Director of dark indies, lover of American accents, and fan of psychology essays: Karen Gillan is much more than Nebula from the Marvel Cinematic Universe

  • Karen Gillan revealed to Business Insider the ways she’s keeping her career fresh following the success of “Avengers: Endgame.”
  • Known best for playing Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she said she likes to mix in some indie films, too.
  • Her latest, the gritty “All Creatures Here Below,” opens in limited release May 17.
  • She also is a director, having recently made her feature debut, “The Party’s Just Beginning,” and may be directing a horror feature next.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Most multiplexes in the country currently feature a blue-skinned Karen Gillan sporting a deep sinister voice to play villain-turned-hero Nebula in Marvel’s box office sensation, “Avengers: Endgame.” But in the coming weeks, if you come across the right arthouse, you’ll get a glimpse of why this in-demand actress is going by a different playbook than many of her contemporaries in Hollywood.

In the indie “All Creatures Here Below” (in theatres May 17), Gillan stars alongside David Dastmalchian (Kurt from the “Ant-Man” movies), who also wrote the screenplay. They play a couple who find themselves on the run from the law after making unwise choices. The movie explores issues like poverty, depression, and adults living with the scars of childhood abuse. These are real-world issues that you won’t find in an MCU movie or the other franchise Gillan is known for, “Jumani: Welcome to the Jungle.” But for the actress, being in a dark, low-budget movie like this is important to take on.

“I had just finished ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2’ when I shot it,” Gillian told Business Insider over the phone, a day after wrapping shooting on the sequel to “Jumanji.” “I was going from this giant juggernaut to a movie where I didn’t even know if we were going to have a trailer, and it’s nice to do that. You strip away all the perks and you’re left with the thing you love doing.”

Samuel Goldwyn FilmsKaren Gillan and David Dastmlachian in ‘All the Creatures Here Below.’

It’s a theme that can be found throughout Gillan’s ascent to stardom after joining the MCU – the “one for them, one for me” model that keeps actors living comfortably (doing studio movies) but also feeding them creatively (character-focused projects for low pay). The difference between the countless others who have done that and Gillan is she caught onto it earlier in her career than most.

Perhaps it was being on the wildly popular “Dr. Who” for five years (where she played Amy Pond), or starring in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie in her mid-20s, but Gillan, 31, has been driven to show her range in a variety of roles instead of jumping from one blockbuster to the next. Whether it’s being a scene stealer as the ruthless Ellen in Ti West’s “In a Valley of Violence,” or the troubled Liusaidh in “The Party’s Just Beginning” (which was also her feature directing debut), Gillan has not played it safe and has shown an affinity for dark roles.

The partys just beginning1The OrchardKaren Gillian in ‘The Party’s Just Beginning,’ which marked her feature directing debut.

“It’s something that grabs me,” Gillan said of playing characters with flaws. “When I’m not acting, one of my main passions in life is reading psychology essays and studies on people’s character. So acting is an extension of that. Diving into what characters are dealing with and what happened to make them that way, it’s the most fascinating thing in the world and I can’t get enough of it.”

That’s an indication of why it’s been so much fun to see the evolution of Nebula up to “Endgame.” A screenwriter and director can only bring character development so far. The actor is the piece that brings the believability to the audience, and that awareness Gillan has of human behaviour has made Nebula one of the most dynamic characters in “Endgame.”

Read more: “Avengers: Endgame” directors describe the 100-hour workweeks and tremendous pressure of making their $US2 billion blockbuster

But there’s another passion that has given Gillan the ability to make her performances so engrossing: Her love of American accents.

Up to this point in her career, we’ve rarely heard the Scottish native use her real accent on screen. Doing voices is a talent she said she’s had since she was a kid growing up in Inverness, located on Scotland’s northeast coast, where she would run around saying things in an American Southern drawl or talking like a Valley girl. Now doing it for a living as an actor she’s put a lot of work into it, especially on a movie like “All Creatures Here Below,” where the characters are from Kansas City, an area of the country where the accent isn’t obvious.

Jumanji welcome to the jungle sonySonyKaren Gillan in ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.’

“I went to Kansas City with David and we drove around to all these fast food spots,” Gillan said on how she found her character’s voice. “And I have a dialect coach who I work with. We go through every single sound, and I’ll find someone with the right dialect and listen to them obsessively. Then I’ll talk in this weird hybrid of my own accent and the new one in my normal life in the time of filming. It’s a little weird but it’s one thing I love about a character is figuring out the voice.”

One of the rare times she used her real speaking voice on screen was her feature directing debut, “The Party’s Just Beginning.” Gillan stars as a woman struggling with the suicide of her best friend. The story, which Gillan also wrote, is set in Scotland and displays the strong visual eye she has. The movie had a very small release last year, but Gillan said it did what it was supposed to do: make it easier to get her next directing effort off the ground.

“It’s hard to get the first directing movie funded, so it’s great to now be in a position where I can do it whenever I’m available,” she said. “I’m definitely going to do more. I basically write all the time when I’m not acting so there are a couple of things floating around.”

Nebula Avengers Endgame DisneyDisneyKaren Gillan as Nebula in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

She said one of the real gifts of “Endgame” was her gaining knowledge of what goes on behind the camera: “I spent a lot of time soaking up information from the DP, and the camera operator, and the Russos,” referring to directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

Gillan hinted next she may direct a feature-length version of a horror short film she recently wrote, directed, and starred in called “The Hoarding.”

But it’s hard to say when she’ll have time to do that. After wrapping on the “Jumanji” sequel, she’ll now jump into the martial-arts-heavy action movie “Gunpowder Milkshake,” where she’ll costar opposite Lena Headey and Angela Bassett. But she can’t complain about all the work.

“I love to keep mixing it up,” she said. “I go work on these big action movies and then take a little break every so often and be a filmmaker.”

It seems to be working so far.

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