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Counsel star Adam Gillian: 'I was 15 when my parents split up and acting was an escape'

Adam Gillian, from Lisburn, gets his first big break in racy new BBC NI drama Counsel this Monday, playing a schoolboy who becomes too close to his high-powered barrister. He tells Stephanie Bell why acting proved a solace during a tough time in his family life - and how co-star Valene Kane helped put him at ease while filming bedroom scenes

Lisburn-born actor Adam Gillian, who stars in new BBC drama Counsel
Lisburn-born actor Adam Gillian, who stars in new BBC drama Counsel
Adam Gillian with co-stars Valene Kane and Declan Conlon in Counsel
Adam Gillian filming at his old school Inst for the BBC drama
Adam Gillian in BBC Drama Counsel.

By Stephanie Bell

After a demoralising year of failing one audition after another, Co Antrim man Adam Gillian felt he had no choice but to give up on his dream of becoming an actor.

But just as he was starting to establish himself in a new career as a musician in London, life threw Adam a curve ball when out of the blue he was offered his first big break on TV.

Now set to star in a new BBC NI drama Counsel, the 26-year-old from Lisburn will launch his career in style as a leading character in the powerful new production.

Sure to set pulses racing, the handsome newcomer proved a natural in the role of 18-year-old Gareth Fleming, playing alongside co-star Valene Kane.

Valene, best-known for her appearances in The Fall, Thirteen and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, plays Olivia, a senior barrister specialising in family law who appears to have it all.

As well as enjoying a powerful career, Olivia's husband Malcolm, played by Declan Conlon, is in the running for Lord Chief Justice.

But Olivia is growing tried of playing second fiddle to Malcolm's career and when Malcolm's integrity and loyalty are questioned, Olivia finds herself growing closer to her teenage client Gareth, whose mother died when he was 15.

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Gareth finds himself in difficulty when his private school threatens to suspend him as a result of missed fees when his father suffers a stroke and Olivia becomes involved with his case to petition the school and the insurance company to pay his fees.

As the relationship between Olivia and Gareth deepens, we witness what happens when these two very different worlds collide.

It is a gripping piece of TV, which was made and filmed in Belfast, including scenes shot in the grounds of Adam's former school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

Chatting in London, where he now lives, Adam still can't quite believe he is about to make his TV debut.

"I couldn't believe my luck and now I am back to being unemployed again," he laughs.

"I really do hope people enjoy it. I just saw it for the first time myself yesterday and I was nervous about watching it. When you are filming you don't get to watch any of it back and you don't know how it is going to turn out.

"I knew it was good quality and, yes, I am really pleased with it. It is not like anything else which has been seen from Belfast. Usually dramas here are set against the backdrop of the Troubles but this is different.

"It is a glamorous drama and Belfast looks like an entirely new city in it, not at all grey and drab and run down. The city looks really well and I think to capture that is great. I am now bracing myself to see if people enjoy it and I hope they will."

Adam has wanted to be an actor since the age of 15 when he joined an amateur drama group in his home town of Lisburn. His parents' marriage had just broken down and they were coming through a divorce when Adam got interested in drama, something he now thinks was his way of coping.

"I made the decision to be an actor very early in my teens," he says. "I was 15 when my parents split up and looking back I think acting was an escape and gave me a way to focus on something else.

"In a weird sense throwing myself into drama was like self-therapy even though I didn't realise that at the time. I was also playing the guitar and was always trying to get out of the house. I tried to make new friends outside of school so that I would have somewhere else to go.

"My parents are now both happily remarried which is probably for the better, but at the time it was tough and I didn't know how to deal with it.

"I had to mature quicker than I would have liked to, especially as the oldest child. I felt I had to be there to look after my little brother and sister to a degree. Drama and acting definitely helped me at the time."

Adam's younger twin brother and sister, Ryan and Rebekah, are aged 22. His brother is at university but plays with a band and hopes to pursue a career as a musician, while his sister is training to be a beauty therapist.

Music and drama could be in the blood, reveals Adam. "My mum was always interested in drama but never pursued it," he says. "Dad was into music and he taught me to play the guitar and I continued to teach myself and it's the same with my brother.

"Dad went to art college and wanted to be a graphic designer but gave up on his dream and never pursued it. Also, my granny on my mum's side loved to tell us often how our great-grandfather had been a percussionist in the Opera House in Belfast, so maybe it is in our genes!"

Whether genetic or to escape from events at home or a combination of both, Adam threw himself into pursuing his dream, getting as much experience and as many classes as he could.

From his mid-teens he was performing in a range of musicals and productions while also a member of the drama club in his school, Inst.

He started with Fusion Youth Theatre in his home town of Lisburn and then joined the New Lyric Operatic Company and the Ulster Operatic Society, performing in musicals in the Grand Opera House.

He says: "I was doing the Pirates Of Penzance in the Opera House while doing my A-levels and my mum and the school were worried about my exams, but in the end I got decent grades."

He left Inst with three A-levels in English, music and theatre studies and his dream was to go straight into a prestigious drama school. He made numerous applications, including to RADA, but was turned down because he was too young.

He opted to study for a diploma in acting at Belfast Metropolitan College and at the end of that two-year course at the age of 20 he was thrilled to secure a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he spent the next three years training in singing, acting and instrumental studies.

On leaving the college he signed with an agent, but his dreams appeared crushed when he spent a year attending auditions without success.

He recalls: "In our third year at the Conservatoire you have to do a showpiece which all the agents and casting directors attend. We actually got to do two, one in Glasgow and one in London. It is pretty daunting as it is your chance to show the world what you've got.

"There were a couple of London agents interested in me and I signed with one of them and moved to London when my course finished.

"Each agent specialised in a different area - TV, film or the West End - and mine was a West End agent which wasn't entirely up my street, although there are a lot of musicals and shows that I would love to do. I did audition for quite a few shows, but didn't get the jobs and by the end of that first year we went our separate ways.

"I had been working different jobs in London to get by. Not getting anywhere in acting really knocked my confidence and I decided it probably wasn't for me. Music is another passion so I applied to do a masters degree in contemporary music and song writing at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance.

"I started playing in bands again and was hoping that I might somehow make it as a musician either playing sessions or playing on my own."

Ironically, it was just as he graduated that opportunity came knocking when he least expected it. All actors register with an online casting agency and Adam hadn't taken his details off the site.

Adams says: "I kept my name on the site because if you take it off apparently it is very hard to get it back on there and it was by fluke that an agent who had seen my showcase in Glasgow contacted me and asked if I wanted representation.

"By that stage I was playing in bands and had given up on acting, but I just thought 'why not' and the next thing I was being offered the part in Counsel.

"We started filming in Belfast last August and it meant going back home for three weeks which was very nice. One of the places we filmed was my old school Inst and that was weird - playing rugby on the lawn there like I had eight years ago and I hadn't been back since.

"I got to meet the writer before I started filming as well as afterwards at the wrap party and he told me that when he wrote the part the guy he had in mind looked exactly like me.

"I loved doing it though at the start I was a bit nervous. The night before we started filming I panicked and thought 'What if I have forgotten how to do it and they fire me on the first day?'. I had a serious case of imposter syndrome."

At the risk of giving any of the plot away, Adam's character is involved in some intimate bedroom scenes.

It was another first for this novice actor. "No amount of training can prepare you for that," he says.

"I was very nervous but my co-actress was brilliant and she really helped me through it. It is really weird doing scenes like that in a room with 12 other people standing around watching while doing their job."

Like waiting at a bus stop, after having no work for two years, as soon as Adam finished shooting Counsel along came another job which involved a three-month stint in a musical in the West End.

Adam is now hoping that opportunity will again come knocking. He adds: "No one is banging the door down just yet and I don't know if they ever will. I just have to wait and see and hope that people enjoy Counsel."

Counsel, BBC1 NI, Monday, 9pm

Initiative captures NI on screen in new light

Written by newcomer David Allen, directed by Declan Recks (The Truth Commissioner) and starring Adam Gillian, Counsel is one of two new dramas that were commissioned for the New Perspectives drama initiative.

Written, produced and filmed here, these dramas portray and represent Northern Ireland on screen in new ways.

The productions also nurture and develop new talent both on screen and behind the scenes and continue to support the creative sector here.

The other drama, Ups & Downs, which was screened at the start of March, stars Susan Lynch (Ready Player One, Waking Ned, Killing Eve) as the mother of a 22-year-old son with Down's syndrome, played by newcomer James Martin, and an 18-year-old daughter, played by Rosie Barry (Pablo).

The two siblings head off on an entertaining road trip to Belfast to attend a highly anticipated gig without their mother's permission.

Counsel is a BBC Northern Ireland commission made by Lacada Entertainment with funding from Northern Ireland Screen.

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