In Karen Gillan’s latest movie, Dual, the Marvel star plays two versions of the same character, both looking to kill each other. On paper, that might seem like a new, unique challenge. Only... Gillan has done it before. A few times in fact. One was even in the second highest-grossing movie in history, Avengers: Endgame. As a result, much like being cast on Doctor Who earlier in her career, she somehow keeps taking on projects that only make her next film or show that much better.
“I think when I was making Dual, I was like, ‘How many times have I done this now?’” Gillan said to io9 over video chat this week. “I mean, it must be on my fourth time playing opposite myself. I was like, ‘That’s the weirdest bit of typecasting I’ve ever heard in my life.’ But I think actually, through working on the other projects and on Avengers, I kind of figured out how I like to do it.”
In Dual, Gillan is Sarah, a young woman who is diagnosed with a terminal disease. As a result, she decides to make a clone of herself so that her friends and family won’t know she’s gone. However, Sarah miraculously recovers and now, with two Sarahs running around,, the rules of society dictate there can be only one. They must duel to the death. It was written and directed by Riley Stearns, who previously made The Art of Self Defense and Faults.
Gillan approached both Sarah and Sarah’s clone as separate characters, writing out detailed lists of traits each embody based on Stearns’ script. But playing both lead roles led to way more work than usual. She had to act both sides, remember the lines for both sides, and, almost most crucially, react believably to that performance—with help from actress Katariina Havukainen, who played opposite Gillan on-set.
“I like to make sure that I have an actress I can do this with because it’s definitely a team effort,” Gillan said. “So that was really important to me, and I got to help choose the actress that I would be acting opposite for Dual, which made me really happy. And [Havukainen] is an amazing actress because I knew that I wanted to be able to react off of something. I didn’t want to just fully imagine what I would be doing with it in the future when I film the other side. I wanted it to feel more real than that. And she gave me a lot to work with, so I was really happy with that.”
However, Gillan admits keeping all of that in her mind at once was at times difficult. “It was challenging because it’s kind of a lot to take on,” she said. “There’s certain element of like, I would be playing opposite this amazing actress and I would kind of watch how she’s doing it. And I’m thinking, ‘I like that. I’m going to steal that.’ And then I think, ‘Oh, I’m not going to do the line like that.’ So let me react appropriately to the way I’m imagining myself doing it in the future when I get to it. So it’s a lot of multi-tasking.”
One bit of multitasking that Gillan didn’t necessarily think about was Sarah’s physicality. Once the duel between Sarahs is set, the film follows the first one through her training, which happens with a man named Trent (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul). The problem is, Gillan is used to playing a superhero and Sarah has never trained a day in her life. She basically had to unlearn had to be Karen Gillan.
“I have been playing really physically capable characters for years now,” she said. “So I’ve perfected the art of running like an action hero. All of that. And I had to undo everything for this character because she’s training for the first time in her life. So I remember I got on the treadmill and I was running like an action hero and I was like, ‘I need to be way worse.’ So then the arms started to flail. I looked a bit more winded.”
Playing two Sarahs in Dual after two Nebulas in Avengers: Endgame is not the first time in her career a major role prepared her for what’s next. When asked about the impact Doctor Who had on her career, Gillan talks about the surprising link between that role and her next. “[Doctor Who] was one of the most important things that happened to my career, still,” she said. “It was the first big thing I’d ever gotten. It was an amazing role and an amazing TV show that I loved so much. And also, I had a lot of sci-fi training.”
That sci-fi training helped her settle into her next big role, in a movie called Guardians of the Galaxy. “I was extremely nervous to start on Guardians of the Galaxy because it was like a big American film, and I had done British television up until that point,” she said. “So I was like ‘What’s this going to be like? Is it going to be all the Hollywood stuff I imagined?’ And then I actually got there and I was on a spaceship and I was like, ‘Oh. Wait a minute. This is my environment.’ I can show you guys a thing or two since I spent the last three years on spaceships.”
Dual doesn’t see Gillan on any spaceships but she does think it’s helped what’s already been a dynamic, surprising career get even better. “[Working on Dual] really expanded me as an actress,” she said. “Just to even figure out how to deliver that style of writing in that style of delivery. it was just so unique and I loved it. It was so cool. I think [Stearns] really helped me develop as an actress and I think I’ve gotten funnier from the film too because he really taught me how to not play the funny, and in turn, make it a lot funnier.”
Which, it turns out, might even impact her next time playing her Guardians of the Galaxy character, Nebula. “We’re definitely going to see a new version of the character [in future movies], Gillan teased. “Maybe a looser version of the character, maybe a little more levity.” Levity she certainly honed in Dual.
Dual is in theaters Friday.
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