Glass interviews American actor Janina Gavankar

YOU’D be hard-pressed to find an actor with a more wildly varied CV than Janina Gavankar – if you’re on her IMDB looking for a common thread, don’t bother. Fantasy roles (True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Sleepy Hollow) are interspersed with comedy (The League), blockbuster video games (Far Cry 4, Star Wars Battlefront II), and, more recently, the star-studded, zeitgeist capturing Apple TV behemoth, The Morning Show. This week her latest big-screen project, The Way Back, was released, and, surprise-surprise, it resembles none of the above. “I don’t really know what I’m known for? I have really tried to have a diverse career, and that means people can’t pinpoint where I fit. Just how I like it.”

Reminiscing over her early exposure (or lack thereof) to film and TV, it’s easy to see where her skepticism of genre-pigeonholing comes from. The appropriately unexpected source? Victor Borga. “I had a super strict upbringing. So I didn’t really watch any popular movies, and I wasn’t allowed to watch TV… I didn’t really know what I was missing. My mom was very particular about what we were taking in, so I learned that just because something is on TV, it doesn’t mean that everybody should watch it. I think the knowledge that there’s a difference between art and industry has really helped preserve my artistic spirit as I’ve gone through my career.”

JG THE WAY BACK UNIT PHOTOJanina Gavankar, shooting The Way Back with Ben Affleck

While classmates would head home to watch Saved by the Bell, Full House, and Seinfeld, 39-year-old Illinois-born Gavankar made do with PBS, and specifically, variety performer Victor Borga. “He was a classical pianist, but he was also very, very funny. He was this guy from Denmark who was a comedian, and a pianist, and a painter, and a conductor… This was the kind of thing we watched.”

Aside from playing piano Gavankar studied classical voice as a teen, and wasn’t drawn to acting until an “out of body” experience altered her trajectory. “I was in my public school musical and honestly it changed me forever. We were performing West Side Story and I was in rehearsal … I was Maria – every brown girl’s dream – and I had this emotional moment as my character. I felt her life for a second. And it was so different from my own life that it felt like I had time-traveled or something. I have no idea what that feeling was, but I’ve been chasing it ever since. It was an out of body moment. I know a lot of people talk about this kind of moment, and we all just kind of hope that we can get it back at least once or twice…”

Although she’s still heavily involved in music (“I play percussion on various projects, and I make music videos for other artists… it’s just a part of my identity”) it was another extracurricular High School activity that gave Gavankar the edge in scoring a role in The Morning Show. “I’ve watched [my sister] work for my entire life, and she was on the morning announcements in my high school… which, obviously made me want to do the same because I look up to her, so I’ve been able to read from a teleprompter since I was 14 years old. These little things that you end up doing… When you look back you realise, “wow, I’ve actually been doing some version of this for my entire life.””

The_Morning_Show_Unit_Photo_010706Janina Gavankar in The Morning Show with Desean Terry, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Nestor Carbonell

Gavankar’s sister is still reading the news (Sonya is a well-known broadcast journalist), and, like any younger sibling worth their salt, Janina is still mimicking her. In The Morning Show she plays Alison Namazi, a news anchor caught up in the fallout of a workplace sexual harassment scandal, mirroring countless real-life post-MeToo revelations. “It was a long time coming! I think the thing that a lot of people don’t know about The Morning Show is that the concept was sold to Apple before the MeToo movement began. Of course, it adjusted accordingly.”

The show has been praised by some and critiqued by others for its nuanced study of workplace sexual misconduct. Gavankar tells me, “I mean, the thing that I appreciate most about [The Morning Show creator] Kerry Ehrin’s work, is that it allows you to play in the gray area of complicity and really question: what happened at that network?

“Nobody’s hands are clean, including my character. She decides she’s somehow fine with it, or at least she tells herself that … but everybody knew something was going on. Some people are more involved than others, but most everybody looked the other way, either to save themselves or to save someone they care about.”

The_Morning_Show_Unit_Photo_19Janina Gavankar in The Morning Show with Desean Terry

The casting of Steve Carell as the perp in question immediately raised eyebrows – someone so irrepressibly likable is inevitably going to invoke empathy for his plight, and, understandably, people don’t want to empathise with a fictional workplace creep that resembles so many real-life workplace creeps the world over. “But that’s how they get away with it! Jennifer (Aniston) calls him charming Narcissus. And obviously, it’s not only this business – almost every business and almost every industry deal with abuses of power and people just like that. These charming narcissists fall into power because they believe they should, and we let them… and it happens over and over and over again, going back to the beginning of time.”

Another warts an all examination of modern masculinity, The Way Back, caps off arguably the biggest 12 months of Gavankar’s career. “The script is beautiful, the characters are beautiful, you know, reading the script I was just Incredibly moved. [Director] Gavin O’Connor was someone I always wanted to work with. It’s a studio film, but it’s the most indie experience that I’ve ever felt working for a studio. They really let us build a little bubble around ourselves, and just create…”

It’s a redemption drama with Ben Affleck as the co-lead opposite Gavankar, and it cements O’Connor’s position as a Hollywood leader in dissecting what it means to be a man in the 21st century. With Warrior (2011) he subverted expectations by making a Mixed Martial Arts movie that was incredibly human, showing the soft underbelly of a hyper-masculine world. It remains one of the finest combat sports movies ever. This time round high school basketball provides the backdrop.

“I can tell you that Gavin [O’Connor] is a lion-hearted man… you feel his heart just beating out of his chest when you’re with him. He’s made a name for himself telling stories that include men like [Affleck’s damaged alchoholic] Jack Cunningham. And I think we’re better for it. Because when we talk about masculinity, you’re not immediately thinking about vulnerability, raw emotions, addiction, struggles… you’re not thinking about those things right away. So when an artist like Gavin O’Connor exists, in an era where masculinity should be looked at, it’s valuable.”

STUCCO - BTS - by Cliegh ReedJanina Gavankar, front of camera in Stucco

After ticking off sports drama from her ever-expanding resume, Gavankar is taking her own short film on a festival tour. Her directorial debut, Stucco (which she also wrote, produced and stars in), is an exploration of agoraphobia and fear of the unknown, told through a bitesize art-house horror.

“The reason that I love art-house horror specifically is that it often tells stories analogically. What makes it unique as a genre is instead of humanizing a subject, you can ‘monsterize it’, and really look at it from a new perspective,” she tells me. “My artist’s mission statement is to look at the things that we’re not proud of, really examine the parts of ourselves we’re not proud of, and you can do that unabashedly in art-house horror.

“I love Neon Demon (2016) because it deals with ageism and beauty. I love It Follows (2015) because it explores the intangible dread of connection in adolescence. Get Out (2017) is all about appropriation. The Babadook (2014) is about grief … you know? These are all very clear analogies that are rooted in something that is universal … and human.”

STUCCO - BTS - by Gustavo AstudilloJanina Gavankar, behind the lens on Stucco

One imagines that whatever project follows Stucco will be both surprising, and not much of a surprise at all, such is the random precision of Janina Gavankar’s career choices. In this sense, she’s really a rare breed. “A lot of artists don’t feel empowered enough to be the captain of their own ship. And I have always kind of tried to do that.”

by Charlie Navin-Holder

The Way Back is out now in the USA, and opens on April 24 in the UK