How Karen Gillan is Effortlessly Conquering Both Blockbusters and Indies

The ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ star has some off-kilter cinematic visions to realize and thanks to her Marvel clout, it’s all getting made.
Karen Gillan Guardians Of The Galaxy
Marvel Studios
By  · Published on December 3rd, 2018

Karen Gillan has come far since she first tasted fame during her days with the Doctor. What’s more, she is adamantly changing the game for herself as a filmmaker. Gillan was a huge reason why I personally decided to properly watch Doctor Who. Upon merely seeing gifs and fan videos of her as Amy Pond in the goofy yet oddly poignant sci-fi series, I couldn’t help but wonder about her infectiously charismatic presence.

In the past, Gillan has been open about how the massive fanbase of Doctor Who has led to even bigger opportunities for her. This includes playing the intensely memorable villain Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy series as well as undertaking an unconventional take on a cheesy action heroine in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Fascinatingly, as a result of Gillan’s larger projects, her quainter filmmaking passions have been able to organically reveal themselves.

Because the heyday of the superhero movie isn’t just beneficial to the massive studios trying to cash in on the world’s collective obsessions. The largely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t simply elevate lesser-known acting talent to a broader audience in front of the camera, despite the fact that these movies prove to be invaluable for virtually any performer.

Rather, as pointed out in a feature in The Hollywood Reporter, opportunities have opened up for Marvel stars hoping to cultivate their own independent projects. Gillan and other MCU actors — namely David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man) and Jacob Batalon (Spider-Man: Homecoming) — candidly divulge the distinct synergic energy that exists between their big-ticket ventures and the smaller productions that they love equally dearly.

Alongside their adventures as part of Kevin Feige’s cinematic empire, Gillan and Dastmalchian are currently sharing the screen in the festival-trotting indie drama All Creatures Here Below, which the latter also scripted. Moreover, the former has had the pleasure of releasing her feature film directorial debut this year after cutting her teeth making exceptionally unique short films. The dark comedy titled The Party’s Just Beginning is Gillan’s brainchild; one that she penned and stars in, as well.

Both movies adopt a grittier edge than anything a glossy studio production could muster. All Creatures Here Below centers on a couple on the run after the kidnapping of a baby. The Party’s Just Beginning sees its protagonist spiraling out of control in the aftermath of her best friend’s suicide.

While this contrast between the subject matter of a family-friendly blockbuster and a confronting indie is stark, to say the least, it can be fulfilling, too. Especially when their creators don’t feel bogged down by the different and overwhelming responsibilities that either enterprise brings.

“I would sit in the makeup chair while being transformed into Ruby Roundhouse [in the Jumanji sequel] with a phone in my ear making director decisions and going through long contracts,” says Gillan. “It was severe multitasking, but incredibly stimulating. I was juggling a double life.”

Thankfully, learning from the leaders of her big-budget projects such as James Gunn and Jake Kasdan has been the key to Gillan’s clear mastery of her behind-the-scenes craft. They “[make] the job look easy.” And others have specifically praised her work ethic due to her studiousness. Lee Pace, who co-stars with Gillan in Guardians and The Party’s Just Beginning, applauds her for effectively “wearing many hats” while directing her first feature and simultaneously turning in a potent performance whenever the cameras were rolling.

Dastmalchian and All Creatures Down Below director Collin Schiffli do note that there are considerations to be made when having easily recognizable faces from kid-friendly fare go ham in ferocious projects. That said, Gillan herself is adamant to keep her own vision intact when scoping out fresh indie films anyway. She is already planning her next directorial venture: a horror flick that is currently in development with Mali Elfman, one of the producers of The Party’s Just Beginning.

As Gillan tells THR about her ultimate goal as a filmmaker:

“The key thing is to be strong enough to only be affected by the notes that you believe to be relevant. Because so much of art is taste. And everyone has different tastes. I was very careful not to let other people’s thoughts dilute my vision by listening and taking what I wanted and applying them to the film.”

Pair this insight with Gillan’s acting credits and she becomes an unstoppable force in Hollywood. From the word go her innate charm and headstrong personality help to keep the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who afloat. After she left the show, Gillan began to easily translate her talents in We’ll Take Manhattan, Not Another Happy Ending, Oculus, and In a Valley of Violence. Her character may be pretty thankless in that last feature, but she knocks those roles — in varying genres, no less — out of the park. Oh, and I’m still mad at ABC for canceling Selfie.

Basically, Gillan’s power is in her grounded onscreen presence. She is an effortless scene-stealer who doesn’t have to be likable for us to root for her. Sometimes, the people she plays are overbearing and make frustrating decisions. Nonetheless, Gillan’s lovability germinates from a sheer understanding of her characters’ motivations. That makes her an excellent storyteller.

Miraculously, there isn’t any shortage of splashy projects coming Gillan’s way. She will join Harrison Ford and Dan Stevens in Fox’s CGI and live-action blockbuster Call Of The Wild. Her voice will be included in Fox Animation’s Spies In Disguise alongside those of Will Smith and fellow MCU actor Tom Holland. Avengers 4 is just around the corner, too.

Gillan is truly experiencing the best of both worlds in the entertainment industry right now, and I couldn’t be more delighted about where her career takes her next.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)