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.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) release date: Aug 01, 2014
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) release date: May 05, 2017