In September 2013, CBR News took part in a round table with “Guardians of the Galaxy” actress Karen Gillan. Making her leap from the small screen after co-starring as in the popular British TV series “Doctor Who,” Gillan has taken the role of Nebula, the comic character sometimes described as Thanos’ Granddaughter in the forthcoming Marvel Studios film. Shaved head aside, Gillan’s look as Nebula had not yet been revealed at the time of interview — the character was absent from teaser footage — so it was a particular surprise for her to answer questions in full make-up, having just wrapped her time on the set.
During the course of the special press roundtable, the actress discussed shaving her head for the role, Nebula’s role in the film, her rivalry with Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, the research that went into crafting the film’s version of the character and much more. Plus, she discusses the terrifying nature of Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser.
To begin with, when you were offered the role, were you told you’d have to shave your head? And did you debate doing that with yourself?
Karen Gillan: I was told before I even auditioned that the actress who got this part would have to shave her head, but I didn’t think I’d actually get it so I was like, “Yeah, of course!” But then three screen tests later I realised it might actually happen. I got the part and thought about it seriously and realized that I actively wanted to try it. It’s totally liberating. I feel like I always had this long hair and getting rid of it is like a complete identity change. Seeing how people react is interesting.
Have you noticed a change when you’re just out and about?
I feel like men don’t hold the door open as much. I was like “Oh, okay…”
Did you ever see yourself playing a villain or action star, much less both?
No, I didn’t ever. I’ve enjoyed it though, I feel intimidating for the first time ever!
What’s this version of Nebula like, and what are you bringing to the role?
I think she’s a really interesting character. What I like to play around with is how jealous she is. She’s Gamora’s sister, and there’s a lot of sibling rivalry. That’s the most interesting aspect to me, because jealously can consume you and turn you bitter, and ugly. And she’s a total sadist, so that’s fun too.
Are you playing it with your own accent?
No, I’m doing it American. We did screen test it Scottish, but it was ultimately James Gunn’s choice and he decided on American.
What’s her ultimate goal in the story?
Basically, she’s a lieutenant of Ronan the Accuser, daughter of Thanos and sister of Gamora, and they’re on this holy mission to cleanse the galaxy of all that’s weak. That’s what’s been drilled into her since she was a kid, she’s kind of been brainwashed by these people. She just wants to be as strong as possible.
How have you fleshed out that idea, to keep her from being one-dimensional?
I researched Spartans, and their lifestyle, which feels very similar to this. And I find her battling her emotions coming back, she wants no emotions because that’s as strong as you can be. So there’s an internal conflict there too.
We’ve heard it takes about 4 hours to apply the make-up and prosthetics. How was it seeing yourself in the make-up for the first time and how does it affect you generally?
It takes about four-and-a-half hours now, but it’s so worth it. I see little bits of footage and it just looks amazing. There’s a piece over my head, and shoulder — none of this is my actual skin. And obviously there’s the robotic arm. It’s amazing what they can do.
Zoe [Saldana] called you “brave” on set — any idea what she was referring to specifically?
Really?! That’s very kind. I’m not sure! I guess we’ve got a very epic fight sequence we’ve had to train for and she’s way better at stunts than I am. I had to train for 2 months, an hour every day, just to do this! They told me in order for something to be second nature, you have to do it 6,000 times. But now I think I actually could fight someone! If they hit me with the choreographed moves, I mean. [Laughs]
Does the robotic arm affect the way you can fight?
It’s pretty mobile, we’ve decided. We thought about making it move more robotically, but we’ve decided it’s a really well-made prosthetic. It’s stronger than the other arm, though, so if she’s getting someone in a headlock, for instance, she’d use the fake one.
What was it like learning to use weapons?
It was so cool. We practiced for two months using wooden ones, then we got the real ones, which were magnetic so they joined together, flipped down and lit up. it was the coolest thing ever. They’re quite difficult to use, that was really tough. But it’s going to look amazing.
From “Doctor Who” and now to a big Marvel Studios movie, is there anything in particular that draws you to genre roles, or is that something that’s just happened?
It’s just worked out that way, but I’m not complaining because the roles are amazing. Working on “Doctor Who” was so much fun and the character was great, and now Nebula’s completely different but just as much fun. I’m glad it’s turned out that way.
Have your fans followed you from one project to the other?
I think so! People on Twitter have been really nice, at least!
We’ve been asking people their favorite “Guardians of the Galaxy” character, so since you’re our first villain, who do you pick?
That’d have to be Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser. Have you seen him? He’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s so intimidating. And also he’s so tall, which is good because for the first time I’m allowed to wear heels! But he’s one of the creepiest, scariest villains I’ve ever seen. It makes the acting really easy. You just allow yourself to react how you would, then it looks real!
How’s it been working with James Gunn?
Oh, he’s the best! He’s so much fun. I’ve never worked on a set where you receive notes over a microphone but because of the scale of this film there’s no way he can run in and out every time. It’s like getting notes from God. But he makes things really free and allows us to take risks, which is great as an actor because that’s when you start to explore and go to new places.
We’re told that you’ve come to the end of your shoot, so do you have a favorite scene or moment from the film?
Yeah, I just wrapped on main unit! Shooting the fight scene was particularly fun, but also really, really difficult. They had two stunt girls in and we switched in and out, but I just look like spaghetti when I fight. We’re lucky, because of the make-up they can use a lot of them fighting instead! That was really challenging, and when I felt for the first time like I was in a real Marvel movie.
It seems like humor’s a big part of the Guardians’ way of looking at things, so do the villains have room for that too?
I think my character takes herself absolutely way too seriously. Which is funny within itself. I find her funny, she doesn’t find her funny.
At Comic-Con International in San Diego 2013, Tom Hiddleston came out as Loki, since Guardians is out a month before Comicon, is there any possibility of you guys doing that next year?
Oh, I’d love to! Although I’ll have only just got back some hair by then. I take it back, I’m not doing it! I just want a little bit of hair for Christmas, that’s all!
What was the reveal like, pulling off the wig in front of all those people?
That was a random thing that happened, actually, it wasn’t really that planned. I was just going to go out bald, then at the last minute we decided not to. So it was kind of weird. I wanted to throw it out into the audience like a bouquet at a wedding, then I saw these two girls just jump on it and I was like, “Woah! Okay!” It was hilarious.
Some of the other actors told us they were instructed not to read the “Guardians of the Galaxy”-related comics, did you have that too?
Oh, really? No, I wasn’t told that and I did go to the comics. I read “Infinity Gauntlet,” which was cool because I’m not a huge comic book reader. I was reading that before I got my hands on the “Guardians” script, and actually this is reinventing it all anyway, so I can understand why he’d say that to people.
You’re the only female villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is that something you thought about before taking the role?
Really? Am I? No, you’ve literally just brought that to my awareness. That’s really cool, I like that. But no, I didn’t know, and I’m glad I didn’t because knowing that would’ve scared me!
There was an interesting piece of concept art where you had your head tilted, it seemed almost predatory. Is that something you’ve gone with?
Oh yeah, there’s many a head-tilt. I decided it was sort of a reptilian side to the character.
If you could go back and give yourself some advice at the start of filming, what would you tell yourself?
I’d tell myself that it was definitely worth shaving my head for.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” debuts August 1.