Karen: My journey from geek girl to major movie actress
Doctor Who's sexiest ever sidekick is back, playing a shaven-headed alien assassin in a new movie blockbuster
There is a short, and disorientating period in a rising star's trajectory, when they still live half in our world - the civilian one, and half in that strange, gilded other-world of top tier celebrity.
So it is for Karen Gillan, who I find tucked away in a small room in a luxury London hotel. It's a kind of holding pen where, one-by-one, representatives from the media are granted an audience with the exotic flowers from the silver screen. Until recently, Gillan was reasonably well-known for her role as Doctor Who's “sexiest ever” sidekick in the BBC series — she played the doctor's companion Amy Pond between 2010 and 2012. But now, she's moved into a different league, entirely thanks to a role as an extra-terrestrial assassin in the Marvel/Disney big summer blockbuster, Guardians of The Galaxy. It's a behemoth of a thing, and last week premiered across the globe, leaving trails of paparazzi and screaming fans in its wake.
For Gillan, it's all still a bit surreal. She brought her parents, a care-home worker and a supermarket employee to the London premiere at Leicester square. “My mum ... got a little overwhelmed I think,” she says. “Because it was really intense and amazing. It was a huge premiere, with music blasting and people everywhere. That was a real moment for me and my mum and dad. We were all like, ‘Whoa, what has happened?'“
Gillan is tall and a bit goofy, despite her delicate features and wide green eyes. Her Scottish accent is still strong, and when she laughs, the sound is low and comes right from the back of her throat.
She admits to feeling a little like she's living a “double-life” at the moment. Between West Hollywood, (where she is currently based to work on a new television series called Selfie) and home, which is Inverness.
“Yeah, that's what it feels like,” she says, gesturing around her to this whole new world in which she's immersed. “I'll go home to Scotland and spend some time with my parents and sit in my childhood bedroom and wonder if I've actually imagined everything that's happened,” she says. “My childhood bedroom hasn't changed since 2004. To the point where the calendar is still opened on a page in 2004, untouched. That's ten years that that hasn't been touched ... And written on one of the days is ‘pantomime audition'.”
It's a neat image to sum up how far she's come. Even back then, aged 16, she was already firmly fixed on the path she intended to pursue. She joined youth theatres when she was at school, and at 17, won a place to study at the famous Italia Conti school in London.
She is an only child, so lived very much in her own head when she was growing up. “I think it's a huge aspect of my personality. I was painfully shy when I was younger, because I don't think I'd developed the skills to communicate with people socially,” she says, laughing.
“I just wouldn't talk. It was really weird. And I can be quite an awkward person as well, which I think is to do with being an only child. I still do everything on my own. I have no problems going on holiday on my own, going to the cinema on my own, eating on my own.”
Without siblings to play with, she retreated into her imagination. “I remember when I was younger, I was always asking; ‘What is the difference between living and imagining?' If I can conjure up the same emotions from imagining something as I would from actually living it, then what is the point of living? I know that's really intense!” she says, the laugh bubbling up again like bubbles under
water. “I guess in a weird way that's where technology is going with virtual reality headsets and stuff. But yeah, that was just a lot of time on my own!”
Did she find it strange then, having to play sibling rivalry in Guardians of the Galaxy. Her character, Nebula, is defined by the fact that she feels overshadowed by her favoured sister Gamora. “That was really strange for me, because I don't really understand sibling relationships,” she agrees.
“I know loads of siblings that don't get on with each other, but when something bad happens they're just absolutely there for each other no matter what, and it's this really strange interesting thing.”
The way siblings compete with each other was, she says, a whole new experience for her to discover. “I just had to imagine what it's like to always be in a sister's shadow. And to always be the one that's not as good. Thank God I don't have any siblings.”
She had to shave her head to play the role — something she agreed to before even auditioning. Her long, titian hair had become something of a professional trademark after Doctor Who, but she lopped it off without a second thought, and now wears the six or so inches that have since grown back, styled up into an arresting wavy quiff, like the flame on a Roman candle.
One might imagine that on the set of a big-budget blockbuster, it might be easy for the new girl to feel lost.
“I was intimidated walking onto set for the first time, because I've never worked on a film of that scale before,” she admits. “I was used to working on TV, and that's just a different thing entirely. But then actually, once we got going I found it to be a really creative environment” she says. “Because they have a bigger budget, they have more time. So they were just letting me do a million different versions of every line.”
Despite her goof-ball demeanour, Gillan has always been totally single-minded in her ambition. She dropped out of Italia Conti when a real acting job came up. Later, she joined a modelling agency to pay the bills but refused to let modelling jobs interfere with her plan.
“I was the worst model because I kept on not turning up to castings and stuff. I was trying to juggle having an acting agent at the same time and running out to auditions, and that always took priority. But sometimes I just wouldn't tell the modelling agency rather than being an adult about it. I just wouldn't go, and it was really bad — I was always getting in trouble. It wasn't something I aspired to, so my heart wasn't really in it.
“It's an interesting lifestyle, though. You go around to about eight castings a day, so I got to know the tubes really well in London. I made some really great friends who I'm still friends with, but other than that, I just didn't really enjoy it. I guess I just associated it with not acting.
“I noticed that a lot of the stereotypes that people have — maybe that's what happens at the higher level of modelling, and not at the level I was at, but nobody really had an eating disorder that I met, nobody was on cocaine — all of those stereotypes. It was actually just pretty normal. But then I don't know what it's like at the top. There are girls that are really young and they come from different countries and are let loose in the city, and that's interesting.”
Modelling, clearly, was never her dream. “Who does have the ambition to be a model?,” she says. “It's not really a profession that you choose, because it's just the way you happen to turn out. It's not really a skill. It's not something you can work at and get better at then get to do it, it's the way your features happen to have landed on your face. I don't know. I find that weird as an aspiration.”
These days, she's based in West Hollywood but remains a bit of “a nomad. I travel around”. She has to be based in LA though while shooting Selfie in which she takes the lead. She likes California, but it will never be home. “I'm just not a Hollywood girl,” she says. “I never will be. You can take the girl out of Scotland, but no, she's not going to drink a green juice. It's not going to happen.”
- Guardians Of The Galaxy is in cinemas now
Doctor Who's most out-of-this-world assistants
- As well as Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond, the timelord has got through a fair few assistants over the years. Here we pick the top six.
- Rose Tyler — Billie Piper (2005-06) Some hardcore Dr. Who fans were sceptical over the choice of Piper, but her character Rose proved a natural foil to rambunctious David Tennant.
- Sarah Jane Smith — Elisabeth Sladen (1973-76) For many, Smith is the definitive Dr Who assistant. An intrepid journalist, Smith was so popular that she was given her own spin-off show in 2007; the Sarah Jane Adventures, which also featured the mechanical dog K-9.
- Leela — Louise Jamieson (1977-78) Such a fearsome warrior that she only went by one name, Leela partnered the suave doctor Tom Baker in the Tardis. She was known for always carrying a knife.
- Peri Brown — Nicola Bryant (1984-86) Thought of as perhaps the most physically attractive assistant ever, Brown was often lusted after by the show’s villains. An American student, she teamed up with both Colin Baker and Peter Davison’s versions of the doctor.
- Ace — Sophie Aldred (1987-89) A troubled London teenager, Ace (real name Dorothy Gale McShane) acted alongside Sylvester McCoy’s doctor. Critics have argued that Ace was one of the first assistants to be given an emotional journey and back story in the programme.
- Donna Noble — Catherine Tate (2008) Noble was a compassionate, mature presence and was always able to calm manic David Tennant down.