The Transformation Of Karen Gillan From Childhood To Thor: Love And Thunder

Karen Gillan's natural red hair makes her a quintessential Scottish lass, but she rarely portrays that in a character. In the years since she played Amy Pond in "Doctor Who," she's gotten so good at perfecting her American accent that you'd be forgiven for forgetting that she actually hails from the Highlands. "It's gotten to the point now where I'm more comfortable acting in a different accent," she revealed to Wired. "I'm really comfortable in an American accent."

As it turns out, Gillan's US acting career has been decades in the making. She's been working on her American accent ever since she was a child, and it's been through several iterations since then. From her first American role as Kaylie Russell in "Oculus," to California valley girl Eliza Dooley in "Selfie," and her ongoing Marvel role as Nebula, whose voice was inspired by Marilyn Monroe. As she told The Hollywood Reporter, she's in it for the long haul with the latter character. "I would love to continue the journey of [Nebula]," she said. "But I really like playing her, so I'm not eager to finish."

Gillan's accent isn't the only thing that has transformed over the years, though. Her career has taken more twists and turns than she ever could have imagined and she's certainly come a long way since her days in the Tardis. This is Gillan's transformation from childhood to "Thor: Love and Thunder."

Karen Gillan's idyllic childhood

Karen Gillan came into the world on November 28, 1987. She was born and raised in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, not far from the famed Loch Ness. Per ES, as an only child, Gillan spent a lot of time with her parents, Marie and John. One thing she and her dad loved to do together was go thrifting and vintage shopping, fulfilling their joint passion by rummaging around for classic vinyl together. They would listen to everything from Elvis Presley to the varied musical stylings of Nina Simone. It was this weekly activity that initially caused Gillan to consider a music career before turning her focus to acting (but more on that later). 

Gillan's childhood years passed peacefully and were full of local small-town activities and family adventures further afield. When asked by The Herald what the best day of her childhood was, she recalled, "[It was] probably going to the local shows. In a field. In Inverness. I went there as a kid and I was like, 'This is no big deal because tomorrow I'm going to Disneyland Paris.' So that feeling of the potential of Disneyland Paris combined with me being at the local fair was the best."

She started making films as a kid

Back to Karen Gillan's musical aspirations — she grew up wanting to be a jazz singer. Per The Herald, she had two major inspirations: her dad, who's an avid amateur open mic performer, and Ella Fitzgerald. Along with singing, she took piano lessons, and Gillan's love of music quickly spread into all forms of her performing arts. She subsequently took every opportunity to practice her skills at home. "When I was growing up, I had a video camera and I would make horror movies with my parents or friends," she told Porter.

Gillan's love of acting became more than just a passion. As a teenager, it was something she pursued seriously and at every opportunity. "Up until I was 16, I was doing an intense amount of acting classes, so in the day I'd be at school and at night I'd do classes," she told The Herald. It was at this time that she started looking toward acting as a professional career, and at 16 — the age at which you finish secondary education in the UK — she moved to Edinburgh to study acting at Telford College for two years.

Gillan used to suffer from stage fright

Karen Gillan is an accomplished movie star, a TV icon, and a Broadway thespian. Her passion for acting and performing was clear from a young age and she seems to have been destined for a career on the stage and screen. However, as a young actor, she was hindered by one thing — stage fright. Although it's hard to imagine, Gillan told fans during a Q&A on Instagram (via The Scottish Sun) that her on stage nerves were debilitating when she was younger. "I would get up and quiver and not be able to perform in front of people at all. I would just go to bits and so I had to really believe in myself."

She went on to explain that she needed a great deal of inner strength to overcome her fear. Now she has a lot of belief in herself and that's been one of her biggest strengths throughout her career. "Failing isn't necessarily a bad thing. What matters is how you react to the failure," she noted to fans. Speaking to ES, she elaborated that her performance anxiety was a significant obstacle for many of her ambitions. Having played the piano since she was a child, the opportunity to become some kind of a performer was clearly alluring but also daunting. "I had always struggled with nerves so it was quite difficult for me," she explained. 

She dropped out of drama school

When she finished her acting course at Telford College in Edinburgh, Karen Gillan moved down to London in hopes of getting her big break. Per The Telegraph, she was pulling pints in a pub by night, and by day she was attending classes at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. However, when she was not even a year into her course at the prestigious school, Gillan decided to drop out. Of course, it was for a good reason — an acting job came along. She scored a part in the British detective drama "Rebus" in 2006. "I was 18. I couldn't resist the temptation but it was only one episode, so I was taking a gamble," she told the newspaper. 

Initially, her career was quiet. "It was terrible," she admitted. But eventually, the gamble paid off and two years later she was booking regular guest roles, appearing in British shows like "Harley Street" and "Coming Up." Shortly after, her comedic talents were recognized and she nabbed a regular guest role on "The Kevin Bishop Show," a British sketch comedy series. 

It was a year later that she joined the cast of "Doctor Who" as a series regular, playing Amy Pond. After three seasons on the cult sci-fi show, Gillan told Interview, "That was my real acting training." While dropping out of drama school might have been a tough decision at the time, the move brought her one step closer to her dream.

Karen Gillan's modeling career was a means to an end

In the years between leaving drama school and getting her big break on "Doctor Who," Karen Gillan supported herself by working in a pub and doing some modeling work on the side, according to ES. Her modeling career included everything from fashion to hair care commercials, but she didn't exactly love it. "I never cared about modeling," she told The Guardian. "As a model, you're powerless."

While Gillan may not have enjoyed modeling, it did have its advantages. It helped to pay the bills for one, but more importantly, it was great experience for one of her future roles. In 2012, just a few short years later, Gillan transformed herself into the celebrated British model Jean Shrimpton for the television film, "We'll Take Manhattan." The actor noted to the Independent that it took a fair bit of practice to get the model's delicate way of speaking down. Despite having to master the accent, Gillan was apparently desperate to play the former supermodel.

Speaking to Vogue, Gillan fessed up that she's very much a fan of Shrimpton's style and of Swinging Sixties fashion, in general. Her love of vintage items is perhaps another fabulous by-product of weekends thrifting with her dad as a child. "It's the same kind of look that I like. Not just with clothes, everything I own looks a bit old," she explained. "The older, the better."

Her breakout role in Doctor Who

Karen Gillan was finally able to give up modeling when she landed her breakout role in "Doctor Who" in 2010. She joined the cast of the British science fiction series as Amy Pond, the companion to Matt Smith's Doctor. The pair auditioned for the show at the same time and after their casting had been announced, the show's executive producer, Piers Wenger, acknowledged that the two shared unique chemistry, per The Guardian. The outlet reported that this was actually Karen Gillan's second role in the series. In 2008 she had a brief guest role on the show, playing a Soothsayer in the episode "The Fires of Pompeii."

The character became famous for her short miniskirts, and they were actually Gillan's own personal choice of costume. "I remember being a wee 21-year-old and being like, 'I know what young girls wear and you don't so I'm going to put me in a really short skirt,' as that's what I liked to wear at the time," she said during a Galaxy Con Q&A session (via the Daily Record). "I loved my outfit. I thought, 'I'm killing it, I look great'"

It was during her four-year stint on "Doctor Who" that the actor first experienced fame. Per IGN, Gillan left the show in season 7 when she and showrunner Steven Moffat felt Amy's storyline had come to an end. "It just felt right! I like to go on instinct," she told the outlet. 

Transitioning to the big screen

By the time she'd reached the end of her tenure on "Doctor Who," Karen Gillan already had a few film credits under her belt. She had a supporting role in the thriller "Outcast," and played the lead in "Not Another Happy Ending." In 2013, she then made her Hollywood film debut, playing Kaylie Russell in Mike Flanagan's supernatural horror film, "Oculus." 

Transitioning to the American film industry was the next logical step for the actor, and the part required her to perform in an American accent. Naturally, she managed well — probably because she'd been practicing the accent since she was a child. However, there was one particularly notable challenge for the star: maintaining the accent for an entire monologue. "To be fair, I jumped into it and I was like, 'I'm going to go for it and accept the challenge!'" she recalled to Bloody Disgusting. "But there was a moment when I was working with my dialect coach and I remembered that I was going to have to talk for 10 minutes straight, in one take, in an accent that was not my own."

Thankfully, this was the perfect film for the actor to cut her teeth on since she told the website that she's loved watching horror movies since she was a teenager. Taking on the lead role in "Oculus" marked a change in her career, which appeared to be on an upward trajectory. Bigger movie roles were awaiting her.

Ditching Scotland for the States

As Karen Gillan's career started reaching new heights and she started bagging more American roles, she decided it was time to do what many actors eventually do — move to Los Angeles. Per The Guardian, she left Scotland and permanently relocated to the US in 2013. However, she wasn't put off by how many other actors were doing the same thing, and told the outlet, "I didn't have any fear of that at all. I had suffered so many rejections, but it's like it has never fazed me." As of 2022, Gillan had lived across the pond for almost a decade, latterly living in New York for work. She told the outlet that it hasn't gotten any easier to be away from her homeland. "I'm living with a consistent, subtle homesickness all the time," she said.

However, Gillan's American beau, comedian Nick Kosher, has definitely been making her feel more at home in the US. Per Daily Mail, the pair tied the knot in Gillan's Scottish homeland in May 2022, where they enjoyed a scenic country wedding in the Highlands, topped with a yacht and A-list guests reportedly including Julia Roberts and Robert Downey Jr. 

Karen Gillan shaved her head for the MCU

If "Doctor Who" didn't make Karen Gillan famous, starring in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1" certainly did. James Gunn's Marvel film premiered in 2014, with Gillan playing Nebula, one of the movie's principal antagonists (though her character later switched allegiances). The actor was initially rejected by Marvel studio bosses until the director happened upon her audition tape, according to The Scottish Sun.

Gillan apparently beat out a number of actors for the role, but what put her over the top was volunteering to shave her head. "A really famous actress would have got the role had it not required shaving their head. I was like, 'I'll do it!'" she told fans in Paris, according to the newspaper. While The Scottish Sun alleged that the studio's first pick was rumored to be Jessica Biel, neither she nor execs confirmed the speculation.

Of course, it wasn't until Gillan whipped off a wig at Comic Con that anyone even knew she'd shaved off her red locks for the part. Afterward, Gillan donated her hair to a worthy cause: It was made into a wig for the 'Star Wars' hair and makeup department. "It's just so funny to think that my hair is made into a wig, next to all these Star Wars monster heads in a warehouse," she told Collider. Sadly, her hair never made it into the seventh "Star Wars" movie, but at least it made for a funny anecdote!

Speaking out for women

Karen Gillan's impressive acting career has given her a prominent public platform, complete with 7.5 million Instagram followers as of May 2022, and a global fanbase. The actor certainly hasn't been shy in using her platform to speak out in support of women and for gender equality in the entertainment industry, as a whole. 

She's been especially vocal about women in "Doctor Who" — from choosing short skirts for her character Amy Pond to Jodie Whittaker being cast as the Doctor. While at San Diego's Comic Con (via the Mirror) in 2017, Gillan expressed how excited she was to see the first female Doctor on the show. "I think she's going to be incredible ... she's going to rejuvenate the whole show for everyone," the actor gushed. She also shut down any haters, saying, "So many people were like, 'It can't be a woman.' And I'm like, 'You're all insane, and of course she can.'"

By all accounts, it seems like Gillan was raised to want bigger and better opportunities for herself. Speaking to A Magical Mess, she explained that her dad's influence inspired her to play a female villain in the MCU. Stating that Nebula went against the usual girlfriend or glamor role usually reserved for women in mainstream blockbusters, she said, "This was totally different ... My dad always told me to aim to be a Bond villain rather than a Bond girl." Achievement unlocked.

She accidentally became an action movie star

Just like Katherine Heigl was a go-to romantic comedy star and Brandon Routh is best known for his superhero roles, Karen Gillan has become stereotyped as an action star. However, her roles in films like the "Jumanji" franchise, "Gunpowder Milkshake," "Dual," and "The Bubble," didn't happen on purpose. She told Elle, "It's been a crazy adventure. I did not think I would be in this many action movies."

No matter how many credits she racks up, Gillan can't get used to calling herself an action movie star. "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," she told The Hollywood Reporter. Gillan was, of course, referring to the dance-fighting scene in "Jumanji: The Next Level," where her character Martha/Ruby Roundhouse takes down an army of guys using nunchucks.

Her experience on "Gunpowder Milkshake" also required non-stop action, with the star requiring daily training on top of learning how to box, as she told Schön! Understandably, her action skills have massively improved since she scored the part of Nebula in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1." The actor told The Guardian that back then, she had the strength of a piece of spaghetti. "It must have looked hilarious, just limbs flying around. They were like: 'ooookay, you've got the role, but you need to learn to fight.'" Looks like she's a quick learner.

Gillan set her sights on filmmaking

Acting has always been Karen Gillan's passion. And it's through her love of performing that she also found another passion in directing. In 2018, Gillan starred in "The Party's Just Beginning," a film that she also wrote and directed. "I've experienced making films for quite some time now and it's fun to be an actress and play your role, but ultimately you're telling somebody else's story ... But to be the person telling the story and to be the main voice behind it is something that is so exciting to me," she told The Herald.

The film is a comedy-drama but it's also far flung from the tone of "Jumanji" or her other roles. As she told the outlet, her perspective is just naturally skewed toward darker narratives. The film follows Liusaidh, a 24-year-old coping with the death of her best friend Alistair. "She has a hard time expressing how she feels and finds herself on a path of self-destruction," Gillan explained on Instagram. 

The film is set in Inverness, which was also a really important decision for Gillan, and it marked her first UK film project since moving to the US in 2013. During filming the actor even stayed with her parents, which appeared to keep her humble after being in charge on set. "I would come home and my mom would be like, 'Bring your laundry down.' I'd be like, 'I don't have it,'" she told Den of Geek. 

Nebula's ongoing transformation

The time-consuming process for Karen Gillan to become Nebula included the application of lots of prosthetics, along with the actor needing to shave her hair, and be covered in blue paint. The actor has transformed into the blue Luphomoid for multiple Marvel movies, with the star returning to the universe once again for "Thor: Love and Thunder" in 2022. 

Taika Waititi's Marvel ensemble flick picked up after the events of "Avengers: Endgame." There, Nebula was left with the Asgardian god of thunder and the Guardians gang. She was also in an emotional state that Gillan found enthralling. "We left Nebula in a really interesting place where she, you know, experienced the death of her father but also of her abuser, essentially ... and so, those feelings are really conflicting," she explained to Collider. "I think for her, she's feeling a sense of relief ... but she's also probably feeling a sense of loss."

Nebula had a brilliant character arc throughout her ongoing Marvel narrative. And with "Thor: Love and Thunder," the character would once again be pushed to new extremes. In a different Collider interview, Gillan revealed that the film brought out an even crazier side to the character – one which utilized Gillan's comedy skills. "I don't think she's ... being funny, but in her seriousness, I think we will find her funny ... just the pure aggression that we've tapped into," she explained.