Chicago training prepared ‘True Blood’ actress for Hollywood - Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago training prepared ‘True Blood’ actress for Hollywood

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    Gavankar stands in front of her childhood home in Joliet. She now lives in Los Angeles. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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    Updated: June 22, 2011 8:29PM

    Janina Gavankar was on track to become a musician and singer when a high school encounter with “West Side Story” derailed her plans.

    Gavankar had been in musicals before because of the singing, not because of the acting. The role of Maria in the classic musical changed all that.

    “I reached out to Tony (Maria’s love interest) one day in rehearsal and I had a completely full-bodied emotional response,” Gavankar recalled. “I was Maria, and it changed me forever.”

    From that point on, it was an actor’s life for her.

    Gavankar, a native of Joliet, now lives in Los Angeles, where she’s gained notice in television series — “The Gates” and “The L Word” — and most recently won a role in HBO’s hit series “True Blood” as Luna, a sexy shapeshifter who catches Sam Merlotte’s eye.

    “True Blood” returns for a fourth season at 8 p.m. June 26. Sookie Stackhouse and pals once again are faced with all sorts of challenges brought on by the vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches and more that occupy their corner of Louisiana.

    Gavankar auditioned for the role of Luna and was thrilled when she was called back to read with Sam Trammell, who plays Merlotte, the shapeshifter owner of the restaurant where Sookie works.

    “It was pretty clear that we were going to have a pretty good time together from the first read,” Gavankar said, slyly refusing to elaborate about the upcoming season.

    Alan Ball, the show’s creator and executive producer, agrees.

    “Janina is delightful and professional,” Ball said. “She brings a great mix of strength and vulnerability to the role, and she has nice chemistry with Sam.”

    Sam and Luna, who’s also a high school teacher, meet at a shapeshifter’s support meeting. Gavankar says Luna is “like everyone else on the show.”

    “She’s a really complex person who is dealing with being different and being human at the same time,” Gavankar said in a phone conversation from her Hollywood loft.

    A striking beauty, Gavankar grew up in Joliet and attended Joliet West High School. Her supportive parents, an engineer and a homemaker, were adamant that she and her sister be raised in a culture-rich world. They traveled the world from an early age, and Gavankar studied classical music, voice, piano and percussion until acting took over in her junior year of high school.

    The following summer, she was accepted into a Yale University drama program at the same time she got into the Phantom Regiment, a drum and bugle corps, another longtime dream. She admits it was a tough decision choosing Yale over her love of percussion (she plays marimba).

    “They worked us hard 12 hours a day,” Gavankar, 27, recalled. “It was a full-body dive into the world of theater. I walked away knowing this is exactly what I want to do.”

    Gavankar, who is of Indian and Dutch descent, studied acting at the University of Illinois at Chicago and worked locally in theater, commercials and independent films. She was cast in “Barbershop” and “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” both filmed in Chicago.

    But a move to Los Angeles in 2005 forced her to pretty much start over.

    “No one knew me, so I had to prove myself all over again,” Gavankar said. “But because I had studied and worked in Chicago, I felt I was ready for this. I knew what kind of actor I wanted to be.”

    Gavankar found work on television shows such as “Stargate Atlantis,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “NCIS.” She also played the role of Ms. Dewey, a sexy digital librarian on a Microsoft website that offered comments on search queries. The popular (now defunct) site went viral, and that led to Gavankar landing the role on the Showtime series “The L Word.”

    Playing Popi, a female Don Juan, proved to be more than she expected, as she found herself working with well-established actresses such as Jennifer Beals, Cybill Shepherd, Marlee Matlin and Pam Grier.

    “I had access to a group of very strong women who had long careers, and longevity is how I judge success,” Gavankar said. “I wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and they were willing to share with me. I took notes.”

    In 2010, she landed a recurring role on the short-lived series “The Gates,” which also involved vampires, witches and werewolves.

    “Yes, I’ve had some experience with this,” Gavankar said, laughing.

    Now Gavankar is playing a shapeshifter on “True Blood,” but shapeshifting into different characters is something she’s done all along. She can play tough and mean, sweet and sexy, bawdy and funny.

    “They’ve allowed me to do drama and comedy, to play pretty people, ugly people, complicated people, funny people,” Gavankar said. “I’ve been able to do a lot in a short amount of time. I just want to be able to continue for a very, very long time.”

    Along the way, Gavankar has also found time for her other passion. Her original music has been licensed for film and television, and her music video reworking Kanye West’s hit “Love Lockdown” was a hit with fans and critics alike.

    “Music is never going to disappear,” Gavankar said, firmly. “It’s such a large part of my identity. If I ignore it too long, I start to go a little crazy and then I have to work on something to even myself out.”