Karen Gillan has found a fitting rhythm as an action and adventure star, jumping from stunt to stunt in major roles for Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Endgame, and Jumanji. Yet rarely has she had the opportunity to prove herself as the singular leading lady, the mega-heroine directors shape their casts and crew around. So after a decade in Hollywood, Gillan’s turn as the protagonist of Gunpowder Milkshake, Netflix’s new all-female assassin film that landed July 14, is an interesting experiment for the 33-year-old actress.
Growing up in Scotland, Gillan will admit it wasn’t action that drew her to Hollywood; it was comedy. “I loved watching American comedies, particularly Friends and Will and Grace,” Gillan told ELLE.com in the run-up to Gunpowder Milkshake‘s release. “I would say that Jennifer Aniston was a big inspiration for me. I thought she was so funny and charming. I loved Drew Barrymore, too.” So it came as a bit of a shock that her own career attracted more sluggers than slapstick.
“It’s been a crazy adventure. I did not think I would be in this many action movies, but here I am learning how to kick people,” she joked.
In Milkshake, Gillan plays Sam, the daughter of assassin Scarlet (Lina Headey, of Game of Thrones fame). Sam was abandoned by her mother when she was 12 years old but grew up in Scarlet’s shadow, learning to become an adult career killer. When a mission goes wrong, Sam must team up with her mother and her lethal associates to save an 8-year-old girl.
To prepare for the role mentally, Gillan researched and read essays about abandonment issues. She also took inspiration from other action hits, including the John Wick franchise, Atomic Blonde, The Villainess, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But she was only given three weeks to prepare for one of her most “challenging” roles to date, she said. Below, Gillan details how she approached her first time leading an action film, as well as where in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and in Hollywood at large—she’s headed next.
What kind of training did you have to endure to prepare for this role?
This was definitely the most challenging role for me physically, more so than any role that I’ve done before. I’ve done a fair few fight sequences in films, but normally, I would only have one or two big fights to focus on. Gunpowder Milkshake is nonstop action, from start to finish. I only had three weeks to train before we started actually shooting because I was doing a different film beforehand. To prepare, we worked every single day. We would start by running around the studio, and then we would box. We went over fighting routines so much. It was just a lot of repetition.
How was working alongside star cast members like Angela Bassett, Lina Headey, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino?
Working with those women was probably the highlight of the whole experience for me. I was able to see their process. Lena Headey was absolutely incredible and really silly. I was particularly starstruck by Angela Bassett, and just getting to see how much gravitas she has as a person and a performer. Carla Gugino, who I was a fan of already from her other work. I had to fight Michelle Yeoh, who’s an action legend, which was just embarrassing.
What was your favorite scene to film?
My first fight sequence, because the director [Navot Papushado] was like, “This is the first time we will see you fight; it needs to be good. We want to do it all in one take with no cuts or stunt doubles.” I enjoyed that pressure. It was exciting, in a way, and challenging.
Do you hope Gunpowder Milkshake will have a sequel? If so, who would you add to the assassin ensemble?
I don’t know, but I hope so. I had such a good time making this film. It would be great to get all the girls back together for another adventure. I would add Meryl Streep to the group; I think she would be a good addition.
Beyond Doctor Who, you’re perhaps best known for your work as Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We last saw your character in Avengers: Endgame. What can fans expect from her in Thor: Love and Thunder?
I think fans can expect to see a little bit of a different side of the character—because she’s in a different world. So the world is slightly more bonkers and wacky in the best way. Nebula will shift into that territory while maintaining her own personality.
How will Nebula change in this new, post-Thanos reality? What are you most excited to explore with her character arc?
[Thanos] defined her life in a lot of ways. So, what happens when that person is suddenly removed from your life, and that presence isn’t looming over you anymore? How does she react to the death of Thanos? How does she deal with that? Does she start to find herself a little bit more? Those are the questions I’m asking myself about Nebula.
If you could bring one Marvel character back to life, who would you choose?
You know what, it would be Thanos. So Nebula could kill him.
Beyond Nebula, beyond Milkshake, what do you want next for your career? Are you trying to stay in action?
I would love to do a really meaty dramatic role. I’ve been fortunate to play in all the other genres, but that’s probably one that’s a little unexplored for me. So I’d love to dive into something like that and also direct more movies myself.
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