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

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 about her time with the doctor. We met her as a child. We saw her get married. She had a kid. We experienced all of that with her. And they showed sides of the character that wasn’t just running around with the Doctor. Other characters from her life were introduced. She was a real character.”

Her eyes and ears are our eyes and ears.

“That’s right. Doctor Who really is the story of the companions. We learn about him through them.”