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The youngest of six children in a Drumcondra family, Aidan Gillen was born in 1968 as Aidan Murphy. He began acting in his native Dublin. When he was 18, he got a bit part, credited as "youth at liquor store", in Jack Clayton's film of the Brian Moore novel "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne", which featured Maggie Smith. Another small film role followed in "The Courier" before Gillen got his breakthrough role in Robin Lefevre's production of "A Handful of Stars", one of the plays in Billy Roche's Wexford trilogy. Other early stage work included two Druid productions directed by Garry Hynes - the Irish tour of Lover's Meeting by Louis D'Alton and Lennox Robinson's Drama at Inish at the Abbey (but he has not been on an Irish stage since 1993, when he was in "Belfry", another play in Billy Roche's trilogy, at the Peacock).
A move to London translated into the actor's racking up significant theatrical credits, counting among them turns in: "The Playboy of the Western World" at the adventurous Almeida theatre in Islington; "The Water Engine" by David Mamet and "Marvin's Room" by Scott McPherson, both at the Hampstead Theatre (later transferred to the West End). Two years later, Aidan played the motormouth urchin Skinny, in Jez Butterworth's "Mojo," at the Royal Court.
Gillen's first major screen role came in Antonia Bird's gritty 1993 urban drama, "Safe", screened at film festivals worldwide, produced by and aired on the BBC ["Safe" won British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for 'Best Single Drama' and 'Best First Feature' at the Edinburgh International Film Festival]. He worked steadily through the 1990s, impressing as star of the fact-based "Some Mother's Son", playing a fictional member of the group of jailed Irish Republican Army members who go on a legendary and tragic hunger strike to demand political prisoner status.