Don’t put anything past Janina Gavankar — the “trans-beige” actress can do it all.
ISSUE: Summer 2012
STORY: Jimmy Lee
You can call her a nerd, even a geek. Just don’t call “normal.” Because “normal” people don’t possess the energy and ambition she has. And her tenacity is resulting in roles on hit HBO shows. She got the part of Papi, a smooth-talking lesbian Latina, on Showtime’s The L Word after burying herself in the role — for the very first audition.
“I just walked out [into the Show- time offices], swaggered up to the front desk, and I shook the receptionist’s hand, and was like, ‘Hey, what’s up.’ I just flirted with her and shook the casting director’s hand and checked her out. Just lived in the world of Papi,” recalls Gavankar. “Because I knew that if they ever met me or saw a glimpse of Janina, I was screwed. I was never going to get the part. I’m way too nerdy, I don’t talk cool. So I just served her from the moment I walked out of the elevator.”
She grits her teeth when she describes going through the audition process. “I’ve had to fight, I’ve had to walk into every casting room, almost with a gun to their head; like, you don’t get to give this to anybody else,” she says.
According to Gavankar, this relentless mentality comes from her immigrant parents. Her father came to the U.S. for college with just $9 in his pocket. After a return to India, where he met and married his wife, who’s of Dutch and Indian ancestry, the couple settled in the Chicago suburb of Joliet, Ill., and filled their home with music and art for their two American-born daughters.
Gavankar grew up playing the piano and drums, and sings opera and musical theater. In fact, if the Cash Money-produced R&B girl group she was once a member of hadn’t failed, you might be reading about her in an entirely different creative pursuit. In- stead, Gavankar decided to move to Los Angeles and focus on acting.
In addition to Papi, she’s played a heartless cop — literally, someone with- out a heart — on the short-lived ABC series The Gates. And she couldn’t be happier playing characters with varied, and unusual, backgrounds. “Trans- beige” is how she describes the ethnicities she’s played. “We just made it up right here,” she says, laughing.
She’ll be in-between states a lot this year, when she returns for her second season on HBO’s sexy supernatural drama, True Blood, playing a shapeshifter named Luna Garza. The problem is she’s the love interest for fellow shifter Sam Merlotte, a primary character who’s been saddled with bad luck when it comes to the ladies. “Nobody stays happy for very long on this show,” says Gavankar. So is Luna’s life predestined for doom?
“I’ll say this,” she says. “It’s a cool year to be a shifter; we have a lot of really cool things we get to do.”
As long as it’s anything but normal, it seems Gavankar will be just fine.