Karen Gillan: My New Frontier
There will be floods of tears next week, as a nation’s children – and many of their parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and neighbours – tune in to the last ever Doctor Who adventure to feature Amy Pond. Karen Gillan, the flame-haired, razor-sharp Scottish star is waving goodbye to one of the most coveted roles on British TV.
She will leave behind the Tardis, her ‘raggedy man’ Time Lord, and probably the only part she will ever play that involves her interacting with Adolf Hitler and Vincent van Gogh, being scared to blink lest she’s ravaged by sinister statues and discovering she has given birth to a corkscrew-haired time traveller old enough to be her mother.
Though her adventures with the Doctor have taken up the lion’s share of her time since she first stepped foot in the Tardis, ex-model Gillan has also found time to impress rebel Cockney photographer David Bailey, both with her gazelle-like legs and her acting.
Playing Bailey’s muse-mistress Jean Shrimpton, she was stunningly ’60s in BBC Four’s We’ll Take Manhattan. It gave a taste of the bright future for the 24-year-old once she says goodbye to Amy Pond.
I first meet her in Almeria, Spain, on the set of last weekend’s Wild West Doctor Who adventure. Karen is sitting at the piano of a saloon bar, regaling an empty room with showtunes. After following up her turn on the keys with a knees-up around the stage, she says that she’s always ready to bang out a tune, though she doesn’t guarantee that it’ll get the party started.
“I think I was playing a song from Fame,” she laughs. “I’m usually like the weirdo at a party who plays really depressing music. I really like Chopin. Dark stuff like that. My party piece? I have my own composition, which is an easy one to remember, so I always whip that one out, but everyone is like, ‘Mood killer!’”
Five months later and The Big Issue catches up with Karen again. She has completed her final Tardis scenes and is about to jet off to New York for a fancy screening in front of the increasingly obsessive US fans who will, she assures us “scream and cry”.
Her final moments on set have been teary too. “It was just so sad. The last scene we filmed was me, Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill just walking into the Tardis together,” she says. “It is insignificant in terms of the episode, but was so huge for us. It was dark inside and we just hugged. It was lovely. Then I milked it for all it was worth and cried.”
Fans will also be bereft, but Karen at least leaves Doctor Who on a high, and on her own terms. The new series has ditched the complex story arcs in favour of individual, self-contained weekly adventures, each with its own movie-style poster and redesigned logo (for the first the title was styled like a Dalek, for the second it was a dinosaur and so on) – and both viewers and critics are responding favourably. After a final run-in with the Weeping Angels in Manhattan, Karen’s character will never return.
“It will be a real shock to the system when I realise I am not in it any more,” she says. “But I knew what I was getting into when I took the job. This is a show in which the cast changes regularly and that is why it is so long-lasting. I am going to feel sad, but I have had a pretty good run in the companion role, which makes me happy. It is a weird thing to be leaving, but you never really leave the Doctor Who family.”
Having experienced as much variety as any TV role offers, she is now looking to the future, starting with an indie rom-com, a cop show spoof and a US horror film…
So how on earth do you follow Amy Pond – adventurer, time traveller, ass-kicker, memorably worth “at least two men”? Well, I feel like I’m prepared for all the possible genres after playing Amy. And I certainly want variety, that’s for sure. What I enjoy most about acting is being versatile. I like actors like Robin Williams, who can do crazy, absurd characters. I would love to be an actor like that. The one I am really getting into recently is Olivia Colman. She does Peep Show and is brilliant at comedy, but I just watched Tyrannosaur – oh my god! I was on a train going through the Highlands of Scotland crying my eyes out. I want to play character roles, generally. That is my main ambition.
Have you talked about your plans with your on-screen hubby, Arthur Darvill and with ‘Doctor’ Matt Smith? Yeah, we talk about all that stuff. We are very close. It is like having two brothers with Matt and Arthur – the two brothers I never had, because I’m an only child. So it is kinda nice for me.
So you were in Glasgow recently filming Not Another Happy Ending with Life on Mars director John McKay. A low-budget Scottish indie comedy – it is not the most obvious next step… I was just passionate about the script and the role. It all came from playing Jean Shrimpton in We’ll Take Manhattan last year with John. He said I’d be perfect for this role in his film Not Another Happy Ending – because I kept dropping stuff and falling over. It wasn’t a grand plan; it was in the pipeline for a long time and we shot it as soon as I was available. I didn’t know Glasgow that well, although my mum is from there, but I’ve fallen in love with it and want to settle down there. I just love the people – I laughed so much.
You’re playing a novelist – has it made you want to write a book? I don’t think I have a book in me, but I reckon I have a screenplay. No ideas yet, I just like the idea of writing a screenplay. Hopefully I will do that in the future.
You want to settle in Glasgow, then, but where is home for you right now? Cardiff? London? Inverness? I don’t have a house at the moment and I don’t really have a home city. All my possessions are in a storage unit in London. I have a suitcase with a few pieces of clothing, so I’m completely free and home is wherever I end up working, really, and at the moment that is the best feeling in the world. I don’t feel like I need any material possessions. I’m free. I love it so much and I’ve realised that it is quite liberating living without all your material possessions. I’m working in Alabama for the rest of the year, which will be cool, and we will have to see after that. I just go with the flow.
Alabama? Sounds intriguing… Yes! I’m so excited about Oculus. It’s a horror film about a brother and a sister, filming in Alabama. It’s all so varied, which is great, but I’m doing things that I really care about. I’m getting to do so many things I wanted to do, so I’m really happy.
Does this mean Hollywood is on the agenda? If there is good stuff over there for me to do, then yes, of course I would. But I don’t want to do something for the sake of working, if I’m not that into it. When I was about to start on Oculus, I got the script for Charlie Brooker’s A Touch of Cloth. We were able to move the dates forward so I could do that as well. It is really clever at the same time as being ridiculous. It is right up my street, comedy-wise, as we are playing it completely straight and intensely, even though what we are saying is utter nonsense. All those detective dramas we know so well, we will never be able to watch them quite the same again after this.
When you catch your breath, what do you think will you miss most about Doctor Who? Working with my best friends every day has been amazing. I am certainly going to miss getting to do all the Doctor Who acting. It is all quite high-octane... creatures to be running away from – I don’t know how often I’m going to be able to do that in my future jobs. Tennis balls on a stick pretending to be monsters, before the CGI, I won’t be doing much of that in the future. I remember in my first episode someone had written ‘the scrotum’ on the tennis ball, which was a little off-putting. That was a nice welcome!
How would you like Amy Pond to be remembered? I love this girl. I would be too scared to act like her, but I get this artistic licence playing her. I love her dry sarcasm, wit and grumpiness. I’m not a grumpy person. I want to see her go out in flames of glory, where we see her at her absolute best. I just want people to look back over the Pond era fondly. I have had the best years of my life on this show, hand on my heart…
Your last episodes have been described by writer Steven Moffat as his love letters to the Ponds – this sounds pretty terminal… That doesn’t necessarily mean death, but it will be very final. So, yeah, you are going to cry. I hope so, anyway. I like making you cry. That makes me happy…
Doctor Who: The Power of Three is on BBC One, Saturday, 7.30pm