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Karen Gillan Is Hiding in Plain Sight

As soon as we meet Laura, we suspect she’s up to no good. She’s a crucial peripheral character in “Sleeping Dogs,” a “Memento”-like thriller in which retired homicide detective Roy (Russell Crowe), who is in the grips of Alzheimer’s, decides to revisit a past case, worried that he may have sent the wrong man to death row. As part of his new investigation, he crosses paths with Laura, a brilliant researcher in the field of psychology who worked with the murder victim, an arrogant professor. Did she have something to do with his brutal killing?

“Sleeping Dogs” will reintroduce audiences to an actor they already know pretty well. Karen Gillan has been the star of two very successful franchises, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Jumanji,” and before that was part of the “Doctor Who” universe. But as the brittle, mysterious Laura, she’s in a new guise, playing with the conventions of the femme fatale while also playing a woman who is, herself, perhaps putting on a performance. There’s something unknownable—alien, even—about Laura, which makes you distrust everything she says, even when she seems sincere. For a detective who has trouble remembering his past, she’s one more riddle Roy has to solve. For Gillan, it’s another chance to be a scene-stealer.

I recently had a quick Zoom chat with the 36-year-old Scottish actor, who has an easy laugh and a modest demeanor. Despite her fame, she has managed to avoid being defined by any one blockbuster role—and, at the same time, is effortlessly able to slip into a low-budget whodunit like “Sleeping Dogs.” Just don’t expect Gillan to expound on her process—or to take any credit for “Guardian’s” massive success. Below, we talk about Cate Blanchett, winning the parent lottery and the luxury of being able to hide in plain sight. 

When I watched “Sleeping Dogs,” a part of me thought that your character was a twist on the femme fatales you see in noirs. There’s something dangerous, seductive and untrustworthy about her. Or am I imagining that connection?

I definitely took that from the character when I first read the script. But when I started diving into all my preparation of how I’m going to do this, that [approach] left my mind a little bit—I wasn’t like, “I’m going to be a femme fatale,” but that’s a totally valid takeaway from watching it.

So what models were you thinking of for Laura?

One of my first decisions about her character is that she’s a little bit performative—she probably watched other people that she deems to be intellectual or classy, and she would emulate them a little bit. I wanted to do one section in a little bit of a Cate Blanchett-style voice because I was just really enjoying listening to her voice—and she played a very intellectual classical-music character in that film “Tár”—so there was a bit of inspiration there. And then also a bit of Jordan Peterson, because she’s a psychology student—I don’t know if these timelines line up, but there’s a world where she was watching him going, “I’m going to emulate him because he’s receiving a lot of attention for being in the psychology space.”

In her real life, Laura is actually putting on a performanceshe’s trying to convince others she’s someone she’s not. I imagine that’s fun to play as an actor—a character who is herself a kind of act. 

That was the thing that really made me want to play the role—I figured that that mask would change depending on who she’s with, becoming who she needs to be to get what she wants out of the situation. I think everyone does that to a very mild degree, but I just cranked it up with her. I wanted her to feel a bit disingenuous and performative, which was quite a nerve-racking thing to do because it could so easily veer into just looking like bad acting—and it quite possibly does. [Laughs] 

Not at all. But how scary is that feeling: “Will audiences get that there’s something mannered about Laura? Will they just think I’m a terrible actor?” 

It’s hard when you can’t see what you’re doing until it’s finished—I just had to take a stab at it. I remember actually filming myself on my phone just to check how it was coming off, and then adjusting it.

I have my theories on [how Laura got this way], but we could totally disagree on who she is. Is there an authentic self with her? Is there something under all of the masks? That’s a genuine question, because there’s some personality disorders where there are masks and they don’t know what’s underneath because of the trauma that they’ve dealt with in their childhood.

Actors wear a mask—they can get lost in a character. Is that separation between you and a role easy for you to navigate?

I’ve never really thought about that, actually. I’ve never struggled with [that] separation. This is sort of my process: “Okay, [my character] is doing this—why would she do that? Oh, because she wants this. When’s a time that you felt like you wanted something like that?” Then I can be like, “Oh,” and just genuinely do it. 

Because most of your biggest roles require you using an American accent, I wondered if a mask for you in real life is just speaking in your regular voice. You can hide by just being Scottish. 

I think it does create a separation. A lot of people don’t realize I’m the same person—they don’t know that the blue alien in Marvel is the girl from “Jumanji.” That definitely means that I can go about my business more easily. But, really, the biggest thing that I get out of it is that I feel more confident when I’m in disguise [in those roles]. It feels cathartic—it feels like I have license to do all the things that I’d be nervous to do as a person.

What are you nervous to do in real life? 

I was such an anxious person growing up. I couldn’t even maintain eye contact. I was really hunched over, walking around—people would comment on it all the time. And then when I performed, I was able to be all of the things that I was so scared to do as a real-life human. People get drunk and then they lose all their inhibitions—that’s what it felt like [when I performed]. And then I was like, “I must do this as much as possible.” [Laughs]

That must have been an amazing discovery: “Oh, the anxiety goes away when I’m up here on stage.” 

Yeah, I discovered it by doing it, but I probably wanted to do it in the first place because I was so shy that I was like, “I do want to be seen in some way.” And then I found a way to be able to be seen—but maybe not directly. And then I realized, “Oh, my god, I can be so commanding—this is great.” It gave me a sense of self-worth, I suppose.

You’ve been famous for a while now. How does it feel to be seen?

It feels flattering and nice—it’s nice to see that people are watching the stuff that I’m doing. But I’m also not the type of person that is so extroverted to get a lot of energy out of that type of thing, so it’s not really natural to me. But I do appreciate it, and I’m certainly not going to complain.

Whether it’s “Guardians” or “Jumanji” or “Sleeping Dogs,” I think of you as someone who steals scenes. You’re not the top-billed, but the audience’s eye automatically goes to you—we’re interested in what your character is doing. I can’t imagine that that’s something you perceive—and it’s not like you’re trying to pull focus from your co-stars—but I wondered if you had any conception of that dynamic.  

That’s so nice of you to say, but I certainly don’t think about it that way at all. From my perspective, I have moments where I’m like, “Oh, absolutely failed at that, and it’s going to be like that for the rest of my career, and that’s fine.” I don’t really [plan on] stealing attention from other characters, but I do get a sense of when a character is resonating with people. I get a little bit of a sense of that, but that’s about it.

When you’re in these ensemble pieces, how do you approach a character? Do you think, “What makes this person interesting? What makes them stand out?”

I can safely start with assuming that they’re the most important person to themselves every time. But I don’t really approach it with the awareness that I’m in an ensemble and need to do something differently. My attention more goes to “Okay, what can I grab onto emotionally that I know is going to be a well of interesting things?” 

An example would be when I played Nebula in the Marvel films: “Okay, she’s a scapegoated sibling within this toxic family dynamic. She has a golden-child sister, which can be devastating to the scapegoated child who is burdened with everything that’s wrong with the family, never good enough.” That’s something that I’ve been able to explore for nine years over the course of loads of films, and it informs everything that I do within the scenes. It’s all about discovering more things within that.

And you’re an only child—it’s not like you had life experience to draw from.

I definitely didn’t. I won the lottery with my parents—I mean, just brilliant, they’re definitely not like Thanos. [Laughs] I couldn’t really call on my own experiences there, but I do know people that have been scapegoated within their families, and it’s something that I’ve researched a lot. I was able to put myself in their shoes.

Several superhero films have tanked recently. The most recent “Guardians” did not. What is the secret to that franchise still thriving where others have run out of gas?

It’s James Gunn. Not a big secret—everyone knows. He’s just such a brilliant writer and filmmaker, and these characters are extensions of him. It’s all him. 

When I read YouTube comments for your videos, one of the most common responses is that you seem very down-to-earth. Talking to you, I get that feeling, too.

My mom will be very happy that you just said that—she really values [staying down-to-earth], so that’s probably why I value it. But, no, I’m from a very working-class background, and I’m just not going to get caught up in all that rubbish. Absolutely not.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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