Karen Gillan - From the Tardis to tackling monsters

Karen Gillan, Doctor Who's feistiest assistant so far, is busy setting screens alight with a new British horror film and a Christmas special. James Mottram meets her

When Karen Gillan was growing up in Inverness, she spent five years on a waiting list to join a drama club. So instead, the girl who has perked up our screens as the Doctor's latest assistant retreated into her own imagination. Her one obsession – apart from the Spice Girls, surely mandatory for any schoolgirl in the mid-Nineties – was Alice in Wonderland. "It did make me dance around the room," she says, her Scottish accent undimmed by six years in London. Referring to the Disney cartoon version of Lewis Carroll's classic, she even had the tie-in book, which she used to act out for her father – "who was probably really bored" – in what she estimates was her first attempt at acting.

If it's an obsession that has spilt over into adulthood – "I'm going to call my daughter 'Alice', if I ever have one," she states – it's more than just a childish hangover. The red-haired Gillan, who at 5ft 10in is far taller than she appears on screen, admits she thought of Alice when she was working on her Doctor Who character, Amy Pond.

"I remember thinking: 'What's her favourite film?' And I thought it could be Alice in Wonderland."

It seems an apt choice, given Amy – dragged from her mundane existence to travel time and space with Matt Smith's new Doctor – gets to "explore" her very own Wonderland.

The same could be said for Gillan, who has gone from bit-part actress and part-time model to landing one of the most coveted roles on television. Her arrival on the show couldn't have been more arresting, with Amy, a kiss-o-gram by trade, spending the first episode dressed in a policewoman's uniform. The tabloids had a field day, renaming the show 'Doctor Phew'.

Even Smith weighed in, claiming Gillan was "categorically the sexiest companion ever", knocking such recent co-stars as Catherine Tate and Billie Piper for six. But Gillan seems rather nonplussed by the instant sex symbol status. "It doesn't feel like a massive achievement," she says.

That first episode broke the record for the biggest audience ever on BBC America when it aired in the States.

"We did this one screening in New York where people camped out overnight to get a seat," she recalls, breathlessly. She can even ponder the fact that she's now on Steven Spielberg's radar. A long-term fan of the show, the director has just worked with Doctor Who's new series producer Steven Moffat, who has co-written Spielberg's forthcoming Tintin film, The Secret of the Unicorn. "It's mad to think that he's a fan of it," she says. "Spielberg apparently said to Steven: 'The world is a better place with Doctor Who in it.'"

Gillan seems almost embarrassed when I point out that being in Spielberg's mind is no bad thing. After all, her film experience so far has consisted of playing Young Girl in Bus Station in Richard Jobson's frenetic 2008 thriller New Town Killers.

Next week sees a bigger appearance in first-time director Colm McCarthy's Outcast, a British horror film co-starring James Nesbitt and Red Road's Kate Dickie, that sets out to blend the monster movie genre with Polanski-style terror. "It's like a dark, scary fairy-tale," she explains. "It's all about Celtic mythology."

Admittedly, the film – which sees Nesbitt's "tracker" use black magic to trap his human prey – casts Gillan as a sidekick once again, playing best friend to the film's mischievous lead girl Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge), who becomes embroiled with one of Nesbitt's targets. But what it does do is give Gillan the chance to establish her film credentials before playing Amy Pond pigeonholes her in a Tardis-shaped box for good. While the likes of Tate and Piper were able to shake off the Doctor Who shackles, perhaps due to their pre-Who careers in comedy and music, the 23 year-old Gillan does not have that luxury.

Though attached to David Baddiel's US-set time-travel comedy Romeo and Brittany, for the moment, she can't think beyond the next few months.

With her first season – the fifth, since the show returned to our screens in 2005 – now safely out on DVD, she is filming the next series, which as usual will be unveiled at Easter. "I think a lot's going to happen to Amy!" she teases. "A lot!"

First, though, is another Doctor Who tradition – the Christmas Special. This year's episode is a twist on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. So will she sit round with the family on Christmas Day and watch it, like everyone else? "Probably," she stammers. "I guess so. Is that weird?" It's not, I assure her.

Gillan's immediate family is a small one. Raised an only child by father John and mum Marie, she admits she always hankered for a brother or sister when she was young, a feeling that hasn't dissipated. "It freaks me out – and this sounds really morbid – that when your parents pass away there will be no-one there that feels the same as you." Her Alice in Wonderland obsession aside, her first real interest was music, begun after she started learning the piano when she was just 7. "My Dad's a massive music fan, so I was always subjected to Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra," she says. "That was my first love."

While she eventually switched her attentions to acting in local plays, what she didn't like was education.

"I just remember really hating being in school," she says. "I used to sit in fashion class in school – where we had to make stuff – and I'd sneak off and go and look on the computer for auditions on The Stage website. And I'd imagine going down to London to do all that, rather than be stuck in school."

Another example of her vivid imagination, in her own eyes Gillan was a bit of an oddity in her teenage years.

"I was that weird, long, ginger girl at school," she says. "I wasn't horrifically bullied. There was name-calling but nothing awful." Moving to London when she was 17, and enrolling in the Italia Conti drama school, Gillan left after a few months, when she was offered a role in one episode of Scottish detective show Rebus. "I was really restless, because I wanted to be acting," she reasons. "But I was thinking: 'Was it the right thing to leave drama school for this one episode?' Whereas I could've stayed there for three years and got a degree. But I don't know. I'm just like that. I just left randomly. I was longing to get back into acting, but it was quite difficult."

Gillan wound up working in a pub, in south London, to make ends meet.

"I think that was really important for me," she says. "So I can appreciate this all the more."

She started working as a model, even taking part in the launch party for Dainty Doll, a make-up range endorsed by that other famous redhead, Girls Aloud star Nicola Roberts.

In the show, each model took on a character. Hers was Premiere Girl – a red-carpet strutting glamour-girl. All very apt, given where Gillan seems heading, but when I ask her if she has any desire to re-ignite her modelling career, she seems ambivalent.

"It's not something I'm desperate to do. But it could be fun. What girl wouldn't want to do that?" What about echoing Roberts and starting her own fashion or cosmetics line? "No, I wouldn't do that," she says, firmly.

Already, there have been the obligatory paparazzi shots of Gillan leaving a party looking "worse for wear". "Oh," she says, deflating the non-event with a pin-like jab of her tongue. Does it bother her? "I haven't been on the scene long enough to be getting all irritated about it. It's part of the job. I've got a personal life that nobody knows about." Well, that's not entirely true.

Gillan has been shot with her 24-year-old boyfriend, photographer Patrick Green, more than once. But she refuses to get drawn on the topic.

Naturally, there was initial speculation linking her to Matt Smith, long-since dismissed, when it was revealed that the actor is dating model Daisy Lowe. Gillan's affection for her Doctor seems purely platonic. While Smith might dub her sexy, she refrains from going down that route.

"He's much more other-worldly than the other Doctors," she says. She recalls her second audition when she first saw Smith in character.

"He just looked mental. He was going so mental that he was spitting. I was thinking: 'He looks like a mad scientist!'"

Outcast opens on December 10th. Volumes 1 to 3 of Doctor Who Series 5 are now available to buy on DVD. The Doctor Who Christmas Special will screen on BBC1 on Christmas Day.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss