Most of us know Sean Gunn from the screen. Among his many roles, he played the quirky and often perspicacious Kirk Gleason on Gilmore Girls. More recently he portrayed Ravager turned Guardian Kraglin in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. He also performed motion reference as the on-set Rocket in the MCU, and in Vol. 3, he voiced and provided motion capture performance for young Rocket. But some—specifically some four-legged furry creatures—know him as a cat-dad.
“My cats, they’re both 13… they’re both rescues, one is a black Persian whose name is The Business. He was found in a shrub in Koreatown. I got him at 10 days old, before his eyes were open, and bottle-fed him. And then about four months later I got Tommy, who was then two months old, so he’s a little younger. He’s an orange tabby, and they’re the greatest,” Gunn tells Nerdist.
Gunn, proud cat-dad and one-time hands-on cat-rescuer, wanted to be an actor for as long as he could remember. When he was younger, he was drawn to acting because he liked being the center of attention. As the youngest of six kids, he loved it when it was his turn to speak. That’s how it started. Gunn’s perspective on acting has changed over the years, though.
“Over the years you get older, and I went to acting school and I’ve learned what the craft was really about,” Gunn explains, “And I can honestly say that I love acting now more than ever, but it’s not because I’m the center of attention. It feels the opposite. I mean, I love acting because it forces me to understand people and why they make the decisions that they make, why they act, how they act. If you’re really doing your job as an actor, you have to be compassionate. You have to be giving towards the people that you’re trying to portray. I think that in a lot of ways it makes me a better person than I might normally be.”
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Gunn acted throughout high school and moved to Los Angeles in 1997. He got to work as soon he arrived. It wasn’t long before he landed the role of Kirk Gleason in Gilmore Girls, which premiered in 2000. Gunn didn’t think it would last for more than one episode, then one season, but the Amy Sherman-Palladino series aired for seven seasons and had a four-part revival. One of the most beloved Stars Hollow townies, Kirk had 62 jobs over the course of the series. Kirk was a street magician, filmmaker, dog walker, the list goes on. If Gunn could take on any job for a day himself, he would be a sports broadcaster or an animal scientist, studying how humans have domesticated animals over time.
Regardless of the job Kirk had in a given episode, physical comedy was almost always involved. “Some of my biggest influences in terms of style of performance have been Buster Keaton, as much as any other actor probably ever,” Gunn shares. “I’ve watched Buster Keaton and have been in awe of what he was able to do performance-wise. There’s an actor who’s not as well-known named Eddie Bracken from the Preston Sturges movies in the ’40s. It’s this old-timey style of physical comedy that’s just heightened. It’s not quite always super huge, but it’s bigger. Kirk was a little bit bigger than the other actors on Gilmore Girls and I wonder sometimes if that was on purpose.”
Gilmore Girls‘ lightning-fast dialogue called back to comedies from the ’30s and ’40s. Gunn says the show sounded like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby and since he’s a student of those comedies, he fit in well. “I watched those old actors, and all those performers were super physical. You had to be; you couldn’t tell the story without it, so I love it. I miss playing Kirk quite a bit. When I was younger I was ready to move on to the next thing. Now that I’m older I’m like, man, what a great job that was, I would go back and do it again in a heartbeat.”
Years later, Gunn would bring a different kind of physical acting to the role of on-set Rocket in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn recalls, “When I did Rocket for the first time, we didn’t know how we were going to create that character. I knew that I was there to read with the other actors and to do the table read. Then we got the first rehearsal on its feet and I just got down on my hands and knees and started doing it. And I remembered some of that work from school. We’d had exercises where you pretend to be an animal and you get down on your knees—it’s an acting school 101 thing that you think you’re never going to use, and I’ve now played a raccoon and a weasel in movies.”
He jokes that he’s fortunate that he’s very limber—or was 10 years ago when they made the first movie. He’s a little creakier now. Gunn notes his motion reference performance was helpful for the VFX team from the beginning (he stresses it takes a whole team of people to create Rocket) and it gave the other actors on set actual eyes to look into. However, it is very physical. He had a program to help his body adjust for the role.
Gunn says, “I was going backwards up steps a lot, and then also stepping on tennis balls for my feet. It was really my ankles and my feet more than anything that had the most stress on them. And I was limbering up, and I kept doing it, but I’ll be 49 on Monday [May 22], and so I don’t think I want to be 50 and playing Rocket… I can say that I think I’m officially retired from physically playing Rocket.”
As part of his last turn as on-set Rocket, Gunn danced with his brother, Guardians of the Galaxy writer and director James Gunn, in Vol. 3‘s final moments. In the scene on Knowhere, Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days of Summer” blasts through the streets, and Rocket and Groot dance among their friends. Sean was on-set as Rocket and James danced for Groot.
Joking that we need to prod James to see if he can release the footage of them dancing, Gunn says, “It was a culmination of all of it. It’s a celebration of the entire trilogy. That was very emotional for me, but it was also very cathartic, because it wasn’t some heart-wrenching stuff. We had already gone through the ringer with Rocket’s story, and digging in—we’d already done the digging. So in that moment at the end he’s really just letting loose, and I was able to do the same thing. It’s pretty cool.”
And for the heart-wrenching moments Gunn mentions, he was in the thick of Rocket’s backstory. Gunn donned a motion capture suit to perform as young Rocket alongside the character’s first found family: Lylla, Floor, and Teefs. They captured those scenes in the first week of filming Vol. 3.
“That was, in some ways, the most daunting stuff in the whole script, for me as a performer. So to do it first, it was like I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it, which was good,” Gunn says. “I didn’t need too much time to think about it. It was hard to get it together, to keep it together in some of those moments. I never got so emotional as an actor as I got shooting those scenes, and the scenes with Lylla… I couldn’t say enough about Linda Cardellini. She’s an absolute genius. “
Of course, Gunn appears in another big way in the Guardians of the Galaxy films as Kraglin. Vol. 3 saw the Ravager find his inner confidence and become a member of the new Guardians team. “I didn’t even really know exactly who Kraglin was until I saw the first movie,” Gunn shares. “We experimented—he’s this peripheral character who is important plot-wise, but we didn’t really know exactly who he was going to be, in terms of if he was going to be a little bit more menacing, or a little bit more goofy, or what it was. We played around with it. Then when I watched the first movie, I feel like I really got it, I understood who he was, and it was eye-opening to learn that he was on the ship when Yondu abducted Peter Quill.”
Gunn compares Kraglin’s journey to that of The Parable of the Prodigal Son. Quill is the son who leaves, and Kraglin is the son who stays. He says, “In that second movie he’s very hurt. ‘You seem to love Quill, what about me? I’ve been here the whole time.’ I don’t think that Kraglin ever was able to quite put those pieces together. We’ve gotten to see more and more of Kraglin, he becomes a bigger part of the story over three movies. But in some ways, if you really look at the story of the Guardians, and this theme of found family, and how you can find your family anywhere, Kraglin is emphatically a Guardian. That’s exactly what he does over the course of the three movies.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3‘s mid-credits scene revealed Kraglin, replete in the Guardians uniform alongside his fellow new team members. Gunn recalls he was psyched to put that uniform on, but he was aware of wanting to serve the story. “It’s always like, are we telling the story right? But I was honored, and that mirrors Kraglin. I mean, no one would be more honored than him, I don’t think,” Gunn tells us. “That’s his whole thing, is that ‘I am a soldier, I’m here to do my part, and to fill in and to do whatever I can to help contribute and be a part of this team’. That’s his governing principle. I totally relate to that.”
While we see Rocket leading this iteration of the Guardians, we don’t know what the future holds for the characters or the team. Gunn chooses to see the Guardians of the Galaxy as an idea. He says, “That idea is that it’s through looking out for one another and having compassion for everyone that you find your own, you find your home, with your family. And just as a human being, you get to find who you are by seeking it in other people. I hope that that theme continues no matter what the Guardians do. I don’t think the Guardians need to be done. You never know what’s going to be next. But I think the idea that that theme we tried so hard to build—that will remain and that will stay there.”
And for the future, Guardians and beyond, Gunn never closes the door on opportunities. He said, “I love acting. My favorite thing is that I feel like I’m still getting better. I still feel like my work is improving, and I want it to improve. It’s very important to me to be able to watch my work and say, ‘Oh, this is better than the previous movie or the previous thing. There’s new things I’m doing that are a little more interesting.’ Being an actor has been part of the fabric of who I am for my whole life.”
Amy Ratcliffe is the Editor-in-Chief for Nerdist and the author of Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy, The Art of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, The Marvel Cinematic Universe An Official Timeline, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.