Awesome Con 2023 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, February 24th, 2024  

Awesome Con, Karen Gillan, Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Billie Piper, Christopher Eccleston, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Sean Astin, Levar Burton, Phil Lamar, Billy Dee Williams

Awesome Con 2023, June 16th, 2023

Aug 21, 2023 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Web Exclusive
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Karen Gillan has come a long way since her two-and-a-half seasons playing Amy Pond, companion to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, in Doctor Who. Of all the actors to appear on the show over the last 60 years, the Scottish redhead has had the most successful Hollywood career since leaving Doctor Who.

Soon after bidding the TARDIS adieu in 2012 she starred in the well-received American horror film Oculus and landed the lead role in a primetime sitcom, Selfie, which aired on ABC for one season. True mainstream recognition came with the role of Nebula in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a character she’s also played in both its sequels, a TV special, three other MCU films, and two episodes of What If…? She then held her own as Ruby Roundhouse opposite heavy hitters Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart in the two Jumanji movies. And in 2018 she wrote, directed, and starred in the well-received indie film The Party’s Just Beginning. But at Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. recently Gillan was sticking to her roots, bringing her parents along for the ride as she signed innumerable autographs in what was the longest line of fans we witnessed the entire weekend. She only appeared at the three-day convention on the second day, the Saturday, which also happened to be her mother Marie Gillan’s birthday. When Karen arrived to sign autographs her mother was presented with a cake and fans sang “Happy Birthday.” “I’m having the best time ever,” a clearly excited and proud Marie told us, when I asked her what it was like celebrating her birthday at a sci-fi and comics convention with her daughter.

Karen Gillan and Her Mother, Marie Gillan
Karen Gillan and Her Mother, Marie Gillan
Karen Gillan and Her Mother, Marie Gillan
Karen Gillan and Her Mother, Marie Gillan
Karen Gillan
Karen Gillan

At Gillan’s Q&A panel on the main stage, she told the audience that she’d brought her parents with her, but joked, “They might have ditched me to go see Biden.” Gillan, who said she took the train to D.C. from Manhattan, remembered that as a child in the Scottish Highlands she used to do the voice of an American granny character she created and was also “obsessed with Jennifer Aniston from Friends,” perhaps foretelling her easy move to Hollywood acting.

Gillan thought that becoming a companion on Doctor Who seemed very far-fetched to her, as the program is such an institution in the UK. “People [in the UK] are born knowing what a Dalek is,” she said, referring to the Doctor’s famous exterminating adversaries. Gillan found out on the day of her audition that she got the part of Amy Pond. “It was very, very surreal,” she remembered. Gillan said that her first episode, 2010’s “The Eleventh Hour,” remained her favorite Doctor Who episode.

Before landing the Amy role, Gillan had a small role as a different character in the 2008 Doctor Who episode “The Fires of Pompeii.” While filming that episode she watched Catherine Tate, who played then companion Donna Noble. “I remember thinking, ‘She has the coolest job ever and I want to do that,’” Gillan said, and then two years later she was the new companion.

“I was starstruck the whole time,” Gillan said of acting opposite Johnson, Black, and Hart in the two Jumanji movies. “I felt like some sort of fraud.”

She referred to Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) as DJ and said, “I’ve never seen him get cranky, I’ve never seen him be annoyed.”

Of her Marvel role of Nebula, Gillan praised the writer/director of the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy, James Gunn, saying he was amazing to work with and that there was a lot of improvising on the set. She also said her paper football scene with Robert Downey Jr. in 2019’s Avengers Endgame (directed by Anthony and Joe Russo) was improvised. The most uncomfortable aspect of playing Nebula was the four hours she spent in the makeup chair. “I feel like I’m being operated on,” Gillan revealed.

Gillan said that her MCU costar Pom Klementieff (who plays Mantis and also spends a fair amount of time in the make up chair) has become a close friend and was a bridesmaid at her wedding. She said she didn’t except to return as Nebula in so many different movies and now, despite the heavy makeup she wears, it’s the role she’s most recognized for when out in public. “She’s killed all the other characters [I’ve played],” Gillan joked.

Karen Gillan
Karen Gillan
Karen Gillan
Karen Gillan
Karen Gillan
Karen Gillan

Gillan may have been the biggest draw at Awesome Con 2023, but there were plenty of other exciting guests, including several fellow TARDIS travelers in a lineup that was heavy on Doctor Who actors. The event was celebrating its 10th anniversary, although it was our first year attending it. My wife Wendy, our 10-year-old daughter Rose, and I have been to the last three Galaxy Cons in Richmond, VA, as well as the smaller Big Lick Comic-Con in Roanoke, VA. And Wendy and I had attended the famous San Diego Comic-Con several times in the 2000s and 2010s, back when we lived in Los Angeles.

Things kicked off on Friday with a Q&A with Phil Lamar. He is mainly known as a voice actor, but also talked about his days on the sketch comedy show MAD TV and his small part in Pulp Fiction, where his character was accidentally shot by John Travolta’s Vincent. Of working with Simpsons creator Matt Groenig on Futurama, Lamar said, “He is one of the most brilliant and sweetest people.” Playing the John Stewart version of Green Lantern in the Justice League and Justice League animated shows was “a dream come true” as Lamar was a big comic book fan and excited to work with writer/producer Bruce Timm after his work on Batman: The Animated Series. He was surprised they went with the John Stewart version of Green Lantern over the more established Hal Jordan version, commenting that the show was diverse before it was trendy.

One of Lamar’s most iconic characters was voicing Samurai Jack in the acclaimed Cartoon Network series of the same name. “If anyone said, ‘I don’t like cartoons,’ I would still recommend Samurai Jack to them,” said Lamar. “Because it’s a work of art.” Lamar said it was satisfying to return for the show’s final season after so many years. Lamar did the voices of both Green Lantern and Samurai Jack for the audience and joked that he hoped to hang out in the green room later with fellow Awesome Con guests Levar Burton and Billy Dee Williams.

The Star Wars actor was up next. He had with him a guy who has worked with him for years attending conventions who hyped up the audience and encouraged them to ask Williams interesting questions, with prizes going to people who asked ones he’d never been asked before. Williams teased his upcoming autobiography, What Have We Here? Portraits of a Life, due out next February and talked about his work as a painter. He said he was scared of AI. His favorite film is On the Waterfront and he once got to meet its star, Marlon Brando. One questioner was named after Williams’ Lando Calrissian Star Wars character and another sang their question to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Oh working with Harrison Ford, Williams remarked, “What is he 80 now, running around like he’s 20,” and said Ford is a great father, which tells him how good a man he is. Williams said he didn’t end up with a ton of props from the Star Wars films. “I should’ve kept the cape,” he lamented. “My biggest regret…. Do you know how much that would be worth?”

Billy Dee Williams
Billy Dee Williams

Billy Dee Williams
Billy Dee Williams
Billy Dee Williams
Billy Dee Williams

Saturday’s Q&As kicked off with Christopher Eccleston, best known to the Awesome Con audience as the Ninth Doctor from Doctor Who, the Doctor and actor who launched the revival of the long-running show in 2005 after a 16-year hiatus since the end of the original series. The British actor’s flight to America was delayed by four hours and he was quite jetlagged, but still game to discuss Doctor Who and some of his other projects.

“The first actor I thought was real and true was Jimmy Cagney in White Heat,” Eccleston said of his early inspirations. He said that he and his dad “were massive Trekkies” but of Doctor Who he admitted, “I wasn’t a fan of the show, please don’t kill me. I was a fan of the writing.” Still, he asked producer/showrunner/writer Russell T. Davies to audition for the role. “The Empty Child” was his favorite episode to shoot and Eccleston said he had a hand in creating the Ninth Doctor’s leather jacketed outfit (“some of the [previous] costumes for the Doctor had gotten a little too florid,” he joked), and said that the character of the Ninth Doctor was half Davies and half Eccleston, in terms of the character’s personality. He said that his Doctor had PTSD from the Time War and that he met an Iraq War veteran that day at the convention and that they both cried.

Eccleston famously left Doctor Who after only one season, to be replaced by David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. “I loved playing the Doctor, I just didn’t love some of the people I had to work with,” he admitted.

Eccleston has had many other roles before and after his Doctor Who tenure, including in Shallow Grave, The Others, and The Leftovers. Of his villainous role in Thor: The Dark World, in which he was unrecognizable buried under layers of makeup, Eccleston joked, “I’ve never met so many producers named Bob.” Of Jude, he said, “That’s probably my favorite film I’ve been in.” He’s also appearing alongside Jodie Foster in the new season of True Detective.

Eccleston said his kids were scared watching him in Doctor Who, because “their dad was in jeopardy.” He has no interest in returning to the show to do a multi-Doctor story with other incarnations of the character, but did reveal he had a new Doctor Who audio story with Big Finish in honor of the show’s upcoming 60th anniversary.

Eccleston was initially reluctant to appear at sci-fi/fantasy/comic book conventions, but was brutally honest that bankruptcy, divorce, and custody battles led him to reconsider his position. But to the actor’s surprise, he admitted that attending conventions has “been incredibly positive in my life.”

Christopher Eccleston
Christopher Eccleston
Christopher Eccleston
Christopher Eccleston
Christopher Eccleston
Christopher Eccleston
Christopher Eccleston
Christopher Eccleston

The aforementioned Karen Gillan Q&A followed and then it was three of the cast of the Lord of the Rings films—Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sean Astin (Sam), and Andy Serkis (Gollum). “It well and truly was the greatest family to be part of,” said Serkis.

Serkis started out as a painter, but had to take an acting class in college and fell in love with it. His voice for Gollum was inspired by watching his cat cough up a hairball. Serkis also said he was a big jazz nerd, especially of 1950s and early ’60s jazz, and that he was midway through directing a new adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Astin spoke about his days as a child actor, including acting in a TV movie with his mother Patty Duke at age seven in which his mother’s character physically abused him. “Faithfulness” was the attribute in Sam that Astin most admired.

Wood, who made his own audition tape shot in the woods with friends, instead of going to the casting office, said that the favorite attribute of his character was “Frodo’s humanity and his ability to see goodness in dark places.”

Elijah Wood and Andy Serkis
Elijah Wood and Andy Serkis
Sean Astin and Elijah Wood
Sean Astin and Elijah Wood
Sean Astin, Elijah Wood, and Andy Serkis
Sean Astin, Elijah Wood, and Andy Serkis

On Saturday night we attended the amusing cosplay contest. Then Sunday kicked off with a Q&A with Billie Piper, who played Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, the companion of both the Ninth Doctor and Tenth Doctor. Before she took the stage, the host proclaimed, “This is our sporting event. This is our Super Bowl.”

Piper, who wore crazy high heel shoes with spikes on them, first spoke about her former life as a pop star. Piper signed a record contract when she was 14 and when she was 15 her debut single, “Because We Want To,” became her first #1 hit, making her the youngest artist to debut at #1 on the UK singles charts. “The music industry was very, very hard,” Piper admitted, calling her pop star experience “traumatic” and saying that she “always wanted to be an actor.”

When Piper was cast as Rose, although she’d had some acting roles, she was still primarily known as a musician. She wasn’t a big Whovian as a child, which Piper said was probably a good thing, as she wasn’t too intimidated when auditioning for Rose. She said she didn’t feel well on the day of the audition, but feeling a close affinity to the character helped her land the role. “I knew that girl. I was that girl. I knew what it was like growing up in a working class family…. I knew that world. It didn’t feel like a giant leap,” Piper said.

“What I loved about Rose,” Piper added. “She wants something more out of her life. As a young person she understood how easy it is to get stuck in a humdrum pattern…. She just goes for it and continues to go for it.”

Piper enjoyed working with costar Christopher Eccleston (“It felt like new ground for both of us”) and was devastated when Eccleston decided to leave the show after only one season. She considered leaving too, but went out to dinner with the new star, David Tennant (who played the Tenth Doctor) and immediately liked him.

Piper said her favorite episodes of her era were “Tooth and Claw” (“Because it’s so funny”), “Father’s Day” (“It’s very emotional”), and “Doomsday,” the season two finale that initially saw Piper leave the show before returning in season four (“It was so important to me personally”).

Piper has three kids aged four, eleven, and fourteen and her sons are scared of the Doctor Who monster the Weeping Angels. She said she’d love to one day work with Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, and Robert DeNiro. “I’d like to play a female Deadpool. I could be foulmouthed, inappropriate, and violet,” she added.

She’d like to return to Doctor Who at some point and hopes that Russell T. Davies would write an episode about Rose’s home life with the part human clone of the Tenth Doctor (at the end of “Journey’s End,” the final TV appearance of Rose thus far, she ends up living in a parallel universe with the Doctor clone). “I really hope there’s an option to do something with Rose Tyler,” said Piper.

Billie Piper
Billie Piper
Billie Piper
Billie Piper
Billie Piper
Billie Piper
Billie Piper
Billie Piper

Next up on the main stage were two more Doctor Who actors, Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill, appearing together. Whittaker played the Thirteenth Doctor, the first female incarnation of the character and the most recent regeneration of the Doctor (although Tennant returns this fall as not the Tenth Doctor, but the Fourteenth Doctor). Gill played Whittaker’s companion, Yasmin Khan, a young police officer who ends up traveling with the Doctor alongside Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and his step granddad Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh). Whittaker and Gill both wore white T-shirts, with Whittaker’s featuring a photo of Gill on it.
There was resistance to Whittaker’s casting and the Doctor becoming a woman from a minority of Doctor Who fans and those in the right-leaning media. “You can’t kick us out of the Doctor Who family. We’re in it now. We’re here,” Whittaker said defiantly at the start of the panel. “It was there before us. We were a moment and it carries on beyond us,” added Whittaker of the five years she and Gill were with the show.

Of being the first female Doctor, Whittaker commented, “It was 2017, it was time,” adding, “We are all the Doctor.”

Whittaker was surprised when then-Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall asked her to audition for the role of the Thirteenth Doctor. She had previously starred opposite David Tennant in all three seasons of Chibnall’s show Broadchurch, in a role that was much more serious and somber than the Doctor. “The Doctor is myself the most of any of the roles I’ve done,” Whittaker revealed, admitting that she didn’t come from a Whovian family.

Gill said she cried when she got the part of Yaz and that her brother-in-law is a big Doctor Who fan. But she also joked that the rest of her family isn’t overly impressed by her acting career.

Whittaker grew up on the films of the ’80s and cited E.T. and The Goonies as two favorites. Another Steven Spielberg-related project, Back to the Future (which he produced), influenced her Thirteenth Doctor portrayal, as Doc Brown helped inspire her take on the character. Having been friends with Tennant, Whittaker knew that playing the Doctor would put her in the “goldfish bowl” and take her to a different level of fame, but she was also very emotional after they finished her final episode. “[It was] so sad to let it go,” she admitted.

The evening before, we had met Whittaker when she was signing autographs fresh from the airport. I had a chance to tell her how much it meant to my daughter Rose when she was cast as the Doctor and that Rose got more into the show once the Doctor was a woman. During the height of the pandemic, Whittaker filmed a touching video in her closet at home, in character as the Doctor and in the full costume, in which she reassured children who were Doctor Who fans that everything would be okay and we’d get through the COVID-19 crisis. I told her how much that meant to kids and parents. “I very lucky, Chris [Chibnall], the writer, wrote that for me,” Whittaker responded. “Because I think I got a lot of credit because people thought that I had written it and I hadn’t. I was very much given these beautiful words to say. It was emotional, wasn’t it? What a time.”

Whittaker’s love of Coldplay is well-documented, but I asked her what her second favorite band is. “My other favorite is not a band, is a DJ called Pete Tong. I’m showing my 1990s roots there,” she replied.

Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker
Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker
Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker
Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker
Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker
Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker

The final Q&A we caught at Awesome Con 2023 wasn’t Doctor Who-related at all, it was with Levar Burton, who is perhaps best known for playing Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. His breakthrough role was playing Kunta Kinte in the groundbreaking ABC miniseries Roots (1977), which Burton says was his first professional audition, done when he was still in university at USC.

Burton recently returned to the role of Geordi in the third and final season of Star Trek: Picard, which reunited most of the Next Generation cast. “We did not think this was ever going to happen,” said Burton, before relaying his gratitude to showrunner Terry Matalas and all the writers.

Burton said that one of the highlights of Picard was the opportunity to work with his daughter, Mica Burton, who played Geordi’s daughter Alandra La Forge. Burton said Mica grew up knowing his fellow Next Generation actors and it was rewarding to see her hold her own with the cast. Geordi had complicated romantic relationships in the original Next Generation run, so it was important to Burton that in Picard the character had a stable family life.

Being on the rebuilt set of the Enterprise-D was “like being in a time machine,” said Burton, adding that Patrick Stewart (aka Jean Luc Picard) got sillier behind-the-scenes once they were filming on that set.

Burton said “Second Chances” was his favorite Next Generation episode because it was the first one he directed. He also really liked the episodes that took place on the Holodeck.

One audience member told Burton that his high school physics teacher wrote the Next Generation episode “Identity Crisis.” Another told him that she was raped as a child and that Star Trek helped her get through that.

It’s up in the air as to whether or not the cast of The Next Generation will return in a future Star Trek series. “I’m absolutely fine if this is it. We went out on a high,” said Burton.

The actor also spoke about Reading Rainbow, the PBS show he hosted from 1983 to 2006 that encouraged young children to read. Burton said that at the start he was speaking to his young son “through the lens of a camera.” He said he feels sadness when he gets towards the ending of a good book, so he slows down his reading pace as he nears the climax. Describing hosting Reading Rainbow as his rewarding role (with Kunta Kinte in Roots as his most challenging part), at the end of his Q&A Burton led the audience in singing the Reading Rainbow theme.

The last day of Awesome Con was the day before Juneteenth, the federal holiday recognizing the end of slavery. Burton, who is often outspoken on social justice issues, encouraged the audience to go see The Emancipation Proclamation, which was on display at the National Archives there in Washington, D.C. for a limited time in honor of Juneteenth (and as per his suggestion we did wait in a long line the next day to see the document). When asked if he had any Juneteenth traditions, Burton responded: “I think my [Juneteenth tradition] is doing whatever the hell I want to do because my ancestors bled and died for it.”

Levar Burton
Levar Burton
Levar Burton
Levar Burton

There was of course more to Awesome Con than illuminating Q&As with beloved sci-fi/fantasy actors. The convention floor was filled with all manner of vendors and artists selling comic books, action figures and other toys/collectibles, signed art prints, and much more, not to mention all the impressive cosplayers found wandering around all weekend. One end of the convention floor also featured the autographs area, where fans could meet the celebrities and pay for their autographs. It was there that my daughter and I caught up with Doctor Who’s Mandip Gill. She said she was fairly new to the convention circuit. “I’ve done one, I did Gallifrey [One] in LA and that’s it. Hopefully first of many.”

Gill also revealed that she was open to returning to Doctor Who at some point. “Hopefully one day. Never say never with this show.”

Summing up her experience that weekend at Awesome Con, Gill said: “It’s my first time in D.C., my first time at Awesome Con, and I’ve had an awesome time. No, genuinely it’s been really great. It’s been so nice to meet people and have chats with people. The costumes are brilliant. Just generally having a conversation about a show that means so much to me, it’s also lovely to hear that it means so much to other people. Also, a lot of people have come in from a long way, like 13-hour flights, which I’m so shocked about. It’s a lot to digest. But I’m so grateful to be here.”

It was also our first Awesome Con, but if the guest roster is as strong next year, I predict we’ll be back.

Mandip Gill
Mandip Gill
Mandip Gill
Mandip Gill
Mandip Gill
Mandip Gill
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition
Cosplay Competition

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