We’ll Take Manhattan tells the story of famed British photographer, David Bailey (Aneurin Barnard), and his model and muse, Jean Shrimpton (Karen Gillan), who together revolutionized the world of fashion photography. Setting out from London to Manhattan in the 1960’s, for a historic photo shoot for British Vogue, the brash and visionary Bailey refused to conform to the status quo and the now iconic photos that resulted, with Shrimpton posing in haute couture on the gritty streets of New York City, became the definition of a new generation of celebrity chic.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actress Karen Gillan, best known for her role as Amy Pond, opposite Matt Smith on Doctor Who, talked about why she wanted to be a part of We’ll Take Manhattan, how strange her own experience as a model was, wanting to be as authentic as possible while embodying Jean Shrimpton, the moment when she felt that she had finally figured out the essence of the real woman, how much she loved the wardrobe, and how she would have loved to have met Shrimpton, but was happy to know that she loved the film. She also talked about what led to her departure from Doctor Who, what she’ll remember most fondly about her time on the show, what she looks for in a role, and her dream to do Broadway someday. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Karen Gillan: I was shooting Doctor Who, at the time, and I was sent the script and it immediately got my attention because I was aware of David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton, and I love the ‘60s. Instantly, I was interested. And then, I just thought it would be a really fun character to play. It’s a great story. I felt that it captured the whole feeling of revolution and change with young people.
For people who aren’t familiar with her, what can you say about Jean Shrimpton and the impact that she had on fashion and youth culture?
Gillan: She was the first supermodel in the U.K., actually. She was this young country girl who shot to fame by being David Bailey’s muse. They did this one photo shoot for Vogue magazine in New York, which changed the face of fashion. It was outrageous just because before them was a very poised, ‘50s style that was very beautiful, together and collected. They represented this young, free, slightly scandalous thing.
You didn’t care much for modeling when you did it, but do you think you would have, if you were able to do something like this, in a time period that was so experimental?
Gillan: I think that, if I was involved in projects that were as creative as the photo shoot that they did in New York, then I probably would have invested a lot more in it because it would have been more interesting and exciting. But, they weren’t aware of the change that was going to happen from what they did. I like being involved in interesting and creative things. I’d just rather be involved in creating it, rather than being in it. It was just not something that I ever saw myself doing, growing up, or ever aspired to do. It just happened, to earn some money. It was kind of strange, actually. It was a weird experience.
Were you able to identify with the fact that Jean Shrimpton clearly didn’t plan on having the impact that she did?
Gillan: Yeah, although she probably planned it a little more than I did. She actually enrolled herself into modeling school. Obviously, she had a little idea that she wanted to do it, however much she might claim that she didn’t. She actively sought it slightly, but probably didn’t seek what actually happened, which was becoming the biggest model of her time.
Gillan: I wanted to be as authentic as possible because, first of all, Jean Shrimpton is still alive. And, she’s interesting enough to be played accurately. I didn’t need to add things. It was an interesting story. What they did was so influential. So, I just went with all the research that I could find. Footage of her is really rare, so I had to just go on what little I had. I read her books and just tried to tell the story accurately.
When you can read a book that she wrote at the height of her fame and another one that she wrote later on, how does that inform the way you portray her?
Gillan: For me, it just added other dimensions to what she was really feeling or thinking towards it, and what she was actually presenting to people. That makes a more interesting character because we all present things that aren’t necessarily what we’re actually thinking or feeling.
How did you find a balance between wanting to play Jean Shrimpton accurately and doing a performance that was your own?
Gillan: Well, I just wanted to play her as accurately as possible, but still make it dramatic and interesting enough in the time frame that I had. I just wanted to show lots of different aspects to her personality. The main thing I focused on was just telling a coming-of-age story of this girl who doesn’t know who she is and doesn’t really have a voice. She might come across as maybe quite fragile and weak for a woman, but it’s about her overcoming that and finally finding her own voice. And then, everything blew up for her.
Gillan: You know, there was a moment. When we were recreating all the photographs that were shot in New York, we shot all of my stuff posing for the pictures in London on a green screen, and then we went to New York and did everybody else’s pics across the street. It was really weird, actually. It was really disconnected. But, I remember doing the photograph when she’s got the Twist sign above her head, and everyone on the whole set just went really quiet. I was like, “This is a really strange atmosphere.” I said it to the director, and he was just like, “‘Cause suddenly everyone saw Jean.” It was a strange moment, and I felt it as well. That was actually a breakthrough moment.
Was it fun to wear this kind of wardrobe?
Gillan: I love vintage clothes, anyway, so that was great. I loved wearing all the stuff that she was wearing off of the photo shoots. That really represented her, for me. I really felt like a normal, country girl in those normal ‘60s clothes. That was really fun. But, the ones from the photo shoots were so chic. They were exact replicas. They were amazing! I’m really bad. I would forget about it and be rolling around.
What was it like to work with Aneurin Barnard and develop that iconic relationship?
Gillan: We met, for the first time, on the first day of rehearsals. We had a week of rehearsals and we hadn’t met prior to that, at all, which was nice because the way they met in real life was on this photo shoot at work, and it developed from there. That was really fun. Working with Aneurin was amazing. He stayed in the accent for the entire three weeks. I was like, “All right, I’ll do it to, then.” He’d be like, “Shall we go for a walk, Jean?,” and I’d be like, “Okay.” We drunk excessive amounts of coffee, as well, because that’s what they do in the script. I just tried to get into it, as much as possible. He was also shooting on his actual camera, all the way through the shoot, and then, at the end, he gave me a picture of me, as Jean, just sitting and thinking on the Brooklyn Bridge. That was a really lovely gift from him.
Gillan: My favorite scene for Jean was in the bath, when she’s just talking to David and she’s found her voice. That was a big moment for her.
If you could have had the opportunity to meet her, would you have wanted to?
Gillan: I would have loved to have met her, just because it probably would have given me a richer idea. She’s such an enigmatic character, which was purposely done. That was her and David Bailey creating this mysterious image. You don’t really know much about her, so I would have loved to have spoken to her and gotten it first-hand. But also, there’s something quite nice about keeping the mystery there ‘cause that’s what she was about.
Did hearing that she loved the film allow you to breathe a sigh of relief?
Gillan: Oh, my god, yeah! She just left this message and was like, “I thought it was wonderful.” She didn’t know how we got it so accurate. And I was just like, “Oh, thank god!” She’s so honest, now that she’s older, and she’s quite cutting. She would have told us, if she didn’t like it, so that was nice.
Because there are so many stories that could be told, from this time period, would you like to play her again or do another story in this era?
Gillan: Yeah, I love the ‘60s. I actually just finished a play in London, set in the ‘60s. That was set in ‘64, so it was literally just straight after. I played a very different character in a John Osborne play, and that was fun. I’m thinking I should probably branch out of the ‘60s now. But, it would be cool to follow Jean Shrimpton when she moves on with her career. She actually left David Bailey for the actor Terence Stamp. It’s ironic because David Bailey was such a womanizer, but he was the one who was left for another man that was his best mate.
Were you happy to be a part of the final decision to leave Doctor Who?
Gillan: Oh, yeah! It would be so weird to just receive a script and find out that it was the end. That would be really weird. Oh, my god, I don’t know how I would feel about that. It was nice. I was just thinking about it and I had this instinct of when I wanted to leave, so I called Steven Moffat and we arranged dinner. He told me where he was at, story wise, and together we were like, “Okay, this is when we can do it.” It was actually so lovely and pleasant, and we both felt that it was the right time. In all honesty, I’ve had the best years of my life working on the show, so I’m going to be so sad to go. I really am.
Gillan: If I do something, I want to just do it. I just feel that it’s a stronger impact, and I like to go with my instincts because it’s more exciting.
Was it fun to not know how they were going to write your character out, or would you rather have known ahead of time?
Gillan: I wanted to keep it a surprise, for as long as possible, and keep the excitement in there.
Looking back at your time on the show, what will you remember most fondly about having been a part of it?
Gillan: Well, I’ve made some of my best friends on it. We have so much fun. It’s so life-consuming, but in the most wonderful way. We film pretty much every day, for nine months of the year, so it’s basically your life. And when you’re not filming it, you’re promoting it and talking about it, so it really does take over your life. It’s going to be quite shocking. It will be a strange shock to the system, to not be doing it anymore. But, I’ll remember working with my friends, getting the best writing there is out there in Britain, at the moment, and also just playing such a strong female. That’s one thing I hope I continue to get to do. A lot of stuff is clearly written from a male perspective and the women aren’t quite as fleshed out as the guys. Whereas this character is really well-written. I just hope I get to do more of that.
What do you look for in projects and roles?
Gillan: First of all, it probably starts with the story and if it’s interesting. Just as important is whether I think the character is interesting. That’s my main priority. And then, it matters who I’d be working with. But, that’s where I start.
Gillan: It’s just so exciting! I like the rush, and I like the possibility of it going wrong. It’s so scary, but I love being scared. It’s like going on a roller coaster. Also, the immediate reaction that you get from the audience is really fun. They’re just giving you their energy to work with, and you’re giving it back to them. It’s this weird transaction. It just lives for that moment, and then it’s gone, which I quite like.
Would you like to do Broadway, at some point?
Gillan: I would love to! That is a dream of mine. One day. I think I’m too terrified to try it, but I’m going to try it anyway.
Is there a show you would love to do, or a character you would love to play in the theater?
Gillan: I would love to get into some modern, contemporary stuff from new, young writers. That would be cool, to do something like that. The Royal Court in London is good for that. I’d like to do something there. They have a new writers program, and you just get these really young, creative people coming up with amazing stuff. I’d also like to be Lady Macbeth.
What initially drew you to acting? Did something inspire you to try it, or did you just fall into it?
Gillan: I think it’s down to being an only child. That’s just my opinion. I’m not really sure. I had a lot of alone time with no brothers or sisters running around, or anything. I would just sit and imagine things, all the time. Even as a child, I would question, “What’s the difference between imagining a life and actually living it, if you can imagine it that vividly?” I think it might be something to do with pretending. Then, I found out you could actually get paid for it, and I pursued it. It’s almost dangerous, having too much alone time. Ignorance is bliss, I’m starting to really think.
Was it difficult to make the transition from Scotland to London?
Gillan: I was 17 when I did that, so I was totally fearless, as young people are. I just did it and was fine. I wasn’t scared at all. But in retrospect, I think, “That was a pretty big move, at that age. I can’t believe my parents let me do that!” At the time, I was just totally fearless, so it didn’t scare me. But, now it would.
We’ll Take Manhattan premieres on Ovation on March 3rd.