“I certainly didn’t see myself going into action at all,” says actor Karen Gillan on a Zoom call in late June. But the Guardians of the Galaxy star, known for her high action fight scenes as the cybernetically enhanced humanoid warrior Nebula, now finds herself and her action chops front and center in Netflix’s new high-octane movie Gunpowder Milkshake.
“I really wanted to be in this film. It just felt like I’d never seen action the way it was described in the script,” says Gillan. In the movie, which is now streaming, she’s facing a hoard of henchmen in a library, armed with only a gold brick and her fists — and she’s practically mowing these dudes down. Whether she aimed to or not, Karen Gillan the Action Star has arrived.
The cast of Gunpowder Milkshake includes action movie royalty, from Michelle Yeoh to Carla Gugino, and features more blood, guts, and hand-to-hand combat than any Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. Gillan plays Sam, an assassin whose signature silk bomber jacket doesn’t not recall Ryan Gosling in Drive, and whose most impressive scene involves absolutely eviscerating three henchmen while both her arms are temporarily paralyzed. When she is charged with protecting an 8-year-old girl, Sam reluctantly reunites with her estranged hit-woman mother (Lena Headey) and her lethal associates (Angela Bassett, Gugino, and Yeoh) to take down a crime syndicate of dastardly men in an avalanche of bullets and blood. It’s a project that could spawn another high-octane franchise for Gillan. A sequel to the action-thriller is reportedly already in development.
Before she mastered roundhouse kicks, the Scottish actor was best known for honing her dry wit as the fearless and loyal Doctor Who companion Amy Pond. Stateside, she starred on the wildly misunderstood romantic comedy sitcom Selfie, which followed Gillan’s Eliza Dooley and John Cho’s Henry Higgs, a duo inspired by the main characters from My Fair Lady. Unfortunately, audiences couldn’t get past the series’ terribly cheesy name and it was cancelled after seven episodes, with the remaining six sent straight to streaming. But while Selfie’s tiny fandom mourned, Gillan was making huge moves, landing the role of Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2014 and Ruby in the multimillion-dollar box office smash Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, and its equally successful 2019 sequel.
Gillan may not have set out to be an action hero, but she’s certainly got a lot to say about the genre, its sexist pitfalls, and everything it takes to perform all those down-and-dirty fight scenes.
Refinery29: The film is about several women, but it’s directed and written by all men, who no matter how sensitive they are, won’t have experienced what these characters have. Was there any collaboration? How open was the director to your perspective?
Karen Gillan: “Our filmmaker Navot [Papushado] was extremely collaborative; he really listened to us. There were times where all the women were together and we felt like something could be different, and one day we sat there for an hour and kind of reworked things before we shot anything, which is pretty unheard of because time is money… It felt like we had a lot of say in terms of what we did, and how our characters conducted themselves. I was really hellbent on driving into the trauma of being abandoned when you're a young girl and what that does to a person — that was sort of my main motivation for wanting to play this character, the emotional hook I can grab onto — so I really wanted to make sure that that came through the performance in weird, subtle ways that you might not even know are there. And he let me run with that.”
The movie flips some genre tropes, like the young girl protected by ruthless killers, but with an all-women ensemble. What else felt different in making this movie?
“We had a lot of different generations of women coming together. You have the young girl, but you also have older women that we don't generally get to see in the action space. It's not just all girls in their 20s; it's a really wide range of women in general. I also loved that there was no romantic interest in the film for any of the characters and no one was in a sexy outfit at all. Everyone was pretty much just dressed functionally or just cool. There were no leather suits or anything like that.”
I was actually trying to research all-women action ensemble movies that weren’t sexualized and I couldn’t find one.
“It was really important to our director not to do that to the female characters. He was very much like, ‘That’s not what this film is.’”
History suggests that removing the male gaze proves difficult in this space.
“Yeah, because I think people think of action films as a masculine space and they think we want to cater to what men want to see from a woman. I would argue that it’s not necessarily a masculine space. All of my girlfriends love action films and so do I. We also enjoy fighting and that sort of thing.”
I can’t help but think of your work as Nebula in the MCU, where that character and her sister Gamora are so sexualized in the original comics, but the movies sort of walk that back. What did it feel like to start from scratch without that baggage?
“I know for sure that's true of so many female comic book characters, but for Gunpowder, it was just really refreshing because it just felt like I get to sort of come at this from just a character perspective, and [sexualization] doesn't even have to factor into my thoughts, which just makes my job a little bit easier.”
Was the prep for this kind of action different from prepping for a Marvel movie, where there’s green screen and only a few other people?
“I came at it the same way, I suppose. You do your rehearsals, you start off slow, and you just gradually build up the speed until you can do it really fast and really intensely. But this was just more of a challenge, really, because the action was more intricate and really creative, too. I was using all sorts of things for weapons that I wouldn't normally use. I got used to my space guns that shoot lasers, but we're existing in more of a realistic world — more realistic than being in space — so there had to be a level where everything was accounted for, every punch, every bullet hole.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the scene in which you couldn’t use your arms. How do you even begin to film a fight like that?
“When I did the rehearsal to learn that routine, I had just filmed this bowling alley fight sequence the day before, so I physically couldn’t move. It was hard. You just have to isolate certain parts of your body, really go against every instinct that your body is telling you, which is to use your arms. I weirdly think that's one time where my acting skills training did kick in because you do a lot of movement work with isolated body parts and stuff like that. So, it wasn't as hard as it could have been, but like there were definitely a few moments while filming it where I was like, ‘Ah, I’m using my arms again!’”
It seems like you and the cast had great friendship chemistry — there are so many Instagram videos and behind-the-scenes comedy sketches.
“Those were almost as fun as making the actual movie. I remember they were like, ‘Guys, please be quiet. We're trying to shoot a film over here.’ We were like, ‘We are trying to shoot a film over here.” Instagram is just as important!”
Speaking of Instagram, people are still obsessed with Selfie. Mashable recently wrote about how much they want the show back. Does a return to Selfie ever cross your mind?
“I am amazed at the lasting effects of Selfie because we really only did about 12 or 13 episodes, but somebody just told me it's one of my ‘most known for’ things on IMDB. I get just constant tweets saying, ‘I miss the show,’ and that is just so cool and amazing because I had such a good time doing it. It was my first time reading an American sitcom and I grew up on American sitcoms in Scotland, so it was kind of a bucket list thing to get to do. But yeah, it would be cool to revisit that. I don't know if I like a fulltime full series, but I don't know, maybe like some one off thing or like a shorter thing would be really cool.”
We should get John Cho on the phone and make this happen.
“That would be great! We go along really well, he’s such a nice guy.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.