If you're of a certain persuasion you probably already know who Karen Gillan is.
She's a ridiculously adorable Scottish actress who played Amy Pond, the companion character to Matt Smith's incarnation of "Doctor Who," for several seasons. If none of that makes any sense to you, then you are not of the aforementioned certain persuasion. And you should also know that, just because you don't know who Gillan is now, doesn't mean that that will always be the case.
This week, Gillan stars in what could be a certifiable breakout role in "Oculus." Produced by "Paranormal Activity" overseer Jason Blum and directed by Mike Flanagan, it's the story of a young woman (Gillan) and her adult brother (Brenton Thwaites) who do battle with a haunted mirror that was at least partially responsible for a tragedy that happened to the family when they were both very young. I saw it in a nearly empty screening room before its splashy screening at SXSW last month, and it scared us to death. Seeing it in a theater full of similarly freaked out people must have been nearly unbearable.
And, if "Oculus" is too spooky for you, then you'll probably still see Gillan when she pops up as a blue-skinned baddie in this summer's superhero romp "Guardians of the Galaxy." We spoke to Gillan at SXSW, where she talked about "Oculus," what scares her, and the transition from a very earthly human to a far-out villainess.
Moviefone: The last time we talked you were a blue-skinned alien on the set of "Guardians of the Galaxy."
Karen Gillan: Oh wow. What a weird way to first meet someone!
What was it like going from someone who is such a grounded, real person in "Oculus" to... that?
It's different because you have to make the choice that she is otherworldly, because she's obviously not a human. But you still have to make it truthful and believable. So, in my opinion, it was kind of the same, really. It was just another character.
What drew you to "Oculus"?
It was the strength of the script, really, and the strength of the short film that was made before. This film was adapted from that short film. I talked to the director and I was so impressed. I thought, This is going to be really, really good.
And your character was an addition to the movie, right?
Yes. It was originally a man in a room. And they turned it into me.
How good was your American accent before this movie?
It was there... But there was definitely some stuff that was wrong with it. Because [when] I met Mike Flanagan on Skype from my bedroom in Scotland, he said, "I need you to make an audition tape so I can show it to the studio." So I made the audition tape with my dad reading the other lines and I was doing the American accent and he was really British. So it was really off, but it was there. Then I worked with the dialect coach to iron out all of those sounds.
You sound really American!
That's good coming from an American!
So making the movie is probably not that scary...
No, it was a really fun, funny experience.
Some of your section of the movie overlaps with a section that happens in the past. Did you get to meet the little kid version of you?
A couple of times we might have overlapped, but generally not really. What ended up happening was they shot the majority of the film with the family, and most of my stuff with Brenton, who plays my brother, was in the last week. Because really that's a two hander for us, in a room. It was just a crazy, crazy week. I would just watch Annalise, who plays the younger version of my character, just to try and put some continuity in there. So she gets all the credit for creating this character.
Where did your swinging ponytail come from?
I just remember that being in the stage direction: Her ponytail swings. So I thought: I'm really going to make it swing!
Was that your real hair?
Yes. We shot that way before they had to shave my head for "Guardians of the Galaxy."
So you've seen the final movie, right?
Yes, I watched it last night.
I heard the audience went bananas.
Yes! They were cringing and going "ahhhhhh." That's what I love about American audiences: you're not afraid of making noise. In the UK we're just like, "Well done."
What surprised you the most in the final version?
I saw a rough cut before, and I thought it had really been executed well. I was blown away. I thought it was so good -- there was massive payoff. And I watched it last night, completely finished, and I had gained a lot of distance because it was a while ago that we shot it. So I was able to watch it objectively instead of just scrutinizing my performance. And I was so engrossed in it. I felt like it was a ride or something. And -- this is the saddest thing in the world -- but I went back to my hotel last night and I was scared. I was looking around and it was like, You made this film. This is so stupid.
When you did the scene where you bite into the apple, did you realize that it was really going to get people?
Yes! We all watched it at the same time and thought, "Ooh, this is going in the trailer."
Is it in the trailer?
What scares you?
Ghosts. Rather than a violent, real person, it's something otherworldly or demonic that you can't quite control.
Does that come from you being Scottish?
Because of all the old weird castles and things? Probably.
You're in these amazing genre pieces. Do you ever wonder about being stuck in that world? Like when you went from "Doctor Who" to "Guardians of the Galaxy"?
No. I don't worry about it. All I want is good projects. Typecasting does happen, but you do have some control over what you choose to do. And if the good stuff is genre, then I'm still going to do it. And I don't really care about that. I'm about to do a comedy for ABC, which couldn't be further from this stuff. I'm sure my agents have a plan, but I don't.
The trailer for "Guardians of the Galaxy" came out a couple of weeks ago and the Internet went crazy.
It was so exciting! I'm in the trailer but in two really quick shots.
Was it gratifying to feel that reaction?
Yeah, it was really cool. I saw it premiere on "Jimmy Kimmel." I turned on the TV and then it came on. It was so cool.
You guys went out on a limb with this one.
Yeah, it's weird and cool and not as well-known.
Was there any trepidation for you to get involved?
No. For me to get an opportunity like that from Marvel? For me, it was a no brainer.
Are you under contract for more than one movie?
Yes. There is the possibility for more movies. But we don't know if that will happen, in terms of story.
It feels like people are really going to embrace it.
Well, I feel like people are going to enjoy it because it's a new direction for Marvel -- it's really humorous and comedic and doesn't take itself too seriously. My favorite thing is the logline on the poster: "You're welcome." I couldn't believe it.
Is there any genre that you're looking to do that you haven't done yet?
One of the things that I haven't done is just straight acting. I've done comedy, and I've done these genre pieces, which are very dramatic. But maybe just straight acting.
Well, "Oculus" is pretty much straight acting. Like you said, it's two people in a room.
That's what appealed to me -- that it's the best of both worlds. We get to make a genre film that satisfies that audience with certain scares but we also get to do a two hander. So it's like, This is perfect.
Jason Blum has a history of making huge franchises. If they figured out how to make another "Oculus," would you be game to come back?
Yes. Of course. Literally because these are my friends. And we had the best time ever. Plus, it turned out really well. So yes, I would be crazy to pass up that opportunity.
Do you think you're scary in "Guardians of the Galaxy"?
I don't know. I don't think you can really play something scary. I don't think that's a valuable note. Because you being scary is what the audience should feel, not something that you should do. So I played her like a sadist. She really enjoys what she's doing. So that could be scary. I hope.
"Oculus" opens nationwide Friday, April 11.
Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images