‘Oculus': Karen Gillan on ‘Doctor Who,’ horror, action hero boot camp

April 12, 2014 | 9:00 a.m.
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Karen Gillan attends the pre-reception for the screening of Relativity Media's "Oculus" at the Roosevelt Hotel on April 3, 2014 in Hollywood, Calif. (Mike Windle/Getty Images)

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Karen Gillan and Matt Smith at the screening of "Oculus" at TLC Chinese 6 Theatres on April 3, 2014 in Hollywood, Calif. (Mike Windle/Getty Images)

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Matt Smith and Karen Gillan filming on location for "Doctor Who" in Central Park on April 11, 2012 in New York City. (Bobby Bank/WireImage)

In her childhood years in Inverness, the quaint Scottish city nestled miles away from Loch Ness in the country’s picturesque highlands, Karen Gillan developed a bit of an obsession with darkness – perhaps a natural reaction to growing up in a place with limited sunlight and the mythical presence of monsters nearby.

As a young girl, she’d watch episodes of “Tales of the Unexpected” with her mother and films such as Wes Craven’s satiric “Scream” with her friends.

“One time, my friend came over to my house dressed in the ‘Scream’ costume and jumped into my room and it was the scariest moment of my life,” Gillan recalled recently over a cup of English breakfast tea at a West Hollywood hotel. “I’ve always been a horror film fan.”

Karen Gillian stars in "Oculus." (Relativity)

Karen Gillian stars in “Oculus.” (Relativity)

So, when director Mike Flanagan approached Gillan about starring in his time-bending “Oculus,” playing Kaylie Russell, a young woman determined to literally confront the demons of her past, she was intrigued.

“She’s an interesting character,” Gillan said. “Instead of running away from the threat, she’s running to it. And the worse things get, the more excited she gets because it’s verifying everything that she’s been believing to be true.”

There’s no question that things go from bad to worse for Kaylie during the course of the movie, which arrived in theaters Friday bolstered by largely positive notices – it earned a 71% fresh rating on the review-aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes.

Based on a short Flanagan made for roughly $1,500 in 2005, “Oculus” centers on an ornate antique mirror called the Lasser Glass that slowly drives its owners to murder, suicide or insanity. Much of the film takes place in a past with young Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and her brother, Tim (Garrett Ryan), watching their parents (played by Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff) behave in increasingly erratic and lethal ways after the cursed object comes into their possession.

But “Oculus” also jumps forward to present day as Kaylie recruits her now grown brother (Brenton Thwaites) to help her defeat the evil force that resides inside the Lasser Glass.

If anyone should know how to play someone who can keep a level head when presented with the supernatural, it’s Gillan. The 26-year-old model-turned-actress is perhaps best known in the U.S. for her turn as Amy Pond, companion to Matt Smith’s bow-tie-sporting time lord on the critically lauded cult TV series “Doctor Who.”

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in "Doctor Who." (BBC)

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in “Doctor Who.” (BBC)

It was her three-year run on that show that led to her “Oculus” casting. She was in her childhood bedroom in her parents’ Inverness home when she first spoke to Flanagan over Skype.

“I was trying to impress him, really eager to please,” Gillan said brightly. “And then he takes a swig of coffee and it’s a TARDIS mug, which, you know, is the spaceship in ‘Doctor Who,’ and I was like, OK, so this is in the bag.”

Flanagan was indeed a “Doctor Who” fan and wrote the role of Kaylie with Gillan in mind.

“Karen brings that spitfire intensity everywhere she goes,” Flanagan said in a separate interview, speaking by phone from Philadelphia. “For a character like this, she’s hopefully a unique heroine in the genre because she’s more prepared for the monster in this movie than just about any other character I can think of…. There aren’t as many actors out there that I think are as strong as Karen. It’s really hard to think of Karen Gillan as a victim.”

“Oculus” was filmed in only 24 production days just outside of Mobile, Ala., in the fall of 2012. It was Gillan’s first extended stay in the United States, though the actress has since relocated to Los Angeles full time.

“I loved it — it reminded me of Scotland because it felt quite rural and we fry everything,” Gillan said.

She said the scariest aspect of the shoot had nothing to do with any kind of paranormal activity. (“When you’re making it and you’re there and you see the ghosts having lunch,” Gillan said, “it kind of kills it.”)

Instead, she was more intimidated by the thought of having to recite a long stretch of dialogue in which Kaylie relates the mirror’s deadly history to an incredulous Tim.

Karen Gillian and Brenton Thwaites star in "Oculus." (John Estes/ Relativity)

Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites star in “Oculus.” (John Estes/ Relativity)

“It was like dates and facts, so it was like a presentation,” Gillan said. “I couldn’t believe it! It was one of the huge reasons why I wanted the role so much. I just think it’s such a risk to let someone talk for 10 minutes in a film. When do you ever see it?”

It’s far from the riskiest thing Gillan’s done so far for a role. To play the sadistic villain Nebula in Marvel’s cosmic action adventure, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” set for release Aug. 1, she shaved her head, saying goodbye to her signature red tresses and undergoing rigorous stunt training – or, in Gillan’s words, “action hero boot camp.”

“She’s got a cybernetic arm, a cybernetic eye, she’s completely blue and bald and she’s like a master of weaponry,” Gillan said. “Whenever I would walk around, people were literally gasping at me, and I was like, ‘Sure, this is worth five hours [in the makeup chair] for this.’

“The transformational aspect of that … that’s what I want to be as an actress,” she continued. I want to play completely different things that are so far removed from myself. I want to be a character actress — it’s all about choices, really. I want to make the right ones.”

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


6 Responses to ‘Oculus': Karen Gillan on ‘Doctor Who,’ horror, action hero boot camp

  1. Ron Elsner says:

    I love anything this actress does. Just back fro seeing Oculus. She is awesome.

  2. Raymond Adamson says:

    Think Ms.Gillan has demonstrated quite a range as an actress in the work she has played already and the valuable experience she has gained from working with some of Britains' most accomplished acting talent in Doctor Who should help her in her ambition to establish herself as a character actor.I thought it was significant when her participation in 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' was announced that there was a wide range of suggestions from fans about the character she could play in the story, which is demonstrative of her ability.When she was adjusting to working with new crews on different projects,it must have been comforting to share the learning experience with a new director who was making his first full length feature.Look forward to the film being available to watch in Scotland.Nice photographs,incidentally.

  3. Raymond Adamson says:

    Must have been comforting working with a new director making his first feature as Ms Gillan adjusted to the process of working with new crews on different projects after moving on from Doctor Who.Most of the material Karen has delivered has demonstrated that she has a lot of range as an actress.She's effective with dramatic or comedic material,has considerable experience of integrating her performance with complicated special effects and action choreography and is more interested in the audience accepting her in a role rather than the recognition attached to it.Hope 'Oculus' performs respectably at the box office since it seems to have been fairly well received critically.

  4. Rebekahlyn says:

    i love u Karen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Dean Willkomm says:

    Loved Karen Gillan as a young actress in “Doctor Who” and happy to see her starring in such a suspenseful horror film. I was impressed to see her hold her own as the lead character in “Oculus.” She made the film for me. Bravo!

  6. Raymond Adamson says:

    Compelled to apologise to Mr Flanagan writer/director of Oculus for not being aware that he had made a full length feature called 'Absentia' before 'Oculus'.Mea Culpa,sir.Congratulations on your new film.Pleased to hear that you really enjoy Doctor Who too.

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