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Janina Gavankar:
Actor, Musician, Geek


The combination of remarkable beauty, a lifelong education in music and the arts, along with incredible talent might be what set Janina Gavankar up for Hollywood success. But it was certainly her playful spunk and intense work ethic that put her in reach of her dreams.

A bold take on basic black. Photography: Kerr Photo

In her own words, Janina says, “I’m a Glee kid that has somehow built a career.” In high school alone, if it was creative she was involved, whether it was the morning announcements, drum line, show choir, or musicals. It was actually her dream role as Maria in her high school production of West Side Story that made her realize how much she loved acting. When asked if she was a fan of the show Glee, she laughed and said “You want to know the truth? I love Glee so much and I’m so jealous that I am not on the show, that I won’t watch it because it’s emotionally upsetting.”

“What I do musically is generally informed by where I am emotionally…’Kali Ma’ came when I finally finished the dark period and had this moment where I was like, I am a woman.”

Where does the star of show choir go after high school? For Janina it was University of Illinois at Chicago, where she majored in Theatre Performance. Though she didn’t stray too far from her hometown of Joliet, Illinois, Janina spent her free time dabbling in the entertainment business. Outside of traveling to auditions, she was signed by Cash Money Records to be a part of Endera, an En Vogue-esque “all girl group”. Reflecting on that experience, Janina says, “It takes one thing to make a group crumble, I will say that one thing did not come from the group. We sounded great and we danced our asses off, we were ready. Now that I’m far away from it, it was more of a positive experience than a negative.”

Comfortable and romantic for fall. Photography: Michael Herf

Janina would describe her sound today as “arty”. When talking about her music, you can see her tone immediately become more serious. She reveals, “What I do musically is generally informed by where I am emotionally. ‘Love Lockdown’ happened during a really dark emotional period, ‘Kali Ma’ came when I finally finished the dark period and had this moment where I was like, I am a woman.” Though she didn’t elaborate on the source of her emotion, it is common knowledge that Janina broke up with her boyfriend of 5 years, DeviantArt CEO Angelo Sotira in 2010; “Love Lockdown” was released in June 2010.

Reflecting back on “Kali Ma,” she professes, “It was a coming of age moment for me. Part of realizing you’re a woman is realizing the power within that. It’s a really powerful moment, realizing you can burn a place down and build it even higher. It is shocking and exciting and inspiring, and unexpected. I chose Kali Ma to be the explanation for that feeling. In this moment of self realization I feel as powerful as Kali Ma.”  Though her priority will always be acting, Janina grew up as a musician and as she says it, “that is never going to stop.”

Janina’s not proud to admit that in all her travels, she never got into Bollywood movies and music. The only one she’s seen is Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. “The only reason I saw that was because I was hanging out with Kajol”

Janina’s Indian heritage has definitely been a source of strength in her life. Her mother Shan-de-Mohra was half Indian, specifically from Punnam (a village within Andra Pradesh). She says proudly, “My father and mother didn’t want us to have one foot in and one foot out, so we were really proud of being Indian. We felt special because there weren’t really any of us in Joliet (IL).” That being said, she didn’t have a huge desi community and wasn’t dressing up in saris every weekend. Laughing, she says, “My mom’s kind of Euro and she ran the household. So it wasn’t like I was dancing Bhangra growing up.”

Falling for the girl next door. Photography: Gil Leora

Though she wasn’t immersed in South Asian American culture during the formative years, she went to India every Christmas with her family until she was 11 years old. In the summer, her family would travel to some other part of the world, which she believes has helped her play such diverse characters, such as the hot Latina, “Papi”, on Showtime’s the L Word.

Janina’s not proud to admit that in all her travels, she never got into Bollywood movies and music. The only one she’s seen is Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. She surprised us by saying, “The only reason I saw that was because I was hanging out with Kajol. I was in India hanging out with her and she had this movie come out, so I said I would watch it. I did a Bollywood film that never came out, thank god, it sucked. The hero in it was her oldest cousin.” She elaborated, “The film was in Hindi, I don’t speak Hindi, so it was hard. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was there, I was kind of getting pressure to try it from my extended family. So I went, I felt like a fish out of water, and everyone there was asking about Hollywood. I didn’t feel like I belonged, they don’t need me.”

Thanks to her eclectic and rich background, she is notoriously known for her geeky side. She’s always been a bit of a tomboy, but you can add music nerd, theatre geek, technology freak, and information hound to her repertoire. “I’m a student of many things and I attack my work in an almost nerdy way,” she chuckles, “and even though the veneer is that of sex drugs and rock and roll, underneath that I am dissecting an invention on the piano.”

“I’m a student of many things and I attack my work in an almost nerdy way,” she chuckles, “and even though the veneer is that of sex drugs and rock and roll, underneath that I am dissecting an invention on the piano.”

So it makes sense why she named Microsoft search invention, Ms. Dewey, as her favorite character to have played. “She’s a bad ass, she is maybe the most capable woman I have ever had the opportunity to play”, then lowering her voice dramatically she swoons, “she had a man servant and he was sexy.” Janina raves about Ms.Dewey’s fan base stating that they are her “favorite”, who coincidentally have started several online campaigns to bring Ms. Dewey back.

Her most recent project was playing Officer Leigh Turner on ABC’s The Gates. It is rumored that the show will not be returning for a second season due to low ratings, yet Janina only has positive things to say about the experience. If you haven’t seen the season finale, SPOILER ALERT, her character’s secret was that she kept her heart in a glass case and could not feel love! You can sense the dedication to her craft as she speaks, “I got to spend 5 months playing with the concept of feeling emptiness, feeling loss, feeling all of these things, and questioning what a person would go through to try to feel love again. That’s the depths of where I had to go emotionally. That was a juicy thing to me.”

The Gates was filmed in a small town in Louisiana and Janina shares, “this brought the cast and crew closer together.” Also in the cast is fellow Indian, Rhona Mitra, who plays lead character Claire Radcliff. Though the show’s return in unclear, we enjoyed seeing Janina take on a very clean-cut yet complicated character. Also in her behind the scenes YouTube videos, she also showcases her humor and comedic timing.

A big believer in signs, Janina still can’t get over the fact that in the “Love Lockdown” video she played the personification of love trapped in a box. Then shortly after, she was cast for The Gates, where her character had her heart separated in a glass case. It was one is a series of signs in her life, she exclaims, “How creepy is that!”

While in the process of finding her next big project, Janina stays connected to her community and fans via social media. “I’ve always been interested in social media. I was the first actor to tweet. I’ve been tweeting since 2006 before they were even incorporated!”, she reveals,” I learned about Twitter on Richard Branson’s Island from one of the angel investors and signed up to Twitter on Branson’s computer!” The connection was her boyfriend at the time, DeviantArt CEO Angelo Sotira. After that initial introduction, Janina’s love affair with social media just took off. “People can’t tell that I’m doing it, but I’ll direct message people back on Twitter. I do write back to a lot of people. It’s not a case of us and them to me, I think that’s the point of social media, we’re all in this together and we’re all connected.”

Looking to the future, Janina knows what success means to her. Speaking from her heart, she says, “Success is pretty simple to me. I want to pick the projects that I work on. Success in my opinion is measured by longevity. Hopefully you’ll see me many moons from now.“

— NATASHA KHAN