Karen Gillan: from Doctor Who to Hollywood

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 – and will soon be seen in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Fri, Jun 6, 2014, 00:00

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?”