Karen Gillan on ‘We’ll Take Manhattan’ & ‘Doctor Who’
Karen Gillan graduates from “Doctor Who” to become a leading lady of film in the TV movie “We’ll Take Manhattan.” She plays British fashion model Jean Shrimpton, one of the world’s first supermodels. I totally see it, even though Gillan wears brown hair to play Jean.
“We’ll Take Manhattan” premiered earlier this month on Ovation in the states, and I got a chance to interview Gillan personally about the movie and “Doctor Who” as part of the Television Critics Association press tour in January.
CraveOnline: What was it like to change your beautiful red hair?
Karen Gillan: Oh [Laughs] it was really weird actually because I’ve always had long ginger hair, so to lose that it feels like losing a part of my personality in a way which is quite weird.
CraveOnline: Does that help then get into character?
Karen Gillan: It did actually. I felt completely different. I had this wig on. It was a different color and it just helped feel like Jean Shrimpton.
CraveOnline: So it was a wig, you didn’t do any damage to the real hair.
Karen Gillan: No. No, they would’ve had to fight me on that.
CraveOnline: Was Jean Shrimpton big for you growing up?
Karen Gillan: Not growing up. I wasn’t aware of her growing up but then when I was like 18, my boyfriend at the time was a photographer and he introduced me to David Bailey and then the pictures of Jean Shrimpton.
CraveOnline: Introduced you to David in person?
Karen Gillan: No, no, just introduced me to his work. Then from there I learned about Jean Shrimpton and actually remember being quite taken with her and thought she was really striking and interesting. Then never thought much more about it and then this script came along. I was like yes, I would love to do this.
CraveOnline: That’s synchronicity.
Karen Gillan: Yeah, that weird sort of thing.
CraveOnline: Did you get to recreate any of her famous photos?
Karen Gillan: Yes. The story of “We’ll Take Manhattan” goes into the David Bailey/Jean Shrimpton growing up but basically it’s set on this one photo shoot that he did in New York where we recreated all the pictures that they took for Vogue magazine.
CraveOnline: How different was modeling in Jean’s day than when you were in that industry?
Karen Gillan: Actually, a lot of it, I noticed a lot of similarities. So it was quite handy that I’d done a bit of modeling before because I understand what it feels like to have people talk about you and staring at you but not actually looking at you as a person, more as a product. And also just not really having much creative input at all. You know, you’re not really asked for your opinion or anything like that but that’s kind of the way it is. So I understand that.
CraveOnline: We know modeling can be very tough, but were they kind to you? Did they embrace your beauty?
Karen Gillan: I mean, I didn’t find anyone desperately unpleasant but I never really wanted to do that with my life so therefore even if someone wasn’t very nice, I didn’t care because it was never an aspiration of mine. So I never really invested much of myself in it. I just did it as a job.
CraveOnline: I don’t even understand how that works. So you walk down the runway in this designer outfit. Then what? Who buys that?
Karen Gillan: I don't know. I guess some of them go into the stores, some of them go into store rooms. Some people do buy it. Some very wealthy people. I don't know. I actually have never thought of that. Where do the clothes go after they’re shown?
CraveOnline: I don’t see them in stores, not the exotic ones from the runway shows.
Karen Gillan: Not the crazy high fashion ones. Maybe perhaps it’s more of an advertising tool than selling clothes.
CraveOnline: How juicy a character is Jean Shrimpton and the role in “We’ll Take Manhattan” for you?
Karen Gillan: Well, I wanted to make the right decision on my first thing after “Doctor Who” so I wanted something that was a big contrast in character, which I really found with this. Amy Pond’s quite feisty and a little bit tomboyish and could really hold her own, whereas Jean Shrimpton, this is a coming of age story for her and her sort of finding her own voice. At the beginning she’s just not as forward as someone like Amy Pond so it’s just completely different. Then by the end she finally finds her voice. I just find her enigmatic and interesting.
CraveOnline: Had you always had the chops to do something like this or did this step up your game?
Karen Gillan: Well, I had to step up my game in terms of putting on a completely different accent, completely different period which really affects just even the way you hold yourself and the way that you say things. And also I just had to do a lot of investigation into the period and what it was like for a girl at the time because it’s encouraged by your parents to marry a nice wealthy young man who went to a good school and settle down. She kind of rebelled because it was right on the cusp of change, and she ran off with a married man.
CraveOnline: Jean is still with us, did you by any chance get to meet her?
Karen Gillan: No, unfortunately. She basically gave her approval to have the film made and then she didn’t want any more to do with it because she doesn’t like the recognition anymore or the fame side. She lives a quiet life but actually she watched the film and she left a voicemail asking how we got it so accurate, which was the best compliment ever.
CraveOnline: What was it like to hear her voice on a voice mail?
Karen Gillan: The weirdest, eeriest thing. I had it saved in my phone but it’s gone now. But it was just amazing. I was screaming.
CraveOnline: How did the process of shooting a film compare to a TV show?
Karen Gillan: It’s completely different actually because I guess you have this one timeframe to tell the whole story and to tell the whole story of that character in one go whereas an ongoing series, it’s all spread out. I don't know, it was kind of crazy as well because we shot it in three weeks, two weeks in London and then the final week in New York. We were just running around 5th Avenue and the Brooklyn Bridge just shooting all these amazing shots.
CraveOnline: Did you get to see parts of the city that you wouldn’t normally visit?
Karen Gillan: Yeah. Sitting on the Brooklyn Bridge in the sweltering heat pretending it’s winter is not something I generally do with my time. We went to just loads of different streets and things. There’s a scene in the film with a chain link fence. I would never have gone there. You just see it in a different way I guess. I never realized how loud it is there. We couldn’t hear each other talk. I didn’t even think of that. It’s crazy but we had to get up at four in the morning to start shooting just so that we’d have a minimum of people around.
CraveOnline: London always reminds me of New York but it’s definitely not that loud.
Karen Gillan: No, it’s definitely not. Not as crazy as Manhattan. It has a different energy.
CraveOnline: What is still left for you to do on "Doctor Who"?
Karen Gillan: Well, basically I’m going to come back this year and do a few episodes. I can’t really say how many. [Laughs] And then I’m going to go. The Ponds are leaving. It feels right actually.
I basically spoke to Steven Moffat and we arranged this dinner to decide when I was going to go and I told him when I felt I should go and he told me where we were at storywise and together we kind of came up with the right time so it was really pleasant. It was a really pleasant way to do it.
CraveOnline: Was it a plan from the beginning that you would leave before Matt Smith does?
Karen Gillan: That was never discussed but I kind of had a rough idea of how long the story was going to last, so I’d known for quite some time.
CraveOnline: Companions are always temporary, aren’t they?
Karen Gillan: Well, I don’t like to look at it as temporary because they come in, a story is told and you get to know this person. I guess the doctors are temporary then as well if you look at it that way.
The companion probably changes more than the doctor but that’s what’s so good about the show and that’s why it’s been going. It’s the longest running sci-fi show ever because of change and reinvention.
CraveOnline: It’s one thing to anticipate that phenomenon going into it. Now that you’re almost at the end of it, how did it live up to or differ from your expectations?
Karen Gillan: It’s so weird. You’re the first person to make me think of it like that. God, I was 21 when I started this job, just going into it completely wide-eyed, not knowing what was going to happen.
CraveOnline: That was only three years ago.
Karen Gillan: Yeah, but it feels like a lifetime just because so much has happened and it just went crazy. It was a whirlwind. Coming out of it, it exceeded my expectations. I mean, I didn’t really know what to expect in all honesty but then it went crazy when it aired in Britain. And now to be coming to the end of it is really sad because I’ve had the most brilliant time, but also it’s time to go onto other things.
CraveOnline: How have you dealt with the adoration of the fans?
Karen Gillan: Yeah, that’s a strange sensation but also you have to be aware it’s adoration of a show more than you as a person. I think that’s a healthier way to look at it.
CraveOnline: Yes, but they also like you when you come in and do something special with it.
Karen Gillan: Oh, well, that’s nice. [Laughs] That’s nice, yeah. It’s just so nice to be part of a show that is so loved by people because it’s probably not always going to be like this.
CraveOnline: What are your favorite episodes that you got to do?
Karen Gillan: Probably the first episode I ever shot with Matt which was “The Eleventh Hour.” I mean, it wasn’t the first one we’d shot together but it was episode one of our time on Doctor Who. And I just think there’s something magic about that episode, something quite spellbinding when you watch it. So I think that will always be my favorite.
CraveOnline: Are you happy with the way Stephen Moffat has planned to phase you out?
Karen Gillan: I don’t actually know exactly the ins and outs of it but I do know a general gist and I must say I am so excited. Oh, it’s so good.
CraveOnline: When are you going to get that script?
Karen Gillan: I don’t know actually. We do things fairly close to when we start shooting it.
CraveOnline: Can you imagine reading that last script?
Karen Gillan: I think it’s going to be an emotional time. Imagine filming it, good Lord.
CraveOnline: Was there anyone you didn’t get to work with as much as you would’ve liked to?
Karen Gillan: I mean, I always welcome more Alex Kingston. She’s my favorite. I love her so much and she’s got such a good energy when she comes on set and she can handle herself with the guys. And Tony Curran who played van Gogh. It’d be nice to have him come back. That was really fun.
CraveOnline: How much did you relate to Amy Pond?
Karen Gillan: I think I can relate to her. I’m an only child and there’s this real sense of abandonment with her when we meet her in the first episode. So I think I could relate to that and therefore that kind of slightly odd side of an only child because interacting with people is a bit strange because you don’t have brothers and sisters running around.
So I think I can relate to that but I really do feel that I’m playing a character when I play her, rather than play myself. I feel that she’s a lot cooler and feistier than I am.
CraveOnline: People still go back and watch the “Doctor Who” episodes from the ‘60s. Can you imagine people in 40 years going back to watch yours?
Karen Gillan: My God. I don't know how I feel about that. It’s kind of amazing. You get to be part of this sci-fi history that’s kind of there, cemented forever which is really cool. Hopefully people will be going back to watch our episodes.
CraveOnline: And the more technology there is, the easier it is to watch because they’re on Netflix now.
Karen Gillan: Yes, exactly. So I do hope that people will be looking back on the Amy Pond era fondly.
CraveOnline: How famous are you in the UK?
Karen Gillan: [Laughs] I don't know how to answer that. Well, “Doctor Who” is kind of like a national institution over there so my life hasn’t been the same since that first episode aired. It really hasn’t, so it’s pretty crazy sometimes but also you can totally find a balance between professional life and your personal life. You just have to make the right choices.
CraveOnline: Do you still ride the tube?
Karen Gillan: Yeah, I still take the tube sometimes. More recently than I used to. And it’s fine. Sometimes people come up, sometimes people ask for a picture but it’s nothing that ever bothers me.
CraveOnline: What is it like when you travel the world?
Karen Gillan: Well, we came over here really not expecting anyone to recognize us or anything like that. We thought it would just be completely different from the U.K. Then we were walking around New York and people were just coming up saying, “Hey, love the show, man.” Then we went to San Diego for Comic-Con and there were about 4,000 people with sonic screwdrivers just waving them.
CraveOnline: What is your next movie going to be?
Karen Gillan: I’m going to go back to “Doctor Who “and then I’m going to do a film called “Not Another Happy Ending” which is directed by the same director as “We’ll Take Manhattan.” It’s about an eccentric Scottish writer girl. It’s with another actor called Emun Elliott.
CraveOnline: What kind of character do you get to play in that?
Karen Gillan: Well, the eccentric writer girl.
CraveOnline: Is that like you?
Karen Gillan: It’s funny because I was working on “We’ll Take Manhattan” and John McKay, the director, was like, “Jean Shrimpton is so different from you as a person, it takes a significant amount of acting to play this role for you. But, there’s this other script where you are just so like this character.” Eccentric writer girl? Okay. I’ll take it.