Jumanji: The Next Level's Karen Gillan on becoming an accidental action star
Karen Gillan didn't plan to become an action star; it just sort of happened. The 32-year-old Scottish actress rose to fame as companion Amy Pond on Doctor Who — a show well-known for its many, many running scenes. Then she painted herself blue to star as Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, an expert alien warrior who beats up good guys and bad guys alike. In 2017, she suited up as videogame character and noted "killer of men" Ruby Roundhouse for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and now she's donning Ruby's maroon crop top once again for the Jumanji sequel.
"We got off to a good start with the first film, but we really raised the action bar for this film," Gillan tells EW. "So I had to rise to that challenge."
Jumanji: The Next Level follows original teenagers Martha, Fridge, Bethany, and Spencer as they head back into the savage videogame wilderness, once again stuck in the bodies of Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart. Notably, not everyone is saddled with the same body as last time, and things get even more complicated when Spencer's grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his friend Milo (Danny Glover) also get sucked into the game.
With The Next Level hitting theaters Friday, Gillan caught up with EW to talk about revisiting Ruby — and the key to a perfect dance-fight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This movie has even more stunts than the first one — running, jumping, dance-fighting, nunchuck-wielding. Did you pick up any new skills?
KAREN GILLAN: Yeah, I can use nunchucks now! I didn't think that would ever be in the cards for me! [Laughs] I had to practice a lot because I had a whole sequence with nunchucks, and I did the whole sequence. It's cut up, and I'm sure there's some stunt double in there at some point, but a lot of it is actually me. We had the team from Mission: Impossible come on to the movie, so they were keen to get me doing a lot of it myself. I was really pleased that they pushed me to rise to the occasion.
We also see the return of Ruby's dance-fighting. For you, what's the secret to a good dance-fight?
I think the secret of a good dance-fight is you've gotta be really violent. Music's blasting, and you've got to enjoy yourself while beating up men.
That's the dream: having fun and beating up men.
That's what life's all about! [Laughs]
The 2017 Jumanji movie was a bit of a question mark — like, would people connect with this when there's so much love for the original with Robin Williams? But it wound up being such a success. Did you feel more at ease coming back for the sequel?
I suppose so, only because we all got more comfortable between movies. I always felt like it was in safe hands, though. My initial reaction when I heard they were remaking Jumanji [was], "Why would you do that to Jumanji? What are you going to do with one of my favorite childhood movies? Don't ruin my childhood!" I kind of had the same reaction as everyone else. And then I read the script, and that changed everything because I knew they'd done something inventive and original while still honoring the original. It was kind of the perfect blend.
This movie takes you out of the jungle and into the desert and the snow. What was the most difficult location you shot in?
I would say that was probably on the snowy mountain in Calgary. Just even to get up to the top of the mountain was an ordeal. You have to take snowcats or snowmobiles, and once you're up there, even going to the bathroom takes like a full 30 minutes. There was at one point a blizzard coming towards us, and we had to finish the scene. So we were up against the elements.
You also obviously reunite with Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Dwayne Johnson. What's something about them that the rest of the world doesn't know?
Jack never stops singing, but I can't imagine that's surprising. And this isn't a surprise either, but it's just something that I've seen being on the inside — just how authentic these guys are. Dwayne and Kevin are on social media a lot, and it's the real deal. The guys you see on social media are the guys they are when the cameras turn off. The amount of time Dwayne spends signing things for fans after he's finished a full day is so admirable. He'll spend a full hour just signing for people, and to see that kind of example really sets the tone for the rest of us.
Was there a particularly a memorable day on set?
I loved my dance-fight just because I really got to kick some ass. I've done a lot of action films now, which is not something I ever anticipated for myself. But with each one, I'm getting a lot better, and this one was the hardest I've had to do. Using nunchucks, they're really difficult! So I really enjoyed mastering that, and I think it put me in good stead for the next movie I did afterwards, called Gunpowder Milkshake, which is all action sequences. So to master the nunchucks — well, not master — but to be able to use nunchucks, I'm like, "Whoa, I'm finally getting the hang of this action thing!"
You really have done a lot of action, between this and the Guardians films. Action was just something you stumbled into?
I completely stumbled into it. I grew up in the top of Scotland doing theater. So no, I hadn't anticipated it. [Laughs] It's just kind of something that happened to me, and I've been working really hard to get good at it. And I think I might be there now.
If you, Karen, were going to pick a song to dance-fight to, what song would you pick?
I would choose… the theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey. [Laughs] I just think it sounds so dramatic that it would be hilarious. More of an interpretive dance-fight.
You've had such a pretty busy year, between this and Avengers: Endgame. Is it nice to finally be able to talk about Endgame, now that it's out in the world?
It's amazing because we worked on it for such a long time. It was such an event movie, and I had such a good experience on it. I love my character. I already loved my character, but then they really gave her a real moment in the movie, and we really started to understand her a bit more. That made me really excited and honored that they would devote time in the movie to that.
Because when you first signed on to Guardians, Nebula was a pretty small character, right?
I was supposed to film for eight days, and then I was scripted to die. And then suddenly she wasn't dying in that scene anymore, and I was like, "Oh, hooray!" [Laughs] Then I got to come back for the second Guardians, and that was a bigger role. Then I got to come back for Avengers, and that was an even bigger role, so I was just feeling incredibly lucky that I went for this really supporting small character.
There are so many hero stories in Endgame, but Nebula's evolution is kind of the heart of the whole movie. She helps save the world.
And I knew that that was in the [Infinity Gauntlet] comic that the Avengers films were based on, because that was the comic that I researched when I first started on Guardians. So I knew there was all this good stuff. But I never knew whether that was going to make it to the screen or not. I really hoped it did, and tried to inject it where I could with the character. But to see them really dive into that and honor the comics like that, but also bring their own spin to it, I was just so grateful. I think James Gunn in particular, he always felt like this character was really fascinating and a good story to tell.
You have the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie coming up with James Gunn returning to direct. How is that process going?
I don't know when we're shooting it, but I think soon! We're hoping so. But I've read the script, and I think it's incredible. I think it's going to top the trilogy.