Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is unlike any Marvel film to date, and not just because it gets deeper, realer, and more emotional than ever with this cinematic universe’s most lovable squad of superheroes.
It’s unique because of the way it untangles a thorny, festering, complex bond between two women—one of precious few such female relationships in Marvel’s bro-heavy movie mega-franchise—stepsisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula, the seething, blue humanoid assassin played by Scottish actress Karen Gillan.
Nebula cuts a starkly tragic figure in the otherwise poppy landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A quick (and, fair warning, morbid) refresher: Her entire family was murdered by intergalactic ultra-baddie Thanos, who then raised Nebula as his own along with the orphaned Gamora. The girls grew up constantly pitted against each other in fights and tests of strength, thanks to their warmongering stepdad’s twisted emphasis on brute power above all.
Each time Gamora beat Nebula in a fight—which was every time, without fail—Thanos would do the unthinkable: He would torture his stepdaughter, dismembering her and replacing parts of her body with cybernetic enhancements. The aim, as he told her, was to shape her into her sister Gamora’s equal. As Nebula remains only too hyper-aware, he never quite reached that goal.
Driven by rage and a Loki-level inferiority complex (nothing makes the god of mischief’s princely angst look more laughable than Nebula’s life story), the antiheroine does attain some measure of redemption in Guardians 2. Along the way, she bares surprising depth and vulnerability—and renews her focus on a new life goal: killing her torturer, Thanos. It’s one of the most impactful emotional arcs of the film.
“You always wanted to win; I just wanted a sister,” Nebula snarls at Gamora after losing yet another earth-rending duel, broken limbs whirring mechanically back into place. The line, delivered by Gillan with a heartbreaking note of desperation, reveals new dimensions to the character often dismissed as the “evil stepsister.”
There is real-word resonance in Gamora and Nebula’s artificial rivalry, Gillan says. “That just feels like a representation of women in general,” she sighs. “We’re all just pitted against each other and people create a competition that isn’t even there.”
Perched on a leather couch inside New York’s Edition hotel, the redheaded Scot grows passionate in defense of her character. “I consider myself to be like Nebula’s lawyer,” she laughs. “I’m here to explain to everyone why she is justified in doing all the things she did. She’s been treated so poorly in the past.”
Vindication for Nebula is a long time coming for Gillan, who’s understood the tortured depths of her character long before that ever shone onscreen.
In her very first screen test, back before filming kicked off for 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Gillan says she and director James Gunn discovered the “broken,” sympathetic side of the then-villainess together. “We didn’t really take her in that direction in the first movie, but there were full-on tears in the screen test,” she says. “To rediscover that again in this movie felt really special.”
That Nebula lived to see Guardians 2 at all is its own kind of miracle: She was supposed to get killed off at the end of the first film, at least according to the first script Gillan read. “That got rewritten and then it changed again,” she says carefully. “Obviously rewrites happen a lot in movies as you’re going along anyway. I don’t know what their long-term plans were, but I was like, OK, cool, they’re gonna resuscitate her for a little while.”
Of all Marvel’s major film heroines to date, Nebula stands in a category of her own—she’s neither a love interest (“there’s no romance going on there, which is actually incredible,” Gillan says), nor a sidekick, nor does she fit the dreaded Strong Female Character archetype. She’s strong, yes, and capable and cunning—but also wounded, angry, and emotionally damaged. She’s a flawed, fully-realized character, the kind women rarely get to be in superhero films.
Crafting female characters who feel like real, dysfunctional humans is something Gillan feels other superhero movies have lately lost sight of.
“I feel like we were almost in danger of [superhero movies] creating a stereotype where all the women were incredibly strong and there was no weakness,” she says. “Because that’s what’s P.C. now, to display them as the opposite of damsels in distress. And it’s like, well actually, sometimes women are vulnerable, and sometimes they are strong. That’s what’s interesting, is finding your strength through the weakness.”
She points to Guardians 2’s cast of female characters—the “biggest variety” of female personalities she’s seen yet in a big-budget superhero outing—as prime examples. “We have strong women but we also see Nebula and Gamora being extremely vulnerable,” she says. “We have Mantis [an empath played by Pom Klementieff], who is really peculiar and almost submissive at times but then finds her strength. We need the whole range of female characters in these types of movies.”
Gillan, 29, earned her sci-fi bona fides as Doctor Who companion Amy Pond opposite Matt Smith in the eleventh incarnation of the doctor. After wrapping the show in 2013 and transplanting to L.A., Gillan began carving out a steady list of memorable roles in well-received projects, including Oscar-winner The Big Short and the too-short-lived ABC rom-com Selfie, in which she starred as a modern-day Eliza Doolittle opposite dreamboat leading man John Cho.
The series, canceled after just 13 episodes, marked the first time an actor of Asian descent had been cast as a romantic lead in an American TV show. It was notable for its win for representation, but also for its undeniable charm—much of which Gillan credits to Cho. “He’s got that look down,” she laughs, trying to mimic it. “Hugh Grant can do it as well, where he just looks like he’s in love. That’s such a dangerous skill to have.”
Along with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gillan costars this month in tech thriller The Circle, an adaptation of Dave Eggers’ book about a powerful, Facebook-like company that eagerly encourages oversharing in a bid for total user transparency. Gillan, tapping into some of the simmering resentment that drives Nebula, plays an overworked employee increasingly disgusted with the company’s infringements on private citizens and her own role in implementing them. “It’s so plausible,” says Gillan of the film’s almost-dystopia. “There’s a real sense of foreboding that we’re almost there.”
Christmas will bring The Rock’s new Jumanji adventure, Welcome to the Jungle, in which Gillan plays a scantily clad ’90s video-game avatar, specifically “the Lara Croft type.” Her costume—short shorts, a crop top, comically useless leather straps accentuating her breasts—prompted a minor outcry when it was first unveiled late last year. Gillan says she can understand the knee-jerk reaction.
“Gender equality is at the forefront of our conversations right now and that’s great,” she says, emphasizing, “I’m really happy about that.”
“And then along comes a picture that kind of encapsulates [the problem] in one visual, so I understand, but I have a bit more context to it,” she continues. “I understand that in the movie, my character is having the same reaction to the costume that everybody else is. She’s shouting at the guys, ‘This is not fair! Why am I wearing this?’ So actually for me, it was more of a comment on dressing women like that than it was just having them dress me like that … My character is the strong feminist-type girl and she just not into it at all.”
Franchise talk aside, Gillan grows far more animated when discussing her own upcoming filmmaking debut, with a Scotland-set feature she wrote, directed, and stars in called The Party’s Just Beginning. “It’s like I found what I’m supposed to do,” she says of her new calling. “I mean, I love acting and I will continue to do that, but directing felt really special.”
The alarming lack of female directors being hired in film and TV—numbers of which are declining—is a plight Gillan knows well. “I’ve worked as an actress for quite a few years now and I have barely worked with any female directors,” she says. “It’s quite shocking actually… I did TV shows and you get a new director each time, and I’ve still only worked with one, maybe two female [directors].
“I never saw a lot of women in that role and I think, therefore, never considered it for myself,” she continues, pinpointing one reason the problem persists. “It’s not like I thought I can’t do that, it’s more like it just didn’t cross my mind. And it’s like, wait a minute. I’ve been directing movies since I was a kid on my own videocameras. I can totally do this. I feel like I should do this.”
“It’s definitely something I’m going to continue,” she vows.
With her own film in post-production—“we just finished editing it and now we’re moving into sound design and all that,” she says proudly—Gillan, for now, is immersing herself back in the Marvel universe. The rabidly anticipated Avengers/Guardians of the Galaxy team-up Infinity War, which will take place four years after Vol. 2, began filming in Atlanta in January. Gillan, while sworn to secrecy, promises Nebula “has some really cool stuff” planned for the mega-crossover.
As for whether her reformed antiheroine really will exact her revenge on Thanos—she’ll apparently have a fair amount of competition from Marvel’s entire roster of big-screen superheroes—Gillan remains coy but hopeful: “Nebula deserves it more than everyone combined!” she laughs. “I’m really hoping for that.” Fingers crossed.