Gillan is Nebula, a blue alien who has been artificially (technologically) enhanced. She's got jet black shark's eyes and fearsome armor and she can wield a sword like nobody's business. (Saldana described her character's relationship with Nebula as "complicated," saying that the characters have "very, very similar paths." "They were abducted from their families, their parents were probably killed in front of them." Still, Nebula stands apart according to Saldana, mostly due to her dogged refusal to do anything even remotely heroic: "She's just different; she's never really had it in her.")
When we visited the set last year it was Gillan's last day as Nebula, and as she walked off the set and into the empty soundstage where we had gathered, our blood ran cold. She just looked so intimidating; a sleek, futuristic nightmare sprung to brutal, vibrant life. But then Gillan started to talk, and while she might have looked like a psychotic killer from the darkest corners of the cosmos, she was also very cute and charming and affectionate. This, folks, is what they call acting.
What might have been more surprising than the differences between Gillan and her character was how excited the actress clearly still was. When someone brought up the craziness of the make-up, Gillan sprung to life. "It's certainly the craziest I've ever worn! Also, I don't have my contact lenses in right now, which are normally -- I just have completely black eyes. It's so cool!"
Oh, and one other thing about Gillan's transformation into Nebula: she had to shave her head. Gillan said that when she was offered the role, they mentioned that she had would have to lose her locks (when we talked to her for "Oculus" at South by Southwest earlier this year, her hair had grown into a pixie bob that was really great). "I was told even before I auditioned that the actress who got this would have to shave her head, and I didn't think I was going to get it," Gillan admitted. "So I was like, 'absolutely, I will shave my head! Sure!' Then like three screen tests later, it was oh God, this might actually happen." Still, when she secured the role, she didn't give it too much thought. "I got the part, and then I thought about it seriously, and I was like, 'I absolutely want to shave my head for this,' " she said. "Because, I mean, the opportunity is too good to pass up."
When someone brought up the fact that Peter Gabriel said that everyone should shave their head once, because it gives them humility, Gillan became noticeably more animated. "I think he's right! I do! It's totally liberating and, I don't know... I feel like I always had this long hair and to get rid of that is a total identity change," Gillan explained. "To see how people react to that is different -- is interesting as well." (The biggest difference since she shaved her head? "I feel like men don't hold the door open as much.")
For most of the interview, Gillan was a ball of exclamations. When someone asked if she ever thought the words "action star" and "super villain" would be connected with her name, she said, "That's the coolest thing I've ever heard!" On her newfound action chops: "Now, I think I could like fight!" And whether or not a character this different will open up new doors for her? "I mean, I hope it's an open avenue for me now, because I've had the best time doing this!" Oh, and the grueling, four-hour-long process of applying and painting all of the make-up and prosthetics? "It's really intense going through this makeup in the morning, but it's amazing!" On director James Gunn: "He's the best!" Can you see why she makes an unlikely baddie?
At one point, Gillan confesses that she initially tried the character (who she describes as "a total sadist" and "only slightly robotic") with Scottish accent but it just didn't hold. "I'm playing it American," she said. "We tried it in Scottish, I screen tested in a Scottish accent, but then [director] James Gunn was like, 'no, I think you should just do it in American,' and I said okay."
Somebody brought up the fact that, between "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Doctor Who" ("Oculus" wasn't on anybody's radar at that point, and is only now etching out a place as a cult classic), she has become something of a nerd girl icon. This is clearly not something that she thinks about or is particularly bothered by. "I guess it's just kind of turned out that way, which I'm not complaining about because the roles are amazing," she admitted, gracefully. "I mean, I loved working on 'Doctor Who,' that was so much fun and the character was really great. And this is a totally different character but kind of in the same genre. I don't know! It's just sort of turned out that way, but I'm glad that it has!" She doesn't even have an unkind word to say about the sometimes hostile internet crowd: "People on twitter were really nice, so that's good!"
Since so much of our chat with Gillan had to do with her amazing make-up and costume (things that, honestly would be pretty boring to read about), and since we were commemorating her last day of principle photography (there would end up being some pick-ups a little later that thankfully didn't require her to shave her head again), the question was posed: What recommendations would you give the little girls of the world out there, who are going to attempt to be Nebula for Halloween? "The Halloween costume? Yeah, I should make like a YouTube video of it. Right now!" Gillan said, with such enthusiasm that we half expected her to dash out of the soundstage and fire up her iMac. She then got a little more contemplative.
"That's gonna be so cool. That's amazing. I hope that people dress as Nebula, though I don't know about this..." She rubs her head. And then, with that trademark Gillan spark, has a suggestion: "Loads of bad bald caps!"
"Guardians of the Galaxy" opens nationwide August 1.