Karen Gillan on ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,’ ‘Avengers: Infinity War,’ and Nebula’s Near-Death Experience in ‘Guardians 1’
One of the best parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and about telling stories on an epic, cross-film and even cross-franchise scale, is getting to watch characters we think we know surprise us as they reveal hidden depths over the course of many years. A perfect example is Nebula, who is played in the MCU by Karen Gillan. The daughter of the mad baddie Thanos, Nebula was introduced in the original Guardians of the Galaxy as a ferocious henchwoman of the alien conquerer Ronan the Accuser. Her motivations seemed fairly straightforward, but she upends all our expectations in Vol. 2, which reveals more of Nebula’s tragic backstory and complicates her relationship with her sister, Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
But none of this was supposed to happen. Nebula was supposed to die in the first Guardians.
“I thought, ‘Okay, so that's going to be it for her,’ at one point.” Gillan tells me, describing how she reacted to learning Nebula was initially going to meet her end in the first Guardians. “Then suddenly they rewrote her ending — and then they rewrote it again, and I was like, ‘Oh, okay. What's going on?’ I was really shocked when I got to come back and as part of the team in the next movie. That was amazing! I definitely didn't expect that.”
Gillan told me about what it was like to join the Guardians in Vol. 2, her inspirations for her performance, and whether the new film came with new pressures that weren’t there the first time around. We also discussed Nebula’s future in Avengers: Infinity War, or at least as much as the former Doctor Who star could tell me (which was not much). But that’s part of the fun of these movies; you never know where their heroes will go next.
Nebula gets a lot of new layers in this movie. I’m curious: How much of the plan for her did [director] James [Gunn] lay out for you back as you were making the first movie?
In terms of plans of where the character was going to go?
What happened was I did a couple of auditions in London and then I got a call and I had to go and meet James in his office and have a chat about the character. He kind of promised me that she would be developed, and she was one of his favorite characters. That is about as far as it went actually. It wasn’t really like an in-depth conversation about where the character was going.
However, we did talk a lot about backstory and I did my own research, so when it came to the screen test, we kind of played around with things that we definitely explored in the sequel. I feel like the seeds were definitely planted, and then it was just really cool to get to play all of those things in this film.
What sort of research were you doing?
I was very interested in the sister relationship between Nebula and Gamora. Like, for me, that was a part of the character that I could really grab onto and run with. I very much channeled that when I was in my screen test, which didn’t make for the most evil performance, but it was more emotional. That’s definitely the direction of the character in the second movie, which is cool.
Right. That’s with I find kind of interesting; when we first met her we maybe wrongly assume that she’s more of a villain, and you keep getting to reveal these added dimensions. Does it make your job harder, though, when you don’t know where these movies are going to go or even if you’ll be in those other movies? How much do you factor that into what you’re doing onscreen?
I mean all you can really do is try to deliver what you have to deliver in the most truthful way possible. There was a point where Nebula actually died in the first movie!
Was the death scene shot?
We never got to that point. As soon as we would get near to it there would be a new script. Oh! There was one different ending that she had where they kept her alive and then we re-shot that as well.
Wow. So you really don’t know what’s going on.
No, I didn’t.
I think it’s fair to say that when the first Guardians came out, these were the most obscure characters to get their own Marvel movie. Now, of course, the first movie is beloved and everyone knows the characters. Did that change anything about how you guys went about making the sequel? Was there new pressure that wasn’t there before?
That was quite an interesting thing for me as well, because I was wondering if anyone was going to be feeling the pressure; like second album syndrome or something. Maybe they did and they didn’t really show it, but I didn’t because I didn’t feel I had the responsibility of the film on my shoulders. I just got to come in and play this fun character.
I don’t know how it was for James Gunn, who created the whole thing. If anyone was feeling the pressure, it definitely manifested itself in a way of just working even harder. Everyone upped their game. Every single actor and I thought James took [the script] to the next level. It was like everything was just so much better.
One of my favorite parts of your performance as Nebula is your walk. It’s very distinctive, with this incredible swagger. I’d love to know the inspiration for that part of your physicality.
Actually, on the first movie I worked with a movement coach quite a lot and a voice coach too, because she’s an alien and I didn’t just want to play like a human. It just felt a little lazy. She could walk or sound in any way we want.
We played around with a few different movement types; maybe a bit more robotic, maybe less. Then we realized that actually she’s kind of like this slinky deadly sexy assassin-type, so we decided to go more down that road. Then, on my first day of filming on the first movie I was playing the role and then James Gunn came up to me and he said, “Okay, let’s just try something else. Why don’t you do an impression of Marilyn Monroe?” and then that’s where this sort of American breathy voice comes. Then the walk evolved from that.
Interesting. Marilyn Monroe was one of the inspirations for the voice?
Yes. It’s an impression of Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood. They have very similar voices, actually. You wouldn’t think it!
I have to admit, I didn’t get either of those people from it, but now I can kind of hear it.
Yeah, a little under the breath. A little over it.
Maybe this has been explained in one of the movies and I missed it, and if so I apologize. You have that incredible makeup, with the different tones of blue on your face. Do we know why Nebula’s face has those different shades of blue?
I believe that it is just her natural skin and then the lines down her face are panels so he’s replaced pieces of her face.
He would be Thanos?
He is her father. It’s a mix between her natural skin and what her father has done to her.
Is this is your interpretation, or have you gotten some kind of official clarification from Marvel?
I didn’t ask for clarification, but I spoke with the makeup artists and we’ve all come to the same conclusion.
So it isn’t necessarily canon, but it is to everyone who’s involved with doing it.
Yeah. The one wearing it believes it.
That is good enough for me. You’re now shooting the next Avengers. I’m curious how working with the Russo brothers compares with working with James Gunn?
It’s a very different experience. They’re both amazing. I mean all of them are amazing. James is great to work with because he has created this whole world of Guardians of the Galaxy. His identity is all over the movie. I mean it’s his sense of humor, it’s his taste in music. When you speak to him you just go, “Oh, okay. You embody whatever the essence of Guardians of the Galaxy is as a person.”
The Russo brothers are amazing because they are dealing with 60-plus characters in two massive movies, and I don’t even know how that’s humanly possible. At least there are two of them. They’re taking all these characters that other people have created and they offer so many new ideas to them and so many more layers and they’ve really done their homework. I mean they know them inside out. That’s really cool to watch as well.
You mentioned the 60-plus characters. However many superheroes it ends up being, that’s a ton of people vying for screen time. You’ve got this wonderful character you’ve gotten to develop over two movies, but now you’re surrounded by 50 other wonderful characters. Do you get nervous about that? “How am I going to stand out? I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.”
No, to be honest, because I don’t really feel the pressure to stand out from the crowd. If the writing’s good, then your character’s going to be interesting in some way. And that’s exactly what’s happened in the script so far. Everybody has something cool to do and it’s like no one’s really being overlooked, so I’m not really worried about that.
Obviously Marvel is very secretive about all of their plans. On something like Infinity War, do you get to read the script? Or do you only get to see like, “Oh, here’s what I’m doing today.” How much do they let you know?
It’s the latter. We don’t get a full script and we just get the things that we specifically need to know.
I don’t know the context of what I'm doing. All I know is it’s really cool.
I’m not an actor, but that sounds like a challenge in and of itself.
Yes, but if there’s anything that needs explaining then we can talk to the Russo brothers and they’ll talk us through anything that we want. They don’t really keep the secrets to that extent. But there’s just no physical script to read. I’ve heard that some actors have been begging and they’ve gotten scripts, but some others haven’t. So it’s like, “Oh, what’s going on?” I also heard that there’s a fake script out there as well for people to read.
Why do they give people a fake script?
I don’t know what’s going on! Maybe they need it for some particular reason.
I’ve read the Infinity Gauntlet series and Nebula has a pretty important role in the comic. Obviously you’re not going to spoil anything, but are you happy with her role in the movie so far?
I’m extremely happy. I can’t say anything else, but I’m really excited. I’m a fan of The Infinity Gauntlet myself, because I read it for research for Nebula. I was just so excited that the movie is going to be based on that in any way.