Try as we might, we can’t seem to convince Karen Gillan – star of this week’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – that she might just be a star
It’s probably her smalltown Scottish upbringing, but Karen Gillan is shockingly down to earth. I say shockingly because, well, not only has she starred in some truly out-of-this-world hits (Doctor Who being the first, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY being the latest, with a host of leading lady Hollywood outings about to be unleashed), but she’s also quite striking. In a Tilda-Swinton-without-the- scary kind of way.
Try as I might over the half hour we’re together in a London hotel room – the GUARDIANS junket juggernaut passing through on its way to Timbuktu and beyond – I’m not sure who’s the bigger fan of the big, bad world of filmmaking, me or her. Even Gillan’s entrance throws you – no entourage, no assistant, and just a cup of tea in her hand. Maybe it’s just early days, maybe it’s that Scottish upbringing, maybe it’s just a very, very smart way to live the Hollywood dream, but Karen Gillan will clearly be around for quite some time. Because she’s been here before. I’m sure of it. You’re kind of like the Boba Fett of the piece – Nebula is kinda Darth Moll.
Do you feel there was a certain point at the start of the film where James said this is who you are, this is where you’re coming from?
KAREN GILLAN: Actually we sort of discovered it more as we were doing it. I remember doing my screen test and it was just so off the mark of what the character should be that I learned what not to do from that. I mean, James really liked the screen test but it was just so the opposite of what I should have done which was really funny. I played her more Scottish which is just so not Nebula. So I learned what not to do basically. He gave me some really good notes though he was, like, do you want to just try it as Marilyn Monroe? I was, like, that’s a great note in terms of the voice, and that’s where this breathy American accent came from. I thought it was a really clever thing.
It all makes sense now.
KG: Yeah, exactly, and what’s really interesting is that he told me Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood have essentially the same voice. I was like, ‘Maybe they do!’. I think he might have based his voice on hers, or something like that.
One of the pivotal moments of finding the character was you shaving your head. Did you look in the mirror and see a different person…?
KG: That’s exactly what I did, and that’s exactly the reason why I shaved my head. I don’t want a career where you’re playing different versions of yourself every time, if you know what I mean, where characters are kind of the same. That’s bores me, which is why shaving my head was so exciting. What emotions did you go through after shaving your hair? I fell asleep! I must have been, like, subconsciously really freaking out under my cool exterior, and I then fell asleep then and there for 2 hours, and no one woke me up – which is weird, because I didn’t know anyone on the set at that point, so I was just the weird bald sleeping girl. Then I went to my real bed and woke up in the morning and that’s when it really hit me and I was like “I am BALD!”.
When you revealed your baldness at Comic Con, you threw your wig into the crowd, and, amazingly, you got it back.
KG: I know! I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe that it came back either! I wasn’t supposed to throw it into the audience – this was the whole thing. They were, like, ‘Yeah you can take it off’, then in the moment I was, like, ‘Woohoo!’, and I threw it into the audience. Then there were these two girls like fighting for it on the floor, and I was, like, ‘Guys, guys, I’m going to need that back, sorry!’. So they threw it to a security guard.
There is a weird fixation on your hair though, looking over old interviews…
KG: About my hair? I actually don’t know, this is the question I’m most frequently asked in my professional life, and in my personal life, actually. So I don’t know why! Maybe because it’s a weird colour.
Did you think if you’re stepping into this world of hardcore fans you should know about your character and this world? Was this something you loved or was it like homework?
KG: No, it wasn’t like homework. Well, I got the role before I’d even been given a script, and I was waiting for the script for ages, like, ooooh, what am I going to do? What’s my character going to be like? So I read The Infinity Gauntlet, which has Nebula in it, and she like screws over Thanos and takes over the universe. So, when I got to Comic Con I was like ready to talk about it.
Do you find this universe interesting?
KG: Yeah, I really do. Especially in this film, I think in all those types of comic book films, this is the one I’d want to go and watch in the cinema. I love all the Marvel films, all the Iron Man things, and it’s cool because they cross over, and you get invested in it, and it’s really cool.
Why this one?
KG: I think the tone of it. The tone’s really different from the other Marvel films, and it’s really funny, and the music is amazing, and it’s not just a good guy being sentimental. These people are actually really dodgy, and they’re criminals, and they might turn on you.
With the weird make-up, was it easy to bond with your fellow actors?
KG: Yeah, in a weird way you can look at each other with understanding and know that they’re all there with you. When I was feeling overwhelmed by the 5 hours in the make-up chair I would just think of Dave, who had to stand up for hours and hours for his make-up, and I was like “Yes!’.
Speaking of the blue make-up, did you ever scare yourself, even just a little bit?
KG: Nebula’s quite a nasty piece of work… I didn’t scare myself because all we did in our downtime was just take pictures of me holding ridiculous objects. There’s just a million photos on here that I won’t show you of me just being ridiculous! They kind of spoiled the illusion.
You have two other leading roles in big movies coming out soon, so, in Hollywood terms you’re certainly on the map. Does that creep into your personal life at all? Does it feel like that’s going on over there and that’s work and I’m still the same?
KG: It hasn’t affected my personal life at all. Not at all. I still do the same things, I still see the same people. I mean, my parents are still in Scotland, and I go home and see them, so everything’s just the same.
But Los Angeles is a place that thrives on fame. And fame is the currency that will keep you working there.
KG: Yeah, I guess so. I think it all boils down to that, them making money out of things, so they want bankable people in their films – but that’s the side of things that I don’t really like to think about, because it’s not very creative, and I just leave that to business people. I mean, it’s possible to have a normal personal life over there as well; it’s all to do with choices. Like, you can choose to go to every event your publicist puts in front of you or you choose not to, and I don’t go to anything that I don’t need to for work purposes.
At a certain point your personal and professional life gets mixed up, given the ever-present social media interest? Are you afraid of this?
KG: I’m really not afraid of it. I think because I’m from a really normal background in Scotland in the highlands, and my parents live in the same house I grew up in, and I’m still friends with all the same people, I’m not really one of those people who can get too caught up, because even if I did, my friends and family would stop me. But six hours!?
Are you worried about big contracts? Because your new TV series, SELFIE, could go on and on for a long time, and then there’s GUARDIANS, because no one really dies in the Marvel universe.
KG: I guess they could bring anyone back.
Did you embrace a big contract here with Marvel, and are you worried about being on SELFIEfor a few years?
KG: That was the thing, with Marvel I’m going to take what they give me. Because it’s Marvel. But with SELFIE I am a little concerned about… it’s a huge commitment, so it was something I had to think about, but I fell so deeply in love with the character that I had to do it. I just had to, so I just did it. But it is something we considered.
You once said, “When you’re really tall and ginger and white at school, you’re going to get it”. Was that hard for you and was it an escape for this outsider, or is that a bit too poetic?
KG: No, I think that’s right. Because I was an only child and I didn’t develop social skills, and I just wouldn’t talk to people at all, so it’s like, how can I express myself in some way and be heard by people? And it manifested in that, but even when I tried to do acting at school, I would never get into the school plays. I was never loud enough, and they would never cast me. I knew I could maybe do it, but it was a case of getting over my nerves and that was a big big thing for me.
Was there a moment that happened because you seem quite comfortable in social situations?
KG: Yeah, I’m much better now!
Getting into the acting you thought I can be comfortable here and I can be myself?
KG: Yeah, it’s weird, and this is going to be a terrible reference, but like when I’m acting it’s the same thing when people get drunk, and people lose their inhibitions and do what they’d never normally do, and that’s what it feels like for me. I can get up in people’s faces, I can stare them out, and do the things that would be awkward in real life.
How focused are you on filmmakers when you’re choosing projects?
KG: Oh yeah, really focused. They make a film, they’re really the person with the vision, so I want them to be good, and it’s really exciting to work with young new exciting directors like Mike Flanagan. And James [Gunn] as well, he’s in that group – but they seem to be finding me as well, so it’d be really cool!
Who would you like to work with?
KG: I want to work with Michael Haneke, the Austrian director, more than anything in the world. Can you make that happen for me? I love his films so much. He’s my favourite director in the world.
Have you ever figured out the endings of any of his films?
KG: I’m never sure what happened… I like his films because I like big films as well but they’re far more manipulative, like we’re going to make you feel sad at this point, then the music kicks in and you know what you’re supposed to feel, and they’re telling you what to feel, but Haneke’s stuff is just this really unbiased view of events, and you choose how to feel about it, which is fun for me.
I think he’s searching for his actress for his new films, about flash mobs…
KG: What?! When?! Right – get me connected!
Given that the franchise is now king, the star system seems to have collapsed somewhat. A good thing?
KG: You can still absolutely see the films that you want to – you just need to watch them in a different medium. I don’t have a problem with it because I love blockbusters and then I’ll watch something on Netflix that’s been made for zero money.
Even a film like OCULUS, more people are going to see that on the small screen than on the big screen…
KG: Yeah, well, for instance, I love SCREAM, the opening scene is a girl watching a home video because they knew horror was going to be more successful on home video then – sorry turning into a SCREAM geek now! – and you realise that some films are perfect for that home experience. And others, like GUARDIANS, are great on the big screen.
How has DOCTOR WHO prepared you the kind of fanbase you’re going to get with GUARDIANS?
KG: Oh yeah! I feel prepped, but that’s my favourite thing about sci-fi! The fans are so passionate about what you’re making. Other projects pay publicists to make you care about what they’re making, whereas we already have it in sci-fi! I can’t think of anything worse than people being passive about something you’re putting your heart and soul into. Also it feels like a fun gang to be in.
Words: Paul Byrne
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is out now