charming or bigger and stronger. He’d be quite a modern phenomenon and may not make it easily. He’d need to get out of Kings Landing, build something somewhere else, learn Dothraki, employ a necromancer. He may just end up in a cave splayed out on milk of the poppy, dreaming of Dublin suburbs.”

How often do you get to be the dad of two, away from the spotlight?

“I have loads of time with my kids. When I’m not working that’s where I am and that’s what I’m doing. Even if I’m working in a different country, which I often am, I’ll get back every day I can. They know the deal and that that’s where the lunch money comes from and that’s fine.”