She was a character who, by Karen Gillan’s own account, seemed destined for a single-film stint in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A “blue meanie” who could have been gone in a flash like so many forgotten villains who’ve tangled with the likes of Iron Man, Thor and their superhero brethren.
But as the lights came up on the epic franchise finale “Avengers: Endgame” and fans dried their tears for their fallen faves, they also cheered the surprisingly redemptive arc of one of the most complex characters in the expansive 22-film series: intergalactic assassin Nebula, daughter of Thanos, sister-frenemy to Gamora — and the unlikeliest of Avengers.
[Warning: Spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame” follow.]
Portrayed by Scottish actress Gillan (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” “The Party’s Just Beginning”) over four of the MCU’s 22 films, the blue-skinned antiheroine known for her seething space rage and cyborg enhancements entered the series as a ruthless antagonist in James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
As she returned for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and last year’s epic “Avengers: Infinity War,” Nebula’s tortured personal journey and relationships with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Thanos (Josh Brolin) and the extended “Guardians” gang unearthed deeper traumas.
In “Endgame” — now the No. 2 highest-grossing film of all time and still dominating theaters with a worldwide box office take of $2.3 billion and counting — Nebula comes out on the other side of war, finding forgiveness in herself and a capacity for change.
Fresh off wrapping her work on her other hit studio franchise, a “Jumanji” sequel due for release later this year, and with the “Endgame” veil of secrecy finally lifted on the MCU’s stars, Gillan phoned The Times to get spoilery about Nebula’s arc and tease her next moves in front of and behind the camera.
Now that you can speak openly about all things “Avengers” … you’re unleashed! Let’s talk about what happened in “Endgame.”
The burden has been lifted! I still feel though that there’s a piece of me that shouldn’t be talking about it, it’s so ingrained in me — “Can I really talk about this yet?” I think I can.
Disney and Marvel are famously secretive when it comes to plot points and, well, every conceivable aspect of these films. When did you find out the extent to which Nebula would figure in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”?
I don’t think I realized the extent of it until I just watched the movie with everybody else. I knew that I had filmed all of that stuff, but I had no idea how it would fit into the other scenes and what kind of impact it would have. It felt like it was an important emotional role but there’s no way of really knowing until you watch it. So I was almost in tears, just so happy the character was able to really shine through.
And to think, when you first got the gig six years ago you didn’t expect she’d last this long — you’ve said it was supposed to be just an eight-day role.
They were looking for an actress who was willing to shave her head — and I’m pretty sure that’s the reason I got into a Marvel movie at that point in my career! I read the audition scene for this character and it was really apparent that she had this sibling rivalry with Gamora and something terrible happened with their father. I thought, “That’s an interesting element, I can grab onto that, I know who this person is now.”
I did a screen test and played into the more emotional side of Nebula, which was pretty random because the character she was in the movie I was auditioning for was not an emotional character at all. In that screen test, it felt like me and James Gunn found this version of this character that was really twisted and complex and interesting, and so it’s been very satisfying to watch her gradually show that side of her from movie to movie. And it all exploded in “Endgame.”
When you were making “Endgame,” did you know only what your character’s part of the overall story was? Didn’t you and your cast mates trade notes between scenes to try to figure out the plot?
Yes. There were bits of that! Just in conversation, like, “Interesting that you just mentioned that …” You tried to piece it together but there was no way of really knowing. It was an interesting way of making the movie. But I had an inkling that Nebula would play a prominent role because I read [the 1991 Marvel limited comic series] “Infinity Gauntlet” in preparation for the first time I played Nebula. And then I realized that’s what the next “Avengers” two-parter was going to be based on. [I thought] “Oh, this bodes well!”
Each of these characters is in need of serious therapy by “Endgame,” but Nebula is really doing the work: she looks within, makes amends for her past wrongs and comes out a more healed individual.
I just love this character so much. I’ve been obsessed with her from the beginning because she’s such a complex creature, but also represents a lot of human behavioral stuff that we can all relate to. I’m just so pleased that people are connecting with her ... James Gunn created this character with these really clear motivations for being the way that she was, so it was easy to perceive her as a villain. But then to look at her reasons behind that, you understand her and have more empathy towards her — and then she’s not so much of a villain anymore.
They take it to the next level in “Endgame,” where [writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely] went into the evolution that Nebula had been through to see her confront her past self; she’s staring her former self in the face and it’s really clear how far she’s come from that angry, bitter and twisted person. She’s starting to connect with other people and find some level of forgiveness.
How did it feel to film the scene in which Nebula confronts and kills her past self?
That was a really interesting thing to play, because I played both sides of it. I think that I found the hope in that situation for the character because if you look at the past version of her, she has a line where she says, “He won’t let me leave.” And you realize in that moment how trapped the character is. Her future self gets her.
We’ve now seen two versions of Nebula and two versions of Gamora. How do you and Zoe Saldana keep these essentially four characters straight?
There was one Gamora that I dealt with in “Endgame” who was past-Gamora, and she was just “Gamora.” But there were two Nebulas and they were called Good Nebula and Bad Nebula on the set. Me and Zoe [Saldana] are obsessed. We’re so invested at this point, there were always fun discussions to be had while we were filming. It was a really creative experience to show these girls both in the present and the past and show how far they’d come.
What did you think of the choice to kill off Tony Stark, to have him make that ultimate sacrifice?
It was apt to give him a send-off with that kind of impact, because he’s the godfather of this universe – he kicked it all off, so it really felt like he should get a big farewell that was worthy of the impact that he’s had on this whole cinematic universe.
Nebula and Iron Man stuck on the ship together made for a fun, unlikely team-up.
And working with [Downey Jr.] was incredible. I’ve always been amazed at how loose he is on screen, so I wanted to film with him and see what that was like. He made it such a fun, playful environment that I was able to do that as well, so we improvised all of those scenes. All sorts of fun things were flying around.
It might come as a surprise to moviegoers to know that there was any improvisation on set. How much room was there to improvise on these movies?
So much. Basically there’s always room for improv in these movies, they’re so supportive of what you want to try. So it’s an incredibly creative experience working on these movies. There is this conception that [the Marvel movies] are not character-driven, but it’s very character-driven and you have so much time and there’s a bigger budget, so you are able to try every idea that’s in your brain. I love working like that.
What do you remember from first walking into the “Avengers” universe?
Everybody was so welcoming to me on the set. Most of them had been working together already and I was a little bit of a newcomer and so was Sean Gunn, who plays Rocket on set. It was just really cool to interact with all of them in one scene and you’re thinking, “This is half of the movie stars in the world together, this is a cool moment.”
What’s your official position on the ongoing debate over who is, in fact, the best Chris?
Who’s in the running?! There are so many Chrises! But I will have to keep my loyalty where it began and go with Chris Pratt.
In the upcoming comedy “Stuber” we’ll also see you in a mini-reunion with another “Guardians” costar, Dave Bautista, playing a tough cop and his partner in the LAPD.
It was so good to work with him — with us both out of makeup! He’s so gentle and lovely.
What were your feelings on James Gunn being reinstated on “Guardians 3”?
I was so happy because it truly feels like we’re part of this little family on “Guardians.” And to have your leader ripped away from you is a really weird feeling. I feel that it wouldn’t be the same type of “Guardians” movie without him. So much of it is his personality. The sense of humor, his taste in music, the characters — there’s so much of him in there, so that would have been quite a strange sensation to make it without him. We were just so happy when he came back. It feels like everything’s as it should be now.
Looking to the next phase of the MCU, would you like to see Thor join the Guardians?
Yes. I think that would be hilarious, to see Thor and Star-Lord in some sort of captain rivalry. I think drunk Thor would fit in more, though.
Which other Marvel movies would you like to see Nebula pop in on?
Maybe “Captain Marvel.” That would be fun, to go hang out with her for a while.
Some Avengers are also getting their own Disney+ spinoffs. She’s been Bad Nebula, she’s been Good Nebula; what’s your pitch for a Nebula series?
I would like to see her reverse time and steal the Infinity Gauntlet and take over the universe! You think, “Oh, she’s come so far! She’s so good!” and then at the last second ... no, I’m kidding. I don’t want her to go back to being evil. I just want her to take the Infinity Gauntlet and go a little power-mad for one second, but then evolve back to being a good person and right all of the wrongs. When a person’s never had any power in their life and they’re suddenly given all the power, it can affect them for a second. But she’ll find her way back.
You just finished the “Jumanji” sequel but you also found time to star in an indie comedy project, “Neurotica,” which premiered last month at Tribeca. And after making your directorial debut with “The Party’s Just Beginning,” you have more in the works behind the camera. What’s next in life, post-“Endgame”?
What am I doing? I’m about to start on another film called “Gunpowder Milkshake,” which is an all-female assassin movie [co-starring Lena Headey, Michelle Yeoh and Angela Bassett]. It’s some of the most original action I’ve ever read in my life. And I’m also still writing and creating with [“The Party’s Just Beginning” producer] Mali Elfman; we’re working on our next feature, which hopefully will go into production next year. I made another short horror film in my spare time, which was really fun. ... I will probably release it online once it’s finished.
You’ve also said you’d like to direct a Marvel movie one day.
I would like to direct a superhero movie, across the board. I would just love to tackle that genre. I’ve worked in that sandbox for so many years now that I feel like I understand it, and there’s so much room to play within that genre. It would be cool to put my own spin on it. “The Dark Knight” is one of my favorite movies ever.
Now that it’s in theaters everywhere, do strangers come up to you and talk about their feelings about “Avengers: Endgame”?
Yes! People that I meet randomly will talk about how much they connected with Nebula, which is amazing, to see such a sudden shift in attitudes and opinions about the character. But people are also just so connected with all of the Marvel movies and that credit goes to Kevin Feige, who is a genius. He has spent the time and put in so much thought and energy to make sure that everything ties into each other culminating in this big finale and he completely delivered on everything he’d been working on for the last 10 years. 22 movies! I’m in awe of his vision.
He must be really good at puzzles.
A mean puzzle player.
Some folks are still puzzling over one aspect of the film: After working on “Endgame,” do you understand how time travel works in the MCU?
I already had a good grasp of time travel from “Doctor Who.” [Laughs] I’m a time travel expert. I would say it adds up. But they definitely should have listed “Doctor Who” in that scene where they talk about time traveling movies. I can’t believe I didn’t pitch that in the moment!