'Jumanji' Star Karen Gillan Reveals the 'Avengers' Scene She Improvised

Karen Gillan - Getty - H 2019
Matt Winkelmeyer/FilmMagic
The actor, who has become an action movie go-to, also weighs in on Martha's journey in 'Next Level' and reading the script for 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3': "I think it’s the best of the trilogy."

Karen Gillan never planned on becoming an action star, but based on the skill she’s shown in her recent work, it’s easy to think otherwise. With Jumanji: The Next Level, the title is quite fitting for Gillan’s Martha character as she’s evolved into a confident leader as a result of winning Jumanji already and going away to college. Gillan, as the Ruby Roundhouse avatar, has also upped the ante in terms of her action sequences.

“We had the team from Mission: Impossible [stunt coordinator, second unit director Wade Eastwood] come on to the movie,” Gillan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m not sure I was quite Tom Cruise level, but I did the whole nunchuck fight, for sure. I had nunchucks on me on set every day so that I could practice in between other scenes. I’m pretty sure a few people got hurt in my practicing process. (Laughs.) I did the whole thing by the end.”

Eight months removed from her significant role as Nebula in the biggest film of all time, Avengers: Endgame, Gillan is finally able to open up about the experience of working closely with Robert Downey Jr. as well as the complicated process of playing two different Nebulas. Despite cutting her teeth on the beloved time-travel series Doctor Who, even Gillan needed a primer for Endgame’s time-travel shenanigans, noting it was confounding, especially since she didn’t have the full script. 

“The way we differentiated them was by calling them ‘good Nebula’ and ‘bad Nebula,’” Gillan recalls. “I had a lot of time-travel questions coming from a time-travel background. The directors really kept me on track. I just found out whatever I needed to know for each scene.”

She also reveals who prevailed in an early scene in which Nebula and Downey’s Tony Stark play paper football.

“Well, I think it was me because that scene was improvised. And I won,” Gillan says with a laugh.

In a recent conversation with THR, Gillan also discusses the latest on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Marvel’s What If…? and how Nebula’s makeup and prosthetics inform her performance.

Since the avatars wore the same wardrobe for the entirety of the first movie and half of the second movie, were you and the rest of the cast thrilled to finally change your avatars’ wardrobe?

I certainly was because we went into some very cold conditions, and I was like, “I’m not going to be wearing that in the cold conditions, am I?” And they were like, “No, we’re going to get you a whole new outfit.” I think everyone was excited to change it up a little bit and evolve the look of the characters.

Growing up, when you envisioned your career, was being an action star remotely part of the plan?

(Laughs.) Not at all. That sounds so absurd even hearing you say that. No, I grew up in Scotland in the middle of nowhere, studying Greek tragedy. (Laughs.) I aimed for stage, film and television, but even that sounded crazy and far-fetched. Never did I imagine that I would be learning how to use nunchucks.

Your American accent seems pretty dialed in at this point. Do you still need a dialect coach, or do you have it down by now?

For general American, I don’t use a dialect coach anymore, but it depends on where the character is from. If it’s anything except general American, I will still use a dialect coach, and I really like doing that. Sometimes, it’s not even about the accent. It’ll just be: what period are we in, or what is the intonation or rhythm. So, I still like to work on that, but for the general American, modern-day girl, I don’t do that anymore.

It’s well-established how good you are at impressions. So, as I was watching the film, I kept wondering what your Danny DeVito or Danny Glover would be like. Did you give director Jake Kasdan a little bit of a hard time about this?

I was a little jealous that I didn’t get to play around … I was and I wasn’t because I do love my character — and I do feel like I’m playing a character. I’m getting to put on an accent and play a teenager. She’s evolved so much from the last film; I did feel like it was something new for me because she was so shy in the last film. She started to access her confidence, but in this film, she has to become the leader of the whole team, essentially. She steps into the Spencer role a little. That was enough of an evolution to keep me satisfied as an actor. So, I was really excited to dive into all of that.

Did you at least do your own versions of DeVito and Glover in between takes?

(Laughs.) I didn’t, but I’ve been doing it a lot on this press tour. I don’t know why.

In the Jumanji berry scene with you and Jack (Black), Martha and Fridge briefly switch avatars. Did you enjoy playing someone different, as fleeting as it was?

Yes, that was so much fun. I was so glad that I did get to play around with the character switching a little bit. I can safely say that’s the one and only time I’ll ever get cast as that type of role. (Laughs.) So I relished the opportunity. 

As you mentioned, Martha seems more confident having beaten this game already. Going away to college is also how a lot of introverted or shy teenagers gain confidence. When you were developing this version of Martha, did you think back to the time when you had your biggest boost in confidence and draw on that?

The way I approached this character and where she’s at now is that she kind of got a fresh start. She was able to reinvent herself by going to university, but actually, what she ended up doing was trying on a few different personalities and maybe, underneath it all, feeling like a little bit of a fraud. Because she’s like, “Am I being true to myself?” That’s how I came toward this character this time around, and I think the game knows. It sent her into the same avatar to send her on this journey of rediscovering herself.

It’s a tired question at this point, but if you had to exist within a video game you love, what would you choose?

I’m gonna go Tekken, and I’m bringing dance fighting ... Or Sonic 3.

What we say is often influenced by what we’re reading. Thus, do your characters’ lines ever creep into your real-life conversations?

Ooh. I hope not. That would be weird if I was bringing them home with me, but I’m sure I do. I honestly think every time I play a character, my accent gets more diluted. So it’s just becoming really weird. I need to go back to Scotland every so often to reset. Otherwise, I’m going to end up with this really nondescript strange accent. (Laughs.)

Have people in Scotland noticed that your accent is less Scottish these days?

Yeah, people accuse me of developing a twang — an American twang. I immediately overcompensate and go really broad Scottish whenever I hear a sentence like that. (Laughs.)

You have some notable action sequences in this film, including the fortress fight that leads to nunchucks. How much did they let you do in this scene, and how much prep went into it?

So much prep. We had the team from Mission: Impossible [stunt coordinator, second unit director Wade Eastwood] come on to the movie. I’m not sure I was quite Tom Cruise level, but I did the whole nunchuck fight, for sure. I was practicing for such a long time. I had nunchucks on me on set every day so that I could practice in between other scenes. I’m pretty sure a few people got hurt in my practicing process. (Laughs.) I did the whole thing by the end. So I was pretty proud of my nunchuck skills.

Did the makeup department have to conceal any self-inflicted bruises from the nunchucks?

Yeah, there was actually a few bruises on me, and maybe a couple on Nick Jonas. I remember him getting caught in the firing line one time. (Laughs.)

As you take on more and more action roles, have you noticed that you're learning things quicker since you've had enough repetition by now?

100 percent. I’d never done action sequences before, and the first time I think I ever really did one was when I was auditioning to play Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy. As part of the screen test, they wanted you to learn a fight routine and then just do it to the air. I was all over the place; I was not good at it. They made me practice so much on that movie — like every day that I wasn’t shooting for three months. I think that was such a good foundation, and then everything felt a little easier after that crazy experience. With each movie, I can see my action really getting better, and it all sort of culminated on the last film that I shot called Gunpowder Milkshake. I’m doing the most interesting and creative action sequences, I think, I’ve ever seen in my life.

Did you do Martha’s rope-swinging on a green screen stage of sorts?

Yes! They had me really high on a harness with a really long rope, and they just swung me back and forth in a giant studio. It was really scary at first, and then it quickly became the most fun I’ve had on a film set. 

Now that you can talk about Avengers: Endgame, who was actually better at flicking paper footballs: you or Robert Downey Jr.?

Well, I think it was me because that scene was improvised. And I won. (Laughs.)

Since you played two different Nebulas in Endgame, was it confounding to jump back and forth between each character in your head like that?

Yeah, it was, actually, especially when you don’t have the full script. The way we differentiated them was by calling them “good Nebula” and “bad Nebula.” I had a lot of time travel questions coming from a time-travel background. The directors (the Russo Brothers) really kept me on track. So they were all over that, and I just found out whatever I needed to know for each scene. When I finally watched it, I was like, “Oh, this makes a lot of sense.”

Her makeup and prosthetics have to be uncomfortable. Do you channel that discomfort when playing the darker side of Nebula?

I do think that they have an effect on me. They really do get me into character. I don’t know if they always did or whether I just started to associate the mask going on and then I’m Nebula. They do sort of make me a bit less excitable, which I am naturally as a person. I can’t really move my face, and I feel a bit restrictive. So, yes, it absolutely informs the performance.

Have you completed your voice work on Marvel’s What If … yet?

I have! It’s very good. And funny. It’ll be great for fans to see alternatives or alternate realities for their favorite characters.

Do you have a rough idea of when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 starts up?

I don’t know exactly. I think it’ll be in the next couple of years, but I’ve read Vol. 3 and I think it’s the best of the trilogy. I know that we’re all really excited to have James Gunn back as our fearless leader. So we’re all just really looking forward to getting back together.

You touched on it earlier, but how did Gunpowder Milkshake go overall?

It was so incredible. I had one of the best experiences of my life on that film. I think just being really excited about what you’re making, artistically, combined with working with really talented, excited, artistic people is just the best you can hope for. I feel so lucky to have made a film that I feel this passionately about. Just the action sequences alone, I think people have never seen anything like this before. It’s new territory; it’s creative, funny and weird. It was so good and so difficult. I can’t believe how hard I had to train for that.

After directing your first feature, The Party’s Just Beginning, are you champing at the bit to direct again?

You don’t even know the half of it! Yes, I am. I just made another short film earlier this year — before we shot Jumanji — just to scratch that itch before I went into two films, back-to-back, as an actor. I actually took so long to edit this short because I’ve been filming most of the time. So I’m just finishing that up now, and next year, I’m definitely going to direct something because it’s time to make another one.