ICYMI: Karen Gillan: In Profile

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Here, we get the lowdown on horror Oculus and Marvel extravaganza Guardians Of The Galaxy from Karen Gillan.

“The director James Gunn calls me Hello Kitty off screen and Clint Eastwood on screen!” laughs Karen Gillan when telling Total Film about Nebula, the blue-skinned bald- headed baddie in this summer’s biggest tentpole, Guardians Of The Galaxy .

Thankfully, we’ve got the former today, and we can see where Gunn’s coming from. Charming, giggly and self-deprecating in person, Gillan’s response is gleefully girly when we tell her that her Guardians get-up looks totally badass (“Yay!”). But for all her ditsy energy, the 26-year-old Scot has been making some remarkably brave choices post- Doctor Who .

The girl who waited? The former Amy Pond isn’t going to sit back and take generic girl-next-door roles. As well as fighting dirty with sci-fi queen Zoe Saldana in GOTG , she’s also heading up an indie horror and taking the lead in a US sitcom. Not that she’s in any rush to dismiss Who from her CV...

“I didn’t really want to distance myself from Doctor Who , because it’s never hindered me: it’s helped me,” she smiles. “I know for a fact that I’ve got offered roles because the directors are Doctor Who fans, so it’s not something I’m keen to shed.”

Case in point, Oculus , the low-budget horror that’s brought her to the Four Seasons Hotel in LA for promo duties, where she tells us the story of her audition in the summer of 2012. Thrilled to be in contention for a US film – and a role that’s worlds away from Miss Pond – Gillan had no idea that director Mike Flanagan was a fully-fledged, card-carrying Whovian.

“I was in Scotland in my bedroom in my family home, and my agent was like, ‘This American director wants to Skype with you!’” she remembers with a giggle. “So I get on Skype with him, and I’m all eager to please, and then he takes a swig of coffee out of a mug that was a TARDIS – and he didn’t realise – and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, it’s in the bag...’”

While Who ’s a phenomenon in the UK, Gillan had no expectations of how far-reaching its appeal would be. “For me, getting a job on Doctor Who was by a million miles the biggest thing that had ever happened to me,” she gasps.

“So to even think beyond that was pretty crazy, to be honest.” Having spent 2013 as the world’s most famous skinhead, after shaving her head to play Guardians ’ Nebula, her trademark flaming red locks are captured in their full glory in Oculus , which was shot in Alabama in October 2012.

Right now, her hair’s just past the pixie crop stage. “It’s kind of like a boy’s length of hair,” she reckons. “It’s just coming out of the awkward stage. It’s like it’s just coming out of puberty.”

Even if Oculus feels like another lifetime ago (“Like I’m watching it and it’s all in black- and-white and slow-motion”) – no surprise, given how loaded her slate has been since – it’s only now offering mainstream audiences the chance to see her dark side.

While Flanagan earmarked Gillan for the role after watching her on Who , he clearly wasn’t keen on having her play an Amy Pond clone. Her character, Kaylie, is a far cry from that spiky, resourceful tomboy.

A supernatural believer who sets out to record evidence that a haunted mirror was the source of the terror that tore her childhood apart, the ambiguous plotting leaves Kaylie’s sanity in doubt, opening up the possibility that her single-minded determination may well be wrecking the life of her brother, who’s only just come to terms with the childhood trauma.

Not your average scream queen, then. A genre fan, Gillan was keenly aware that the sort of films that make her guilty pleasure list might not be the most fulfilling acting gigs.

“As much as I like cheesy slasher films, I didn’t really particularly want to act in one. With Oculus , not only did I get to be in a horror film, but I got to be in a really good, interesting, original, smart film. I was like, ‘Woo hoo!’” (Even her reaction to bagging an intense horror role would make Hello Kitty smirk).

And, in keeping with her smart choices, the complex dual-narrative structure of the plot was no obstacle, either (“I’m used to varied timelines,” she deadpans). The role also required her to speak in a note- perfect American accent, which she honed with the help of a dialogue coach. “I feel like it’s not a huge leap from my own accent,” she admits in her familiar north-of-the-border inflection. “And I used to play with Barbies in an American accent, so it was just an extension of that!”

It’s not all talking though – with Gillan also getting to go all-in on some queasily grisly set-pieces, including a sequence where she munches a lightbulb like an apple. For all its gruesome tension on screen, it was just a bit of a laugh for someone who’s spent their formative years busting up Daleks.

“It’s really fun, to be honest,” she chuckles, at how the scene’s been received by audiences. “It was like Halloween! I loved it. I mean, obviously I didn’t have to put glass in my mouth. I just really had to sell it. Fake blood, by the way, doesn't taste great. They should really flavour that!”

Though her goofy nonchalance makes it seem like she’s simply bumbling along, enjoying the ride, Gillan’s shown a tendency for making smart choices post-Who, even if, the way she tells it, she’s only now sharpening up.

“I’m getting a bit wiser about my choices, rather than just blindly stumbling through things. Before I was completely ignorant and clueless. I was oblivious. I just didn’t even know what a good script was to a bad script. I would just, like, take it and do it.”

She’s not naming names, but even a recent blip like insipid rom-dram Not Another Happy Ending – which opened last year to horrible reviews and even worse box office (£6,634 on its opening weekend in the UK) – hasn’t done much to dampen her ascent.

One decision she’s unlikely to regret anytime soon? Landing that killer role in Guardians Of The Galaxy , Marvel’s most offbeat and unusual film gamble since they decided Robert Downey Jr. should be the world’s biggest superhero.

Smartly avoiding the pitfall of being typecast as the sexy sci-fi sidekick, GOTG required her to shed those trademark locks, and she’s relishing the chance to play a “really bad” villain: “She’s through-and-through bad.” Unfamiliar with the comics, Gillan started researching while she was screen-testing last year, and after winning the role, she was put through a two-month intensive bootcamp by Marvel.

“I started off with just working out,” she recalls. “They wanted me to just look a bit tougher. I started eating lots of protein. I went on this diet of more food, rather than less – so it was quite nice, rather than the other way round! [ laughs ] So I was like, ‘You want me to eat everything? Perfect!’”

The effort was worth it when she finally got to see herself in full blue- skinned, shiny-headed costume, even if the make-up did take five hours a day. “It’s just a weird out-of-body experience, because it doesn’t look like me. I’ve never done a film on that scale before. I was taking loads of selfies on my phone. It’s truly incredible to look at in real life.”

Guardians director James Gunn rates Gillan and Zoe Saldana as the two most hard-arse characters in the film (a space opera that also includes a ripped Chris Pratt, WWE brawler Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel in tree form): “These women characters are just so fierce. The fight sequences aren’t graceful – they’re hard and strong.”

Gillan recently tweeted a picture of herself and Saldana rehearsing for their epic fight scene, with the training clearly helping to make her 5ft 11in frame menacing (even if her Mickey Mouse sweatshirt did diminish the threat level of her twin swords). Don’t try calling her ‘four strands of spaghetti and the moon’ now...

Next up, she gets to use her Scottish accent in US romcom The List , and after that, she’s going very American again (“like, Valley Girl American”) for a TV hopeful.

“I just finished a pilot for ABC and Warner Bros called Selfie . It’s about this narcissistic, self-obsessed, social media-obsessed girl who embarks on a mission to make herself more likeable in real life. It’s very much a modern retelling of My Fair Lady . My character is called Eliza Dooley: I fell in love with her! I’m obsessed with this girl.”

It was also a chance to get in touch with one of her biggest acting influences. “Every time I walk around, I’m acutely aware that’s where they filmed Friends . I was obsessed with that show growing up. I walk around that lot aware of how far those TV shows can really reach in the world.”

And while she wouldn’t rule out shaving her head again for a future Marvel film (“It depends on if it’s really, really required, because ultimately I want to serve the role as best as possible, but if there’s a way around it...”), she’s also toying with the idea of writing and directing her own low-budget independent film.

“I do have a story, I don’t really want to say anything about it yet because I think I’m really going to try and make it happen,” she muses. And it’d probably be inspired by her other big influence (besides Friends ): Michael Haneke. Erm...? “He’s my favourite filmmaker. Even if I tried to not be, I would probably be influenced by him. I’m not a dark person, I just have dark taste.”

That inclination towards edgy material is proving to be her most powerful instinct when it comes to escaping Amy Pond’s shadow. And while she’ll never say never to a Doctor Who comeback (“I already ruled it out, and then I went back, so I guess you can’t trust anything I say...”), there’s plenty more that she’s looking to explore.

“I’d love to play Lady Macbeth at some point,” she muses, “because she’s from Inverness, where I’m from. I find the villainous side more interesting. A flawed character is always more appealing. And I think I’d really love to do an independent film with just people talking in a room. Straight acting. No greenscreen. As much as I love that stuff, I think just for variety I would love to do a straight character piece.”

ust don’t let her Hello Kitty cutesiness fool you into thinking she’ll go making the obvious choice anytime soon. When we ask if she could ever be tempted by another great British institution, to play a Bond girl, she shrugs and leans in close, grinning. “Oh, I’d rather play the villain...”

Oculus opens 13 June 2014. Guardians Of The Galaxy opens 31 July 2014.

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Matt Maytum
Editor, Total Film

I'm the Editor at Total Film magazine, overseeing the running of the mag, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.