Open Up! “The Gates” Actress Janina Gavankar Speaks2:38 pm | Monday, June 21st, 2010
In this day and age, the line between actor and musician is very thin. Every celebrity wants to cross the waters and trade in a script for a microphone or vice versa. In the most enjoyable cases, at least for people as mean-spirited as us, they fail and end up drunk onstage and fighting hecklers (we see you, Joaquin!). However, there are a few talented entertainers who can cross over and potentially achieve greatness. Janina Gavankar is one of those people.
A trained pianist, vocalist, and orchestral percussionist, Janina has taken a step back from music, applied her talents to acting, and is now on the road to success. After playing “Papi” on Showtime’s hit series The L Word, the 26-year-old Dutch/Indian beauty now plays a cop in ABC’s new summer series The Gates, which boasts bloodthirsty vampires, hungry werewolves, and other supernatural creatures. We got a chance to sit with Janina to discuss her new role, her move back into music, being a gamer, and being a sex symbol. Multi-tasking has never looked so good…
Interview By Dominic Green
Complex: Your old group Endera was signed to Cash Money. How did Endera come about?
Janina: We were like five girls that sounded like En Vogue. It was four white girls and then me, and we worked with an artist development group in Atlanta. Jamaica Craft, who is a great choreographer, was our choreographer then, so we danced hard. I did the damn thing. It was a great experience. I learned how to engineer, use Pro Tools, and produce.
Complex: You still a fan of Cash Money now?
Janina: Yeah, I partied with Drake in New York. My very close friends are Jay Sean and his production team—and I just met Slim for the first time since back in the day. I was at Jay’s shoot with Sean Paul and Lil’ Jon in L.A. and me and Slim just stared at each other and we were silent for a good 20 minutes. [Laughs.] We were just flashing back to when we worked together. I was like, “I read your press. Jay Sean is the first Indian to be signed to Cash Money. Yeah, that’s cool. All right.” And he just laughed. But it was a hell of a time, I was living in Chicago, living three lives. I was going to school, I was in this group, and I was auditioning for anything that I could audition for. I ended up doing a lot of commercials and some theater.
Complex: Growing up in Joliet, Illinois, did you always have dreams of escaping and being in the Hollywood lights?
Janina: I never really had dreams of becoming a star. I was never that kid. I’m a music nerd and a theater geek. I never thought I would stay in Joliet, but I wanted to go where I was needed. I did some theater in Chicago and there are only so many commercials you can do, so I moved to L.A.
Complex: When did you move to L.A.?
Janina: About five years ago. I’ve always just done things that come naturally, and that’s always been surrounding myself with artists that I respect and that are way better at what they do than at what I do [Laughs]. I’ve worked my ass off to earn the right to get a shot.
Complex: So did music lead you into acting?
Janina: Yeah, I took classical piano and was an orchestral percussionist. In high school, I was Maria in West Side Story and I had a total out-of-body experience and became someone else and I really had—sounds cliché, but I had that magical moment. Then I changed my whole life and I said at one point, “Shit, I want to be an actor. What now?” That’s when I started living three lives in Chicago. When the group started falling apart, I moved to L.A. and started working steadily as an actor. I’m a musician—music will never go away—but my focus is acting, and I started late so I have to play catch-up. So that means I have to work twice as hard in this game. But it will never stop, I think I always feel I have to work twice as hard.
Complex: How long were you in the group for and when did it end?
Janina: We were together for two and half years, right before I moved to L.A. Well, even at the end of it, I was sort of living between L.A. and Chicago because I was so emotionally wrapped up, you know? When you really get into your life with a group of people, you can’t just peace out. I don’t know if you know this, but I released a music video this past Thursday.
Complex: It’s a remake of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown,” right?
Complex: I’ve seen a few comments saying it’s better than the original.
Janina: Oh, yay! I’m glad.
Complex: Can you explain a little bit about the making of the video?
Janina: Yeah, I stepped away from music to focus on acting when I moved here. I don’t think people understand that you can be dedicated to more than one medium because most people don’t do it well, so I stepped away to make sure I did one thing well. In the middle of last year, I had a little bit of a mental breakdown. [Laughs.] I looked up in the sky and said, “I miss music so much! Universe, if you want me to do it, you better tell me,” and people started calling out of the sky. But being who I am, I don’t just say, “Hey, lets work.” I’m not just a girl you can throw in the studio and cut tracks with. I am a producer and a musician, so I felt like I had to prove it to myself that I was ready to come back. So, I found a film compulsive friend of mine, Timo Chen, and I told him I had this idea—I don’t want to call it a cover, I want to call it a flip, of Kanye’s “Love Lockdown.” I was going through a massive break-up—my five year relationship was ending—so this song and this video is all pure survival and I had to do it. I think that is why people are taking to it so well.
Complex: There are many actors who try their hand in music and go about it for all the wrong reasons. But with you, music comes naturally, so team that with your acting abilities and it seems anything you put out would be heartfelt.
Janina: Ah, that’s sweet of you. I always talk about if you want to be an artist, you have to be authentic because people can tell bullshit a mile away. There is nothing wrong with creating a character, standing behind that character, and that being an authentic performance piece, because that’s a piece of art as well. But if you want to be an artist in any form, you have to know to come with it. You have to know that this is the now the moment of Andy Warhol where everyone has their 15 minutes. Between Youtube and Ustream, people will tune in and you can have your moments, but will they stay? And that’s about authenticity.
Complex: Hopefully Kanye will link the video to his blog.
Janina: Yeah, that would be nice. I didn’t make this to gain any notoriety though.
Complex: It’s more about you expressing yourself creatively.
Janina: Yeah, and just letting the people know who wrote that song, that it is an important song.
Complex: Let’s talk about your new show, The Gates, a little bit. You play a cop…
Janina: Yes, I have a gun. I have a good friend from my hometown, Tracy Philips, we grew up together and she is a cop and she thinks me playing a cop is hilarious. Let me tell you about this girl. So I played this swashbuckling, basketball playing, Latin woman on The L Word named Papi. I cannot play any sports at all, so it’s ridiculous, but whatever, part of my job is to watch others and become them, so I watched a bunch of basketball players and did it. I pulled it off the best as I can. It’s funny because Tracy and her sisters all went to college on basketball scholarships, so here I am playing a basketball player and a cop and they are this in real life and there is me, the dorky one, pretending to be this. They love it.
Complex: So you obviously consult them when you need help with shooting the rock and a gun.
Janina: Absolutely. It’s really nice to have a person who is going to give me the raw deal. But yeah, I play Leigh Turner [on The Gates]. She’s a cop who is very good at her job but she has a pretty dark secret that she keeps to herself. The secret is rad, I couldn’t have guessed it in a million years. It’s so cool. Try and guess the craziest thing that’s going on with her, c’mon, guess.
Complex: You’re a necrophiliac. But that’s not too ABC friendly.
Janina: [Laughs.] Nope, she’s not into dead people.
Complex: I guess I have to watch.
Janina: Yeah you do; she’s such a dope character and the cast is great.
Complex: No major egos on the set?
Janina: No, not really. We work really fast and it’s a big ensemble. We do an episode in seven days, so we pretty much shoot half a movie in seven days.
Complex: Wow, that is fast. I heard you’re a gamer in your spare time. What kind of games do you play?
Janina: I like first-person shooter and co-op games mostly. I haven’t been here in L.A. to play because we film in Shreveport, but I just recently put a projector on my ceiling in my loft so I have a whole stack of games to play likeMass Effect, Resident Evil whatever the fuck, Assassin’s Creed… I do it all.
Complex: Do you play online and talk shit to other people?
Janina: No one can talk shit like me…trust. I will get dirty on you. I will completely emasculate you.
Complex: What’s one of the most reckless things you’ve said?
Janina: Just imagine how bad, dirty, and volatile it can get. [Laughs.] It’s warfare, that’s all I’m going to say. Win by any means necessary. I am a big gamer. I am kind of in the beginning stages of creating a graphic novel entity that would encompass a game and a movie. I would die happy if I could be a voice in a game that I would actually play and create easter eggs with the team. That’s my dream. [Laughs.]
Complex: How hard is it to juggle music and in film? If you had to choose either a Grammy or an Oscar, what would it be?
Janina: It would be the Oscar, but here’s the thing: Why should I have to choose? Just because it is music and I am acting now, doesn’t mean it’s not a natural flow of my existence.
Complex: So, you would feel a part of you is missing if you didn’t try to achieve both?
Janina: Yeah, I’m just an artist. I just happen to do both, but my focus is acting. It’s natural and it feels like I have to do this. It’s also a by-product of living in downtown L.A. where everyone is an artist. So you find the ones that are not full of shit and support them. [Laughs.]
Complex: As an entertainer of Indian descent, how do feel about the recent success of Indians in television and film, like Aziz Ansari and the new show Outsourced?
Janina: How do I feel? What if I said, “I think it, sucks. Indians suck!”? [Laughs.] But I think it’s rad. It’s really exciting. I think there is a small crop of us who are working just because we are good, not because we are good Indians. I am building a career on being as good as I possibly can be. I don’t want people to say, “She is a great Indian actress.” Like, you don’t say, “She is a great white actress,” or “She is a great black actress.” No one is saying that shit. There are a bunch of us who believe in this. Just be dope. I am just excited for the next generation where color doesn’t matter and they will be allowed to just be artists. The arts in general are just a huge part of the culture. You can find any guy on the street [in India] and he can sing his ass off, it’s kind of crazy. It makes sense that we are passionate about the arts but the only people that were let in this country were doctors and engineers back in the day. But yeah, I think it is amazing that I can drive and see Aziz on a billboard or go to the movies and see my friend Aasif [Mandvi] in The Last Airbender film.
Complex: I don’t know if you are aware, but people consider you a sex symbol. Is it a new feeling for you?
Janina: [Laughs.] That is so funny. That is awesome. I’m single, so I’m learning a little bit about myself for the first time. I feel like I’m growing up, so I will willingly accept that. I think a few years ago I would be rejecting that. It’s neat to me. I am definitely not the normal girl. I’m not some skinny blond, you know? I chose strong over skinny. So, I am honored that people think I’m sexy. I’m just really happy people accept me as I am and I don’t have to change.