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By: Amina Elahi
At 26 years old, Janina Gavankar is a seasoned actress and musician. The Indian-Dutch University of Illinois-Chicago graduate is gearing up for a lead role on ABC’s upcoming supernatural drama “The Gates,” premiering June 20th at 9 pm. This geek with a girly side (she was painting her nails when I called her) dishes here on being South Asian in the entertainment industry, working with Benjamin Bratt and scoping out hot guys on set. And if there’s one thing Gavankar believes, it’s that the best thing to do in life is, just be dope.
How did you get into entertainment?
I kind of feel like there are two parts to that answer. There's getting into the arts, then there's getting into the industry. I grew up playing piano and percussion and singing opera and ... I was in drumline, I was in show choir. In high school, I was Maria in West Side Story and it changed everything. I had an out of body experience where I was no longer myself and I kind of looked up at the sky and went, Oh my goodness, I want to be an actor, what do I do now? Which was shocking because you know, by high school, most South Asian kids know what they want to do and they're on that track already. I switched my focus and it was kind of scary, you know? That's the arts. Then, when I got to college, I was living three lives. I was going to college, I was working my butt off in class. I was a theatre major and psychology minor. I was auditioning for anything anybody would let me audition for (which was a lot of commercials and independent films) and I was signed to Cash Money Records so I was immediately in the music industry. I was trying to get any kind of experience that I could under by belt as an actor. When [something] fell apart, I moved to LA. And that's when I was like, Bam. You're in the industry.
What can you tell me about your new show, “The Gates ?”
The new show is about a gated community. Very affluent suburbia where everybody is seemingly normal, except some of them are supernatural. We're talking the whole gamut -- vampires, werewolves, witches, other things that I won't reveal. Shit goes down, I should say. I play a cop with a dark secret; you will never figure it out. It's an hour-long drama. And it has some funny moments but … it's not like Desperate Housewives in that it's funny. There's definitely tension, there's definitely...it moves quickly. And it's an hour, so we get a chance to really get into stories.
How did you end up on this show?
I auditioned and I kind of knew that it was mine. They say when you know, you know. For some reason, when I went in I made the choice to make [the character] a certain way and I felt like she was a mysterious person and that she wasn't showing all of her cards. And I liked her. I think they got a sense of that when I read for them because all of my ideas are what's happening in the show.
This is the first series that I've started from the beginning. When I came into The L-Word, it was already Season 4, so it was a well-oiled machine. You really get a chance to create this world together as an ensemble, with the writers and the creators and the producers, and you all stand together to create an alternate universe. It's funny when you say that, because the reason I'm attracted to the theatre is because of that feeling of team (sic). You can have teamwork in sports as well but there's really something magical about creating something from within with other people. One person thinks of an idea and then a few years later, you're walking on a multi-million dollar set with houses and hundreds of people all banding together to tell a story that just came out of someone's head. That is magical to me.
Do you have a favorite past role?
I don't really have a favorite. I miss some of the people, though. I don't feel like they're me, I feel like they're friends of mine. I feel like, Oh, I just haven't talked to them in a really long time. I wonder how this person's doing. [Papi, from the L-Word] was the last character, she was the last person that I got to live in for the longest amount of time. Of course, I'm close to her. I feel close to her because I know more about her. And I was afforded the opportunity to do more brain work and live in her a little bit longer so I know a little bit more about her. I had the opportunity to play this character on Benjamin Bratt's show The Cleaner last year and that was a pretty epic role for me; that was a big one for me. I spent two weeks living as a pregnant drug addict, which was a harrowing experience. And it made me look at addiction, even just a basic level, a different way and maybe it's not even that deep, maybe I was just so challenged and that's why I liked it. It was hard! And because of that, I loved it.
Did you like working with Benjamin Bratt?
He's amazing. He is from the generation before me brown actor. And he kind of pulled me to the side and talked to me and said, Okay, let's talk about your career. I was like, ‘Okay, Benjamin Bratt! I'll do what you tell me. Anything you have to say, I'll listen.’ You know, we had a great conversation about being ethnic actors, and what that means, and what an opportunity it is for the rest of ethnic minorities to have any face time.
How do you feel about playing characters who are minorities but not necessarily South Asian?
I feel lucky to be considered for those roles. When I moved to LA, I wanted to play roles. I didn't want to play Indian. I wanted to play complicated, interesting humans. Ethnicity doesn't really hit my radar, sexuality doesn't really hit my radar, age doesn't really matter. Even in life, even when I walk around, even when I talk to people, those are all just sort of insignificant details. Life experience and family and education and all these other things are really what I base my...those are more important to me than, you know, ethnicity. I have people ask me a lot, "So, what was it like playing someone who was gay?" It was just like playing someone who was older than I am or younger than I am or different, it doesn't matter. I'm damn lucky and I do not take it lightly that I've been given the opportunity to play anything that I want.
How do you think that South Asians fit into today's entertainment scene?
How do I think they fit? Damn well. I think they fit well. It's a really exciting time because I feel like people are...It's exciting to me because there are lots of South Asians. Directors and singers, and Jay Sean [who] is so hot, it's stupid. Seriously, there we go. You have to admit it. He is doing well not because he is South Asian, [but] because he's just dope. M. Night, when he made The Sixth Sense...The Sixth Sense was DOPE. Not because it was South Asian, because it was just…dope.
We're dedicated people, whatever we choose as our work and our career. We have a lot of energy and a lot of passion, we're very passionate people. When we allow ourselves to slowly give in and dedicate ourselves to the arts or whatever our focus is, we're unstoppable.
So do you think people need to transcend their ethnic identity?
Everybody's path is different. I don't think you should ignore who you are. I think that people are going to...Everybody's path is different. Every artist is different. I can only speak for myself and say that I feel very American. I'm also damn proud to be Indian. And, by the way, my mom's half Dutch. You know? I don't walk around every day feeling like, ‘Oh I'm Indian.’ I'm just damn proud and it's a non-issue to me. So I don't bring it up in my work. It's not a defining factor. I think...as an artist and trying to make it in this industry, there are so many other moving parts. I'm over it, it's a non-issue for me. I just am Indian. I can't be more Indian than what I am. Everybody's different. There are plenty of my friends who are South Asian actors who feel the need to put their fist in the air, and that's dope too. That's great, good for them! It's an individual experience. You just have to let the universe show you where you fit, and be you, and work your ass off and be dope. Just. Be. Dope. That's the bottom line: Just be dope.
Is there a genre (drama or comedy, for example) that you prefer?
No, it's never been about the genre. More the medium, really. I will play...if something was created for a cell phone, I would do it -- if the character was interesting. It has always been about the character for me, it has always been about the humans that I am allowed to play. I played this character… on this search engine and it was online. And you went to the site and you talked to her and she interacted with you. And it was so cool because they let me create a character that was wild, and she was funny, but she didn't really think she was funny... That's really what it comes down to for me, it's about characters.
Who would be your dream role or ideal character to play?
I don't know. It's never been about one character. It's been about the length of the career. I ask people this all the time. I had this conversation with an artist friend: ‘what does success look like to you?’ Is it a million dollar check? Is it sitting on Jay Leno's couch? Is it being chased by paparazzi? You have to be honest with yourself. For me, it's getting to choose my roles; because I want to choose a lot of them for a very long period of time. Length of career is the highest level of respect that I can have for you. Going back to what I said before, I was afforded the opportunity to stand next to women who have been in the industry for decades. It's so hard to be a woman in this industry! No joke. If you're able to do it for a long period of time? You gotta be a powerhouse. If I'm doing this twenty years from now and I'm still working my ass off the way that I am now, I will feel good about myself.
Do you think you want to stick with acting or are you looking to get into music again?
I'm always making music, I've never stopped. I have a piano and an eight-foot marimba* in my apartment. I have a project that I'm releasing in the next few weeks. My music informs my work. I'm an actor. But I never really stopped making music. I think there's no difference in painters. People wouldn't ask a painter, are you going to stop painting now that you're an actor? No, of course [not].
*(a large xylophone-like musical instrument)
Your publicist, Rohan, said there are gonna be a lot of cute guys on The Gates and he told me to ask you what you think about them. What can you tell me about these guys you're working with?
I could tell you that they're beautiful. They're not just beautiful, they're good actors. There's a whole high school element in our show and so they're also wolves, and the wolves are somehow always naked… so you see a lot of skin, which makes me really happy. I grew up… watching TV with my mom and her getting mad like, ‘why do all these women have to be naked all the time? It would be one thing if the men also got naked.’ It's a really empowered stance to hear from an early age. So now I'm on this show and it's like, ‘this is a LOT of abs.’
I like it. I think it's about time. Colton Haynes and Travis Caldwell are two beautiful, beautiful boys. I think people are going to love them. Especially girls.
It seems like you're pretty excited about the whole project overall.
Yeah! I'm telling you, this is a show I would watch even if I wasn't on it. I got lucky.
And in case you missed it, Janina's "Gates" co-star, Rhona Mitra was on our list of 10 Noteworthy Bengali's!