“I feel like I’m a walking Scottish stereotype,” Karen Gillan says with a lilt, sitting in a Manhattan hotel bar, sipping a coffee. It’s something only a Scot could get away with saying, but it’s hard to argue with her.
She has fiery red hair, today cropped to the shoulders, and pale skin that looks as if it might turn to ash in certain latitudes. She speaks in a clever, friendly burr. “Don’t” is delivered as “doan-t, “cool” as “kewl.”
The actress once posted a photo of herself on Twitter wearing a red tartan onesie. She’s even been known to force her beloved haggis onto unsuspecting victims.
“It’s not so easy to get you Americans onboard with it,” she laughs.
But Hollywood is quite onboard with Gillan. The 29-year-old has major roles in two high-profile movies out this spring: “The Circle,” alongside Tom Hanks, and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
In the former, she plays a spokesperson for a morally questionable Internet giant. The latter finds her reprising the role of Nebula, a grumpy, blue-skinned alien villain who was defeated in the first film. The character was originally meant to die in that installment. But after a rewrite, Nebula survived — albeit down an arm — and returns in “Vol. 2” with a meatier role that revolves around her troubled relationship with her sister, Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
Gillan had to spend about two hours in the makeup chair each day to transform into Nebula. “It’s really intense and claustrophobic,” she says of the makeup. “It’s not the most pleasant of sensations, but it gets me where I need to be to play a supervillain.”
She also had to shave her head — though only half of it this time around. “The under half,” she explains. “I have an ‘undershave,’ which is the grossest word in the world.”
But it might help the actress avoid the embarrassing misunderstandings that dogged her when she went full cue-ball for the first “Guardians.”
“People were calling me ‘sir’ quite a lot,” she recalls. “There was one time I was lying in a hotel room in the dark, and someone came into the room and realized I was there and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir.’ I didn’t want to make a thing of it, so I just pretended to be a man. I said in a deep voice, ‘No problem.’ That was my low point.”
And being slathered in blue paint to play a character does have its advantages.
“I’m not that recognizable,” Gillan says. “It’s not like I’m walking down the street and people come up to me saying, ‘Oh, it’s Nebula!’ I work with these [Marvel] actors, and they can’t even go outside for coffee, and that seems really sad to me. My favorite thing to do is breathe, walk around cities. I still get to walk around and get coffee, so I’m happy.”
She has a bit more trouble walking around in the UK, where she’s famous for her breakout role in the beloved sci-fi series “Doctor Who.” In 2009, the then-unknown actress landed the coveted role of Amy Pond, the Doctor’s scrappy sidekick.
“It was mental,” Gillan says. “Things changed overnight. It was the equivalent of winning one of those talent shows, where you go from obscurity to people writing stories about you. There were journalists at my parents’ house within a couple of hours of me getting the part.”
Gillan grew up in Inverness, a scenic part of the Highlands some three hours north of Edinburgh. Her mother had various jobs, including working in a supermarket, and her father assisted the learning-disabled.
“As a child, I played the piano a lot. I liked to play chess. Yeah, no, I wasn’t very popular in school at all,” she says with a laugh. “I had a core group of friends. We were all a little misfit-ish.”
Gillan’s fate was sealed when, at age 9, her parents bought her a karaoke machine. She spent hours speaking improvised dialogue into the microphone and recording it on cassette.
A few years later, she graduated to a camcorder and began shooting short DIY horror movies — most featured Gillan “murdering” her game father. Strawberry syrup subbed for blood.
She soon enrolled in local acting classes and became “obsessed.” The art form allowed the shy Gillan unfettered expression.
“I definitely found that I could do all the things that I could do while acting that I couldn’t do as a person,” she says. “I didn’t have any inhibitions. I could go right up to people and maintain all this eye contact and be this commanding, confident person.”
At 16, she moved to Edinburgh and then London to enroll in drama school, but quickly dropped out after being offered a guest role on an episode of the Scottish cop show “Rebus.”
Soon, Gillan found herself back in London, working at a pub to make ends meet.
“I grew up an optimist, believing that I was going to achieve everything I wanted to achieve,” she says. “Working in the bar, it didn’t look like I was going to, and I experienced my first tinge of doubt. I never experienced that in my whole life. ‘Whoa, what is this emotion?’ It freaked me out.”
The 5-foot-11 beauty (she sometimes avoids heels on shoots) began a short-lived career as a model. “I don’t feel satisfied by just posing in front of a camera or walking,” she says. “Not to diminish it. It doesn’t extend that much further for me.”
It did, however, give her an appreciation for fashion (her favorite label is Sandro), as well as writing inspiration.
“Every time I was on a job, I was writing in a notepad, and all the models would be like, ‘What are you doing?’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m writing a TV show about you!’”
Although she never completed that script, she moved on to other writing projects and is currently working on her feature debut as a writer-director.
“The Party’s Just Beginning” concerns a young woman (Gillan) dealing with her best friend’s suicide. Gillan got the idea from reading a statistic that the suicide rate among young men is higher in the Highlands than in other parts of Scotland.
She plans to submit the film to festivals. In the meantime, she spends what little free time she has penning new ideas for film or TV.
“I’m really boring,” she insists.
Gillan moved to Los Angeles four years ago. She’s currently single and has said she’s wary of dating in America, where it’s culturally acceptable to see multiple people at the same time. “I prefer the UK way, where we just drink near each other, and no one knows if it’s a date or not,” she told the Telegraph.
She now lives in a California house — although she says she needs to take time to learn “adult skills” that she never bothered to master. She can’t drive. Cleaning is a mystery to her. She doesn’t know how to cook.
So take heart, future suitors. At least you’ll be spared any homemade haggis.