Here’s the thing about Karen Gillan: she makes me feel bad. She’s red-headed (like me), 29 years old (same, pretty much) and was born in Inverness before moving to Edinburgh (check). After going down to London, aged 18, she served behind the bar at The Pilgrim in Kennington. Then she was cast in Doctor Who and the rest is history.
The Pilgrim is two doors down from my first flat in the capital. I was a regular.
So, why is her life so much better than mine?
“Hey! You’re writing for Radio Times! That’s not so bad,” she laughs.
Despite moving to LA five years ago and currently awaiting the release of her second Marvel blockbuster – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (in cinemas from Friday 28 April) – she hasn’t sold out her essential Scottishness.
She’s still ethereally fair-skinned, like a spirit that tricks you into a bog: “I go to a fitness class and I’m so pale in a sea of tanned people.” She’s still Scottish about the weather: “It’s stormy in LA. People are taking days off work, and I’m just walking through like it’s nothing.” And she still hankers after the taste of home: “You can not get a battered-sausage supper in this town.”
Guardians of the Galaxy
Not that nostalgia has ever held her back. Her biggest career moves have been heralded by a change of city: London led to her being cast as the Doctor’s companion; LA to her role in horror film Oculus. Is she following a grand plan or just making canny moves? “When I was 15 I said, ‘I’m going to move to Los Angeles’,” she explains. “My Gran said, ‘Try to get accepted into the school talent show first.’”
The one constant in her career has been sci-fi. Far from the fears of typecasting that used to make it career suicide, the genre has been very useful to her. “I didn’t fear typecasting,” she says. “Maybe I set the tone with Doctor Who, but I like conventions and I like people dressing up – it’s great. I think because I was a bit nerdy in school, they can sense it in me!”
Yet, from the beginning, Gillan has been dogged by the genre’s space princess/whore complex. Gillan’s casting as Amy Pond in Doctor Who led to arguments about the length of her skirt and the character’s job as a “kissogram”. Now another controversy has broken out over her outfit in the upcoming Jumanji. In promo shots, while co-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is dressed in sensible safari gear, Gillan is in a Lara Croft-esque, midriff-exposing costume.
“It’s interesting that the uproar happened with Doctor Who and was repeated with Jumanji,” she muses. “If I was just wearing the costumes and it was completely gratuitous, then I would feel exploited – but I generally don’t. I feel like it was a valid part of Amy Pond’s character, in that she was a little messed up and the Doctor sort of helped her. And in Jumanji we definitely address this issue. My character does not want to be wearing what she’s wearing, and we dive right into that argument.”
Gillan is clearly aware of the dark side of fandom. She launched herself as a writer and director with Conventional back in 2015, a horror short that harks back to the films she used to make as a child. (“My parents would star, and there would be tomato sauce for blood.”) In the film, a washed-up genre actress ekes out a living signing memorabilia and literally prostituting herself to fans.
It’s pitch black and funny in a very Scottish way, and nails the priapic rage of men towards the objects of their obsession. Has she experienced incidents of sexism or misogyny?
“There are definitely gender-inequality issues in most societies, but I’ve never experienced direct sexism. I feel like I’m a bit silly but I also know what I want. I don’t give out the energy to invite sexism. I want to be in a position where I feel strong and authoritative, and I just don’t think that allows for that.”
And when it comes to the idea of a female Doctor Who, she’s all for it. “Absolutely! A woman Doctor would be really cool because a lot of people are sceptical about having a woman play the role, but I think they probably were before Kathryn Janeway came along in Star Trek: Voyager, and she was amazing.”
These themes of dark humour, feminism and Scottishness come together in Gillan’s first feature film as director, due out next year. Tupperware Party was filmed in Inverness by a female-led team. “It’s not as if we were like, ‘We only want women!’” she explains, “It’s just women were the best people for the job.”
Described by Gillan as a “funny film about a dark subject” (coping with suicide), Tupperware Party is a homecoming for Inverness’s prodigal daughter. “We really dive into this Scottish idea of not talking about your emotions. It’s not an out-and-out comedy, it’s about the humour in adverse situations.”
Maybe it’s this upbeat nihilism that explains her drive to succeed. “My dad is always telling me to make my own tea,” she agrees, “because I shouldn’t get reliant on other people doing that.”
And ultimately that’s why it’s hard to begrudge Gillan her success, even while some of us are still drowning our sorrows at The Pilgrim. “Well,” she offers as consolation, “they did have jazz every Tuesday.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is in cinemas from Friday 28 April