Coming off of action roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Jumanji franchise and 2021’s Gunpowder Milkshake, Karen Gillan took a major left turn in the form of Dual. In Riley Stearns’ sci-fi dark comedy, Gillan plays Sarah, a terminally-ill woman who decides to clone herself for the sake of easing her loved ones’ grieving process. When Sarah unexpectedly defies the odds and goes into remission, she’s bound by law to battle her double for the right to be Sarah. Since Gillan’s character has no familiarity with fighting of any kind, Gillan initially had to discard the instincts and skills she’d spent countless hours acquiring on other projects.
“I remember having to run on the treadmill when Sarah was working out for the first time, and I was like, ‘I can’t do my action hero run,’” Gillan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So I had to revert back to my original run, which was much more flailing around, limbs everywhere. So it was nice to revisit that and see how far I’ve come.”
Like Stearns’ previous two films, The Art of Self-Defense and Faults, Dual consists of incisive and deadpan dialogue, the filmmaker’s trademark. So Gillan made a choice that she’s never made before and channeled her director’s own voice into her performance.
“The main thing that really helped me get into it was meeting Riley and going, ‘Oh yeah, you kind of talk like this,’” Gillan says with a laugh. “So I’m like, ‘Let me just do a little subtle impression of you.’”
The Scottish actor is also close to finishing her time as Nebula on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and she’s opening up about how the emotions on set have shifted now that they’re about to wrap up this current iteration of the Guardians.
“I think everybody was so excited to be back together. The feeling was giddy excitement. The whole family was back together and we truly do feel like a family. And it just wouldn’t have felt right without James [Gunn] back with us,” Gillan shares, as Gunn was removed from the project in July 2018 and rehired in March 2019. “It just wouldn’t have been the same movie. So we were all extremely grateful that everything got straightened out, as it should have. And now, we’re almost finished. So there’s a little bit of a bittersweet feeling in the air as we close out this chapter of the Guardians as we currently know it.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Gillan also discusses her Dual co-star Aaron Paul and how much she enjoyed his four days on their Finland-based set. Then she goes on record to emphatically deny any involvement in an ongoing Guardians 3 set prank, as someone keeps leaving Rick and Morty toys on Gunn’s monitor.
So similar to your character in Dual, if you were to duel yourself, what weakness of yours would you exploit en route to victory?
(Laughs.) So basically, I’m predicting how I would die if I was in a physical fight with myself, because I would know what to do. This is like therapy. (Laughs.) I’m going to say if I threw a grenade at myself, I might freeze in fear rather than dive away. I’ve just seen myself on rollercoasters and I don’t know what to do. I’m so scared that I go really limp and shut my eyes and put my head on the next person’s shoulder, which is really uncomfortable for them, I’m sure. But it’s a really weird thing I do when I’m scared. I turn into a possum and just go limp.
How did you shoot the scenes with your double?
So I had another actress called Katariina [Havukainen] and she read the other lines for whichever character I wasn’t playing. And that was extremely helpful. I really needed it to be an actress that I was acting opposite, not just talking to a c-stand with a head on it or something. So we filmed it with me and the other actress, and then the camera would memorize the move. And then I would have to go in and try to match her movements exactly. So I would do it twice.
Sarah’s double has blue eyes, which means that you had to wear blue contacts. Were you unfazed by that since you’re used to far more extreme transformations as Nebula?
It’s funny you say that. I had to wear such huge contacts in the first Guardians that I cannot wear contacts anymore. (Laughs.) I’m completely fazed by them. So the blue eyes were done in VFX. Those contacts I had in Guardians were the full eye, though. The sclera lenses, I think they’re called. So I don’t think I can do contacts anymore after that experience. (Laughs.)
You’ve become such an impressive action star the last five or six years, but now, with Sarah, fighting and self-defense are completely foreign to her. Did it take you a minute to unlearn all your reflexes so that your existing skill didn’t shine through?
Actually, yeah. I remember really working on my run over the years and making sure that I’ve got a hand position that’s not too straight, but it’s open enough to where it looks cool. And then I remember having to run on the treadmill when Sarah was working out for the first time, and I was like, “I can’t do my action hero run. That’s not going to look good.” So I had to revert back to my original run, which was much more flailing around, limbs everywhere. So it was nice to revisit that and see how far I’ve come. (Laughs.)
I loved how your line delivery was dry and hypnotic in a way. How did you arrive at that choice? Was it right there in Riley’s writing?
I remember reading the script and being like, “This is written in a really unusual way,” and that’s one of the main things that drew me to it in the first place. And then I watched Riley Stearns’ other films and got a sense of a deadpan delivery. I would say that it was even more of a deadpan delivery in The Art of Self-Defense, his film prior. So I talked to Riley and I was like, “How much of that are we doing?” And I think we landed somewhere in the middle. But we kind of played around with it even while filming. I remember I would give a pretty deadpan delivery, and then I would always ask for a fun one where I could just do whatever I wanted. But I’m pretty sure most of those fun ones are not in the movie. (Laughs.) There’s maybe a few select moments, which is nice. So it was just fun for me to explore other ways of delivering things. But also, the main thing that really helped me get into it was meeting Riley and going, “Oh yeah, you kind of talk like this.” (Laughs.) So I’m like, “Let me just do a little subtle impression of you.” (Laughs.)
I’ve heard many stories of actors using their directors as inspiration. Have you done this a lot?
I’ve never done that before. I’ve never even thought of doing that before, but it makes perfect sense actually, especially if the director has written the script. They’ve created this character from their imagination, so inevitably, there’s going to be some of them in there. And with this style, it was really helpful to hear how effortlessly Riley can talk in a really unusual way. He makes it seem so natural because it is natural to him, so I was like, “I need to get a little bit of that in there.”
Finland, as a shooting location, really helped create the off-kilter vibe of this world. What was it like as a place to live and shoot?
It was amazing going to Finland. I had never been there before. It definitely just added a strangeness, because it has a different look and all of the supporting actors were Finnish or English. So that kind of goes unreferenced and gives a strange tone to the film, which I really liked. So it was really cool. It was in the dead of winter, so there wasn’t much daylight, but I’m from Scotland, so I’m completely used to the sun going down at 4 p.m. Everyone else was maybe struggling. The Americans were like, “What is going on?” but I was like, “Oh this is normal.” (Laughs.)
You have a crying scene as Sarah and one as Sarah’s double. Were you very conscious of showing the differences in the way that they cry?
Yeah, I would say that I was conscious of the differences with anything they did. I was trying to figure out how to pitch how different they are, because they’re working with the exact same toolkit. But people can have the same toolkit and have completely different life circumstances and upbringings and be two different people, so that’s the way I was coming at it. And for the crying, I remember trying to make the double’s cry look a little childlike, like a petulant little brat. (Laughs.)
Whether it was the mock duel and or the hip hop dancing scene, it seemed like you and Aaron Paul enjoyed your time together.
We did enjoy our scenes together. Yeah, we had such a good time. He was actually only on the film for four days and has a huge part, but we just shot all of his stuff because it was all condensed to basically one location. So it was an amazing experience. He’s one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever worked with and he’s so generous. He flew in from the States and immediately launched into a giant monologue about dueling someone to the death. I was like, “That is very impressive.” (Laughs.)
So in Judd Apatow’s The Bubble, your character was locked in her hotel room, eating room service and exercising in place. Was that pretty close to your own hotel quarantine experiences?
(Laughs.) It was an extremely meta experience to make The Bubble because we had to quarantine before we could start filming The Bubble. And prior to making The Bubble, I had shot Thor 4, the Marvel movie, where we had to quarantine alone in a hotel room for two weeks and then go and make this blockbuster movie. And so making The Bubble, I just felt like I’ve done the best research I’ve ever done in my life because I just lived this. The whole thing was so meta. I remember playing up to one of the cameras on the set of The Bubble, and then I realized it was not filming and it wasn’t a real camera. It was a fake crew. (Laughs.) It was the crew in the movie. I was like, “Ah, what’s real and what’s not?!”
Obviously, many of the movies’ scenarios were heightened for comedic effect, but is there more real-life inspiration than we might realize?
Yeah, I would say a lot of it is not that far-fetched. I mean, we live our life up on wires, even when you’re ill. I haven’t been on a wire while vomiting, but I’ve definitely been on a wire going like, “This really hurts.” (Laughs.)
Is there a bit of improv that you were particularly proud of in your case?
There was a script, but most scenes had a lot of improv in it. I liked doing the scene where everybody’s taken a load of drugs, and then I had to go on a rant about how I’m going to be the hero and save everybody. That was just such a challenge for me because Judd [Apatow] was like, “Okay, go on a rant about that. Go.” And I was in front of a lot of improvisers that I respect so much, so it was kind of terrifying. Also, I will say that it’s hard to improvise in a different accent, and I wasn’t doing a crazy accent. But it’s almost easier to do a big accent because you’re not necessarily having to be completely accurate if it’s a huge sketch-type character. But to play a slightly more realistic character in a whole movie and improvising in a different accent, that was a challenge and one that I was so excited to take on.
So you’re shooting Guardians 3 currently. After all you guys have been through in regard to James Gunn’s status on the movie, was your first day back together pretty emotional?
I think everybody was so excited to be back together. The feeling was giddy excitement. The whole family was back together and we truly do feel like a family. And it just wouldn’t have felt right without James back with us. It just wouldn’t have been the same movie. So we were all extremely grateful that everything got straightened out, as it should have. And now, we’re almost finished. So there’s a little bit of a bittersweet feeling in the air as we close out this chapter of the Guardians as we currently know it.
Do you know who’s leaving Rick and Morty toys on James‘s monitor?
No, I don’t! Everyone thinks it’s me! It’s not me! I would like to go on the record as saying it is not me. I don’t know who’s doing that, but I was at the monitor yesterday and it is getting out of control. They’re taking over the whole video village. So I can’t wait to find out who it is.
Can you tell me about Grand Marshal Karen Gillan?
(Laughs.) So this past weekend, I led the Tartan Day Parade through the streets of New York, which was one of the best experiences of my life. I had my friends all around me from Scotland and we all got to March together. So it was just so cool to celebrate all things Scottish and to see all of these Scottish enthusiasts in America. People are really passionate about Scotland over here, which was really nice to see.
Is it all quiet on the Jumanji front still?
I don’t know. I think we are going to make another film, but the question is when. That’s what nobody knows yet.
Is there a scene partner from your past that you’d love to have another “dance” with someday?
Oh, I think it’s got to be Matt Smith from Doctor Who. We could actually break out one hell of a dance routine together.
Are you still working on your own project, Axe Wound?
Yes! I’m rewriting it now. I finished it, and then I thought, “I don’t like it.” (Laughs.) So I am rewriting it now. This is very typical of me as a writer and filmmaker. I have been known to spend up to a year tinkering with the edit of a short film. Obviously, I’m getting taken away to other things, so it’s not like I’m on it full time, but I’m a person that really takes a long time. It’s to the point where people are like, “Should we just abandon this?” And I’m like, “No, we’re going to get it.” And then we usually do. I just know when I like something, and that’s when I’m like, “I can leave it alone now.”
Do you tend to be your own worst critic?
I don’t think I’m my worst critic. I just know what I like, and sometimes it takes a really long time to get there. But when we get it, I’m absolutely certain that that’s it. I’m not a person who’s like, “Oh, it’s never good enough.” There’s just a moment where I think, “Ugh, this is brilliant,” and I’m just willing to go as long as it takes to get to that moment. And it doesn’t matter how long it takes.
Random question: Is there a famous filming location you’d love to visit someday?
Ooh! I already filmed in Babelsberg, the studio outside Berlin, where Metropolis was filmed and that was really cool. That is such a good silent movie that I think is so creative, so that was kind of exciting. There’s a cafe from Inglourious Basterds, which I think was also shot in Babelsberg. [Writer’s Note: Cafe Einstein is located in Kurfürstenstraße, Berlin] It’s the famous cafe where they eat the apple strudel. So I want to go there as well. I guess I’ve gone for a lot of Germans. (Laughs.)
Sam Esmail is actually developing a Metropolis series for Apple TV+.
(Gasps.) Really? Is it going to be silent?
Good question. [Writer’s Note: It’s unclear at this time.]
I want to know, but that’s so exciting. I’m so going to watch that.
Dual opens April 15 in theaters, on digital and on demand.