High­land zing

She took play­ing Doc­tor Who’s side­kick to a whole new di­men­sion, and now Karen Gil­lan is tak­ing hor­ror through the look­ing glass with shocker Ocu­lus. She tells Don­ald Clarke about mak­ing the move from In­ver­ness to Hol­ly­wood

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

You wouldn’t be so un­kind as to com­pare life as the Doc­tor’s com­pan­ion to the busi­ness of be­ing a Bond girl. But nei­ther role has pro­pelled many ac­tors to great star­dom. More than a few of those sup­port­ing play­ers on Doc­tor Who used the part to build on pre-ex­ist­ing fame: Bil­lie Piper, Cather­ine Tate, erm, Bon­nie Lang­ford. None has, how­ever, sprung straight from the Tardis to Hol­ly­wood.

Karen Gil­lan might just be the ex­cep­tion. It helps that, since its rein­ven­tion a lit­tle less than a decade ago, Doc­tor Who has be­come a much more glam­orous beast that it was when the ten­ta­cles were hosepipes and the ray-guns were wash­ing-up liq­uid bot­tles. But Gil­lan also has the drive, the zing and the am­bi­tion to make it hap­pen.

Next week we see her in a very im­pres­sive hor­ror film – an en­try to the un­der­ex­ploited “haunted mir­ror” genre – called Ocu­lus. And at the end of July, in Marvel’s puz­zling su­per­hero flick Guardians of the Galaxy, she turns up as a sadis­tic vil­lain named Ne­bula.

Los Angeles has, for the mo­ment, claimed the girl from In­ver­ness.

“I sup­pose, tech­ni­cally, I do live there now,” Gil­lan says in a voice now flavoured with the odd Californian vowel. “But I am a no­mad. I miss the weather. And all the people there of course. I miss how beau­ti­ful it is. People walk around Lin­coln Heights in LA and say: ‘It’s beau­ti­ful’. Hey, you haven’t seen any­thing.”

Ocu­lus was a canny project to pick for her first US film. Made on a mod­est budget, the pic­ture has, in a coun­try where hor­ror is rarely re­viewed fairly, picked up swathe of strong notices. Some sort of cult suc­cess is guar­an­teed. Gil­lan also man­aged to se­lect an im­pres­sively strong role. Rather than play­ing a flee­ing “fi­nal girl”, Karen turns up as a fo­cused ob­ses­sive who will not set­tle un­til she has proved that deadly en­er­gies lurk within an an­tique look­ing-glass.

“That’s to­tally right,” she says. “That’s one rea­son I wanted to play the char­ac­ter so much. We are so ac­cus­tomed to a fe­male in the lead of a hor­ror film, but they’re usu­ally al­ways run­ning away. This girl is run­ning to­wards the threat. The worse it gets, the more ex­cited she is, be­cause it proves her the­ory.”

You can’t re­ally imag­ine Gil­lan play­ing (to pull from suit­ably Scot­tish sources) a cow’rin, tim’rous beastie. Then again, it is easy to slip into dan­ger­ous stereo­types here. We do tend to sling un­help­ful words such as “feisty” at ac­tors with such lus­trously healthy heads of red hair. That can’t be fair. We no longer ex­pect larger ac­tors to be jolly or blonder ac­tors to be con­fused.

“Ha ha. I don’t know about that. I haven’t sold my­self that way. But maybe there is a com­mon theme of ‘feisty’ to my roles: feisty out­side and vul­ner­a­ble within. There’s some­thing fun about red hair fly­ing around in ad­ven­ture sit­u­a­tions. Isn’t there?”

We go on to agree that, up in the north­west­ern cor­ner of Europe, from where we both hail, red hair is re­ally not worth re­mark­ing upon. There’s thou­sands of us on the streets of Belfast and In­ver­ness.

Gil­lan was born in that re­mote city some 26 years ago. Her fa­ther was a fine singer and she be­gan tin­kling the piano with him when she was still a tiny girl. She be­gan act­ing in lo­cal theatre groups and, when she was 16, moved to Ed­in­burgh. A year later she was seek­ing work in Lon­don. It sounds as if she was a brave teen.

“Well, I went down there be­cause I was at col­lege. Then I dropped out af­ter just two months. I was work­ing in a pub. That was scary. What am I go­ing to do? What hap­pens next?”

What did hap­pen next was that she picked up some modelling work. We hear such hor­ror sto­ries about this busi­ness. The very no­tion of the teenage Gil­lan go­ing among white slavers fills one with dread.

“I heard many a story also,” she says. “It is maybe risky to have 25-year-old Rus­sian girls in the busi­ness. I moved away at 17, but I was still in my own coun­try. It was all very nor­mal, I have to say. I didn’t meet any­one with an eat­ing dis­or­der.”

Any­way, as she ex­plains, modelling never threat­ened to get in the way of act­ing. She was for­ever frus­trat­ing her agency by van­ish­ing to au­di­tions. Even­tu­ally, the Doc­tor Who gig lum­bered over the hori­zon. As she tells it, there were no enor­mous ne­go­ti­a­tions, no end­less call-backs, no te­dious ex­tended read­ings.

“It was a to­tal rush. I went in for the last au­di­tion with Matt Smith. They hugged me and I knew then that I’d got it. It’s never hap­pened like that be­fore, I can tell you.”

Among the tweaks that helped the new Doc­tor Who be­come a phe­nom­e­non for the age was the de­ci­sion to flesh out the Time Lord’s com­pan­ion. Bil­lie Piper and oth­ers had al­ready pre­pared the ground, but Amelia “Amy” Pond, the char­ac­ter played by Gil­lan, has a par­tic­u­larly rich hin­ter­land. She gets mar­ried. She has a child. There re­ally was a great deal go­ing on there.

“Oh yes, that’s what I loved so much about her. We didn’t just learn

Gil­lan in Guardians

of the Galaxy (left), Ocu­lus (be­low) and as Amy Pond in

Doc­tor Who (right)

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