Karen Gillan on life after Doctor Who

After tiring of the Tardis, actress Karen Gillan has been busy trying to build a future in the movies

Karen Gillan stars in the Scottish romantic comedy Not Another Happy Ending
Karen Gillan stars in the Scottish romantic comedy Not Another Happy Ending

Very few of us are morning people. Karen Gillan is. It’s only an hour past breakfast and the 25-year-old is happily chatting nineteen to the dozen. “This is like a lie in for me,” she says, enthusiastically. “I just wrapped a film five days ago, and sometimes I was in the makeup chair at 3am. So this feels like the afternoon to me.”

The film was a new Marvel movie, Guardians Of The Galaxy, where she and Zoe Saldana play the villains. However, only Gillan had to shave her head every day.

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“She’s bald in the novels, Zoe’s character has hair,” she explains. “So their look was predefined and my hair had to go.” The studio made her a wig out of her own hair, but she rarely uses it, and with only five days of regrowth, she looks like a fetching baby chick. “I was a bit worried that I was going to look like an overgrown foetus, but at the moment it’s more like a bristly toothbrush. I’m hoping to have enough to turn it into a pixie cut by Christmas.”

Karen during a break in filming. Picture: Robert Perry

A fine head of skin also puts some distance between Gillan and her best-known role to date, as fiery Amy Pond in Doctor Who. Gillan quit as Matt Smith’s assistant in 2011 to try her luck with movies, but Pond left a big impression. “Even now, when I go in for meetings, sometimes people pretend that they don’t watch the show until I see that they’ve got a Tardis mug or something. But I loved being on Doctor Who: I think it’s cool and it helps break the ice.”

She misses Smith, who announced his own departure earlier this summer, but has no regrets about making the break. For a start, the hours were long and punishing. “We’d be in Cardiff for nine months of the year, working long hours, then you’d go home and have about an hour to yourself before having to learn your lines for the next day. I remember thinking at one point: ‘I’m never going to work this hard again.’”

Not that Gillan has been workshy. Since leaving Doctor Who, she’s made a TV drama about Jean Shrimpton (We’ll Take Manhattan), a horror movie shot in the US called Oculus, a comedy called The List and her Marvel movie.

First out of the movie gate, however, is Not Another Happy Ending, a Scottish romantic comedy with Gillan in almost every scene as a novelist whose publisher realises that she can write only when unhappy, and sets out to keep her at a low ebb until she can finish her latest novel. John McKay was directing her in We’ll Take Manhattan when he first suggested the film to her. “He said: ‘You’re good at falling over – you should read this script.’ And when I did, I fell in love with it.”

It took another year to get the project off the ground, during which time the original male lead Emun Elliott dropped out. Gillan stuck by the project, however, and has been tenacious and loyal on its promotional circuit too, turning up for its premiere as the closing film at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

In turn, the film is a reasonable showcase for Gillan’s perky charm and ease with the camera. “I didn’t really know Glasgow before, even though my mum’s from there,” she says. “But everyone was very friendly and I had a great time finding out more about the place.”

Most of the last 12 months have been spent in unfamiliar places: she’s been filming everywhere from Louisiana to London, although officially she took the decision to move to LA to try her luck “while I have no ties – good quality films are the goal for me”.

As a pale-skinned redhead, she doesn’t exactly blend in, and she says she can’t see herself staying there for good, not when she misses “proper tea”. However, she has found herself slipping into their healthy groove. “I’m not at the stage of yoga classes,” she says emphatically, but she admits to a bit of hiking.

The Marvel film also supplied her with a nutritionist and an exercise plan before filming began. “I had to work out four times a week for about four months and had never been so fit,” she says with pride. “The funny thing was that when it came to diet, they actually wanted me to eat more. They wanted me to put on weight so I could look like a really strong woman who was capable of destroying galaxies.”

What else can she say about Guardians? “Not very much, I’m afraid. It’s all very hush-hush. But I do have a lot of sibling rivalry with Zoe.”

A bit like Doctor Who then? “Well, I had to learn to keep secrets when I was working on Doctor Who, and by the end I was quite good at deflecting questions about plots and characters, and saying a lot without saying very much at all, but I wasn’t when I first started playing Amy Pond. I’m not a secretive person by nature, so I’d just blurt out the new storylines to journalists and then they’d have to take me aside and say ‘Look, you really can’t tell them this…’”

When she told writer Steven Moffat she was leaving Doctor Who, Gillan was quite specific that, unlike other characters, she didn’t require a loophole to allow Amy to return at a later date. At the same time, she remains grateful for her first big break at 21.

“It changed my life,” she says of the drama. It also brought her into contact with a level of fandom that few young actors encounter outside of Star Wars, down to a marriage proposal from a woman dressed as David Tennant at a fan convention, which Gillan laughs off now. “The whole experience made me so confident. I’ll never stop being grateful to Amy and the show. If I am able to handle myself now, it’s really down to the experience of Doctor Who.”

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot