Karen Gillan: “It turned into a sisterhood”

  • Marie Claire is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.
  • The Scottish actress on why shooting Tarantino-esque thriller Gunpowder Milkshake with her female acting heroes was so meaningful (and how she prepared for the massive action film in just three weeks)

    Speaking to us via Zoom from LA, Karen Gillan is recovering from what sounds like, a frankly brutal period filming action thriller Gunpowder Milkshake. Gillan plays Sam in the film, a curiously sensitive assassin following in her mother’s notorious footsteps (Lena Headey plays her mother, Scarlet) with powerhouse trio Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino taking on the roles of the ‘librarians’. Directed by Navot Papushado, the female-centric bloodbath of a film (you have been warned) is a fun, stylish, adrenaline-filled ride – AKA everything we want from cinema right now. Here, Gillan explains what making the film involved…

    Gunpowder Milkshake was excellent. Are you pleased with the feedback so far?

    Yeah, it’s great to see people excited about seeing a group of women kicking ass and not wearing sexy outfits. That seems to be the general consensus, which I like.

    Absolutely. I was actually going to ask what you’ve done with that famous bomber jacket. Surely it’s going to become a piece of wardrobe history!

    I know. It’s so funny. I think people loved Ryan Gosling‘s bomber jacket in Drive and it definitely has those vibes but it’s a bit more cute, it has a baby Tiger on it. And I totally kept it, it’s in my wardrobe right now.

    I don’t blame you. And you’re right, it is cool that the female characters aren’t running around scantily-clad. You’re out there kicking ass in normal clothes!

    Yeah and it’s not those sexy assassin outfits. It’s more practical, but also they’re having fun with it. It just feels like it’s not through the male gaze, which is kind of refreshing.

    It’s a really interesting film in that it manages to tackle quite serious subjects like the mother/child relationship and abandonment issues but it does so with humour. And a lot of action and violence, too…

    Yeah. I think that’s what really attracted me to the project, knowing I was going to get to run around in these exciting action sequences, but also that there’s a lot of emotion and heart to it, something I could grab on to. I don’t know if I’d be able to play a part if there wasn’t an emotional hook to get me in, that I could then use to thread through the performance. So, I really liked the whole thing of her mother abandoning her and those feelings of being unworthy and how that manifests throughout the rest of her life. It was interesting.

    Absolutely. And despite such weighty topics, it still manages to be really funny in places too, doesn’t it?

    Yeah, there’s definitely a sense of humour to it. The action sequences are cool and impressive, but they’re also kind of comedic and sort of ridiculous. There’s one where I lose the use of my arms. And so I’m having to fight three guys without my arms, where I look like a gangly cartoon character.

    How are you with blood? It was pretty gory…

    I’m fine with blood. I grew up watching a lot of horror films, so I am completely desensitised to blood. However, when it comes to actually firing guns, I cannot keep my eyes open. I don’t know how people just casually keep their eyes open while they’re firing a gun. There’s such a boom to it, and I can’t keep my eyes open – which is not good when you’re in a film called Gunpowder Milkshake.

    That’s hilarious. But this wasn’t your first action film – you’d had training before and you were filming Jumanji 2 just before this, weren’t you. So how prepared did you feel to take this on?

    Yeah, definitely. I only had three weeks to prepare for Gunpowder, but I’d come just off of Jumanji 2 and we’d had the Mission Impossible stunt team, so I was definitely in the zone of training and learning routines and weapons.  I rolled right into it, thankfully – I was in the zone. Because three weeks isn’t very long to learn all of those routines. So we’d just go into bootcamp which meant every morning running around the studio with my stunt double, then boxing with her, working out and learning the routines in slow motion. And then gradually picking up speed every time we did it.

    I can’t imagine the physicality, it just looks exhausting. Were you going to bed each night completely shattered?

    Yeah, beyond. I remember waking up the next day after doing two days of fighting and being like, ‘I can’t move, I’ve never felt like this before’. And then I had to go in and rehearse for the next fight sequence. Even my stunt double was like, ‘I’m tired’. I was like, ‘If you’re feeling tired…I’m just a mortal!’ [laughs].

    Did you have any injuries on set? Or did you give anyone any?

    I did kick someone in the balls by accident. I shouldn’t be laughing about it but in hindsight, I know that the balls are OK, apparently.

    Oh my god. Were they OK?

    Fine. They’re fine. He’s an ex-marine. So he’s probably been kicked in the balls before. So now we all know he’s OK, I can laugh about it.

    Was the physical aspect and the training the toughest bit?

    Yeah, I would say so. It was demanding and slightly different to what I normally do. I’ve done action before, but I’m primarily an actress who just uses words. So to have to learn this completely new skillset with completely new weapons that I’ve never even heard of before, it was pretty intense.

    Now you can add all those crazy weapons to your CV, if there is such a section!

    Yeah! Do we still have CVs? [laughs]. I’m going to be writing that on there…

    One element I really enjoyed was the librarians [played by Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett and Carla Gugino]. It was brilliant to see a trio of women forming the main action characters, and obviously Lena Headey’s character as well. How was it working with those women?

    It was amazing. It was so cool. I signed on to the project and those roles weren’t cast yet. So I assumed we’d get amazing people, but I did not expect to have this line-up. It was just one after the other. I was like, ‘Oh, my god, I’m gonna be so starstruck throughout this entire film, I’m gonna get the best acting lesson of my life!’. And I definitely was. Like, they just have such natural gravitas and they’re so commanding. When they’re in the room, you know and you just want to stare at them. They have that aura. I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s who I want to be’.

    And they all brought something so different to it, it was really magical seeing their chemistry.

    Yes, definitely. I mean, we’ve got like Michelle Yeoh, who’s an action legend so she knows what she’s doing with that. Then Angela Bassett, who’s just the most extraordinary actress. Oh, my god, talk about natural gravitas! And Carla Gugino played a different vibe, like the more bookish kind of maternal character and I’ve been such a fan of hers for years now. And Lena Headey of course is truly one of my favourite actresses as well. I love them all.

    I saw a few videos of you and Lena goofing around backstage and it looked so fun – did you immediately have a great rapport?

    Yeah, we definitely did. And I was pleased to learn that Lena Headey likes a silly Instagram video. As soon as we discovered that about each other, we were off to the races and filming that kind of thing all day long! There’s so many I haven’t even posted, that go on for like 10 minutes! We just had a really good time and filmed the action film in between all of our Instagram posts [laughs].

    Is there anything you learned about yourself during filming?

    Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know, I definitely had one of the best times of my life on that film. And I don’t know what the reasons are, it was probably just a combination of things. So it makes me want to feel like that all the time. I don’t know what I learned about myself…that I can’t keep my eyes open when firing guns? But that I could actually probably fight someone? That’s quite empowering.

    Do you think it felt different being an actress on set surrounded by so many strong female leads. Was that palpable to you?

    Yeah, it definitely was. And maybe that was one of the reasons I had one of the best times of my life on set. I’ve never actually been on a predominantly female film, now that I think about it. It was definitely a different vibe, like I was definitely getting advice from actresses and they were helping me, I was learning. And I felt really comfortable too. It did turn into this actual sisterhood in a way. It was just really nice, it was a good atmosphere.

    What kind of things were you learning from them? Practical stuff?

    Yeah. So I’m going to turn into an actor nerd here [laughs] but stuff like, maybe you’re unsure of why you’re meant to do something as silly as walk out at that moment – which sounds small, but that’s a choice. And I remember needing to leave in that moment for the script and being like, ‘I don’t know why I would leave? I don’t want to leave, I’m not leaving’. And Angela Bassett was like, ‘Here’s why she would leave’. I forget what reason she gave, but she just made it so clear in one simple sentence. So I was like ‘Yeah, that’s why you’re so good at this’. So I was then like, ‘I must leave in this exact moment’.

    That kind of in-person interaction is often the most effective, isn’t it?

    Yeah. And I think people who are really, really good at things have a knack for making them seem really simple. Like it’s not complicated.

    As somebody who has just worked so hard on this masterpiece, I’m loathe to ask what you have coming up next. But can you tell us what’s in the pipeline for you?

    We have a couple more Marvel films coming out, Thor and then Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, which we haven’t shot yet. And then I just shot the new Judd Apatow film, which is a comedy about actors trying to make a movie during a pandemic [The Bubble]. I had such a blast on that film, I loved every second of it.

    When you got the script for that, were you like, ‘Surely a film about the pandemic can’t work?’!

    You know, I read it and I was in the middle of filming Thor during the pandemic. And this is about actors trying to make a big budget movie during the pandemic. So I was like, ‘this is so accurate’ – I couldn’t even believe how accurate it was. And it was hilarious. It’s like, you put a group of annoying actors together in a hotel and just watch them getting beaten up emotionally. And honestly, I think it’ll be really fun for people to watch.

    There’s something very comforting about seeing successful people finding life hard, and not just seeing that ‘aspirational’ side of things. It’s quite nice, to be given that glimpse, don’t you think?

    Yeah, I think it’s fun to see people get beaten up sometimes, especially if you don’t have much sympathy towards them. So, like a group overpaid franchise actors screaming about what room they were given in the hotel, it’s fun to watch those types of characters get beaten up. And that’s definitely what this film is.

    Gunpowder Milkshake is out now. 

    Reading now

    Popular entertainment stories