Karen Gillan: “I wasn’t a wild child”

Inverness is a long way from the Avengers, but for her directorial debut Karen Gillan has come home to shine a light on the mental health crisis hitting the highlands

Karen Gillan’s new film is called The Party’s Just Beginning and as a statement of intent, she kicks it off with a bang. Commandeering a karaoke mic, she delivers a ‘choose life’-style soliloquy, to coarse heckles from punters in the pub.

“Now a town like this tends to lend itself to an overactive imagination,” she shouts with drunken swagger. “Ever sit in a solitary place and imagine so hard you begin to question what the difference is between imagining and living?”

Gillan wrote, directed and stars in The Party’s Just Beginning. Her character Liusaidh is 24, lives with her dysfunctional parents, works on a supermarket cheese counter and is nearing the bottom of a downward spiral. Her best friend, Alistair, killed himself a year ago. Through the course of the film, flashbacks reveal what led to that and how Liusaidh self-destructively tries to cope with the loss; dancing, drinking and screwing because she has no idea what else to do.

Gillan has most recently starred as alien cyborg Nebula in Avengers: Endgame, which this year became the highest-grossing movie of all time, and short shorts-wearing avatar Ruby in the Jumanji reboot, the sequel to which is out next month. But it would be wrong to think Liusaidh is any closer to home for the Inverness-born actress, except in terms of geography.

“What I love more than anything is finding empathy and connections between me and this person who’s absolutely nothing like me or has experienced something I’ve never experienced in my life,” she says. “That’s the bulk of my job, to be honest. I love the psychology. That extends to a blue alien in the Marvel films or Liusaidh.

“She is certainly a fictional character,” Gillan continues. “I did not get into the situations she did. I was a pretty good kid. I snuck alcohol into a house with my friends as a teenager, but Bacardi Breezers was pretty much as bad as it got. I wasn’t a wild child. I knew that I wanted to go after this career. When I was 16 I moved to Edinburgh to study at college so I was always focused on the task at hand and didn’t veer too far off that path.”

That sounds very responsible. “Yeah, what a bore,” she laughs.

Growing up in the Highlands had a lasting impact, however, feeding Gillan’s overactive imagination as it developed. “My parents gave me a video camera when I was a kid and so I would always run around making little horror films. It’s a quieter existence. You have more time and space. There’s not constant stimulation. That type of place really helps the imagination thrive.

“For me, it seems like time goes more slowly when I’m there. And that’s why I love going back so much. It’s like I can breathe again.

“I feel like Inverness is a big part of my identity. It’s apt that my first professional film as a director is back there, in the same place with the people I grew up with and the places I used to go. I used a load of locations I definitely spent a lot of time at. The chip shop is where I would drunkenly eat chips with my friends, and my friends were the extras eating chips in the scene.”

A good chippie beats any Hollywood catering. “I know. And we got free chips!” she boasts.

But as much as the peace and quiet can stimulate the imagination, for others it can have the opposite effect. Gillan wanted to tell a story about mental health and suicide after reading about the higher-than-average rates in the area, where someone ends their life every 10 days.

“That lodged in my mind,” she says. “That’s such a strange statistic because it’s such an idyllic, beautiful place to grow up. It has one of the fastest-rising populations because it’s such a nice existence. It’s a good life, so why is that happening?”

Liaising with local charities like Mikeysline, which offers an anonymous text service for people to share their problems, Gillan learned that a lack of communication lies at the heart of the problems, especially in rural regions.

“It’s probably an issue everywhere but in rural areas I can see how that could be heightened, especially in a lot of communities where there are farmers and people in that kind of industry, also leading a more isolated existence.

“Young men in particular have a hard time communicating or coming across as vulnerable. I certainly want to encourage people to remove the stigma. Speaking up would solve a lot of issues.”

In the past, Gillan has directed short films, but this was her full-length feature. How did Karen Gillan the actress find working with Karen Gillan the director?

“It’s like having an out-of-body experience,” she says. “Am I good to work with? No, the lead actress hated her! It’s interesting. I like the collaboration of working with the filmmaker, having that push and pull and challenging each other. 

“There were pros and cons of being the filmmaker and actress because I had total freedom – there was no one to ask, ‘Was that alright?’ I had to really trust myself. That was an experience, not to become reliant on the approval of anyone else. It was freeing, and I gave myself options, loads of different readings and so in the edit I could be the director and mould the performance from all these different choices I’d given myself. I fixed it by doing reshoots with myself.”

So Karen the director had a good relationship with Karen the actress?

“She was good. There’s a lot of brain power required in directing so to be the actress on top of that and try to make yourself cry or something, which also requires a tremendous amount of concentration, I realise that I need to separate them.”

Gillan would like to spend more time behind the camera. The assurance with which she handles The Party’s Just Beginning proves she has what it takes. Gillan says she would be open to directing a big fantasy like a Marvel movie, though she is most attracted to the re-energised horror genre. But acting and directing simultaneously, maybe not.

“In future I’m thinking I have to be the filmmaker or the actress because either one of those jobs requires everything you’ve got.”

The Party’s Just Beginning is in cinemas from December 1