The Secrets Behind Karen Gillan’s Transformation Into Nebula

The character of Nebula first appeared in "The Avengers" #257 in July of 1985. In comic book form, she was a bloodthirsty pirate who claimed to be the granddaughter of Thanos. In a notable incident, Nebula attempted to gain vast cosmic powers by using an atomic compressor that, unwittingly, nearly destroyed the entire universe. Because of her seemingly false claims of lineage, Thanos would eventually transform Nebula into a mindless zombie. Nebula would, as a zombie, steal Thanos' Infinity Gems (called Stones in the movies), restore herself to normal, and undo all of Thanos' damage out of spite (in the original Infinity saga, the "blip" occurred right at the beginning of the story). 

In movie form, Nebula first appeared in James Gunn's 2014 film "Guardians of the Galaxy," the 10th film in the MCU. Altered for the movies, Nebula was now depicted as Thanos' adopted daughter (Thanos killed her parents and took her in), and raised in a torturous and violent fashion, constantly fighting with her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). Over the years, various parts of Nebula's body were injured and replaced with robotic parts. By the time audiences caught up with her, she was more or less an evil killer robot. Over the course of her appearances, Nebula slowly became more human, realizing her evil past, but finding it might be healthier to reconcile with her sister. 

Nebula was played by Scottish actress Karen Gillan, previously best known for a stint on "Doctor Who." To transform Gillan into Nebula took extensive makeup, a steady workout regimen, and a shaved head. 

The Eyes Hate It

Anyone who has seen Nebula in any of her four film appearances -- Nebula appeared in two "Guardians of the Galaxy" films and two "Avengers" films -- knows that she is a bald, blue-skinned, black-eyed cyborg with a robotic arm and a mechanical skull. According to an interview with Business Insider, makeup artist David White explains that Nebula's facial prosthetics was even more complex than that of her space alien co-stars. To took four hours and 15 minutes to apply, and 30 minutes to remove. Nebula's facial makeup comprised of five separate facial plates that were assembled onto Gillan like a jigsaw puzzle. Says White: 

"The five-piece prosthetic was a puzzle of butt joins and blend offs all on the same pieces and the density of the prosthetic changes to accommodate the need to control the amount of prosthetic movement from one piece to another.

This means that the density of the facial piece would have to remain thinner where Gillan's face moves more, and thicker elsewhere. This would allow for more natural facial acting, and a more natural look to a blue robotic visage. As is standard practice with extensive prosthetic makeup, a mold was taken of Gillan's head onto which the pieces would be sculpted, and then later applied directly.

Gillan also had to wear thick contact lenses to black out her eyes. The lenses used were 22mm in width, which is much thicker than the standard 13mm to 15mm contact lenses. Those who wear contacts can likely picture the discomfort involved. In a 2022 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gillan even said that she can no longer wear contacts. 

The Workout Regimen

Those pieces also required that Gillan shave her head and remain bald throughout the shoot, something Gillan knew when she signed her contract. In an interview with the Scottish talkshow Daybreak in 2013, she talked about shaving her head, and how unusual an experience it was, and how she didn't have a moment of panic until the following day. 

Because superheroes tend to represent a fantastical body ideal, most of the actors who play them have to go through grueling training regiments to develop the signature bulky musculature of Marvel's average Adonises. This was certainly true for Gillan, who, in an article for Popsugar, detailed the type of training she had to do. Firstly, she started weightlifting, wanting to look like, in her words, "like I could do damage to someone." To further bulk up her muscle mass, she completely altered her diet to increase her protein intake. Her usual cardio workouts were replaced by weightlifting; cardio is good for increasing physical stamina, but kept Gillan too slim.

As Nebula was a fighting character, Gillan also had to engage in martial arts training, and constantly worked with the various films' stunt crews to choreograph her fight scenes. 

After all that, Nebula came to life as a robotic assassin badass, ready to take on some of the most dangerous fighters in the galaxy. As for Nebula's personal journey of transformation, that can be credited to Gillan's acting talent. 

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