Gillen ‘Project’ recalls ’50s uneasiness

Aidan Gillen’s Josef Hynek in "Project Blue Book" represents a change of pace from the Dubliner’s roles in “Game of Thrones” and “Peaky Blinders.” PHOTO COURTESY OF HISTORY CHANNEL

By Karen Butler

Josef Hynek, the real-life scientist Aidan Gillen plays on History Channel's new series "Project Blue Book," bears little resemblance to Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, the master manipulator whom the Irish actor famously portrayed for seven seasons on "Game of Thrones."

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Set in the 1950s, "Project Blue Book" follows the soft-spoken, but principled Professor Hynek as he is coaxed from the world of academia by shadowy figures from the U.S. government who want him to help them quietly close cases involving inexplicable phenomenon such as unidentified flying objects.

"He's very rooted in earth and nature and family and love," the 50-year-old Drumcondra native told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview.

"Then again, even his own family could see someone who was a little obsessed, a little distant, but so is anyone who is really good at their work, particularly if their work involves staring at telescopes and watching the night sky for years on end. I also thought this was a guy you'd really want to have as your dad."

Gillen, who described himself as skeptical, but open-minded, said he has loved science-fiction since he was a boy.

"It instilled in me a lifelong wonder about what's out there because, surely, there is life out there. How long is it going to take us to find each other? Maybe we never will, but it's kind of narrow-minded to think that we are alone in the universe."

Working on the show hasn't really impacted the actor's trust in authority or made him worry about what officials might not tell the public because he isn't big on conspiracy theories and doesn't think the government knows much more than we do about life on other planets.

"Don't get me wrong. I know governments like to keep things back," he said. "It's in their interests to do that and, certainly, in this era, which we are dealing with in these earlier episodes in the first season -- 1952 and the years beyond that -- whether they were hiding anything or not, they certainly wanted to quell the hysteria, which is a dangerous thing in their eyes."

A contemporary audience might relate to the collective angst woven through the series, although the stressors are different than what people are experiencing in 2019.

"In 1952, it was as much about the emerging nuclear age... not even emerging. Atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People had really seen the horrors of that and World War II. This post-war pall or shadow that was hanging over everybody, coupled with a post-war optimism, there was a lot of conflicting and quite strong feeling about what was up there in the skies and what danger could be coming your way."

American uneasiness escalated when Russia successfully launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957.

"We're so used to being watched now. To have a satellite circling us and cameras watching us walking down the street, we're used to that, but back then there was a lot of anxiety about it and a lot of wonder about it, too. Adventure. It wasn't all fear. A lot of dreaming and optimism and hope around it, too," he said.

Gillen joined "Project Blue Book" after last season's shocking death of Littlefinger on the medieval dragon drama "Game of Thrones."

So, was the actor satisfied with his ending?

"Who's satisfied with their ending?" he laughed.

Told that his demise was all the more memorable because it came before the Season 8 bloodbath expected to wipe out most of the other "GOT" characters, Gillen agreed, "In those terms, it's nice to get out ahead of the posse, yeah, for sure.

"In character terms, I generally don't talk about it that much and don't think about it that much. I felt like I was that person and then when it stopped, it just stopped. It's kind of like the end of 'The Sopranos' where (the screen) just went black."

He hinted that Littlefinger might have taken some juicy secrets and plans to the grave with him.

"Somebody slashed his throat and then, 'Well, OK, you'll never know... you'll never what I had to say to you, Sansa Stark.'"

Gillen said he -- like the rest of the show's fans -- is looking forward to seeing the show's last-ever episodes when they air on HBO this spring.

"I'll be watching it the same way that everybody else will be watching it -- weekly -- except for that week they don't show it and I'll be saying, 'Why are they taking a break halfway through the season?'" he joked.

Also known for his roles in the films "Sing Street" and "Calvary," the "Maze Runner" franchise and the TV shows "Peaky Blinders" and "The Wire," the Dublin Youth Theatre alum can now be seen playing former Queen manager John Reid in the Best Picture Oscar contender "Bohemian Rhapsody."

"It's an extended cameo. It's a fun role in a really fun film, which is all about Rami Malek, as far as I'm concerned, and the music. That's what really drives that film," Gillen said. "It's cool to be part of it, for sure, especially since it is such a popular hit. It's nice to be in there."

The actor didn't attend the Golden Globe Awards ceremony in Los Angeles last month because he was working on "Peaky Blinders" in Manchester.

"If I have an excuse, if I'm working on something, that's where I'll be," he said in the interview, which took place before Oscar nominations were announced. "Perks are nice. Being pampered in nice hotels and airplanes, it's lovely. But you've got to do the other stuff first."

"Project Blue Book" airs Tuesday nights on History. It has been renewed for a second season.