Gunpowder Milkshake: Karen Gillan on Her Surprise Action Star Career

Karen Gillan's filmography is diverse, but her starring turn in Gunpowder Milkshake cements the Scottish actress' status as a bonafide action star.

Karen Gillan as Sam stands in an elevator with a gun taped to her hand in Gunpowder Milkshake
Photo: Netflix

Gunpowder Milkshake features an impressive cast of action women, but it’s Karen Gillan who holds the Netflix neon noir together. The actress, who first broke onto the international scene in 2010 with her introduction as Amy Pond on Doctor Who, has parlayed that fan favorite performance into an impressive Hollywood career that includes the recurring roles of Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Martha in the latest iteration of the Jumanji franchise. For the 33-year-old Scottish actress, a career in action movies wasn’t something she saw coming.

“It completely snuck up on me,” says Gillan, who also made her directorial debut with 2018 dramedy The Party’s Just Beginning. “I did not anticipate that I would be doing action whatsoever. I don’t know why. It just never even crossed my mind. I mean, I did a little bit of aikido and judo when I was a kid, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind at all.”

Gillan said that while studying theater in Scotland, she aspired to do films. But she always imagined them in “the dramatic space” rather than the genre work and comedies (check out the highly underrated Selfie for a good example of the latter) that have composed much of her career. “I didn’t foresee that at all,” continues Gillan, “but it’s something I’m glad that has happened because it’s been really fun.”

Gillan is in some of the biggest action-driven movies in the world, but it’s Gunpowder Milkshake that has given the actress the best chance yet to stretch her action movie muscles. Gillan says she was initially drawn to the script because of the movie’s title. She jokes, “I was like, ‘Okay, I would like to be in a film that’s called Gunpowder Milkshake.'” Yet it was the film’s inventive action sequences that kept her interested.

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“I got to the second action sequence [a fight in which Gillan’s character, Sam, has to fight off three armed goons without the use of her arms], and that’s when I rang my agents and was like, ‘Just please get me in this film,'” Gillan recalls. “There was a lot of imagery that I had never seen before in films. It seemed really original and it seems like a huge fun challenge to be able to do that much action.”

It was a challenge, Gillan insists about the filming of the no-arms fight scene.

“The prep for that was pretty difficult because I had to isolate body parts,” she says. “I had to surrender all control over them. It’s hard to do that, because it goes against everything your instincts are telling you to do, which is do not use these particular parts while people are trying to kill you.”

Gillan has a lot of great action scenes in Gunpowder Milkshake, but the first proper fight sequence, a bowling alley brawl in which Sam takes on three men with only a rolling suitcase and some bowling balls, is her favorite.

“That was the biggest challenge, because first of all, it’s the first time that you see me fight,” says Gillan. “And there’s a big buildup, and other characters are saying, ‘Remember who you’re dealing with.’ And so, stuff like that puts the pressure on you to deliver.”

Past the build-up, the sequence is also filmed in one wide shot, with no cuts and no stunt doubles.

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“That was a huge challenge because not only was it the first time you see us fight, but you’re going to see every single move,” says Gillan. “In other films, they’re chopping up action sequences a lot at the moment. It’s so choppy that you can’t really like take it in. In this one, there’s just nowhere to hide. So that took a lot of rehearsal and fighting with a suitcase rather than weapons and bowling balls. There was a lot of pressure, because every time before a take, me and the actors were looking at each other and were like, ‘OK, this has to be perfect.'”

Gillan may be the star of Gunpowder Milkshake, but she’s got some support from a supporting cast that includes Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, and action icon Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh, who trained as a ballerina before transitioning into Hong Kong action films in the 1980s, has a long and celebrated action career.

“I remember doing my first fight in the film, and she was actually on set, watching,” says Gillan. “Talk about pressure, because she just popped by to say ‘hi’ after a rehearsal or something. And I was like, oh no, Michelle Yeoh is going to watch me fight for the first time. I better be good.”

When Gillan asked Yeoh for advice, the Malaysian actress encouraged Gillan to use her height during fight scenes. At five feet, 11 inches, Gillan’s slight frame towers over the other women and many of the men in the movie. “It was really helpful actually,” says Gillan of the advice. “I didn’t realize I was not using it, so that was good to know.”

Gunpowder Milkshake is available to stream for Netflix users in the United States, Canada, and the Nordic countries starting July 14 and will be in theaters elsewhere on July 15. For Gillan, who says she had “the best summer ever” making the movie, it’s an opportunity for audiences to have a little fun too.

“I think just after the year and a half that we’ve had, I just hope that people experience some fun,” she says. “I hope that you just get a huge bowl of popcorn and watch it and enjoy the escapism and just have fun. It’s a fun action film, and I think that’s what we need right now.”

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