If you saw Nebula (pictured above) in real-life, it would be difficult to find any similarities between the galaxy-class assassin and the character of Amy Pond from Doctor Who. That is, until you heard the cheerful, excited and innocent voice of Karen Gillan, who has now played both.
That juxtaposition was in full effect for us on the set of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy last September when we traveled to Shepperton Studios to visit a day of production on Marvel’s space epic. While sitting at a table for group interviews, Karen Gillan entered the room – on her last day of shooting main unit – in full costume and makeup (prosthetics and all) just as visually scary and intimidating as she’s depicted in the film’s trailers, but her happy and jolly attitude couldn’t be in more contrast. It was almost jarring to see such a deadly and villainous character acting like such a nice and happy person. For more on that, read director James Gunn’s story of how funny she is on set (and his impression of her) here.
In our conversation, we talk about Gillan cutting off her long hair and getting under the skin of an intimidating character for the first time in her career; what accent she’ll use for Nebula; the character’s sibling rivalry with Gamora (Zoe Saldana); training constantly when not on set for one major action scene with Gamora; what comics she read to learn more about Nebula; and her goals and motivations.
That might be the craziest makeup I’ve ever seen in person.
Karen Gillan: It’s certainly the craziest I’ve ever worn! Also, I don’t have my contact lenses in right now, which are normally – I just have completely black eyes. It’s so cool!
You’ve probably been asked this before, but when you were offered the role, when you went in for the role, were you told you have to shave?
Karen Gillan: Yes.
How much debate was that, or was it just ‘this part is worth it?’
Karen Gillan: Well I was told even before I auditioned that the actress who got this would have to shave her head, and I didn’t think I was gonna get it (laughs). So I was like, “absolutely, I will shave my head! Sure!” (laughs). Then like three screen tests later, it was “oh God, this might actually happen.” And then I got the part, and then I thought about it seriously, and I was like, “I absolutely want to shave my head for this.” Because, I mean, the opportunity is too good to pass up.
Peter Gabriel once said that everyone should shave their head at least once, because it gives you humility.
Karen Gillan: I think he’s right! I do! It’s totally liberating and, I don’t know… I feel like I always had this long hair and to get rid of that is a total identity change. To see how people react to that is different – is interesting as well.
So what is it like off set, when you’re standing in line somewhere, have you noticed a change in real life?
Karen Gillan: I feel like men don’t hold the door open as much. (laughs)
Karen Gillan, “Villain” and “Action Star,” are those two things you ever thought were going to happen for you?
Karen Gillan: Woah. No. I’m having a surreal moment hearing you say that, especially in the American accent! (laughs) That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard! But no, I didn’t anticipate that ever happening. No.
Does it now feel like it’s an open avenue for you?
Karen Gillan: I mean, I hope it’s an open avenue for me now, because I’ve had the best time doing this! I mean, I feel intimidating for the first time. That never happens for me! (laughs)
Can you talk about this version of Nebula and what you’re bringing to the role?
Karen Gillan: I think Nebula’s a really interesting character. What I really like to play around with is how jealous she is as a person. She’s Gamora’s sister, and there’s a lot of sibling rivalry going on. That’s the most interesting aspect about her character to me. So I really played with that and what it can do to a person, because jealousy can consume you and turn you bitter and ugly, and I’ve kind of played with that.
And she’s a total sadist. (laughs)
Are you using the Scottish accent for the part?
Karen Gillan: No, I’m playing it American. We tried it in Scottish, I screen tested in a Scottish accent, but then [director] James Gunn was like, “no, I think you should just do it in American,” and I said okay.
Playing off the jealousy stuff – you have a robotic feel to your look, a robotic arm, the blacked out eyes; how do you find the personality within this – do you move differently, how do you bring out who she is inside without getting lost in the makeup?
Karen Gillan: Basically, she’s only slightly robotic – she has a cybernetic arm and eye, but her personality remains the same.
In my head, she was put together by a doctor who could actually restore personalities again. This is her modification – she just got mangled in some sort of accident, I think.
How was it, when you initially went under for the makeup – we’ve heard that they’ve gotten it down, shaved an hour or two off – but initially how was that process? How was it seeing yourself for the first time?
Karen Gillan: It’s really intense going through this makeup in the morning, but it’s amazing! I think it takes about four and a half hours now. I think it was five originally, so when it first happened, I was like “what is this? What’s going on?” (laughs) But also it’s so worth it, because I see bits of footage that we’ve shot and it’s just so amazing, it’s so worth it.
Is it constant retouches during the day?
Karen Gillan: Yeah, I’ve blown my nose [and messed it up] so it’s consistently retouched.
Are these all etchings, or are they pieces on your head?
Karen Gillan: [Points to head-pieces] So there’s one piece up front, and then this is a piece – none of this is my skin! Then they paint it, and this is not my arm [showing the metallic-looking sleeve of her costume].
Zoe Saldana called you “brave” (read Zoe Saldana set interview here) and said she couldn’t believe some of the things you were doing on set – what are these things she considers so wild and fantastical and awesome?
Karen Gillan: Really? (laughs) I don’t know! That was very nice of her to say. I have no idea what she’s talking about. Basically, we had a very epic fight sequence, where I had to train for it. Zoe was shooting, so she didn’t train as much as me, but she is way better at stunts than I am, because she was a dancer and she’s done films like this before. But I had to train for two months, every day that I wasn’t filming to be able to do this fight sequence. It was an hour a day, basically, and they were like, “in order for something to be second nature, you have to do it 6,000 times!” I was like, “oh my God!”
So now, I think I could like fight! (laughs) Only if they hit me with the choreographed moves though.
Doctor Who, now a big Marvel Studios movie… is there something in particular that draws you to kind of “geeky” roles, or is that something that has just kind of happened?
Karen Gillan: I guess it’s just kind of turned out that way, which I’m not complaining about because the roles are amazing. I mean, I loved working on Doctor Who, that was so much fun and the character was really great. And this is a totally different character but kind of in the same genre. I don’t know! It’s just sort of turned out that way, but I’m glad that it has!
They both have really strong, passionate fanbases. How has your interaction been with the new fanbase – when you’re doing the show then this is announced, did that same fanbase respond, are they excited to see that happen?
Karen Gillan: I think so. I mean, people on twitter were really nice, so that’s good! (laughs) That’s how I can gauge something like that, otherwise I’m not sure. But yeah, people seemed really happy about it. All the Doctor Who fans were really passionate about this as well, so yeah, it was nice.
I’m curious, I’ve been asking everybody for their favorite character but talked to all heroes so far, so for the villains, other than yourself, who do you like?
Karen Gillan: In this film? It has to be Lee Pace, who plays Ronan the Accuser. He’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen! Have you seen him?
No, we haven’t seen him in person yet.
Karen Gillan: Ohhhh! Oh my God, it’s so intimidating. Also, he’s really tall, so for the first time [in a role] I’m allowed to wear heels, which is quite good. He’s just one of the creepiest, scariest villains I’ve ever seen! (shivers) Ohhhh. It’s horrible. And we’re just creepsters together!
Is it hard not to react when he’s going full-throttle on set?
Karen Gillan: It just makes the acting really easy! You allow yourself to react, and it is a reaction to what’s happening so it’s good.
What’s it been like working with James Gunn as a director?
Karen Gillan: Oh, it’s been really amazing working with James. He’s the best! He’s just so much fun, as well. I’ve never worked on a set where you receive notes over a microphone, and I don’t think he’s ever done that before. Because of the scale of this film, there’s just no way you can run in and out of the set, so it’s like you’re getting notes from God! (laughs) “Can you do that with more of a smile?” But yeah, he’s really great, and he just makes it really free, and allows us to take risks. He’ll say, “Let’s do another take, and this one’s for you to have fun,” and that’s great as an actor. We get to explore and go to places.
I think they were saying this is your last day on set?
Karen Gillan: Yeah, I just wrapped on main unit!
Now that you’ve come to the end, do you have a particularly favorite day on set?
Karen Gillan: Shooting the fight sequence. That was particularly fun, but also really, really difficult. They had two stunt girls and we kind of switched in and out. I just look like spaghetti when I fight, so I’m really lucky with the makeup, because they can use a lot from the stunt girl, because she wears the makeup too. That was really challenging. I’ve never done anything like that before! That’s when I felt for the first time that I was really in a Marvel movie.
You talked about the rivalry and jealousy with your character and Gamora – can you talk a bit about Nebula’s motivations and ultimate goals through the story?
Karen Gillan: Well basically she is a lieutenant of Ronan the Accuser, a daughter of Thanos, and sister of Gamora. They are on this holy mission to kind of cleanse the galaxy of all that is weak. That is her ultimate objective and what’s been drilled into her as a kid. So she is brainwashed by these people, and she just wants to impress, and achieve, and be as strong as possible. That’s her ultimate goal.
What have you done to keep that from being a one-note villain then, and continuing to flesh out the character?
Karen Gillan: I kind of based it on, I researched Spartans a lot, that whole lifestyle. It’s crazy, and it feels very similar to this thing. Also, to keep it interesting as well, I kind of find her battling emotions coming back in. She’s fighting to not have any emotions, basically, because that’s as strong as you can be. So there’s an internal conflict going on there.
You talked about your makeup; can you talk about your costume a little bit?
Karen Gillan: Oh! (presents herself) So this is my costume… I’ve got this arm… It’s quite intense! There’s many layers. There’s all sorts of weird suits underneath to pull me in at all the right places. I was like, “so that’s how they look like that in those films!” (laughs) Yeah, there’s purple…
Will you give them some tips on the Halloween costume version of this then?
Karen Gillan: The Halloween costume? Yeah, I should make like a youtube video of it. Right now! That’s gonna be so cool. That’s amazing. I hope that people dress as Nebula, though I don’t know about this (rubs her head). Loads of bad bald caps!
It seems like humor is a big part of the Guardians of the Galaxy, of that crew – is humor any part of your characters life? Does she have any room for humor or fun?
Karen Gillan: I think my character takes herself absolutely way too seriously, and that’s kind of funny in itself when someone is like that. So I find her funny, but she doesn’t think it’s funny.
Last year at Comic-Con, Tom Hiddleston came out as Loki, brought the place down…
Karen Gillan: Yeah, I saw that!
So you guys, with this makeup, it’s truly unbelievable – I’m just curious, next year, you’re coming out the month after Comic-Con, the possibility of coming out like this…
Karen Gillan: Oh my God, I would love to do that. That would be…
Well you’d have to shave your head again.
Karen Gillan: Oh my God, well… (laughs) I’ll have just grown back some hair! I take it back, I’m not doing that! I just want like a little bit of hair for Christmas. A small tuft! (laughs)
What was the reveal like, standing in front of all those people and pulling off that wig for you?
Karen Gillan: That was a random thing that happened, actually! It wasn’t something all that planned. I was just going to go out bald, and they were like, “why don’t you pull the wig off!” I thought that was fun, and Chris Hardwick said he’d set me up. So yeah, it was kind of weird! I don’t know. I wanted to throw it out into the audience like it was a bouquet at a wedding. (laughs) Then I saw these two girls just jump on it! It was funny.
Talking to the other actors, they’ve said that James Gunn actually told them not to go too much to the comics. Was that the same case with you?
Karen Gillan: Oh! He didn’t tell me that, and I did go to the comics. (laughs) I read the Infinity Gauntlet which was really cool! I’m not a huge comic book reader, I had just one in my house, The Incredible Hulk. So I did some research on that. I was reading that before I got my hands on this script. This is kind of reinventing that whole thing anyways, so I understand why he would’ve said that.
You’re kind of the only female villain in all of the Marvel movies so far. Is that something you thought about at all before you took the role?
Karen Gillan: Oh! Oh my God, no! You’ve just brought that to my awareness! That’s really cool. I like that. No, I didn’t think about that, and I’m glad I didn’t because that would’ve scared me. (laughs)
The robotic arm, does that affect the way you can fight and certain action sequences?
Karen Gillan: Um, it’s pretty mobile, we decided. I mean, I was thinking, we considered all sorts, whether it moves like a robot, but we decided it’s a really good fake arm.
It’s stronger than her other arm, so if she has someone in a headlock, for instance, she’ll use this arm.
If you could go back and give yourself some advice, tell yourself something at the beginning of filming now that you’re close to the end, what would you tell yourself?
Karen Gillan: I would probably tell myself that it was worth shaving my head for! (laughs) It was definitely, definitely worth it.
There’s concept art of you in the makeup room that I can’t shake where you have your head tilted in this teasing, manipulative way, is that something we’re going to see?
Karen Gillan: The head tilt? There’s many a head tilt! Yeah. I think it’s like a reptile, that’s what I decided.
What was the weapon use like, getting into that and using them in a fight sequence?
Karen Gillan: Oh yeah, that was so cool. That was amazing. We practiced for two months with just wooden ones, then I got the real things. They are magnetic, so they join together, they flick down, they light up. It was the coolest thing! They’re quite difficult to use! That was really, really tough, but I think it’s going to look amazing.
I’ve been asking people what they collect [given the nature of the property]; is there anything that you collect?
Karen Gillan: Oh my God, do I not collect anything? I’ve forgotten everything that I own, as it’s been in a storage unit for a year now! I moved to America, and then never sorted it out. So I don’t even know what I own anymore. (laughs) Is this too revealing? I do have a lot of old smelly vintage clothes!
Thank you so much!
Karen Gillan: Thank you!
More: Guardians of the Galaxy Set Visit Report
Guardians of the Galaxy is directed by James Gunn and stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel as Groot, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, with John C. Reilly, Glenn Close as Nova Prime Rael and Benicio Del Toro as The Collector.
Guardians of the Galaxy opens August 1, 2014, The Avengers: Age of Ultron on May 1, 2015, Ant-Man on July 17, 2015, Captain America 3 on May 6 2016, and unannounced films for July 8 2016 and May 5 2017.
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes for your Marvel movie and TV news!