ABOVE: JANINA GAVANKAR, PHOTO COURTESY OF SEVERIN KOLLER. ALL CLOTHING IS FROM GAVANKAR’S OWN LINE, SPARKLE TOOTH.
Actress Janina Gavankar is known to quite a few people, but for very different reasons. Gavankar is currently a series regular in True Blood, where she plays shape-shifter love interest, Luna, but before she stepped into vampire world, Gavankar played Papi on The L Word and periodically popped up in Mark Duplass’ TV show The League, a bro favorite. She’s also a fairly regular contributor to Funny or Die. Next up for Janina are two indie films, Satellite of Love and I’m Afraid of Virginia Wolf, and, of course, the fifth season of TB. Interview talked to Janina before she disappeared to the Dallas Film Festival this weekend. We began with the standard topics—how she was cast Luna, what happens when you shape-shift wearing fake nails, and what way she’d like her character to die—and moved on to racist commercials, mumblecore movies, and juggling.
EMMA BROWN: You’ve joined a couple of shows after they’ve already been running for several seasons; how do you fit in? Do you feel like a transfer student on the first day of school?
JANINA GAVANKAR: [laughs] I’ve always done the safest thing, which is to assume that it’s going to feel like that, to assume that you’re going to feel like a freshman in a group of seniors—if you expect the worst, then it’s never going to be that bad. But in both cases, True Blood and The L Word, they were just such well-oiled machines and everyone was so professional that it was far from feeling out of place. It was much easier than expected.
BROWN: Do they take you around and introduce you to everyone your first day on set?
GAVANKAR: No. I met a lot of people at the first table read, but it’s funny in True Blood, because there are so many of us the only time we really see each other is at the table read unless our story lines intersect. I was sitting next to Rutina [Wesley], but my character Luna has never met [Rutina’s character] Tara so we’ve never worked together, we’ve only sat next to each other and hung out in real life, but that’s it. It’s a funny little beast.
BROWN: Are you going to try and nudge the writers in writing you a scene together?
GAVANKAR: [laughs] That would be nice! But it is the most complicated show on the planet to make and to write; one change would be like the butterfly effect. It would create a ripple that would change everything.
BROWN: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got your role on True Blood?
GAVANKAR: I was told that there was a role that might be good for me, but I wasn’t immediately chomping at the bit, I had a whole bunch of conditions before I was ready to sign onto the show: One, I didn’t want to be a vampire because vampire sex freaks me out and I know that everyone has sex and gets naked on the show. [laughs] Two, I didn’t want to play a stripper or anything like that, not that I’m opposed to playing strippers, it’s just that at that moment I wasn’t really into it. And I didn’t really want to audition if it was a small part. But it [the role] was a new series regular, a classy schoolteacher and she was a shape-shifter. Those three things made me go, “Huh. That’s really interesting,” so I auditioned the next day and they brought me back to have a chemistry read with Sam Trammell, who I got along with swimmingly, immediately, and it was straight to work.
BROWN: Did you have an “Oh, I’m going to be naked all the time” moment?
GAVANKAR: When it comes down to it, I’m kind of a nerdy actor. With nudity for a shape-shifter, we’re not even really connected to our bodies because we can shift into anything. The vessel that we’re born in is malleable, so vanity isn’t really a huge part of the identity of the shape-shifter, so nudity isn’t a big deal. You’re just as naked as a horse as as a person. That’s very real to me as Luna, so I was even more okay with the nudity on this show than on The L Word.
BROWN: There are so many characters on the show, it seems like there is always a chance that one is going to be killed off in some brutal way, do you worry about that for Luna?
GAVANKAR: No, until I am told I am going to be offed, I don’t think about it. But I’ve said before, “If I’m going to go, let me go big. Let it be in a fit of glory!” [laughs]
BROWN: So would being killed by a vampire be too commonplace?
GAVANKAR: I don’t know, what would be the most fabulous way to go? The way vampires go is so amazing, the way they explode in fits of goo.
BROWN: So you could get turned into a vampire and then die!
GAVANKAR: I have all these nerdy shape-shifter questions I always ask on set and to the writers and annoy them: “If I’m wearing fake nails, and I turn into something else, the fake nails would fall off… right?” But I don’t think we can turn into vampires, because they are dead.
BROWN: Could you be made into a vampire?
GAVANKAR: I think so! But then can I shape-shift after I’ve been turned into a vampire? I don’t know that.
BROWN: When you ask the writers all these questions, are they like “Here is the answer” right away, or “God, why are you asking us all these questions. We don’t know, figure it out yourself!”?
GAVANKAR: I think they don’t want to answer it because until they have gotten to the point where that is up for debate, they want to leave it open-ended. They don’t answer anything for me. [laughs]
BROWN: Do you get more attention for True Blood than for The L Word?
GAVANKAR: Not really. I didn’t get any attention for The L Word because my character didn’t look like me, we didn’t have the same voice. In True Blood I pretty much look like myself, but I really only get recognized when I’m in what I call “drag.” [laughs] Seven-inch heels, an amazing dress, my hair’s extra-done and my makeup’s perfect. That’s the only time I really get recognized in this town. I’m kind of a shuffle-y tomboy, so I don’t really stick out.
BROWN: I’ve seen some of your Funny or Die sketches, how did you get involved in those?
GAVANKAR: I met one of the producers there and then they pitched a fake herpes commercial to me. I thought that was hilarious. When I was in college in Chicago I was doing a lot of commercials—that was my bread and butter. That day, when I got on set I flipped right back into commercial gear, popping certain words. I was using all of my old-school commercial chops. [laughs]
BROWN: What was the first commercial you ever did?
GAVANKAR: It was for Mellon bank. It was sort of “Our bank is going to help people achieve dreams! Here’s a montage of these people that we’ve helped.” I was a college student standing behind a desk with a globe on it. There was a blackboard behind me with a really long equation on it, which I realize now was totally racist because I’m Indian. [laughs] I was 18, and all I did in the commercial was start with my piece of chalk on the last stroke of the equation, put the piece of chalk down, turn to the camera, and smile.
BROWN: When did you realize there was something fishy going on…”How come I have to be the one solving the math problem?”
GAVANKAR: Just now talking to you. [laughs] I suck at math.
BROWN: Oh dear. So I hear you also have a few movies coming up… one at the Dallas Film Festival?
GAVANKAR: [Yes,] Satellite of Love, [which] was directed by Will Moore, he’s an Austin, Texas writer and director. A friend of mine, Shannon Lucio, who is a lovely actress…
BROWN: She was on The O.C.!
GAVANKAR: Yes, she was, and she was on a [TV show with me], The Gates. That’s how I met her. It’s a cast of four people in this movie, three of them were cast and she pitched me for the fourth role. I read the script that night and really loved it, so I signed on. We went to Austin, my first day of work, it was 114 degrees outside. It’s about three friends and I’m dating one of the friends. They all go on a retreat to a vineyard and have to deal with their own past and history together.
BROWN: That sounds serious.
GAVANKAR: Yeah. It’s a very artistic relationship indie. I’ve done a million indies, but I’ve never done anything that was in this genre, which is more “mumblecore.” The sort of “Let’s all pontificate and talk about relationships and life.” But it’s a beautiful film and it’s doing the Dallas Film Festival.
BROWN: You are also a singer. Do you let people know that when you get cast in a role?
GAVANKAR: I identify more as a musician than as a singer, because I play piano and percussion and I engineer and produce everything that I do. But I don’t tell them unless I feel like the character sings or is also a musician. It’s sort of like, “Hey, you can juggle,” then do you tell them you can juggle? And somehow work it into the script that the character juggles. I feel like a character is a character, I am myself and they are two different things. Otherwise it feels like a talent show, and I don’t think Luna sings. I like to keep the character as pure as I can within the world that I think they grew up in and that they live in.
BROWN: I would probably tell them if I could juggle. Or unicycle. When you have to display some sort of emotion—are you thinking only of the character’s experiences then, or do you draw from your personal experiences as well?
GAVANKAR: That’s a good question. It’s so different every time. Where your brain is on set during the day is so different moment to moment, and I laugh a lot on set. I love my job, I love the crew, but it’s also a very high-stakes, high-drama show, there’s a lot of crying and a lot of blood. To get myself to that place is harder when I’m laughing the whole day long, so I definitely have a bag of actor tricks and triggers, things that get me to certain places. Sometimes I use my own personal experiences to make me feel a certain thing and then I apply that to what’s going on in the moment for the character. [But] sometimes what the character is going through is so intense and I have such sympathy for them that I don’t need to do any work.
BROWN: Do you have a remedy for when you’re about to get the giggles?
GAVANKAR: No, I don’t have a terrible go-to thought that snaps me out of it. I think it’s just the fear of being unprofessional is enough to snap me out of it. [laughs]
SATELLITE OF LOVE PREMIERES TOMORROW AT THE DALLAS FILM FESTIVAL. SEASON FIVE OF TRUE BLOOD BEGINS JUNE 10TH ON HBO.