Though she partially attributes her success to luck, there’s no denying Karen Gillan has always possessed a keen eye for good material. Just a few years after making her TV debut at the age of 19, she landed the plum role of Amy Pond, the companion to Matt Smith’s Doctor Who, in 2009 and stuck with the series for three years. In 2014, Gillan joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, cementing her place in the overarching Infinity Saga storyline and playing an integral role in some of the franchise’s most beloved films. In between all the Marvel movies, she also found time for smaller acclaimed films like The Big Short and In a Valley of Violence, another blockbuster success in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and her feature directorial debut, 2018’s The Party’s Just Beginning.
This week, Gillan stars opposite another MCU alumnus, David Dastmalchian (Russian computer wiz Kurt from the Ant-Man movies), in All Creatures Here Below. The drama, which Dastmalchian also wrote, centers on a desperate couple driven to crime who flee Los Angeles for Kansas City in hopes of starting their lives over. Ahead of the film’s release, Gillan chatted with Rotten Tomatoes about her remarkable career, her love of horror, and what it was like to transition from an Avengers movie to something smaller. But first, she gave us her Five Favorite Films, revealing that her lively, cheerful disposition hides a fascination for some dark and twisted entertainment. Read on for her full list.
My first favorite film is The Shining by Stanley Kubrick. I am a huge horror film fan. I love them so much. I’ve always loved them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been attracted to scary stuff; I don’t know why. When I was younger I would watch a lot of the cheesier process-of-elimination slasher ’90s films. And then I feel like, as my tastes matured a little bit as I got older, I found The Shining, which is a movie that my dad had always spoken about with this weird fear, because he’d never finished the movie. He’s like, “The one film I’ve never been able to finish in my life is The Shining.”
So I grew up like, “What is The Shining?” And then, finally I watched it, and it was just incredible. Well, Stanley Kubrick’s my favorite director, so you’ll probably see a lot of his films in the top five. I just love that movie so much, and it’s my favorite on-screen performance of all time, from Jack Nicholson. I think that he’s absolutely incredible. I’m ready to play a role like that.
I was just about ask if you were interested in doing a horror film yourself before I remembered you did Oculus. Do you have plans to do more, then?
Yeah, I think I’ll probably direct a horror film next. That might be what’s next for me, yeah. It’s time!
Okay, so number two, can I choose another Stanley Kubrick? Number two is A Clockwork Orange. I just think it’s just visually an absolute masterpiece. Again, the central performance is incredible. I just love these performances that you get with these lead actors that are so on the brink of madness. They’re violent, they’re unpredictable and scary, and I just love that sequence where it’s operatic in A Clockwork Orange, when they’re beating each other up, and it’s the classical music. I love that. The Singin’ in the Rain, singing that song is deeply disturbing. I think he’s just a complete master.
Going a little more lighthearted, number three is the original Jumanji, which is so cheesy because I was in the remake, but that was always one of my favorite films of all time. It’s just pure nostalgia. I think I’m right in that age bracket where it’s like a classic to anyone who’s around my age, and anyone who’s outside of that, it doesn’t seem like it’s so much of a classic to them. Loved it.
You must have absolutely jumped at the opportunity to do the remake.
Oh yeah, I was like, “What the hell?” It was a weird life moment where you’re like, “Really?” I mean, to get that role, it still blows my mind today. Like, whenever anyone would ask me socially, “If you could have any movie prop from anything, what would it be?” I would always say the original board game from Jumanji. Now I’m actually playing the game. It’s pretty wild.
And you didn’t seek that movie out; it came to you.
It came to me. I’d just wrapped on Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I sat down to a glass of wine like, “Oh my God, I’ve done it,” and then got the email saying, “Okay, you have an audition for the new Jumanji.” I almost spat my wine out, “What?” And then it’s like, “OK, back to work!”
Number four would be a movie called The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke. That’s a really interesting character study to me, and that is my other favorite on-screen performance, Isabelle Huppert. I just think it’s a really, really interesting character study; again, disturbing. I guess there’s a theme here. [laughs] And her last frame of acting in that movie — not actually the last frame; the last frame is her walking, but the one before that is the best piece of acting I’ve ever seen in my entire life. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you have to go watch it.
This is hard, because it could be many things. I mean, it could be Kubrick, it could be Haneke again. Do I need to mix it up a little bit? I feel like I’ve gone very serious. I think it’s either 2001: A Space Odyssey or Funny Games by Michael Haneke. What I like about Funny Games is a moment, actually, where all of it… OK, I think 2001 is a better movie. However, there’s a moment in Funny Games that’s genius, that I love, which is when he turns to the audience, and suddenly turns the whole movie into this kind of study, where we are accountable as an audience. Because we like the violence that’s happening in the movie, and he’s doing it for us, so suddenly we’re culpable. And I think that’s a really cool moment in film that I haven’t really seen other than that. Yeah, I thought that was really clever.
Also, I’m talking the American remake, not the original, because he remade it shot-for-shot for the American audience, which is really interesting, because he made it in German and then it only had so much reach, and then was like, “I want to make this for a society where violence maybe is a little more glamorized.” And I’m not just saying that about Americans; I think we’re the same in the UK, where we really like watching that on-screen. It’s just a really interesting study into that, and so, for that reason, I’m going with that. And one time I hosted a screening where all of our friends came down and watched it, and I have never seen a more depressed group of people in my life, and it was a huge mistake. [laughs] Everyone left immediately. No one hung around after.
I do have to say, this whole time I thought you were talking about the original, and then you dropped, “By the way, I’m talking about the remake.” You don’t hear that too often with that movie. Is it specifically because of what you saw as Haneke’s intent to reach certain audiences?
Yes, I mean, that’s part of it. I like this, because that adds to the whole meta experience, where it’s redone for an audience where it might mean a little more. However, I also prefer watching it, just there. It’s just easier to watch, because I understand the language. I’m not reading subtitles, and I don’t mind reading subtitles; I’ve chosen other films in the list where the subtitles are required. But this movie, I just find it slightly more palatable. I think it’s a really good remake basically. I don’t think it lost too much in the remake and I think the performances are really good.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: All Creatures Here Below is, of course, decidedly different from a Marvel movie. Do you find it difficult to switch gears between something as large-scale as Avengers and something smaller and more intimate like All Creatures?
Karen Gillan: No, not really. I think, ultimately, when it comes down to it, when the director shouts, “Action,” it’s exactly the same job. It’s just everything else surrounding it. On the Marvel movies, we’re so taken care of, it’s amazing. And then you go onto another movie, and there’s no budget for that, but that’s absolutely fine, It’s not an issue; it certainly wasn’t an issue for me or David [Dastmalchian], and we both work in Marvel movies.
David is the guy who wrote it, and is also acting in it. It was just amazing. It didn’t feel too much like shifting gears. It felt like the same job, different character, really.
RT: You’re from Scotland, but in this film, you’re portraying a down-and-out woman from the American Midwest, which is a very specific thing. What was your preparation like for the role?
Gillan: Well, I’m always reading psychology essays anyway. That would be what my fun hobby is. [laughs] And so that is the kind of thing that I would do for this character. I also have a dialect coach that I really like working with, and we’ll really nail down what the accent is. A huge part of what I love doing is doing different accents and voices. And then, I just went to Kansas City and kind of immersed myself in being there, and feeling what it’s like in 100-degree heat, which, as a Scottish person, I don’t function well in. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before. [laughs]
And just spending time with David. He drove me around to all the spots where these two would go and we’d talk, and he told me about his life growing up there. So it felt like an immersive experience, for sure. I ate a lot of fast food, which I was happy about, because we do that in Scotland.
RT: You’ve had quite a run these past several years. You’ve been in a bunch of big hits and acclaimed smaller films, not to mention Doctor Who a few years ago. What is this secret power you have to recognize when a project is going to be a good one?
Gillan: I mean, I think it’s just deciding what I think is good and not. [laughs]
RT: You just happen to be a little better at it than most people.
Gillan: I don’t know, maybe I’ve just been really lucky with the people I’ve gotten to work with. It’s been a really exciting thing, because I feel like I got to be involved in some things where they were kind of new and exciting and we didn’t exactly know how they were going to go over. It felt at the time when we did the first Guardians film, the tone was so new at that point for a Marvel movie that it was like, “What is this? This is new.” And then it became really exciting and kind of carved the way for the tone of the rest of the rest of the Marvel movies, I would say.
Same with Jumanji, this feeling of, “How is this going to go across?” And then people really responded to it. It just feels incredibly lucky to get to work with the directors, because really, it’s all down to them. They’re steering the ship and calling all the shots. So, I don’t know, maybe luck or just responding to things.
RT: You’ve directed a feature film already, and you mentioned that you’re interested in possibly doing a horror film next. I take it you enjoyed that experience behind the camera.
Gillan: It was incredible. I loved it. I’ve loved filmmaking always, and I love acting so much, whether it’s me doing it or I’m watching another person do it really well, and I get to collaborate with them. I just love it, and I love the visuals of filmmaking. So to combine all of that just made me really, really happy. And yes, definitely have multiple directing projects in the pipeline, which is exciting. Probably going to be a horror film next, I think, just because I really want to get my hands on the genre.
All Creatures Here Below opens in select theaters on May 17.