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SYFY WIRE Karen Gillan

'Dual' star Karen Gillan on fighting her clone in new, 'off-kilter' movie

"Everything is slightly off-kilter with this movie," the Guardians of the Galaxy star says of the new indie sci-fi.

By James Grebey
Dual Karengillen

There’s an uncanniness to the new indie sci-fi film Dual. The setting doesn’t seem that far from reality, but everything seems off, somehow.

It’s not because Dual presents a world where a person and their clone need to have a government-mandated duel to the death that the movie is so disconcerting and alien, though. Dual doesn’t sound like real-life, a stylistic choice that lets the movie capitalize on both dark humor and some unexpectedly raw emotions, as star Karen Gillan tells SYFY WIRE. 

Dual stars Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Sarah, a depressed woman leading a dead-end life who, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, decides to have herself cloned. However, she makes a miraculous recovery, and as a result, she has one year to train before she and her clone — who everybody, including her boyfriend Peter (Hawaii Five-0’s Beulah Koale), seems to prefer to the original — have to fight to the death. Though there’s some opening action and lots of training montages (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul plays Sarah’s trainer), Dual is not an especially violent or kinetic movie. It’s very deliberate, especially the dialogue, which is delivered in writer-director Riley Stearns’ trademark deadpan style. 

At times, to the unprepared viewer, the dialogue in Dual can sound like two Amazon Alexas caught in a conversation loop — flat, almost robotic recitation of lines. But, then somebody will say something unexpectedly raw, cutting, hurtful, revealing, or sad, all with the same deliberate deadpan. How things are being said forces the viewer to really pay attention to what’s being said, and this artificiality is jarringly effective. Gillan didn’t have to actually train to kill her own clone, but she did have to work on mastering this unnatural acting style. 

“I was like, I have to take on this challenge, because I don’t know how to deliver this. I have to see how I can do this and deliver it in a way that feels natural to me,” Gillan says, explaining why she took the role. “And then I spent more time with Riley Stearns — who kind of talks like that, a little bit — he kind of helped me a lot with it in terms of how to make it feel like it’s normal for this character.” 

“It was a crazy acting experience because I had to throw away all my tricks that I hid behind,” echoes Koale. “Riley just kind of makes you stand there, very vulnerable, and let the words do the work. Whatever happens, happens in that moment as you’re being honest with yourself. Don’t put anything on top of it, just let it happen. From an acting perspective, that was crazy. From an audience perspective, that’s great because it allows audiences to work."

Koale continues: “You’re like, Whoa, did he just say what he just said, but with no emotion? And then, as an audience member, you’re trying to process what he actually said. That’s some dark stuff, bro!

The dialogue isn’t the only effectively uncanny aspect of Dual. Although it features futuristic technology like near-instant cloning, the rest of the aesthetic is very low-fi and retro. The duels to the death take place on what look like high school football fields, not some fancy arena. It’s all very discombobulating.   

“Everything is slightly off-kilter with this movie. You’ve got really kind of deadpan robotic deliveries, but then with these emotional moments. And then you’ve got these props that are really basic in terms of technology yet you’ve got this really advanced technology,” Gillan says. “All of these contradictions are going on at the same time and for some reason, it works.”

Dual was filmed in Finland, as the Nordic country was deemed a safe place to shoot during the ongoing pandemic. That setting adds to the movie’s disorienting vibe, as where it takes place is never remarked upon nor is it easy to discern.

“It definitely added a certain visual style to the film, a lot of the supporting actors had either Finish accents or English accents — and we didn’t even reference that, it was just part of the world — and I think it added to that off-kilter kind of otherworldly feeling,” Gillan explains.

Karen Gillan in Dual (2022).

In addition to mastering a different style of acting, Gillan also needed to play two versions of the same character — something she’s done before, as two Nebulas in Avengers: Endgame. Gillan says the key to playing two Sarahs was realizing that they’re the same except for their life experience, or lack thereof. 

“When I approached Sarah, she’s very beaten down by life, so there was a lot to play with in terms of character. Then the clone came out, she hasn’t experienced any life, so she hasn’t been beaten down at all. It’s like, what would Sarah be like if, literally, nothing had happened to her. And therefore has no insecurities, no nervousness, no fear, because nothing has happened yet,” she says. “And then I kind of got to evolve the clone as well as Sarah. They kind of swapped places a little bit. Sarah becomes more confident as the clone definitely becomes more beaten down.” 

We obviously won’t spoil what happens at the end of the movie when the time for the duel finally comes. But, both Gillan and Koale think they’d have what it takes to defeat their clones in a fight to the death.

“I do think I’ve got what it takes,” Gillan explains. “My reason for that is, if the double comes out and the double has no fear and no insecurities, on the one hand, they could sort of be more brave in that situation. But, I’ve been more beaten down by life so I think more drive and ambition come from adversity, so for that reason, I’m going to root for myself rather than my double.” 

“I would prefer fighting my double with no weapon, just fists and kicks. It’s like a UFC fight that goes all the way!” Koale says with a laugh before realizing maybe he should’ve answered with a different delivery style. “That’s pretty dark. I should’ve said that like Riley Stearns.”

Dual is now in theaters.