This has been quite a few days for Karen Gillan. Her directorial debut, The Party’s Just Beginning, just played the Tribeca Film Festival, and her other movie you may have heard of, Avengers: Infinity War, opens this weekend. (Also, not to mention that Sony has just announced another Jumanji film, but it’s so far unclear who all is returning other than Dwayne Johnson.)
In The Party’s Just Beginning, Gillan directs, wrote and stars in a film about a woman who is coping with the suicide of her friend, based on a statistic Gillan read about the unusually high suicide rate from her hometown of Inverness and the Scottish Highlands. And Gillan is returning as Nebula, the daughter of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. This interview was conducted a couple of days before either of us had seen Infinity War, but Nebula plays an important role in the film and in a movie chocked full of characters, she gets a lot more screentime than you’re probably expecting.
Ahead, Gillan talks about her pretty big last few months and she shares what she learned from James Gunn when it comes to directing other actors.
The Party’s Just Beginning seems very personal. Well, obviously, you wrote it and directed it…
Yeah. Well, you know, it’s funny, where it all came from, the genesis of the whole thing: I read a statistic that the suicide rates were significantly higher among young men in the Highlands of Scotland than the rest of Scotland, and that just struck me as so weird because I grew up there and my whole childhood was pretty idyllic. I mean, just running around beautiful landscape…
I’ve been there. It really is beautiful.
Yeah, okay, then you know, it’s lovely.
I’ve been to Inverness. I spent a week in the Highlands. Yeah, it’s beautiful.
It’s lovely, it really is. Okay, so now you can understand why it’s such a weird prediction.
I remember there were no radio stations.
Oh, there’s one local one in Inverness.
I couldn’t get it when I got to the Highlands. The car rental place gave me a CD to listen to. It was The Sopranos soundtrack. When I hear the theme song I think of Scotland.
That’s so funny. Yeah, it is very cut-off from the rest of the world in parts of the Highlands. I mean, just no phone signal, no radio signal. So that is actually part of the whole thing; maybe a sense of isolation, a little bit. But so the story is not something I’ve actually experienced personally, so the whole suicide issue is something that I researched and it’s almost like me exploring that statistic a little bit. However, there is a lot of other personal stuff in there that I used to kind of tell the story in a sort of personal, authentic way.
What did you use? Because you watch this and you can’t help but think, oh, she must have gone through something like this.
Well, thanks. I’m glad that you feel that way. I mean, I did a lot of research and also I pulled from people that I’d heard about or maybe knew growing up. There’s elements of all of that mixed in with a sort of fictional through-line. And I feel like the character has a lot of elements of me in there. And then I’ve used my imagination and maybe heightened a lot of things.
Use your imagination to heighten things, that sounds tricky because I’m sure you want to be respectful of whoever has gone through something like this?
Yeah, I mean I definitely wanted to be respectful towards the subject matter and anyone who has dealt with this, because it’s very traumatic. I just did a lot of research. But I think one of my strong points as a filmmaker is character understanding, because of my acting background.
Does acting actually help directing?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, massively in terms of interacting with actors.
Because sometimes actors think they can direct and it doesn’t always work out…
Well, I think that it helps just like one section of directing, which is the acting – you know, directing the actors and talking to the actors part, which is a huge part of directing but it’s not the whole thing.
Is it the ego part of it?
Well, I’ve just worked with so many directors as an actress, so I know exactly what I want from a director. So I was able to give that to the actors.
What do they want?
So, they want an environment that is safe so that they can offer up their ideas and take risks, like artistically. And not be scared that they’re going to get laughed at or shut down, which, it happens. That happens.
In your experience, have you offered, “Oh, you know what would be a great idea?” And then you got laughed at?
Yes! It’s like, “Haha, no. We’re not doing that.”
Oh, that’s awful.
Yeah, yeah, and then it sort of stops you.
When did that happen?
Oh, I don’t even remember the specifics. I mean, I’ve worked with so many people, especially in television where they change over every week.
It would be funny if you were like, “It was James Gunn. Let me tell you a story about him.”
Actually! James Gunn is the greatest director in terms of talking to actors.
Oh I’ve heard that…
Oh, yeah. He knows exactly what to do. He is the one that actually really taught me how to create a good environment for actors. He just gives you wings. He would never laugh at an idea. He makes fun of his actors all the time in a very kind of affectionate way. But no, he listens to all of your ideas and he really respects the actors and what they do.
When something like Jumanji comes along, is that one of those where you’re just like, “Yeah, sure, that sounds fun,” and not realizing it was going to do what it did? You’re going to be playing Ruby Roundhouse like 75 more times.
[Laughs] Well, I was really excited because I loved the original Jumanji so much.
But no one expected it to be that massive a hit.
It became a phenomenon.
Yes, right? So, I mean it was a big deal to me, obviously. I mean, everyone else in the movie is a gigantic movie star. So I was like, how the hell am I in this? I was always just so grateful to be there and I think that we all felt it was going to do well. It was the perfect movie for the holiday season and the whole family could watch it. And those are the types of things that hopefully do well if they’re executed well. But I don’t think any of us anticipated this level of success. It’s been amazing.
It was like battling Star Wars back and forth.
I know. It’s madness.
It kind of really is…
Yeah, it’s crazy. I think people really want a good family movie where parents and their children can laugh at the same jokes. I think there’s a bit of a gap in the market, almost, for that.
So people will finally start seeing Avengers: Infinity War this week.
Yeah, I’m seeing it on Monday for the first time as well. So we’re all on the same page. No one has seen it. The actors haven’t seen it.
There are a lot of surprises.
Yes! I mean, I haven’t read a full script.
I’m assuming unless you’re the actor involved in the surprise, you probably don’t know.
No, I don’t know anything. I mean, it’s kind of fun and weirdly liberating to just go, okay, I’m just going to shoot my scenes and I don’t know how they fit into the overall context. And then on Monday just get to watch it objectively as a movie.
Nebula seems like a fun role.
Well, the makeup seems like a lot.
The makeup is a lot in the morning.
And you shaved your head for the first time you played her…
You don’t do that anymore, right?
No. I’ve been keeping more hair each time.
That seems like that would limit other stuff you can do for a while.
Yeah, very much so. I mean, there are wigs, but yeah, I shaved my head, so I was like bald about five years ago. But I was glad that I did it. It was a liberating experience.
That’s another one, the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Everyone’s like, “What’s this?” and then it’s a phenomenon. This is a pattern for you.
I mean, I’m not complaining about that.
That would be funny if you did, “Ugh, why do people keep liking my movies?”
“Yeah, what’s going on?”
Do you feel more invested in The Party’s Just Beginning because you also wrote and directed it?
Well, I mean, I feel invested in all of them, to be honest. But, yeah, this is like my baby. I mean, yes. I feel incredibly invested, but also it’s kind of one of those movies that’s never going to do commercially well and it wasn’t really intended for that, so it feels like a very different ballgame. I just hope that it connects with people and maybe people it might start conversations or something.
The Inverness Tourist Board will probably not be screening this one.
[Laughs] No, I don’t think it’s the best.
But I can say it’s a very nice city.
Go visit, yeah. And I hope that my pride of coming from there shines through in the movie a little bit, but it kind of comes through in a very Scottish way where it’s like a bit sort of more gritty. So it’s a sense of pride, but almost combined with this sort of darker side of it.
Everything with the Tribeca Film Festival going okay?
I’m having a total blast! Yeah.
And then you go to L.A. for the Avengers premiere.
Yes. So two premieres in the space of 24 hours. Mad!
They’re showing it here. It won’t be as glamorous, though.
It’ll just be people like me.
[Laughs] Oh, hey! That’s not bad!
I’d much rather go to the L.A. premiere. It sounds fun.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.