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'Game of Thrones': Aidan Gillen teases Littlefinger's contrite return

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Helen Sloan/HBO

Where’s Littlefinger?

That’s been a question across the first three Game of Thrones episodes of season 6. The devious Lord Baelish (Aidan Gillen) has been curiously absent so far. But as revealed in HBO’s promo for Sunday’s new hour, “Book of the Stranger,” that’s about to change.

We met up with the Gillen on the set of season 6 in Northern Ireland, where we found the soft-spoken Irish actor in his Littlefinger costume, reading a David Foster Wallace novel between set-ups. Last season, Littlefinger dismayed fans by matching Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) with the sadistic Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), and he has since vanished from the playing field. We won’t tell you where Littlefinger is, what’s he’s doing or who he’ll interact with this season, but Gillen reveals below that his manipulative character feels uncharacteristically remorseful about what happened to Sansa and that those feelings will play a part in his storyline.

You’ll also notice that Gillen — like many actors who have played a character for a long time, particularly when interviewed between scenes on set — often uses first person to describe his character’s actions and feelings, as if he still has one foot in Westeros even with the cameras off. Such a grammatical shift makes his thoughts particularly compelling, as if we’re hearing directly from Littlefinger himself…

Entertainment Weekly: So what excites you most about season 6?

Aidan Gillen: For me, this time out, there’s a level of atonement in relation to Sansa and my misjudgment of Ramsay Bolton. A lot of what I’m up to is atonement and really trying to align myself the right people — though, I guess, I’m always doing that! I left Sansa married to a psychopath. It’s probably the one time we’ve seen Littlefinger slip up. He really didn’t know about him. He should have.

The Bolton sigil is a flayed man so he probably should have guessed, right?

I know. To the viewers who have seen so much of Ramsay Snow, they’ve seen him do all these cruel acts. And you feel like the world knows his reputation. But in the world of our story everyone does not know. A lot happens behind closed doors, or closed gates. So I know it seems unlikely Petyr Baelish, who knows everything, would be unaware of his reputation and the depths of his cruelty. In a way, this shows a new side of him, a faltering, and I do want to make amends. I like Sansa, you know? So I’m trying to find something humane and gentle and maybe even warm in the midst of my treachery and calculation — which is pathological. That stuff is so much part of Littlefinger I barely notice it. I’m always talking to people about his “paternal warmth” and they’re like, “What are you talking about?” But you can only do what’s on the page.

You bring your little hints and inflections to it, though, you customize your delivery beyond the words.

That’s the trick, isn’t it? To try and impose your view of the character. But [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] don’t tolerate messing around with words. If you want to make the most minute change, a word or phrasing, you have to put the request in well in advance because on the day of [filming] there’s not enough time. David and Dan are open to giving them what they don’t expect in the line read, or the tone. And they are open to discussion, but they’re not easily pushed.

With Littlefinger, there’s nearly always a clear self-serving reason for his actions. It sounds like from what you’re saying, this season he’s trying to legitimately help somebody else, in this case Sansa.

I’d like to think that’s what was happening. Ultimately, it always seems to be about him. He’s good at fooling people. If he had to, he’d fool himself too. I’d love to think his actions were not purely self serving.

What’s been your favorite scene in the series to shoot?

I quite liked the scene with Sansa from in the garden where she’s building the snow castle. It precedes Lysa falling throughout the Moon Door. I liked that for many reasons. Visually, I liked it. It was also one of the moments we see Littlefinger act impulsively and maybe he took himself a bit by surprise. Maybe. I loved that scene. Also, the scenes way back with Varys. It seems like so long ago. There there was one in particular, the ladder speech. I quite liked that. And the scene with Ros early on in season 2 where she was upset about her work and I had to explain to her — in a very gentle way — what happened to the last person. I thought that was a good character illuminator of Littlefinger; quite gentle and threatening at same time.

It was all the more disturbing because of his seemingly tender delivery.

Mmm. Scenes like that are the gifts that you’re hopping for. And that scene with Sean Bean where we’re walking through the garden and I’m showing him the ropes — these are the spies — which culminated in a really nice tagline for Littlefinger, “distrusting me was the wisest thing you’ve done since you climbed down off your horse.”

Who do you think will survive longer, Varys or Littlefinger?

Hard to tell. I initially thought these two would stick around forever. They’re very clever, as clever as each other. They’re sort of rivals, but part of the same double act. I think I’m putting myself in a more dangerous position than he is. We’re both playing the same kind of game, but my tendency is to put myself physically in a more precarious positions. He’s more of a tightrope walker. And right now, I’ve forgotten about him, kind of.

For more Game of Thrones coverage, bookmark our recap and interview hub, follow @jameshibberd, and subscribe to our popular weekly podcast — latest episode below. After Sunday’s episode, return to EW.com for our recap and interviews. 

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