How Playing Nebula Affected Karen Gillan Physically

Starring in a Marvel movie can really take it out of an actor. There's the pressure of being seen by millions, the intense workouts and physicality to being a superhero or supervillain, and then for some, there's the makeup. Scottish actress Karen Gillan discovered while working on "Guardians of the Galaxy" that long hours at the gym and intense fight choreography training were a walk in the park compared to wearing one very specific part of her costume. 

While the prosthetics, makeup, and contact lenses that make Gillan look like the alien mercenary Nebula are truly stunning to look at, they also require a lot of time in the makeup chair. Not only that, but the finishing touch on her Nebula costume caused her enough pain to change the way she approached special effects in later roles. 

The eyes have it

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gillan revealed that the sclera contact lenses she wore to play Nebula in the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" were so uncomfortable that she requested a digital eye color change for her role in the 2022 science fiction film, "Dual." When asked about her character's blue eyes in "Dual," Gillan said:

"I had to wear such huge contacts in the first "Guardians" that I cannot wear contacts anymore. [Laugh] I'm completely fazed by them. So the blue eyes were done in VFX. Those contacts I had in 'Guardians' were the full eye, though. The sclera lenses, I think they're called. So I don't think I can do contacts anymore after that experience." 

Gillan has portrayed Nebula in both "Guardians of the Galaxy" films, plus "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame," so thankfully she's gotten used to shaving her head and sitting in a makeup chair for four hours before each day of filming. While she didn't say whether or not her Nebula eyes are now digital, the contact lenses she wore on the first film were 22 millimeter sclera lenses. The largest possible sclera lenses are 24 millimeters, so she had the almost all of her visible eye covered, which can be uncomfortable for some wearers. 

Sclera lenses are also thicker than the kinds of contacts that only cover the pupil and iris, and colored cosmetic contacts can be thicker still. Combine that with makeup that Gillan described as "intense and slightly claustrophobic," and she had plenty of pain to channel in order to play her tortured character.

Contacts can drive people crazy

Gillan definitely isn't the first actor to have problems with cosmetic contacts. In his book "If Chins Could Kill," actor Bruce Campbell detailed the excruciating experience the cast of "The Evil Dead" went through in order to look possessed, wearing thick white sclera lenses that had to be removed every 15 minutes because they cut off oxygen to the eyes. The effect on the wearer, he said, was like putting "Tupperware" over your eyes. Thankfully for the "Evil Dead" cast, the sclera lenses were only for Deadite possession scenes, but some actors haven't been so lucky. 

For the 2000 holiday movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Jim Carrey wore heavy prosthetic makeup on his entire head, plus bright yellow sclera lenses that covered any white in his eyes. He described the makeup to Graham Norton as like "being buried alive," and almost quit the movie on the first day after spending eight hours in the makeup chair. He said the contact lenses were like "knives in my eyes," and the entire experience was so unpleasant that producer Brian Grazer ended up hiring a former CIA operative to train Carrey on how to endure daily torture. The training worked well enough to get the movie made, and the team won an Oscar for best makeup, but at what cost?

Thank goodness for VFX

Digital effects have evolved just in the 8 years since "Guardians of the Galaxy" came out, so hopefully Gillan can enjoy VFX eyes in both the upcoming "Thor: Love and Thunder" and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3." While the makeup itself helps inform her performance and she described it as "part of her process" for getting into character, the contacts could probably be done digitally without too much fuss. 

Nebula's arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a complicated but deeply affecting one, and Gillan's performance helped make her a vital part of this massive franchise. Thankfully she'll have plenty of co-stars to spend time in the makeup chair beside her on "Guardians," like Dave Batista's Drax and her on-screen sister, Zoe Saldaña as Gamora.

You can catch Gillan in action as Nebula when "Thor: Love and Thunder" hits theaters on July 8, 2022, and when "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" hits theaters on May 5, 2023.