Karen Gillan on going full action heroine for Gunpowder Milkshake
The actress reveals the stunt advice she got from Michelle Yeoh — and her hopes for the next chapter of the Marvel universe.
Karen Gillan knows her way around an action scene. Whether she's facing down Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or roundhouse-kicking her way through the Jumanji franchise, the 33-year-old Scottish actress has built a healthy résumé of fight sequences and jaw-dropping stunts. But with her latest film Gunpowder Milkshake (streaming now on Netflix), Gillan cements her place as a true action heroine, punching, kicking, and shooting her way through the slick, neon-drenched thriller.
Directed by Navot Papushado, Gunpowder Milkshake stars Gillan as Sam, a lonely hitman who makes her living by killing people — something she's very, very good at. Before long, however, she finds herself targeted by her shady former employers, and to survive, she's forced to team up with her assassin mother (played by Game of Thrones' Lena Headey) and a trio of savvy, weapon-wielding librarians (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino).
Here, Gillan opens up to EW about stepping into the action-movie spotlight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about this script that first hooked you?
KAREN GILLAN: Initially I was drawn in by the title. I was like, "What is this movie? I'll watch this movie based on the title alone." [Laughs] Then as I was reading, I got to the second action sequence of the script, and that's when I put the script down and rung my agent. I was like, "Can you please just make sure I'm in this film?" Because it was so original. The whole concept of [that scene] is I've lost the use of my arms because they were paralyzed by these guys who were trying to attack me, so I have to fight three guys without the use of my arms. It's very creative, using a lot of things in the environment, using my legs and whole body to gather the momentum to move my arms. It was just something I haven't seen before in a film. I felt like we were in new territory.
The tone of this movie is so fun: It can be really brutal and bloody at times, but it also has a sweetness and a sense of comedy. How did you want to find that balance?
I think it was already there in script form, actually. It was humorous at times and it didn't take itself too seriously, but it took the action seriously enough that we had to work extremely hard to make that believable and violent. The tone rested with our director, and I trusted him to lead me through it. Then for the comedic moments, we just had some fun.
It was definitely physically demanding. I've done a few action sequences in films before, but it's usually one or two [scenes] that I can really focus on. But this was nonstop action from start to finish, and sometimes it was all in one take with no stunt doubles. It was just much more of a challenge, but it's fun because I feel like I've been building up to something like this. Now I finally graduate to a full-blown action film.
Like you said, you're obviously no stranger to action scenes, between the Marvel movies and Jumanji and even going back to Doctor Who. But what was the biggest challenge about tackling a true action flick like this?
I would say the biggest challenge was my first fight sequence in the film. That's the first time you see this character fight, and there's a long buildup, talking about how good she is. That always adds to the pressure, when other characters are setting you up, like, "Ooh, remember who you're dealing with!" So you better deliver on that first fight sequence. [Laughs]
The director said, "I want this all to be in one take, and I want it to only be the actors," so it was me and three other actor guys. We had to just rehearse that so much so that we were able to do the whole thing in one take. There were no cut points to hide behind, no editing, nothing. We had to get one perfect take. I remember that was quite nerve-wracking but exhilarating, and the adrenaline was going. Right before "action," we were all just looking at each other, like, "It's going to be okay, right?"
But it was really fun. The stunt coordinators did a really good job with being inventive and using different props that you don't normally see. I mean, I never thought I'd be fighting with a panda suitcase.
Lena Headey plays your mother. How did you two establish that mother-daughter chemistry?
Oh, she was one of my favorite people I've ever worked with, to be honest. Just as a person, she is as silly as I am, so we just had such a laugh together making videos for Instagram and probably annoying other people by being too loud. But that's where our connection started, and I think that translated onto the screen. It was just fun and freeing to work with someone who wants to just have a laugh off camera.
One of the cool things about this movie is the sheer number of women in front of the camera, which you don't always see in the action genre. You've got Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino… What was it like on set with those three?
Oh my God. The acting nerd in me was just squealing with joy when I was watching them act. There was a part of me that was just really starstruck the whole time. I will tell you what: There is one person you don't want to fight in front of, and it's Michelle Yeoh. She's an action legend. I'm like, "Oh God, please don't make me do this in front of the best person in the industry."
She actually really helped me though: She was like, "Use your height more." I was like, that's a great note, because I am really tall, and it is a source of power when I do use it, but I don't always because I'm awkward and hunched. So that was a really cool note. And then Angela Bassett has the most gravitas and power and is just so amazing to watch. [She has that] can't-take-your-eyes-away type of magnetism. And Carla Gugino, just a brilliant, brilliant actress. It was like everywhere you looked was an amazing, legendary actress.
Was there a particularly memorable day on set with them?
There was one scene with the three librarians, where you first meet them properly. It's all one take, and it's really long, and it's all talking. They do most of the talking, and I had to stand there and do a lot of reacting — which was really cool because the pressure was off me, and I just got to watch them do what they do best, which is just absolutely kill the delivery. It was probably one of my favorite days on set of any movie I've ever been on, just because it was watching three absolute pros just knock it out of the park.
You've also started directing and doing more work as a filmmaker. Is there something you've learned from that experience that you've carried with you into your acting?
I'm probably more understanding of directors now, just having been in that position. I have more empathy towards them, and I think I maybe understand why they're asking certain things of me a little bit better, rather than just purely coming from the actor's perspective. But the main thing I took away from it was just how absolutely vital it is to support your director's vision. I think if you don't, you're just in danger of having a watered-down, more generic version of the film.
When I met Navot, it was extremely easy to get behind his vision. It was like his personality was the vision, almost. His enthusiasm was infectious.
What was your most difficult day on set?
The most difficult day on set was probably when I did that fight sequence where I don't have the use of my arms. It's hard to isolate certain limbs and not move them at all — when you're also trying not to be killed.
Yeah, that's not a skillset you probably use in your everyday life.
Although I will say that fight sequence is closer to me in real life just because I'm gangly. So I got to embrace the goofy gangliness. [Laughs] I didn't have to suppress it to be an action hero.
Up next, you'll be appearing as Nebula again in Thor: Love and Thunder and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. What are you most excited for about this next chapter in Nebula's story?
I'm excited to explore Nebula post-Thanos, just because Thanos steered so much of her life and informed her character so much. He was the source of abuse to her. But now he's been eliminated, so what happens after the source of the abuse is gone from someone's life? What are those emotions. I don't know the answers yet, but I cannot wait to start diving into all of that psychology.