Interview with Janina Gavankar: on ‘The Morning Show’, ‘The Way Back’, ‘Stucco’ and her love for technology


Sometime last November, Janina Gavankar met a designer who introduced her to hot yoga. “I remember thinking ‘why is this non-Indian man introducing me to something my people created?’” laughs the actor over the phone. Having starred in Apple TV’s The Morning Show (TMS), and the upcoming Ben Affleck-starrer, The Way Back, Gavankar has her plate full but makes time for a quick interview. “I watched Bikram on Netflix the first week I started going to hot yoga,” she continues. “I was upset, yet not surprised. There are different versions [of hot yoga] that haven’t come from him and the main thing is that this has been helping me [with work-life balance].” Nevertheless, that is how hot yoga became an outlet for the actor, gamer, brand owner and filmmaker.

The grey area

(L-r) JANINA GAVANKAR as Angela and BEN AFFLECK as Jack Cunningham in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “THE WAY BACK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

(L-r) JANINA GAVANKAR as Angela and BEN AFFLECK as Jack Cunningham in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “THE WAY BACK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 
| Photo Credit:
Richard Foreman;Jr. SMPSP

Incidentally, TMS and The Way Back were shot at the same time. “On TMS, I would be with giant hair to improvise comedy quips, and then the next day I would be sobbing in a car with Ben. The Way Back has a lot of heavy themes,” she agrees, “but I want to examine the parts of ourselves that we are not proud of, which the film absolutely does. You have to find the courage to peel off all your skin and go for it. Director Gavin O’Connor created a very safe environment for me to do that, and Ben is so raw from this piece and we’re very proud of what we did.”

Janina Gavankar, Desean Terry, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Nestor Carbonell in season 1, episode 7 of ‘The Morning Show,’

Janina Gavankar, Desean Terry, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Nestor Carbonell in season 1, episode 7 of ‘The Morning Show,’
 
| Photo Credit:
Apple TV+

The royal picture

  • Gavankar made it to a certain former-Sussex royal couple’s high-profile wedding guest list and also shot the couple’s Christmas card last year. But whatever you do, do not ask her for her comments; she remains a loyal friend. She observes that her career is more interesting than how much the press has exploited her to make relevant headlines. “I went to the Grammys as plus-one with one of my best friends, Questlove, who performs with The Roots; I did three interviews on camera and at least two of them made a headline using her name even though I said nothing about her. I understand that press outlets need to use clickbait to keep people on their pages. While this is systemic, that does not mean that I have to be happy about it. Read beyond the headlines. We can’t blame Twitter and social media for the ‘uninformed’ dilemma among people.”

Social observer of the “blind tribalism that’s been around since the dawn of humanity”, Gavankar, 39, has a lot to say about the outrage culture by which we are enveloped. And that is why she loves TMS. “With outrage culture, everything is black and white, but the show itself really examines the grey area — specifically in complicity. We have Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) who thinks she has done nothing wrong, and (spoiler alert) over the course of a season she sees that she is actually part of the problem,” she says.

Meanwhile, her own character, Alison, gets interviewed and she doesn’t see anything wrong either, “but, at the end of the last episode, she has tears in her eyes, because she knows she’s been a part of the problem and her way through it is to say ‘I’m fine with it’. The series examines that even good people can be part of a big systemic problem.”

And then there is Stucco, Gavankar’s own project with Russo Schelling, her creative partner of five years. The short film, gaining traction at the US festival circuits, including the upcoming SXSW in Texas, follows an agoraphobic woman who addresses the changes around her. Funnily enough this was filmed in an area of Chicago in which the actor grew up.

So why arthouse horror for some place special? “It is an incredible genre in that you can use it in analogy, to pinpoint a specific feeling or concept that is hard to encapsulate, or something that hasn’t really been addressed in other pieces. The best thing in horror is that you can monsterise something; we are used to humanising things but here you can use that to monsterise dread or anxiety or grief. We wanted to tell this specific story in a short film; it’s highly personal to both of us in different ways and we had to get it out of our bodies. You don’t have to make a 90-minute version when we’ve already told the story.”

Behind the scenes on short film ‘Stucco’ with Janina Gavankar

Behind the scenes on short film ‘Stucco’ with Janina Gavankar
 
| Photo Credit:
Cliegh Reed

She and Russo were not sure how the world would receive it but they are glad thank the stars that people have loved it. “We won a Zeiss screenwriting competition for which they gave us sponsorship and for the rest of the project, I took a paycheck from The Morning Show and I paid for some of it. I know that I am in a very rare situation to be a well-fed artiste. In the long time I’ve been the game, nobody has handed me the opportunity to make my own films. I’ve produced and paid for all my music videos because ‘if you wait around, nobody’s going to hand you an opportunity.’”

Deep dive

Not many know that Gavankar is the first actor to use Twitter. She chuckles as she recalls the day she signed up in 2006. Her initial stream of consciousness tweets included shuttling around California. Did she know Twitter would become a cataclysmic social platform? “I knew it would enable double listening, and that we didn’t have to be filtered. With the shortening of the message along with the forced brevity, the social network enacted real change, for good and for bad,” says the actor, who will next be seen in Season 2 of the sci-fi series Mandalorian.

 

The force certainly is with Gavankar, given she has worked on the action shooter video game Star Wars: Battlefront II as a voice and motion capture artiste. She finds the space for motion capture (MC), in particular, to be inspiring. “I enjoy interactive storytelling with a passion. MC is physically freeing; you’re allowed to use more of your physical instruments and you can go really wild with your imagination. You’re in essentially a black-box theatre atmosphere where there are no props and everything is theatre of the minds and the artistes and actors in this space are so gifted. It is a meritocracy much more in MC than on-camera, because they can turn you into a dinosaur. You can be the prettiest kid in Kansas City and end up on some giant TV show for a few episodes.” Would she ever like to create a film using MC? “Absolutely 100%.”

Gavankar concludes by saying she owes her work ethic, ambition and value for education to her Mumbai roots. “My father, like most Indian-Americans, came here on a college scholarship. He and my mother taught my sister and me about work ethics.I’m proud to be Indian; it is the reason why I think I’m morally and spiritually okay, even this many years into this very strange business.”



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