Karen Gillan on How Jumanji Welcomed Her to the Jungle

We chat with Karen Gillan about embodying a Lara Croft-esque badass in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, as well as Avengers and Doctor Who.

Being sent hurdling hundreds of feet through the air before landing in a lush jungle would be disorienting for any teenager. But doing just that and then waking up in the body of Ruby Roundhouse, a Lara Croft-esque adventurer who lacks much in the way of clothing, is downright bewildering… and hilarious. Such is the premise of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, as well as the entry point for Karen Gillan who must embody both the ass-kicking Ruby Roundhouse as well as the young Martha, a scared wallflower girl now trapped in this warrior woman physique.

When Den of Geek sat down with Gillan this past August, the actor had already moved on to Atlanta where she was filming the latest Avengers movies for Marvel Studios, but by her own words, she was still nostalgic for her time in the jungles of Hawaii with Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black. In many ways, doing Jumanji was something of a homecoming for Gillan, who considers the original 1995 Jumanji starring Robin Williams among her three favorite films, and one she definitely wanted to honor.

In the below interview, we discuss what kind of impact Williams’ 1995 classic had on Gillan growing up in Scotland, as well as how she prepared for her role in Welcome to the Jungle—complete with tackling Ruby’s intentionally barely-there costume—from auditioning to all the way in Hawaii with a deliciously awkward moment next to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. We also cover her thoughts on the new Doctor Who and getting to spend some quality time with Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Why do you think the concept of Jumanji has endured so strongly over the years?

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Well I love the original film so much, it’s still in my top three films of all-time. I love it. So I watched it when I was a kid, and I just fell in love with the magical quality. I loved the performances so much and I was the biggest Robin Williams fan. I just think the concept is so great, because you sort of feel like it could happen to you in a weird fantastical world, where you play this game and then suddenly, it starts coming to life. I just think how it sort of related to the every-person a little bit more than some of those other movies is what I think I liked about it. My imagination could work in that space where it could happen to me or something.

I think that might be part of the appeal. What’s fun with the reimagining is that instead of the game coming to life, we get stuck into the game. So we still get all of those elements, but now we’re getting to see the world of Jumanji, which is really cool.

You say it was one of your favorite films, do you remember the first time then you read the book or saw the movie and enjoyed that fantasy?

I don’t feel like it’s common knowledge that it’s based on a book. I’ve had a lot of different discussions with people about this, because I love the movie and then a few years ago, someone told me that it was based on a book, and I was like, ‘What?!’ And everyone I’ve asked was like, “I didn’t know that was a book either.” So I’m like what the hell? [Laughs]

I can’t remember the exact time when I first watched it, but I just remember watching it repeatedly. I like kept coming back to it and I was young, and I just loved it so much, and I loved Kirsten Dunst in it. I thought she was so great.

What was the pitch for this movie? Was it you’ll be working with the Rock and shooting in Hawaii where you’ll be running away from giant animals?

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I mean, that sounds so brilliant and ridiculous when you put it all in one sentence. [Laughs] I did not have any reservations about that. I remember I had just wrapped, I think it was actually the moment I had wrapped Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I was like “Oh my God, I’ve done it!” So I sat there with a glass of wine on my own, and then I saw on my emails that I had an audition for the new Jumanji, and I almost like dropped the glass of wine. Spilled it, because I was like, “What?! That’s one of my favorite stories of all time, I can’t believe it!” And then my head was just on that from that moment on, and then I went back to LA and then I did just a few auditions. It wasn’t like I was immediately offered to go and run around with the Rock away from animals. It was quite a long contest for me.

One of the most intriguing aspects about the setup is you’re really playing two characters: Ruby and Martha. Was that part of the appeal in taking the role?

Definitely. I mean a body swap concept is always fun. There’s just so much comedy to be found in that. What I really liked about this in terms of character is that she is very socially awkward and introverted, and kind of invisible. And she doesn’t want to be looked at either, it isn’t like she’s dying for attention at all. It’s like the opposite. So then she gets trapped in this kind of Lara Croft badass, action hero sort of body, and she just does not know how to inhabit it at all. So I just really liked that confliction. It was just a contradiction with the character, which was really interesting for me to play with.

And it was also cool for me to slowly see her inhabit her exterior a little bit more, and by the end you see that maybe she has the confidence.

During multiple takes were you trying to lean into one side more, the shy girl or the video game archetype, more than the other and explore that?

I first really mapped out her development into a badass, the badass development scale. So it just sort of happens gradually based on the experiences she has. Also, we played around with varying degrees of her heroic behavior. And depending on the situation, she’s growing into [that heroism]. But yeah, it was actually weirdly similar to the way I am as a person. I’m a little bit socially awkward as a person and a little introverted sometimes. So it sort of felt like the way I felt when I am in action movies, and I have to be badass and am sort of pretending. [Laughs]

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Jumanji is both embracing and critiquing these somewhat antiquated fantasy clichés. But at the same time, you’re still walking through a jungle while dressed in a very small costume. Were there any reservations about that?

Yeah, I definitely thought about it, because she is sort of in a far more revealing outfit than the rest of the cast. But you know, the whole idea behind it is that we’re really making fun of that trope in ‘90s video games. I mean, Lara Croft is a perfect example of that. So it sort of felt like—I didn’t think we should shy away from that. We should either go for it or we don’t. And I definitely feel like it was the right move to go for it. And as you’ll see in the film, she’s not happy with it. She wrestles with it all the time, and she creates things to cover herself with, so it’s not like completely gratuitous by any means.

There were some hyperbolic reactions on social media when the first photos were released. What do you hope fans or detractors might take away once they finally see it?

I hope they dig it. And maybe it’s a good thing that it’s opening a discussion about all of this. I don’t necessarily view that as a negative thing to be talking about these issues, because they are issues. So I hope they think that we handled it carefully enough, and perhaps we have enlightened some people on the fact that these tropes are—they can be a little bit gratuitous, and hopefully that does some good.

You also get to kick a lot of ass in the movie from what I’ve seen. You’re obviously no stranger to stunt work, but was this something else altogether?

This really was on a different level. So yeah, I’ve done quite a lot of stunt work before. I sort of trained up through the Marvel system on that. And so when it came to this, I was like, ‘I can do this,’ but I was not ready for the amount of fighting that I had to do. I mean it was just hard work. There was one particular fight scene in the movie that is so long, and I had to do the whole thing in one-take. You wouldn’t know it’s one-take from the way it’s edited, but we definitely shot the whole thing in a oner at one point. But yeah, we trained for that one because it’s pretty epic.

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You’re also having to balance this while bouncing off Dwayne, who’s probably the king of this genre. How was it working with him?

I mean just exactly as you’d expect, like brilliant. He’s not full of it, he’s just an absolute professional. He’s great, and I think he is one of the best comedic actors I’ve ever encountered, and he’s not necessarily completely known for that either. I guess he’s becoming more known for that since Central Intelligence. But he really floored me with his comedic ability, so that was amazing to act opposite of. And also, he’s just like the nicest person, and he’s probably going to run the world one day.

I was actually able to meet him for the first time a couple months ago, and yes, he really seemed like the nicest man in Hollywood.

I know, it’s genuine. Amazing.

From what I can tell though, even though he’s Dwayne Johnson in this movie, your character is the braver one. So do you get to play with that, or were you and Dwayne maybe daring each other on in the action scenes?

We didn’t have a whole lot of action scenes together. I think I’m just off on my own, doing my own thing. We actually make a thing of it that she doesn’t need help from anyone, especially not from the Rock’s character. So that’s kind of cool, but we had such a good time acting together because they’re both two introvert weirdos together, and they’re just so socially awkward. And when we try to see them interacting with each other, it’s more painful in the best way.

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You also got to shoot this in Hawaii, which I imagine was a lot of fun. And you’re there with Dwayne, Kevin, and Jack, so what are the dynamics and energy of all being in the same space together?

It’s the best! Oh my goodness, I’m getting nostalgic already. It’s just one of the best gigs in terms of the location and the people. I mean we were in paradise with some of the funniest working actors in the industry, and I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, “I don’t know how I managed to end up here, but I am very happy about this.”

Do you have any specific memory of just the four of you kind of shooting it back and forth while in the wilderness?

I mean just every day, every single day. Okay, so as amazing as Hawaii is, it’s actually a kind of brutal place to film, because we were in the deep jungle, so it was like so hot, and there were giant mosquitos who were immune to every mosquito repellent now. So it was not like as easy as it sounds. [Laughs] 

But within that, we found a lot of humor. So Kevin is not good with the creepy-crawlies at all, and he thought there were spiders on him all the time. So everyone, especially Dwayne, started like tickling him with little pieces of grass to make him think that they were crawling on him. And he’d literally be screaming and he’d run off-set. [Laughs] It was so good.


How has the transition been at this point from roles on British television to bigger films like this and Marvel?

You know, it’s weird, because the one show that I was on in UK television was Doctor Who, which is sort of very much in the vein of these big movies that I’ve been doing. But obviously everything’s scaled down because the budgets aren’t so big. But like in a weird way, I felt like I had gone through my training for them on Doctor Who. And then I was just ready, because when I first walked on the set of Guardians of the Galaxy, I looked around and I was like, “Oh, this is just another larger spaceship. I got this. I know this world. This is my turf!” So that’s how I feel about movies now, so I’m really thankful I had this Doctor Who experience behind me, because it just feels kind of comfortable and familiar.

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Speaking of Doctor Who, Amy and Rory, the Ponds, are still my favorite companions. While you were all there, did you ever talk with Steven [Moffat] about the prospect of a female Doctor down the road?

Ah, thanks! You know, no, I’m not sure we ever had a direct discussion with him about that. It was something people talked about regularly. It would pop up every so often, and people had their own opinion on whether that would work or not. But I think nobody ever suggested or said that to Steven Moffat. But I am just so glad they have gone in that direction, because the fact that we’re even having a discussion as to whether a woman can play the role or not tells me that there’s still something wrong here. Because of course a woman can play the role; it’s not defined by gender, and we’re definitely about to find that out, I think.

What do you think Amy’s reaction would be to find out Raggedy Man is now Raggedy Woman?

Oh, Amy would be very confused by that. She’d have to remake all of those little dolls. [Laughs] Yeah, I think she would kind of dig it though. I think that she respects the Doctor a lot, and maybe she’d think it was kind of cool.

I think I know the answer now since you’re back in Atlanta, but are you done filming the next two Avengers or is Nebula needed on-set tomorrow?

Nooo. Nebula is very much needed on-set tomorrow and for the rest of the year. So yeah, this is the longest shoot in the world. It’s been going since January, and it goes right up until December. And then it goes into reshoots, like immediate more additional photography next year. So it’s like an ongoing thing, which is really cool, because it feels like a whole family now.

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So you’re shooting both of them at once, right?

Yeah, well back-to-back basically.

So I imagine it is like a TV series environment then at this point?

Yeah, true. There were a lot of crew members who were on Jumanji who’ve gone onto it. So I’m just like, “Okay, this really is my next family.”

This also kind of feels like Nebula’s moment now that the war with Thanos has finally arrived. Do you feel like she’s going to be taking center stage, as much you can say, in the upcoming movies?

I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but I definitely think all of what we’ve been building towards, with all the backstories between Nebula and Thanos, is definitely going to come to a head in the Avengers film, and she’s definitely going to confront all of those traumatic memories. I definitely think she is going to have her moment.

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So you’ve done Avengers now and you’ve done Jumanji, do you want to continue doing more of these bigger action movies?

Actually I’m sort of transitioning behind-the-camera a little bit, which has been really fun for me. So earlier this year, I directed my first feature film, which we just finished post-production on now. So that was set in Scotland, and that was called The Party’s Just Beginning. And I loved that experience so much, so I’m hoping to direct another film.

I assume you picked the location because you wanted to find a different perspective of going home?

It definitely is going to be a different perspective of being at home. [Laughs] We originally worked over the Christmas holiday. So I’m like, ‘Hi everybody!’ [Laughs] It’s so weird to be shooting in my home town, but it was great. The story is something that I wrote and it’s set in my hometown, so it just felt very apt to go back there and shoot there. So yeah, it was wonderful.