The rise of Karen Gillan has been something to watch – from her arresting debut as Amy Pond in Matt Smith-era Doctor Who, through her ferocious performance as Nebula in the MCU, to her dance-fighting, body-swapping Ruby Roundhouse in the recent Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and its sequel The Next Level. Now, she’s taking her action cinema credentials to the next level in the brilliantly-titled Gunpowder Milkshake, playing a feared assassin whose ruthless reputation precedes her.
Stopping by the Empire Podcast, Gillan talked about the exhausting action sequences in the film, her hugely exciting upcoming slate – including Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love And Thunder and Judd Apatow’s pandemic-era meta-comedy The Bubble – and her next project as a director. Listen to the full interview on the Empire Podcast, and take a read of the highlights here.
EMPIRE: Gunpowder Milkshake looks absolutely exhausting to film. At what point did you hit the ultimate level of ‘knackered’?
KAREN GILLAN: Oh, it definitely was. I think it was probably my first fight sequence in the film. The director was like, 'We want the first time we see you fight for it to be really impressive.' It needed to be, because many characters are saying, 'Remember who you're dealing with!' So the audience is geared up to think, 'Oh my god, this girl is lethal.' It's like, I'd better bloody deliver on that by the time you actually do see me fight. A lot of practice went into that fight, and then the director was like, 'We want it to all be in one take, so there's going to be no cut points. It's going to be a wide shot. You're gonna see every single movement, there's nowhere to hide.'
It's in the bowling alley. It's the first fight sequence, and it's with three actors – so they weren't even stunt doubles. They were actors. It's quite nerve-wracking doing fights with other actors, because when actors are doing fight sequences and they hear 'Action!', your adrenaline kicks in and you're giving it 110%. We start to overshoot and make mistakes because we're getting really carried away. Usually the stunt people in the scene can adjust and account for that, but it was only actors in the scene so we're all like, 'Oh, godspeed!' Nobody got hurt, thankfully. But when there's nowhere to hide – no cut points and no handheld moving camera to make it look more energetic – you've really got to deliver. So that was quite hard going.
There's so much that you go through in this movie. There's an action sequence where you have to fight in a chair because your hands are paralysed and you can't shoot people. It must be amazing fun to do.
It was really fun. When I was first reading the script, the action sequence where they paralyse both of my arms and then make me fight three guys, I think that was the point where I put down the script and told my agents, "I really have to do this film." I've just never seen anything like that. It truly is the most bizarre, cartoonish, goofy action sequence I've ever seen in my life. And by the way, that is where I thrive.
You thrive in a chair with your arms paralysed?
Yeah, looking not cool at all, but just flailing around.
Is that something you were specifically looking to do after Jumanji and after playing Nebula, with quite a bit of action under your belt? Did you send the word out: ‘I’d like to do something in this genre’?
No, not at all actually. I wasn't particularly looking for that. If anything,§ I keep looking for more dramatic roles, because that's what I started off doing as a kid. I was doing, like, Antigone and all of my stage stuff when I was growing up. I thought that's sort of where I was headed, so I never anticipated all of this genre stuff. But I love it. It's really fun and kind of the same in a lot of ways – it just is existing in a different world. The action stuff keeps happening to me, and I'm happy that it is, but it's not something I'm seeking out.
Had anyone else signed on whenever you were you were in negotiations? Did you know it was gonna be Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh…
No, I had no idea. So I just signed on and then all of these amazing women, one after the other, came on board. I was like, 'This is the most incredible thing ever, and I'm gonna be starstruck this entire time – I did not sign up for this!' I'm normally more starstruck with directors, I will say, but when it comes to those women, they're just legendary.
They are. And, of course, now so many of you are in the MCU. Michelle Yeoh has been in Guardians Vol. 2****, and now of course Shang-Chi****. And Angela Bassett. But had you met them in the course of your MCU duties?
No, I hadn't met any of them. But Angela Bassett is just the most incredible actress. I just need to get that out. And Michelle Yoeh is an action legend, so it's like – you're making me fight in front of Michelle Yeoh? Great. And then Carla Gugino, I was a really big fan of because I had been watching her in her film Gerald's Game and also The Haunting Of Hill House. So she was fresh in my mind, and I remember thinking after I watched Gerald's Game, she is the most extraordinary actress. She did such a good job in that film.
You’ve had a very busy lockdown. You’ve been making films left right and centre. What’s it been like for you?
I kind of experienced lockdown like everybody else at the beginning. Last year, there was a few months of just kind of, 'Oh, I'm gonna start cooking!' That's gone now. But then I was thrown back into work probably last October, and I've been going ever since. I did a film in Finland called Dual, which is so great! I watched it the other day, loved it. It's about a girl who has a clone made of herself, and then she recovers from her terminal illness, and so she has to fight the clone and a duel to the death to see which one gets to live as the person. Oh my god, it's so good. That's with Aaron Paul. And then I did Thor: Love And Thunder in Australia. And then I made a film called The Bubble, which is the new Judd Apatow film about a group of actors trying to make a big-budget film during the pandemic.
Wow. That sounds really interesting and meta.
It was meta as all hell, because I just had come off Thor where I had the exact experience of quarantining and then going to the cast dinner, and everybody's socially awkward because we've forgotten how to interact. And then you've tried to make this big, huge film in a pandemic. And then I go and make a film exactly about all of that. So I was like, 'What is going on?!'
I don't want to direct other people's stories, because I have lots of fun stories that I want to tell.
Was The Bubble a little more relaxed? Thor****’s a Taika movie, so I’m sure his sets are fairly relaxed, but you still have those protocols.
I mean, they both actually felt fairly similar. Taika has a very improvisational style when it comes to making even a big, huge blockbuster – he's taken his indie style in there. That's kind of nice. He's shouting things out, like, 'Do this! Walk over there!' You're just kind of going with it. And then Judd is very similar. He's going to shout things over the microphone, 'Say this, say this, say this.' You don't know what you're going to be doing, basically. Although on the Judd film there was a full script – it wasn't like the whole film was improvised. We would get a version of the script, but then also he would be like, 'Just go on a rant about this.' I'd never done that before – I've had the absolute time of my life, and I don't want to go back to normal.
I cannot wait to see this, it’s gonna be absolutely bonkers. I can't wait for Love And Thunder as well, because I know Taika has said it's deranged.
Deranged is absolutely correct. I can't wait.
You’ve directed before, and you directed a short recently. Was that in lockdown?
That was actually made before the lockdown. I made the short, and then I didn't know what to do with it. I was like, I could submit it to film festivals, or I could just show it to my own fans, and that got me way more excited. I'd rather just show my own following, so I just put on YouTube. I'm like, 'This is how I always want to work. Can I just keep making films and show it to my own following?'
Are you going to come back and write another feature? Is that part of the plan?
Oh, hell yes. That is the exact plan. In fact, when I hang up on this call, I am going to open my screenplay again. I finished it, and then reread it like, 'This is not finished.' That's happened about five times, but I think I'm finally almost there. The thing is, I'm not primarily a writer but I'm surrounded by incredible writers as friends. And so I ask them for advice, and then they steer me in the direction. And then I go in a different direction. It takes a long time for me to write a screenplay, because it's not my first thing – I'm a much better director than I am writer, but I don't want to direct other people's stories, because I have lots of fun stories that I want to tell. And so this is the little dilemma that I’m in.
So can you say anything about this screenplay that you're that you're working on at the moment?
It’s called Axewound. And if your mind is thinking, 'Doesn't that mean...?', you're right. Yes, it does. It's based on a short film that I've already made called Conventional, which is on YouTube if you have any interest in watching that. It's about an actress who starred in a really gratuitous horror film called Axewound 2, and now she's on the horror convention circuit and things are gonna start to get weird.
Gunpowder Milkshake is out now in UK cinemas, and available to watch on Sky Cinema and NOW.