Telegraph, Jun 2014
Karen Gillan caused a stir on British TV as Amy Pond, Doctor Who’s assistant; now she’s making waves in Hollywood.
Also at Telegraph
It’s said that life slows down in Los Angeles, as compared with brisker, more bustling cities such as London or New York – something to do with the balmy weather and all the pools.
But not for Karen Gillan. If anything the flame-haired Scottish actress has sped up since she moved to the West Coast 18 months ago. She’s made several movies in several genres – a romantic comedy (The List), an action fantasy (Guardians of the Galaxy) and a paranormal horror that came out on Friday (Oculus). She has also shot a pilot for ABC called Selfie, which was recently picked up for a series. In other words, the former Doctor Who star, once such a fixture on telly, will soon be one again – but this time, in America. That’s fast work.
“You see, I don’t get to lounge about in the sun like everyone else,” she trills. “I go bright red. It’s a ginger thing.”
We’re in a suite in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where Gillan’s doing press for Oculus. She looks in fine fettle – her fiery hair in a pixie crop, still growing back from the time she had to shave it all off to play a cyborg super-villain in Guardians of the Galaxy. But she’s also fighting a cold, which is why she’s wrapped in a blanket and curled up in an armchair. Not that it has held her back at all – she’s as chirpy as ever, and clearly keen to crack on with her schedule. As we talk, her phone goes off, then her Skype, and there are knocks at the door which a couple of publicists, who are listening in from the bathroom, pop out to answer. Poorly or not, Gillan is a hub of activity.
“I’m not here on holiday,” she explains. “I’m here because there’s lots of opportunities career-wise. Parts here are amazing for girls my age. There are parts in the UK too, but they’re mostly period dramas, and that’s just not my immediate casting.”
It was a film that brought her to LA in the first place – Oculus, a frightener from the producers of Paranormal Activity. She was in her childhood home in Inverness, when her LA agents demanded that she submit an audition for the film within 24 hours. So Gillan set up a camera in her bedroom and called her father, John, a care home manager. “I had him read the other part,” she laughs. “He’s a good singer, but not the best actor! But there was no one else!”
It worked. The director, Mike Flanagan, was a huge Doctor Who fan (he even had a Tardis mug) and tailored the part for Gillan specifically. And before long, she was on location in Mobile, Alabama, a place she has compared to Scotland because “it felt quite rural and they fry everything”.
And when filming was over, she thought, “Why not stay? Move to LA, give it a go.” It sounds like a big step, but ever since Gillan was a girl, she’s been making intrepid moves in the service of her ambition. At 16, she left Inverness for Edinburgh, determined to be an actress. Then she left Scotland at 17 for a London stage school, which she then left a few months later, because she’d booked her first job. And now, at 26, she has moved to Hollywood.
In Oculus, she’s particularly well cast as an unstoppable woman on a mission – the mission being to defeat a demon that lives in a mirror and once killed her parents. It’s a genre piece, chock-full of classic tropes – an all-American family moves into a new home, the parents start acting peculiarly, and the first to cop it is the dog. And yet by chopping backwards and forwards in time, and playing with the ghost’s hallucinatory powers, Oculus manages to keep the viewer wondering what’s real and what isn’t.
For Gillan, of course, there was no such conundrum. “It kind of kills it when you see the ghosts having lunch and stuff,” she says. But she’s not immune to horror. “I was afraid to be alone in the dark after The Ring. I do think something must be out there. Things we can’t perceive because our brains aren’t developed enough.”
Not all brains are alike though. Gillan’s mother, for instance, is something of a mystic. “She’ll be like, ‘This dead relative is here in the room right now.’ Really casually, not scared at all.” But Gillan’s not spooked by her mother. “My mum’s the luckiest person I know. She wins everything. Like every raffle. Someone’s looking out for her.”
You might say someone was looking out for Gillan too, given how far she’s come, so quickly. But it’s not just luck. Gillan is very sensible and hard working and avoids the temptations of Los Angeles. Even when the sun’s down, apparently, she’d sooner stay in.
“You can go to a lot of events if you choose to, I just never go,” she says. It’s not the paparazzi that put her off – “That barely happens here, compared to the UK.” She’s just not interested, not when there are scripts to read and television to catch up on. “It’s funny – some British people get angry because I’m not out drinking and I’m being really proactive with my downtime. They’re like, ‘What have you become?’ But I’m like, ‘How is this a bad thing?’ ”
Ask Gillan if she’s gone native, and you get a long “nooooo”. Never mind her strict sun avoidance, she can’t drive, and has no intention of learning. “It’s the parking!” she explains. She only knows a handful of Angelenos – most of her friends are other expats; she’s even found a pal from Inverness. And she’s not convinced by the whole hot yoga thing. “I tried Bikram once, but I wasn’t any good,” she says.
Has she tried out the dating scene?
“Oh no. I’m so terrified by the prospect!” she says. “Americans seem to go about it in a different way where they date loads of people at the same time. It’s probably a healthier way of finding someone, because you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. But I’m like, ‘Are you kissing all of them?’ ” She writhes in her seat and laughs. “I prefer the UK way, where we just drink near each other and no one knows if it’s a date or not.”
That said, there are certain aspects of LA life that she has warmed to – the healthy stuff, mostly. She quite likes to juice things, for instance. And she’s addicted to spinning. “Oh my God! I love it!” she says, clapping her hands. “I think it’s because it feels like going to a nightclub without the hangover. The music is so loud, they turn the lights off, and then they shout positive things at you while you’re doing it. That feels very American to me. Like, ‘You are an awesome person!’ At first I was like, ‘This is so funny, someone needs to put this into a comedy sketch.’ But at the end I’m like, ‘Yeah! We are awesome!’ I don’t laugh at all that positive motivational stuff anymore. But I think that’s a good thing!”
It all started because of Selfie, a new sitcom in which Gillan stars as a self-absorbed valley girl who has plenty of Twitter followers but no actual friends. So she tries to rebrand herself, with the help of a marketing expert played by John Cho (Harold, from the Harold & Kumar films). It’s My Fair Lady for the social media age.
“My character’s this real Kardashian-type girl,” she says. “So I went to Soul Cycle [a modish spinning class] to just listen to their voices, because it’s a really specific way of talking. And then a week later, I’m hooked!”
Selfie was another deft piece of casting, because Gillan knows a bit about rebranding herself – she did it as a child in Inverness. Remarkable though it seems now, given how effervescent Gillan is in person (even with a cold), she was very shy and withdrawn as a younger girl.
“I was an only child, so I didn’t really learn how to interact with other people,” she says. “I had a couple of friends in school, but that’s it.”
She discovered in drama class that her shyness would evaporate on stage, so she decided that she would be an actress, and set about her goal with characteristic focus. She took classes every day after school. There were a couple of years of staying up late, and drinking, but that was all out of her system by the time she was offered the chance to take an acting course in Edinburgh. “It was a new beginning, because nobody knew me in Edinburgh,” she says. “But I probably went too far the other way, and became really outgoing. I think it was a bit weird and manic. I wanted to start my career. Yeah, I was one of those.”
After a year in Edinburgh, she left for London and the fabled Italia Conti stage school. But she didn’t like it there, so after a few months she left again.
“The teachers are excellent,” she says carefully. “But the vibe didn’t feel very creative to me really. I don’t think I need to be taught how to breathe. I mean… do we need that ever? We’re all fine without breathing training.”
She decided to leave when she won a part on a Scottish detective show called Rebus – a small, eight-day shoot. Italia Conti had a rule against students working in their first year, but Gillan wasn’t having it. Her career was starting, and that was all there was to it. So after the shoot, she began her life as an actress, living in south London – in Elephant and Castle. Between auditions, she’d work behind the bar at a pub called the Pilgrim, in Kennington, marvelling at the school teachers who’d come in after class and get hammered. “It was like crazy to me. You were teaching children a minute ago, and now look at you!”
She was saved from bar work by a steady trickle of parts – a sketch show here (The Kevin Bishop Show) and an episode of Stacked there. And then the part that changed her life came along – a long shot by any stretch, but Gillan isn’t short on pluck.
“I thought they’d be really scary, the Doctor Who auditions,” she says. “Like this huge search across the nation. But they only met about 10 or 15 girls. I just did one audition with the casting director, then I got a recall and had to read with Matt Smith and the producers, which was quite scary.”
She was back home, a couple of hours later, when the telephone rang. “Yeah, I did jump up and down. And I started crying too. I even screamed ‘thank you’ to the heavens! I’ve never done that before. I’m not even religious.”
With her striking looks and legs “from here to yaya”, as one writer put it, Gillan caused quite a stir on Doctor Who. She spent three years as Amy Pond, the longest tenure in the role of any other actress since the series re-launched in 2005, and her final episode clocked close to record ratings for the show, with six million viewers. And it wasn’t just her legs that won over the fans.
“The thing about Karen is that she’s got that cute and funny combination, which is pretty much gold dust in film and TV,” says Saul Metzstein, who directed her on several episodes. “Great comic timing. I always enjoyed that slightly irritated you-take-me-all-over-the-universe-but-I’m-not-impressed look she gives the Doctor.”
But now Doctor Who is receding into her past, as Gillan forges ahead into another frontier of the space-time-entertainment continuum. As a publicist hovers, pointing at her wrist, I ask her if there’s another actress out there, whose career might be a template for hers.
Gillan thinks for a second.
“I don’t really think about it like that,” she says. “But there are people whose careers I admire, like Amy Adams. She’s in every brilliant film that comes out and she mixes it up with really big blockbustery-type films too.”
She climbs out of her armchair, and fake shakes my hand, because she doesn’t want to spread her germs. “But at the same time, I don’t want to really emulate anyone.”