SXSW 2014: Karen Gillan is the Girl Who Didn’t Wait Long For Hollywood To Call

By  · Published on March 10th, 2014

On Doctor Who, Karen Gillan played Amy Pond, known as “the girl who waited.” That label stemmed from her first episode of the British sci-fi series, in which the title character showed up in her backyard with his TARDIS ‐ a time machine in the form of an old, blue British police box ‐ and invited a 7-year-old Pond to be his traveling companion. But then he didn’t return to pick her up for over a decade.

The actress has had better luck with her own promise of travel and adventure, starting out as a model before landing roles on UK television straight out of drama school, including that prime gig on the internationally popular Doctor Who program. From there, she didn’t have long to wait before a movie career whisked her away to Hollywood. And as it turns out, her initial means of coming to America also involved a man with something resembling an old, blue British police box.

“I was in my childhood bedroom in Scotland,” she explains about her first Skype meeting with Mike Flanagan, who directed her in her first gig in the U.S., the creepy, cleverly edited new horror movie Oculus. “And he took a swig of coffee out of a TARDIS mug, which made me realize I had a good chance of getting it.”

She told that story of her casting during a Q&A following the U.S. premiere of Oculus at SXSW over the weekend, and then she repeated it to me during an interview the next day. It’s a telling account of how important her role as Pond has been for garnering other parts. Not only is it a matter of filmmakers being fans of her from Doctor Who but it’s her fanbase from that show that makes such a transition worth sharing. “It’s really helped me out actually,” she admits. “It’s great.”

So far, the gateway could be a means of pigeonholing her for similar genre projects. This summer, for instance, she’ll make her debut in another geek-friendly sci-fi franchise with the Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy ‐ she plays one of the villains, an alien called Nebula, a role for which she had to shave her head (“It was totally worth it for that,” she tells me of going bald for the opportunity while also noting that her current pixie ‘do is “finally becoming an acceptable length” and she might stick with it).

Meanwhile, Oculus, which is about an ominous mirror that might be causing people to kill themselves and others, is actually reminiscent of a lot of episodes of Doctor Who, not just those involving magical mirrors (i.e. “The Girl in the Fireplace”) but any of those with an eerie tone and supernatural element. “I think Mike Flanagan and [Doctor Who writer-producer] Steven Moffat have that in common,” Gillan says regarding her collaborators’ interest in and talent for a certain sort of terror (more gorily executed in the R-rated movie) with smart, spooky scare tactics. “They both really understand fear. And how to inflict that on a human.”

“It’s not gratuitous or too gross,” she adds. “They really achieve that feeling of going on a roller coaster, which is what a horror film should do. It should be like a fun, scary ride that you go on. And it’s a fun, shared experience.”

Gillan doesn’t mean to stick with material reminiscent of her work on Doctor Who. “It’s not really a conscious decision for me,” she says. “I don’t really have any strategy as far as career stuff. Basically, I just want to do good projects. If they’re genre or not genre, it doesn’t matter. I’m not making a conscious effort to do roles that are going to make me keep doing conventions. That’s all bonus stuff and doesn’t really matter so much.”

Since moving to Los Angeles, she has also filmed a romantic comedy called The List, which fits more in line with her brief post-Pond movie career in the UK, and is about to shoot a sitcom pilot for ABC based on My Fair Lady titled Selfie. “I think I would like to do a mixture of both, really,” she says about this possible return to TV over concentrating on movies. “The job’s still the same. It’s just that you’re making a television show rather than a film. I like the length of television shows. You can really get invested in a character because you have a longer period of time. But then films are nice because they’re a nice one-off thing.”

Doing an American comedy series, though, doesn’t come with such certainty of duration. Even if the pilot is picked up, there’s always chance of cancellation, but there’s also a chance that it could last much longer than her stint on Doctor Who. “I knew there would be one,” she acknowledges of her Amy Pond end date. “I had a rough idea of a lifespan of a companion, and I was really lucky to play the longest running one ‐ since the 2005 [reboot of the show] ‐ so that was really cool.”

“I just want to play interesting roles,” she reiterates of her career decisions, returning the focus onto Oculus, in which she plays a young woman out to prove that her father wasn’t a murderer. “This was a really interesting role for me. Had it not been so interesting, I wouldn’t do it.”

The part brought her not only to America but to a very distinct part of the country: Alabama. “I had a great time down there,” she says of the shooting location. “Good food, cornbread and stuff.”

When told that Alabama is home to a good amount of people with Scottish ancestry [ed. note: the author is both of Alabaman and Scottish descent], she attests to how easily she fit right in. “It’s completely the opposite of Scotland but sort of the same,” she says. “I feel like the mentality is kind of the same. I can’t really put it into words, but I felt at home there. I really did. It feels slightly more rural, like a country bumpkin sort of thing going on.”

Alabama isn’t a place common for filming movies, but Gillan notes that “it’s going to be a cool Mike Flanagan thing, where he’s just going to shoot all his scary films from there.” Flanagan, who originally hails from Salem, Massachussetts (“Which is quite cool for a horror director,” Gillan states), is also shooting his next feature, Somnia, in the Southern state. “I think it was [a big deal],” she says of Oculus being there. “People in the town seemed really excited because it was a really small place that we were shooting in as well. They were really supportive, though.”

And now the part has brought her to the film festival scene. Gillan had to miss the Oculus premiere at Toronto last fall (“I was so sad. I was shooting Guardians in London. But I was refreshing everything on the Internet and looking at them having the best time.”), and SXSW was her first experience seeing the movie with an audience. “Comic-Con is crazy, but this is really fun,” she says of the different path the horror movie has brought her down compared to Doctor Who. “I really like this. I want to see at least one film while I’m here. Otherwise I’m a terrible person. I want to see Obvious Child.”

Oculus opens nationwide on April 11th.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.