Scotland-born Karen Gillan went from unknown to international TV star when she was plucked from obscurity to play the role of the Doctor’s companion in the latest two series of Doctor Who. Her role of Amy Pond coincided with a new Doctor (Matt Smith) and a new head writer for the program (Steven Moffat), and over the course of two seasons, she’s gone from a flighty barely grown girl, to a more grounded wife, who learned some shocking news in the show’s most recent episode. With Doctor Who returning for the second half of its latest series on Saturday, August 27, at 9 p.m. EST on BBC America, Gillan talked to The A.V. Club about the brilliance of Moffat’s scripts, traveling the world to promote the show, and her secret-keeping skills. The interview contains spoilers for major reveals from the last batch of episodes.
The A.V. Club: I heard at Comic-Con that Steven Moffat makes you keep secrets from each other. Are you naturally a good secret-keeper?
Karen Gillan: I would like to think I’m a good secret-keeper, when it comes to friends. I’m quite loyal like that. It’s really difficult when you have a massive, amazing, exciting secret about Doctor Who, but I guess we’re trained that way now. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think that adds to the show, to have these things nobody else knows?
KG: I think that’s exactly what it does for the show. I think it’s really clever what Steven did. He kind of told everyone a little bit of information that we weren’t allowed to tell anybody else. And it just adds, because that’s where the characters are, in terms of keeping things from each other, and it makes for a really interesting dynamic in the TARDIS. It’s always interesting when somebody’s talking and there’s double meanings and things, but the other character doesn’t know. And also, I’ve still got my secret.
AVC: How long have you had it?
KG: I’ve had it since the beginning of the [latest] series.
[Spoiler for those who haven’t seen “A Good Man Goes To War,” the final episode of the first half of the in-progress sixth season to follow.]
AVC: The River revelation was a surprise to you. When you heard it, did you think, “Okay, now I’m playing Alex Kingston’s mother”?
KG: Yeah. I went, “I’m Alex Kingston’s mother. Okay.” It’s pretty difficult to digest. I never thought I’d be cast as that, but there we are. It’s really cool, though, because River’s always been slightly protective over Amy, and they’ve always actually really gotten on with each other. There’s none of that jealousy that sometimes happens with the companion and another woman in the Doctor’s life. It wasn’t like that at all. So there was always something interesting going on there, although Alex knew and I didn’t. And now it’s funny, because we’ve had a chance to really play with that relationship and certain maternal instincts that Amy might feel toward River.
AVC: What has it been like to play out the process of building a marital relationship with the Rory character?
KG: What I love about that relationship is that we really saw it develop to get to the stage where they were happy together. Because we started off at a point where Amy didn’t want to be committed to him, and he absolutely did, and that just gave us somewhere to go with it, rather than just them being happy together. So it was interesting, and it evolved, and Rory really became a hero in the process. He was the lone centurion in 2,000 years. So yeah, that relationship really developed. And what I love is that we’re seeing a lot of it, and we’re actually going to see how they get together in the next episode.
AVC: How far along are you guys in production for the rest of the series?
KG: The rest of the series is in the can. We are finished filming, and it’s all being edited.
AVC: Moffat is famous for puzzle-like scripts that all fit together at the end. When you’re filming, do you ever get confused about how everything’s going to fit together?
KG: Yeah, sometimes it’s quite complicated, because it’s not filmed in chronological order, and a lot of things are not revealed in chronological order. But the show’s about time travel, so that’s not linear storytelling. I think it’s how it should be told, because it’s playing around with time, which is interesting. And also, it’s funny, the big revelation about River being Amy’s daughter. I didn’t find that out until I’d filmed some of the episodes that go after that. So that was quite interesting. I suddenly went, “Oh, does my performance make sense now?” But Steven and the execs were all over that to make sure it all made sense. I trust Moffat, and I trust Piers Wenger and Beth Willis. They know what they’re doing, and if anything doesn’t make sense, they’re not just going to let it go.
AVC: Have there ever been any episodes where you were particularly surprised by how things turned out?
KG: You know, I’ve just watched episode 10, which is about to air, and my God, the director is Nick Hurran, and he has done the most amazing job. They are the most cinematic episodes. They just look really, really filmic, and he’s got such an attention to detail. And also a really, really amazing director called Richard Senior. It was his first directing job. He directed “Let’s Kill Hitler.” It’s turned out amazingly. For him to start out on that level, he’s going to go far.
AVC: “Let’s Kill Hitler” almost sounds like a caper.
KG: Yeah. It’s a big adventure. It’s really fun. It’s really funny. Also, we’re dealing with a lot of things to do with the big revelation with who River Song is. We’re not just brushing over that. We really revel in that. But it’s a real fun adventure to start us off with the next half of the season.
AVC: What’s it like for you as an actor to balance those more standalone episodes with the ones that contribute to the big story about River’s parentage, or the Doctor being killed?
KG: I think it’s really good, because it just provides a bit of variety. That’s what I love about this role; we get to play so many different things in one character. It’s funny, it’s sad. Funny and sad at the same time. It’s scary, all of those things mixed into one. So I’m just really grateful that I get to play all those things.
AVC: Your parents liked Doctor Who, but you weren’t necessarily that familiar with it before the revival.
KG: Yeah. Basically, it’s been on since 1963, but there was a break. So it wasn’t on while I was growing up. I never got the thing of being a kid and hiding behind the cushions going, “Ahh, it’s a Dalek!” I knew what it was, because everyone in the UK knows what Doctor Who is, you’re just sort of born knowing what a Dalek is and what a TARDIS is, and all that. So I was only familiar with it from when it came back in 2005, and my Mum’s a really big sci-fi fan, so I just watched some if it with her having it on the television.
AVC: Were you into science fiction at all?
AVC: Where do you see Amy fitting into the tradition of science-fiction heroines? What do you think this character brings to that genre?
KG: Well, I quite like that she’s a little bit kookier than a normal action girl. She’s got a bit of a madness to her, which is interesting, from when she first meets the Doctor. Also, what we get from her—I feel you really invest in the character, because you meet her as a little girl. But then what you get is, you’re really seeing her life pan out. We’re seeing her grow up before our very eyes. She starts off as a little girl, then a young woman. We see her get together with a boy, get married, have a kid. We’re seeing it all pan out.
I hope she’s evolving as a character, because last season, I wanted her to be… I wanted the child to be quite a big part of her character. She was this overgrown child, she never quite let go of her childhood, and when that magic man fell out of the sky… And then the universe rebooted, and she’s become more of a settled person, and now she’s a mother, so we’re going to see a whole new side.
AVC: She had kind of a wanderlust when your character started, and now she’s a mother, and she’s married. What has that evolution been like?
KG: That’s been what I absolutely most love about playing this character, is that she’s not just a character. We know what she’s like, and that’s her run on the show. We’re seeing her whole life pan out. That’s what I love about her so much. I hope she’s changing. She was quite snarky in the last series, and bit like [Whines.] “Ahhhh,” quite young. Because she was always still such a child inside, as one of the monsters said to her at one point. And then we see the universe rebooted, so she’s got two different versions of reality, so she’s still a little messed-up, but she’s far more settled as a person, having had a normal upbringing in one reality. She’s married, and she has a kid. It’s cool; it’s really cool.
AVC: You mentioned that you liked the character Rose [an earlier companion on the show]. What did you like about her?
KG: I felt like she was a relatable character. She was a normal, ordinary girl who had something extraordinary happen to her, which is always a relatable formula. You see it in many shows. Like, you have American Idol and all that. It’s the ordinary in extraordinary circumstances. I love that. And so I felt like I could relate to her, and I liked her. She really got that role, what the Doctor Who companion should be. She was fun. She was feisty and kind of girl-next-door. And Billie Piper clearly realized the importance of the chemistry with the Doctor. It was very much the Doctor and Rose as a unit, rather than just the Doctor, for instance.
AVC: Before you were cast on the show, was there an episode or moment when you said, “I really like this show, it’s a lot of fun”?
KG: I remember seeing bits of it. All I remember massively is seeing Billie Piper in some sort of underground, vent-y area, running away from monsters. And I thought, “That looks really fun.” [Laughs.] I did. I was like, “Imagine getting to do that every day.” And that was just a really passing thought; I never thought one day I actually would be.
AVC: For all of you in the cast, this is your first role at this level. What’s it been like dealing with that level of fame?
KG: It’s a bit of a shock to the system at first, because neither of us were known in any way in the UK, or anywhere. I had not done many jobs beforehand, just a few episodes of things. And this was just crazy, because even when they know that they’re casting the roles, there’s a lot of media speculation as to who it’s going to be. You’re going into the auditions, and you can’t tell anyone. It’s so scary. And then we get the roles, and we can’t tell anyone.
But then we sort of filmed for nine months. You kind of just get used to your way of life, of filming this show, forgetting that it actually transmits on television around the world. And then when we came out the night it aired, someone said to us, they were like, “Okay, so after this night, your lives aren’t going to be the same anymore.” We were like, “Really?” And they really weren’t.
AVC: The show is big around the world. You’ve done a lot of traveling with this show. What’s different about that experience?
KG: You go to places you might not necessarily choose to go, and find that they’re incredible. And you get to meet all sorts of interesting people. All the boring parts are organized for you. That’s quite nice. [Laughs.] Like the travel arrangements.
AVC: You were just down in San Diego for Comic-Con. What was that experience like?
KG: Ah, the most. It was really overwhelming, actually, because we did not expect to get that sort of reception out there. It really made us realize how much it really is growing out here in the States. We had 6,500 people in this Hall H at Comic-Con, with all these sonic screwdrivers in the air. They were so excited, and that made us so excited. Matt and I were walking down the street in San Diego; we saw loads of people dressed up as the Doctor and Amy. It was so surreal.
AVC: What have been your favorite episodes?
KG: The first episode that ever aired, “The Eleventh Hour,” always holds a special place in my heart, because I just love how the Doctor and Amy meet. I love the whole sequence with Matt and Caitlin, playing the younger version of Amy. And then just seeing them come together for the first time, it’s like an explosion or something, because they’re both pretty mental. So I love that episode, because it’s all about them and that relationship. And I really enjoyed filming episode 10, which will be coming up in a few weeks’ time, because I got to play an older version of Amy.
AVC: Can you tell us more about what’s coming up?
KG: So basically what we’re going to see is, everyone’s relationship is explored further after this big revelation about River Song, particularly the relationship between Amy and River. We’ve had so much fun with that, and actually, I feel slightly maternal toward Alex Kingston now, honestly. And she acts younger around me; it’s really funny how that’s turned into our actual way of interacting. What else have we got? We got this cool robot thing called the Tessalecta, which is really, really snazzy. And then we get to see an older version of Amy in episode 10. You’ll never look at children’s toys the same way after episode nine, and then episode 13 brings the mother of all twists.
AVC: What’s it like to read these scripts for the first time?
KG: It’s just the most exciting thing to get a fresh, new script that’s still hot from the photocopier thing. [Laughs.] From the printer, I don’t know, and just read it. I don’t wait. I tear into it straightaway. It’s so exciting, especially a Steven Moffat one.
AVC: If you could follow Amy for several series of this show, where would you like to see her end up?
KG: What I love, again, is seeing her grow up. Rather than getting a snippet of her life and her time with the Doctor, we’re actually seeing a lot of her life pan out, and a lot of major things in a girl’s life worth seeing. I would like to see her grown into a woman and maybe just see all of her life pan out. That would be nice.