The Runaways’ Virginia Gardner Is Breaking Superhero Taboos as Marvel’s First Gay Character

The actress plays the teenager Karolina Dean in Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s new Hulu series.

It Girl - Virginia Gardner - December 2017
Photograph by Olivia Malone, Styled by Andreas Kokkino; Hair by Nikki Providence for Bumble and Bumble at Forward Artists; makeup by Lottie for Chanel at Lowe & Co; Retouching by Clubhouse; Digital technician: Dustin at Factory Digital; Photography Assistant: Brook Keegan; Special Thanks to The Standard, Hollywood, and Potato Chips Deli

On the surface, you might not expect the actress Virginia Gardner to have much in common with the superhero she plays on the new Hulu series Runaways, based on the Marvel comic book of the same name and premiering Tuesday, November 21. After all, Karolina Dean has the ability to light up like a rainbow. But beneath her sunny exterior, Karolina, who is one of the first openly gay Marvel characters, grapples with her identity—and Gardner understands the dissonance between appearances and reality.

“People think of her as this happy, perfect person,” Gardner said. “But the more you know her, the more you start to realize she’s struggling with a lot internally. Trying to accept and embrace things that, originally, I would have buried or felt insecure about was a huge thing that resonated with me.”

A California native, Gardner, 22, fell for acting as a kid, and did some modeling as a teenager for the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch and Kohl’s. Runaways, which is helmed by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (the duo behind The OC and Gossip Girl) follows a group of teenage superheroes who band together after realizing their parents are villains, has the added punch of social and political relevance. “It’s about young people who have to rise up and fight, which is a pretty inspirational thing given what’s going on in the world today.”

Tell me a little bit about how you got the part of Karolina.

I actually had no idea what I was auditioning for to begin with because Marvel is so secretive with project names and character names. The character Karolina wasn’t even mentioned, it was a fake name. So I really had no idea what I was auditioning for. I’d gone to a few auditions; I knew that it was Marvel, I kind of had a basis of an idea, I hadn’t seen a script, I kind of knew a little about the character, but I had no idea exactly what I was getting myself into. And I walked out of the test for the pilot and our director, Brett Morgen, ran out of the room after me and was like, “If I were you, I would go buy The Runaways comics and read them.” So I went and bought the comics and read them overnight, and I was like, “Oh this is the character!” And immediately I was so excited about how complex she is, and how fun the story is. I was sold.

From reading the comics, what was your impression of Karolina?

For our audience who are in high school and any teenager that’s kind of going through this—adults can sometimes relate to it, too—the cool thing is a lot of characters in the comic books dress a certain way, act a certain way, you would expect them to be a certain kind of person. And with all the characters we find out there’s a lot more to them. The more you get to know the characters, the more you kind of realize how complex and layered they all are. This is actually the first comic book I’ve read, but my expectation was that the characters wouldn’t be a fleshed out as they are. I think that’s one of the really great things about The Runaways.

Is the show holding closely to the comic book so far?

I think it is holding quite closely. We definitely have a new fresh spin on it. The comic books came out in 2001, so we’re doing the 2017 version of that; there are going to be some changes. Like what social media would do to it, or what high school would look like today versus 2001. Obviously the fashion—in the comic books, Karolina is very Britney Spears, and that’s obviously not the direction we took it in. So we just made it modern, we made it new; the story focuses more on the parents, too, which I think is really cool. So we’re getting more of the story, and it also brings in a little more of an older audience. I think we’ve made some really cool changes but kept the core of the story.

And how would you describe Karolina in the show versus the comic book?

I do think we kept a lot of similarities with how she is in the comic book. It’s Marvel, so we want the fans to be surprised when they see the show so I can’t speak too much to that, but I really do think we kept the core of who Karolina is. And it just goes deeper into it. What you see on the page of the comic book is fun and exciting and you go on a great journey with her, but I think what we do on the show is you see a lot more vulnerability with Karolina, you see more strength, you see humor. She’s funny. So I do think it’s just a more fleshed out version of what you see on the page.

How would you describe the Karolina you’re playing?

She’s a teenager who at first glance seems like she has the perfect family, the perfect life. She dresses a certain way, she’s really involved in church, and I think a lot of people think of her as this happy, perfect person. But the more you get to know her, the more you start to realize she’s struggling with a lot internally and who she’s pretending to be and who she actually is. And she’s figuring it out as the series goes along, but I think that she doesn’t totally know that who she’s pretending to be isn’t who she actually is yet. So she’s slowly coming into her own and realizing that this façade that she’s been putting on isn’t actually making her happy anymore.

In the teaser for the show and the comic book, her specialness—I don’t know if you call it a super power per se—is partially that she’s an alien who can absorb solar light, that she glows with this rainbow light. Is that an accurate description?

That is an accurate description of how it is in the comic book; I think we want fans to be surprised on the show with what exactly her powers are but I can say that you see it in the teaser—that she lights up rainbow, which is a pretty cool super power.

Yeah, for sure. Stunt-wise, was there a lot of physical prep for you? Did you have to train with a coordinator?

You know, we’re only on episode five so we haven’t done too much of that right now, but we’re slowly heading in that direction and certainly by the end of the season we’re going to be doing a lot of that kind of stuff. But for me, I kind of went out on my own and got a trainer to learn a little bit. I have a black belt in taekwondo, so I have a little bit of stunt training already. So I felt like I was kind of prepared, but I also have a tendency to be clumsy and uncoordinated, so I got a trainer and was like, “You need to teach me how to not trip every five seconds. I need to get a little better on my feet and look like I can actually fight somebody.”

How old you were when you started taekwondo, and at what age did you become a black belt?

It actually takes a surprisingly long time. I think I started in like second grade and I had my black belt by like sixth grade, fifth grade, so it takes… a few years to get it.

Had you been practicing at any point in the last 10 years?

Yeah, I actually have. Well, I got back into boxing. And in boxing you incorporate a little of that. and I’ve kind of done little classes here and there to brush up on it. A lot of the stunt stuff on other projects I’ve worked on, I’ve been able to use a little more of it, too. And I kind of find it’s pretty easy to pick up a lot of the stunts and I can do a lot of it by myself because of the background I have. It’s kind of like riding a bike—you don’t really forget. I can do the nunchucks, still.

I love that nunchucks is part of your regular vocabulary.

Isn’t that funny? It’s like I could just rip out a nunchucks routine at a party.

From what I know of the comic book, Karolina is the first gay Marvel character onscreen?

In the comic books she is one of the first. I can’t speak to if she’s the first in the comic books. I also can’t totally speak to her sexuality on the show yet because we want it to be a surprise, but in the comic books I believe she is one of the first openly gay superheroes.

Okay, let’s see how we can dance around this… I assume that’s not something that’s not completely eliminated from her identity in the show.

That is safe to assume. Yes.

So I’m going to assume her sexuality will be part of the show?

Yes, it is explored and I can tell you that fans will not be disappointed.

So that’s a pretty big deal. Marvel certainly uses superheroes and powers to explore different issues in humanity, but I think for a TV show aimed at a younger audience it’s a big deal to have someone with super powers whose sexuality is examined.

I think what Marvel does really well and what our show does really well is that it’s character-based. And our show, the first five or so episodes are really fleshing out the characters. You get to know them as human beings before you get to know them as superheroes with powers. So for a good bit of the season you’re just getting to know us and what we’re struggling with as human beings. It gives it a grounding that’s in a realistic place even though you’re doing superheroes; the theme of the show is people who are struggling with and figuring themselves out internally, that kind of comes first. One of the things we tried to bring into the show was what a fleshed out character Karolina was, and that’s not necessarily your typical super hero. There’s a lot going on with this girl that I think will stand out and hopefully will be an iconic thing in the Marvel universe. So it’s really exciting.

And Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are both really well known in their respective ways for creating series that resonate with young people. I can only imagine there’s a lot of excitement for you as an actress going into this show knowing those two people are behind it.

Yeah, it’s really exciting. Obviously, they have both had successful television shows. And Marvel has never had a show geared towards young adults and in this format, too, so that was kind of exciting. And Josh and Steph have are also trying to branch out the audience, too, by putting in that adult storyline. So I think you’re going to get a young adult audience and an adult audience with this show.

In the show, the young people are questioning adult authority figures and people whom they had trusted their whole lives. It’s hard not to consider the political resonance of a storyline like that. Is that something you guys have discussed and have been aware of as you’ve been working on this show?

Yeah, in the political climate now you have a lot of young people who are questioning authority, and you have a lot of young people who believe that some of the leaders are evil right now. With the Women’s March and so many huge activist movements, I think our show really hits on a lot of those things—not only with the characters and a lot of the political elements going on with the characters in our show, but it’s about young people who have believed that their parents were for the most part amazing people their entire lives. And we see their parents aren’t exactly who they expected them to be so, they have to rise up and fight it, which is also a pretty inspirational thing with what’s going on around the world today.

It’s also, I imagine it must be really powerful, I don’t think someone would assume being on a Marvel show would give you the sense of empowering other young people, but it seems like that is something this show has the potential to do. Is that something you felt from the outset?

Yeah, I think I felt it during the pilot, but the more we dive into the series and the more we learn about these characters, the more special we feel this show really is. And I do feel that. And I do feel with everything that’s going on in our world politically right now, it’s incredibly empowering for young people. And the more turmoil our time is in politically right now, the more our show is going to be really, really empowering to people, the more we’re all working on this show to make this incredibly empowering to help people stand up to movements and be active.

“Wonder Woman” Gal Gadot was a very reluctant beauty queen: