Janina Gavankar’s first major television role was on The L Word, and no matter how you felt about Papi, the Latina Casanova who bedded several of the show’s women, you had to fall for the actress underneath the fedora. After leaving the Showtime series, Janina has appeared on Grey’s Anatomy and the supernatural drama The Gates, which ran for one season on ABC. Now she’s returning to premium cable with a new role on HBO’s True Blood, playing Luna, a shapeshifting school teacher who falls for Sam Merlotte.
Janina talked with us about stripping down as a shifter, how she was inspired by actresses she worked with on The L Word and how she ends up on the most progressive shows on TV.
AfterEllen.com: We’re really excited to see you on True Blood. It’s a gay-friendly show all around.
Janina Gavankar: It really is. This year is even gayer than ever. I can’t tell you why, but I’ll just tell you it is.
AE: Will you be having any of the lesbian fun this year or are you pretty strictly into Sam?
JG: I am having no gay fun this year. I don’t know if Luna had some crazy days in college maybe but nothing too – she’s pretty straight. She has enough drama going on. [Laughs]
AE: So far all we really know about Luna is that she’s a shapeshifter and she’s a teacher. Are there any other defining characteristics of her? Is she a good person?
JG: She’s a good person. She’s really a good girl.
AE: A nice girl that people will want Sam to be with?
JG: Yeah I think that Sam deserves a nice girl and Luna might be it.
AE: Do you have scenes with any of the show’s female stars or is your storyline just about you and Sam?
JG: It’s pretty much about Luna and Sam thus far – at least that’s how it is in the beginning of the season.
AE: Are you in all of the episodes this season?
JG: I’m in almost all of the episodes.
AE: So is it a good bet that if it gets renewed we’ll see even more of Luna?
JG: I can’t say anything for sure, but probably.
AE: Well I’m glad you don’t get killed off after the second episode.
JG: Well, no. I make it to at least the third. I’ll say that!
AE: I’ve read interviews where you’ve said you are a big fan of supernatural shows. Did you watch True Blood before you auditioned?
JG: I didn’t, but not because I didn’t want to. I’m a weird marathoner, meaning I can’t do the week-by-week thing. I’d rather wait till something’s in its fourth or fifth season and marathon the whole thing over like a week. I like watching something from beginning to end.
AE: So you’re all caught up then?
JG: Oh yeah! I have to be. They sent me the first script and I was like “Who the hell are all these people?”
AE: Now you know!
JG: I very quickly martathonned it all, right over Thanksgiving break and I was traveling from LA to Chicago to DC. I didn’t get to spend any time with my family because I had my headphones on and was obsessively watching the show. It didn’t take very long for me to think “Why did I wait this long?”
AE: That’s how I was with the show, too. The Gates was a very supernatural show, too. Were you surprised that didn’t get picked up? Vampires, werewolves – those things are huge right now.
JG: Yeah, I was just more sad than anything, because I loved – I still love, we’re still very close – most of the cast. It’s just really sad to not be able to go back and tell their stories. My character had the dopest back story ever. So for me not to be able to flesh that out with everybody, kind of, was annoying.
AE: One of my favorite things that I read about your time on The Gates was you would call up a friend of yours who was a cop [like your character] and ask her what side you should wear your gun on and things like that.
AE: Well, who do you call up when you’re trying to be a shapeshifter?
JG: Good question! If you’re dealing with an animal I will call a friend whose dealt with that animal and learn about them a little bit, maybe. [Laughs] It’s really funny, the reality allowances you have to make in your brain to make things work and to make things real so you don’ feel like your schmacting.
AE: It’s got to be hard.
JG: It’s like, if this was real, I would totally be able to do this and this, and this would be happening in my life, and I probably went to school here, and my dad was probably like this and – you know? The things you do in your brain are very strange. Good thing I have a very, very healthy imagination! You have to think about the emotional – there’s just a lot of emotional questions that figures out they can turn into [an animal].
AE: You seem to end up on very progressive and LGBT-friendly shows. Is that something you seek out or is just coincidental?
JG: I think it’s coincidental. I also think that when you’re building a show – like Alan Ball is out and gay and is obviously a huge part of the movement of making it a non-issue in Hollywood. And when I joined The L Word, people who are part of the community can tell when someone’s also part of the community, whether they are wearing a shirt that says it or not. My best friend my entire life has been gay. It’s always been like that. My sister’s senior prom date, his name is Brandan McShaffery – let me tell you about him. He’s the coolest guy in the world. He now runs a theater and they do gay-themed productions. He was like the most talented person I had ever met in my life. He would do accents in my kitchen with my sister and I used to look up to him like he was the most talented person I had ever encountered. He’s gay! It was a non-issue.
AE: So you’ve just always known gay people.
JG: Yeah! It’s like “and?”
AE: Did anyone ever try to sway you not to play the lesbian role of Papi on The L Word?
JG: No, if they had, I would probably — first of all, I don’t surround myself with people who are judgmental. I just don’t. I naturally don’t. Anybody who knows me knows that if they were going to say something like that they’d be pretty quickly be cut out of my life.
AE: So obviously you’re just a very open person and no one would want to f--k with you.
JG: [Laughs] It’s not even like they’re going to get “I will cut you if you,” it’s just “Oh – goodbye!”
AE: I know you probably can’t tell us too much more about the upcoming season of True Blood, but how does a schoolteacher end up meeting a guy that owns a bar?
JG: Hmm. I would say Shreveport and Bon Temps are pretty small places. Everybody knows each other there. It’s like high school.
AE: Is Luna new to town?
JG: She didn’t grow up there, but she’s been there for a while. This is her first year teaching school.
AE: Do we see you teaching children?
JG: You don’t see me with my childrens. I think you see me at the high school.
AE: It seems to be a very sexy role for you.
JG: I’ve never done anything like that before!
AE: Never! [Laughs]
AE: Is it more risqué than what you’re used to or is kind of like “been there, done that, this isn’t new to me”?
JG: I would say I’m definitely more naked than I’ve ever been before. We take off all of our clothes otherwise we’d hulk out of them.
AE: Yeah! Fully nude you!
JG: Yeah I’m definitely showing more skin than I ever had. But my first big career move in my life was on The L Word and I was around some of the most amazing class act women with very long careers and I had access to some really strong women that I respect, and respected even before I met them in real life. And they were unafraid. They were also kind of like “Hey, do it while you’re young!
AE: Do you keep in touch with any of your castmates from The L Word?
JG: Yeah some of them. I just missed my chance to see Jennifer in Chicago. WE just missed each other. Saw Pam earlier this year. I’m always texting her random things.
AE: That’s nice, it’s always good to hear women keeping in touch with each other. You always hear things about female TV stars who secretly hate each other or are mad that so and so got more screen time.
JG: Oh I don’t play those games. I don’t give a s--t what anybody says, I’m happy to be there. I’ve realized I end up just as close to the writers and producers and the crew members as I do the cast. I don’t see that big of a difference between all of us.
AE: Are you looking forward to the premiere and the reactions from fans?
JG: It’s kind of crazy. I obviously experienced being able to be in touch with fans with The L Word. I just feel like it’s an opportunity to – we all just dedicated a half a year of our lives to building season 4. Most of these people have dedicated half a decade to the show at this point, god knows how long this thing has been in pre-production before they even shot the first pilot, you know? For me, I just spent a half a year really invested in the show, and being a part of it. The fact that I get to walk around and talk to strangers about it and be excited with somebody, that’s freaking awesome. I’m excited, you know? I’m going to Comic-Con. I’m unafraid to talk to strangers.
AE: Do people recognize you more from being Papi or from The Gates?
JG: Nobody recognizes me ever. It’s really funny with Papi because even if I’m sitting a the table – let’s say I go out to dinner and I’m sitting with a group of people I’ve never met before. One of them is an uber- L Word fan. This has happened to me over 30 times, I would say. Somebody says something about The L Word, and then I say something, and they basically go silent and kind of turn green because they realize they’ve been sitting at the table with Papi and feel silly. And I have to say “No, no, no – trust me, it’s OK! Unless I talked to you in her accent and swagged it over to the table, you won’t recognize me! Trust me, it happens all of the time!” And then it’s over, but nobody recognizes me. Nothing about us is similar. And if I’m not in the cop uniform, nobody recognizes me from The Gates. And with my hair back.
AE: Well I feel like with this role, you look more like you.
JG: Yeah, she looks like me!
AE: So you’ll probably be recognized as that chick on True Blood.
JG: That brown chick on True Blood.
AE: There have to be just as many loyal fans, if not more, of True Blood as there were of The L Word so that’s got to be exciting.
JG: It’s definitely exciting. I love this show and understand why everybody loves it. This is the smartest group of people I’ve ever met. Everybody’s just – everybody is so good at what they do.
AE: I can’t wait to see the new season. Thank you so much!
JG: Thank you so much! You know, I love AfterEllen. I think you guys do such a good job of covering everything community-based. But also, you all have supported us as we’ve moved on from The L Word and I’m just going to speak for all of us, I really thank you guys for doing that. It means a lot.
True Blood returns this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.