Karen Gillan: ‘I was thrown into a perfect storm’

Doctor Who thrust KAREN GILLAN into the spotlight, paving the way for Marvel blockbusters and a Hollywood career. So how did the girl from Inverness become a kick-ass action hero? Sheer determination, she tells Francesca Babb

Karen Gillan has a habit of breaking box offices. Be it in the multibillion-dollar Marvel Avengers monster, or the massive smash hit Jumanji remakes, she has a way of tying herself to a sure-fire winner. But even winners worry they will fail sometimes, and a few years ago, on the set of 2017’s sci-fi thriller The Circle, sitting in a trailer with co-stars Tom Hanks to one side and Emma Watson on the other, Karen Gillan was convinced her time was now.

Photograph: Amanda Friedman.

‘Every project I was doing was getting bigger and bigger in scale,’ she says from her Los Angeles home. ‘I had always been totally fearless, and I suddenly found myself dealing with self-doubt.’ Luckily, Tom Hanks was to hand. Watching her work, he took her aside one day and said simply, ‘You’re really good. Keep going.’ ‘It was the sign I was looking for,’ she says. ‘To have someone you idolise say, actually, you’re not terrible, was completely trippy. From that point, I worked on my acting and I completely rebuilt.’

That Tom Hanks pep talk led to two monumental career moments. One, Avengers: Endgame, in which she starred as blue alien Nebula, became the highest grossing film ever. And two, Gunpowder Milkshake, her latest movie, in which she earned her first lead role.

Up until that moment, Karen, 33, hadn’t had much time for a confidence crisis. She was 21 when she got her breakthrough role as Doctor Who’s Amy Pond in 2010. This kickstarted her career, as it did for The Crown’s Matt Smith, who played the Doctor opposite her. It garnered her not only international attention, but also a zealous fanbase of ‘Whovians’. She was 21, with only a couple of acting gigs under her belt – her first role was a bit part in ITV drama Rebus, followed by a supporting role on The Kevin Bishop Show – and a half-started stint at London’s Italia Conti drama school (whose previous alumni include Lesley Manville and Russell Brand) that she soon dropped out of to audition. She then pulled pints in a London pub while she tried to get her big break.

Doctor Who was just that. She immediately went from anonymity to being recognised on the streets and signing autographs for thousands of fans at San Diego’s Comic-Con. ‘It was an insane experience,’ she says. ‘Complete obscurity to, within an hour of my role being announced, journalists at my parents’ house in Inverness. Nought to 100 in the space of an hour, but I had the blind optimism of youth, so I didn’t really take in the gravity of the situation. If I started it now, I’d be much more aware of the pressure, but I was young and had zero self-doubt.

‘I’d worked towards that moment for so many years. I grew up with aspirations of being an actress, of having a film career. It wasn’t something that just came out of nowhere. I decided it at quite a young age, and then spent a long time trying to put the wheels in motion. When I was 15 I tried writing to every agent in Scotland until one relented and took me on. Doctor Who was the result of years of work and I felt ready for everything that came with it. It was an amazing experience, the best of my life. Matt Smith, Arthur Darvill (who played Karen’s on-screen husband Rory Williams) and I were all young and new to it, thrown into this perfect storm. We were like three puppies and they remain really close friends.’

Those early friendships helped each of them navigate the steep and slippery ascent to celebrity, but Karen acknowledges it was her parents who helped her stay on the right path. ‘I had an incredibly stable upbringing,’ she says. ‘My parents are so down to earth and normal. They gave me a childhood that made me unshakeable, even during that stage.’ Her parents, while supportive of her endeavours, were not actors themselves; her dad Raymond worked in a care centre for people with learning disabilities and mum Marie at a supermarket. She attended the local state school, describing herself as a ‘massive introvert’, who poured all her energy into creating movies after school with her mum’s video camera.

Photograph: Amanda Friedman.

The ambition kicked in at an early age, and her success is firmly of her own doing, something she puts down to being an only child and having the time to plan. When I ask Steven Moffat, the writer and executive producer who first hired her for that breakthrough role in Doctor Who, what made her stand out from the myriad other actors auditioning, his response is immediate and effusive. ‘She’s a powerhouse talent,’ he says. ‘She’s one of the most fiercely ambitious human beings I’ve ever met – you don’t do what she’s done without skyscraper ambition – but she’s still one of the kindest, funniest people I know, and that’s special. So often ambition comes at the expense of decency and humanity – not in Karen’s case. That’s what we saw when she won the role of Amy Pond all those years ago: she looks like a goddess and acts like a person. I never tire of cheering when I see her on a giant poster.’

Doctor Who opened doors, most notably for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, that first big Hollywood role. Nebula, a part that required full-body blue make-up and for her to shave off her trademark red hair, was a role she was only ever supposed to have for eight days of filming. But after seeing her at work, the producers decided she had to stay and kept her on for the next three films. ‘I signed up for eight days, and then it just kept getting extended. So I was meant to die, and then just got brought back to life. I was still living in Inverness when I auditioned for that role, which made the whole experience less intimidating,’ she laughs. ‘I was able to go from my childhood home to the studio in London, and when I came home, my parents would be like, “Great, well done, now bring your laundry down.”’

Being a part of that Marvel world is still something Karen is adjusting to. She describes going for lunch with the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans. ‘I would be thinking, “This is absolutely crazy”, she laughs. ‘But also… “This is going to make a great story to tell the grandkids.”’

Photograph: Amanda Friedman.

It was another role for her that came complete with an enormous fanbase. Subsequently, her parents have become the honorary CEOs of her unofficial fan club, sorting through the hundreds of letters she receives and making sure she signs every picture she’s asked to. ‘My mum loves all of that stuff,’ she says. ‘I have an office that is filled with fan art and memorabilia. I keep being in roles that have dolls made of them, so I have dolls of myself at home, which, I know, is creepy and narcissistic, but I think I should keep them. Though I am aware that at some point it just gets weird and you become the crazy old lady!’

Karen’s latest film, Gunpowder Milkshake, is yet another action movie, albeit one without a corresponding doll attached to it. She plays an assassin alongside Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey. It’s a role in which she fights, shoots and stabs her way through the almost two hours she is on screen. ‘It was really good fun,’ she says, with a grin. ‘It was nice to be with essentially a whole cast of women, which I had never experienced before. It was the best acting masterclass of my life. I love hand-to-hand combat,’ she continues. ‘Not so much the stunt scenes where you have to freefall jump from things. I’m so gangly, there are just limbs flying everywhere, so I don’t know why I keep getting these action roles. I always ask myself the question, “Would they come into play if I was randomly attacked on the street?” I truly don’t know if I would just curl up in a ball and be like, “Take everything!” Or whether I would try to do some of my moves, which could honestly result in the most embarrassing thing of all time. Maybe I get the parts because I’m tall – I’m almost five foot eleven. Or maybe it’s the Scot in me.’

Karen with Chloe Coleman in her new film Gunpowder Milkshake. Photograph: Reiner Bajo/Studio Canal/Sky

The Scot in her remains strong, in spite of her Hollywood years, and she’ll do whatever it takes to have a taste of home in LA. She starts her day watching Good Morning Britain with her bull terrier/poodle mix Turtle for company and a cup of Yorkshire tea. She’s obsessed with Love Island, which she says she uses as a character study to get tips for upcoming roles. And she spends most of her time off with her mum and dad, who also relocated to California from Inverness to live near their only daughter. ‘Their move over happened quite naturally,’ she says. ‘I was filming in another country, and they said they’d come and look after the house for me and they stayed. That was quite a long time ago now.

‘I feel more Scottish than ever living here,’ she laughs. ‘I won’t lie, LA is not my favourite city in the world; I’m ginger, I don’t do well with the sun and I’m not that outdoorsy, so I’m doing everything I can to grasp on to “home”. Having Mum and Dad here means I don’t feel so alone in this foreign land. Dad loves it, but my mum and I are really homesick all the time and always talk about going back to Scotland for a while.’

The problem is, when you’re Karen Gillan, there’s not much chance to stop and refresh your Scottish roots with a Highland fling. This year, she’s been in Finland, Australia and London filming, so any time off is spent at home, doing, well, not a lot. When she started out in Doctor Who, she was often trailed by paparazzi. These days, they’d probably be a little disappointed. Occasional nights out are dinners with the assortment of mostly American friends she’s made in LA and possibly a bit of karaoke, where she’ll give it some Frank Sinatra. Mostly, she’s working. If not in yet another global blockbuster then she’ll be preparing her own material.

Karen shot her first movie, The Party’s Just Beginning, back in 2017, writing, directing and starring in the story based around a news article she had read on the male suicide epidemic in the Scottish Highlands. It wasn’t a subject matter she was aware of growing up, she says, but something about the juxtaposition of the area being seen as such an idyllic place to live and its high suicide rate started to form a story in her mind. It’s the dark side of life she finds herself drawn to in her own work. The film she’s just finished writing will centre around a horror actress whose trip to a sci-fi convention takes a dark turn.

Karen with Matt Smith in her breakthrough role as Amy Pond in Dr Who. Photograph: BBC

‘I’m a really light-hearted person with the darkest taste,’ she grins. ‘I grew up watching exclusively horror films, like Scream and The Shining, and every time I drew something as a child, it would turn out terrifying. I used to write my own horror films. I’d put myself in them, and my dad would be made to play a part too – he would get stabbed, and there would be tomato sauce everywhere.’

That sense of fun is something her co-star in Gunpowder Milkshake Lena Headey echoes. ‘She is the best team-mate,’ she tells me. ‘She’s beautiful, smart and unafraid. Also, she’s a right laugh. I think I might love her a bit.’

Whether it’s acting, directing or writing, I get the feeling Karen Gillan is going to be around for a long time. ‘There’s a lot more that I would really like to achieve,’ she says. ‘More I want to do in acting and directing and hopefully get better at that.’

Well, if Tom Hanks says she can do it, who are we to argue?

Gunpowder Milkshake will be in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 17 September