Adam Gillen interview - 'Killer Joe makes people ask themselves "what would I do in that extreme situation?"'

Adam Gillen

While his cast mates were celebrating the final week of the return of Amadeus at the National Theatre, Adam Gillen was already deep into rehearsals for his next project: Tracy Lett’s dark thriller, Killer Joe.

Gillen plays a dealer who finds himself with money troubles, and the only logical solution is to kill his mother and reap the insurance money. To do so, he hires Joe Cooper, a part-time cop, part-time hitman played by Orlando Bloom.

We spoke to Gillen about his time in Amadeus and his piano miming lessons, what audiences will take away from the play, and being recognised from the ITV series Benidorm.

Killer Joe is at Trafalgar studios until 18th August. 

Killer Joe Tickets are available now.  


I seem to remember rehearsals for Killer Joe started two days after Amadeus finished?

Actually, the last week of Amadeus was the first week of Killer Joe rehearsals, so it overlapped. That was a hectic time. Luckily, the two roles were so drastically different, so it was nice to step into a whole new world in the day and then back into the Viennese court in the evening.

Amadeus seemed like the perfect part for you, what was being a part of that production like?

I had a great time. People seemed to really respond to the show and take it to their heart. I think it’s the collective effort: all those brilliant musicians and incredible singers and generous actors. It was such a spectacle. It was very special for me.

You took piano ‘miming’ lessons from the head of music at the National, how many people think you can play the piano now?

Quite a few actually! I got an audition off the back of somebody thinking I could play the piano, which was quite embarrassing when I turned up and couldn’t play. Quite a few people have been fooled.

Now you’re in Trafalgar Studios, which is a pretty different space to the Olivier. What’s the difference like?

I was intimidated by the Olivier, and fearful of having to fill the space, though I grew to really love it. But the way the audience bear down on you at Trafalgar Studios is quite intense, almost gladiatorial. I saw The Grinning Man a few weeks ago and it’s an incredible theatre.

What is Killer Joe about?

It’s set in a trailer park in Texas, and I play a young drug dealer who gets into trouble with some local heavies and as a consequence, he owes them a lot of money. The only way he can think of to pay them back is to have his mother murdered by a hitman and claim the insurance money. Obviously. This really poor family are scrambling to survive day-by-day, and then this incredible hitman comes into their life and wants to claim the family’s daughter as a retainer until the money comes through, and it’s at that point that it all goes wrong.

Normally a family drama would come across as quite relatable, but what are audiences going to take away from this?

Everyone enjoys asking themselves the question: ‘what would I do in that situation?’ And this is an extreme situation – it’s likely that none of the audience would find themselves in this position. It’s a morality play.

So you hope people will put themselves in the characters’ shoes?

I doubt there were any 16-year-old virtuosos watching Amadeus, but that leap of imagination is why people go to the theatre. To step into somebody else’s life. And that’s the beauty of this play, it’s so full of detail and atmosphere.


Adam Gillen and Steffan Rhordi in Killer Joe

Have you seen the play before, or seen the film version?

I didn’t watch the film because I didn’t want to be influenced. I wanted us to make it from scratch. In my head, I wanted to discover the play like Steppenwolf did the first time they performed it. I wanted to find it for myself.

Is that a decision you made for this play, or something you do for all your work?

Generally I don’t like to be too influenced by other people’s performances. I don’t see what’s to be gained by that, and I don’t think you can find true ownership and individuality if you’re concerned with someone else’s performance.

The show has a pretty great cast, including Hollywood actor Orlando Bloom. What’s it been like working with them throughout the process?

Working with these people has been a real group effort. Every character is so perfectly drawn, no two people are alike. Remarkably, it has a real ensemble feel. We all really love the play, and that’s important. Working with great actors like Steffan, Orlando, Sophie and Neve, we’ve become a real unit.

Click here to see production images of Killer Joe

A lot of people will recognise you from Benidorm, does it ever get frustrating being referred to as ‘Benidorm’s Adam Gillen’?

I think it’s out of your power so there’s no point getting irritated by it, and to be associated with a show that people love so much is no bad thing. Ideally, everyone would like to start a new project afresh with no baggage, but if audiences of shows like Benidorm or Gavin and Stacey are coming to see the play because me and Steffan are in it, then that’s no bad thing either.

If you had to convince someone to buy a ticket for Killer Joe, what would you say?

I doubt it’s theatrically like anything you’ve seen before. You’ll be challenged, it’s funny and truly shocking. You’ll find yourself being sucked into an intense morality tale, with people who do bad things, but aren’t necessarily bad people.

Photo credit Marc Brenner

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