Janina Gavankar, the newest cast member of The L Word, chats with us about the fourth season debut of the Showtime series this month and her in-your-face character, Eva “Papi” Torres.
Whether it’s baking a cake, popping the question, or merging onto 610 in Galleria rush-hour traffic, timing is everything. Brilliantly timed to air during that nebulous, post holiday-doldrummy, nothing-to-do period between the end of football season and the advent of WNBA games is the annual return of Showtime’s The L Word.
A staple of the premium cable channel’s progressive programming, The L Word begins its fourth season on Sunday, January 7. That evening, lesbians (and gay men who love them, as well as all those curious straight men and women who secretly wish they were gay) will gather in front of television sets in their home, bars, and satellite dish-rigged RVs to catch up with the lives and loves of those gorgeous women of Los Angeles.
Many still quaking from the loss of the popular tennis champ character, Dana Fairbanks, to breast cancer, fans recall season three ending teasingly with a number of cliff-hangers: Will Shane return to her posse after jilting the lovely Carmen at the altar? Will Helena be as irresistible without her mummy’s cash flow? Will Tina be prosecuted for fleeing with her and Tina’s child? Will pregnant Kit marry the manny? Will Jenny ever stop being a big ol’ freak?
Created and executive-produced by Ilene Chaiken, the series’ popularity is evident with the star power it signed for the fourth season. Joining the cast are Cybill Shepherd, Marlee Matlin, and Kristanna Loken (who joins cast mate Leisha Hailey as The L Word ‘s only other real-life L).
Another big treat producers have in store for fans is the return of season one’s … No, wait—no need to spoil it for you.
And then there’s Janina Gavankar.
Joining the cast in the new season’s second episode, Eva “Papi” Torres is described on various dyke blogs as “loud, gregarious, bossy, boastful,” and likely to give Shane a run for her playa money. Playing Papi as a Latina despite her Dutch and Indian heritage, Gavankar is, ultimately, muy caliente.
Earlier this year, Gavankar wa seen on Houston television stumping for the Houston Chronicle‘s website, www.chron.com. “I was the girl who said, ‘I need a car that speaks to me—dot com,” Gavankar says. “I am car girl!”
Prior to The L Word ‘s return, Gavankar talked to OutSmart about her sister cast members, the butch/femme dichotomy, and show biz in general.
Nancy Ford: Let me start this interview the way I start most interviews: What are you wearing?
Janina Gavankar [laughs]: Mmmmm, wouldn’t you like to know? It’s really not that interesting. I’m wearing a dark gray tank, some ripped-up jeans that cost way too much money for being ripped up, a scarf because it is a bit cold, and a very interesting belt.
That sounds very much like something someone on The L Word would wear.
Oh, and I’m also wearing boots that I bought from the show. I’m wearing Papi boots.
Excellent! Listen, congratulations on being cast.
Thank you so much.
Have you always been a fan of the show?
Yes! I hadn’t seen a lot of the episodes, but I did see a few. I didn’t have cable. I wasn’t even allowed to watch TV growing up, so it wasn’t a staple of my existence. But from the stuff that I did see, I just knew that these girls were doing something so edgy and just really going for it.
It’s sort of like a raw show. It has an indie feel. It feels like movies that you would see in some small theater that had a lot of heart and a lot of edge. And I just knew that it was something that I had to try and get booked on.
Right, right. We’ll be looking forward to seeing you in it. Now, you’ll be playing Papi. That’s a character that’s being compared to Shane in terms of being kind of a womanizer, right?
Yes, but I never saw Shane as a womanizer. I think people are too ready to lump types into categories. I just thought that Shane was misunderstood. I never saw her as a player or a womanizer.
What can you tell us about Papi? Is she a good guy or a bad guy?
She’s a little of both. She goes through a lot of things this season. You see a lot of sides to her. Sometimes she takes pride in being a player; sometimes she doesn’t. It’s really about connection for her. Papi doesn’t consider herself to be a womanizer. She really connects with every single girl that she hooks up with, and that connection is lifetime. And she really respects the women that she’s with. She loves women in all shapes and sizes, ages, types, class. And if she connects with you, she’s going to love you forever.
Ilene [Chaikin] has done such a great job of thinking about the longevity of these characters and their lives and where they’ve come from and where they’re going. There are things that have been in the making from the first season that are now coming out. And if you look back, you go, “Of course, this is happening. They’ve planned this from the beginning!”
Can you give us a little hint as to what that might be?
Uhhh, mmm, stuff that happens with Kit …. Umm, let’s see… I don’t think I can. I really should be careful….
No spoilers, no spoilers!
No, no spoilers! But you get to dive deeper into these characters and their lives and the complexities.
The fans definitely develop relationships with these characters.
Yes! When I showed up in Vancouver [where The L Word is shot], I had to have a day of like, “OK, now I’m on the show, I have to get over the fact that right now I’m standing in Alice’s bedroom looking at The Chart.”
Exactly! That would be a mind-blower. You know, Papi is a rather a masculine name for some who looks as feminine as you.
Again, I think that’s one of those things where people like to lump you into categories. People who wouldn’t think about the idiosyncrasies of what it is to be butch or femme would just call you butch or femme. I think Papi has tomboy qualities, masculine qualities. But she’s not butch. I think she loves being a woman and loves sharing that with other women.
When building the character, I actually based some of the physicality and the way she walks and some of her hand gestures on male friends of mine. But the rest is all woman.
I have to ask: Is this a hint that maybe Papi is male-to-female transgender?
No, no, not at all. No.
Well, you never know — it is Showtime, after all.
[Laughs] Yes, that’s true. And actually, Max [a female-to-male transgender character] goes through a lot this season, too. He really develops a lot. I think everyone will really love his story line.
But that’s a really good point, because Showtime is so bold and creative and brave with this show, and Ilene lets us do what we want and really be free to put ourselves out there. It makes sense that they would do something as groundbreaking as a transgender role. It’s great to see that a network and a creator can stand behind characters who are real people, who are walking around every day, living and breathing among us.
Right, right. Are you encouraged to improvise on the set?
Encouraged? Maybe not. Allowed? Absolutely. I’m not necessarily the best improviser, especially in this role, because Papi is so incredibly different than I am. I pretty much have to stick to the script. But there are some girls in this cast who can just… They have a golden string that just comes out of their mouths. Everything they say is brilliant, and fits the character, and elevates the scene. I don’t know how the hell they do it.
Loving that. Who comes to mind?
Mia [Kirshner]. Leisha [Hailey]. Really, everybody takes the work and moves it into something their character would say. Because who knows their characters better than these girls do?
You’re making me want to go home and watch The L Word DVDs all night.
I’m telling you. And you’ll watch, and you’ll go, “Now, you know that wasn’t written like that.”
Funny. Now tell me about this upcoming basketball scene with Shane that I’ve been reading so much about. The blogs are hinting it’s pretty hot.
[Laughs] I just saw it the other day. It’s pretty funny, I would say. It’s hot and it’s funny. That episode is funny in general. I think we go for comedy more this season than any one before.
That’ll be cool. Last season was so heavy, with Dana dying and everything.
Yes, breast cancer is a very serious issue that faces women. So I think they really needed to respect it and stay within that theme.
When Papi first explodes on the scene, she owns her parallel universe, her parallel L Word. So when she comes in [switches to Latina Papi-talk], she knows all these ladies on the other side, like in West Hollywood. Then like, you know, she wants to meet all the ladies, and if there is someone standing in her way then she needs to get that guy f–king out of there, right?
Oh, right into Papi. Love that! What’s been your favorite scene to shoot so far?
Favorite scene to shoot … Hmmm, let’s see, let’s see. Oh, I know! I got to salsa dance with Pam Grier!
[Laughs] And what’s wrong with that?!
And what’s wrong with that?! [Laughs] That’s a good question. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Oh, that’s fabulous!
Maybe that’s one of the ways that Papi gets into a girl’s heart—by dancing her pants off! I do have a dance background, but I wouldn’t call myself a dancer. Suddenly I’m getting dance lessons from salsa extraordinaires in Vancouver! And I have such pressure to do this scene. God knows what it looks like. I might look like a buffoon.
Who was leading, you or Pam?
[Laughs hard] Oh, me, of course!
Atta girl! Speaking of additional training, I read that you’re a classically trained pianist, vocalist, and orchestral percussionist.
Yes, marimba’s my major instrument.
Will you be incorporating any of that into Papi’s character?
Not in season four. Maybe in season five. Who knows? But you know, she’s so different than I am, it doesn’t really matter what I can do. This is a person from such a different walk of life than me. This is a journey of someone who’s completely different than I am. So I don’t mind if I don’t play the piano in season five, you know? I won’t take offense.
Along that same line, did you do any special research to portray not only a lesbian, but a lesbian who’s pretty sexually active?
Well, no. I don’t think playing a lesbian is any different than playing someone who’s attracted to men. I really don’t. It’s just who you connect with. It’s acting. As for being promiscuous, I’m kind of a square. But I like to pretend that I’m much cooler than I am, and that I have all this game. I really don’t.
But you know, in my imagination, I can imagine what it would be like to be someone with all this game. And I based her on some people that I think are irresistible. I tried to take little bits that smolder about them, and tried to put them in her.
People you know personally, or actors you emulate?
People I know personally. I walk around and look at people and steal pieces of their personality and place them into characters as I go along in my career.
I’ve played lesbians before. I did a lot of theater in Chicago. Once I was in a show where I was a lesbian, and the other time it was just sort of a hilarious girl-on-girl kiss. There was no attraction between [the characters] whatsoever—it was just for comedic value. So it’s really not a big deal to me.
Would you say it’s perhaps more of a challenge to you, culturally, to play Latina?
Hey, I’m not gay either. So it’s acting.
I understand. What’s been your biggest surprise in working on The L Word set?
Let’s see… the biggest surprise? Well, I knew that I was going to learn a lot from the other women on the show, but I had no idea I was going to learn as much as I did. I mean, I’m working with Pam Grier, Cybill Shepherd, Marlee Matlin, Jennifer Beals… These women have been around! They have had such long careers.
That’s really all I want. I don’t want to be some crazy-famous whatever-the-heck. I just want to be working 30 years from now. These are women who have been doing just that. And they’re from different races, different backgrounds. It doesn’t matter. If you are focused, and you just really care about the arts, you can work.
They’ve certainly set that example.
Oh, my gosh. To be able to work with women like that? I just had no idea what I was going to get through osmosis.
I moved here about two and a half years ago, and I figured it would take me five years to land something anyone would notice. I figured I would get a pilot, and we’d shoot it, but it wouldn’t go—it wouldn’t get picked up. And then maybe the same thing would happen again the next year. I didn’t think I was going to be on a hit show with gorgeous, fantastic, talented, brilliant women who were going to school me! It’s the weirdest thing in L.A. It’s such a stroke of luck.
Well, you’re obviously up to the task, or you wouldn’t have been cast. So congratulations on both parts. Will you be watching your debut?
I don’t know. I think I’m going to watch it by myself, in my little closed-window, drapes-drawn room. Hey, it’s not often that I actually like the stuff that I’ve done. I pretty much watch it in horror and say, “Oh my God, why did I make that face?” Or the accent isn’t perfect—all these things that I worry about. So I probably won’t be watching it at some big party. I’ll probably be watching it at home, with my dog, on the couch, biting my nails, and taking notes for next year.
Next to Dana dying of breast cancer, the season three subplot that seemed to disappoint a lot of people I’ve talked to was the loss of Carmen. Do you have any words of consolation for them?
Hey, I feel for you. Carmen was a great character. Girl was so hot it’s ridiculous. She had so much heart. I’m a big fan of Carmen, too, so I do sympathize. You never know, though. She might be back.
Other than your role in The L Word, what else is coming up for you? Anything else in the cooker?
There’s a movie called Bull Run that’s coming out hopefully the middle of next year. I’m involved with other projects, but I’m so involved on The L Word right now. I’m nervous, I’m excited…..
It’ll be great. Do you have anything to add, Janina?
Let’s see. I’m going out on a limb and saying that this season is the best season so far.
[Laughs] Well, we’ll be the judge of that, won’t we?
[Laughs also] Yes, you will.
YOU’LL NEVER GOOGLE AGAIN
Need more Janina Gavankar? Log on to the Microsoft interactive search site www.msdewey.com. At that site, Gavankar portrays a character with attitude named Ms. Dewey who responds—courtesy of Microsoft MSN Live Search technology—to search questions typed in by a user. “It’s really just this over-the-top, sexy librarian, an ‘I’m-smarter-than-you-are’ kind of thing,” Gavankar says. “She’s very worldly. Anything you type in she’s got some crazy answer for.”
Ms. Dewey.com is getting good reviews from the cyberspace mavens. The respected media site Adrants remarked in October, “In one swift blow Ms. Dewey has effectively done away with the stodgy librarian and that other search engine persona that we could never see ourselves warming up to by a fire. She’s saucy, she’s sexy, she even poses provocatively from time to time with a cute little notepad—but beware, like most hot chicks, she is chatty as hell and gets a little needy when neglected (along the lines of ‘Hel-loooo? Type something here!’).”