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?
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
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
was 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
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'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
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
Ilene [Chaiken] 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
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
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
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
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,
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 offence.
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 smoulder 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
more Janina Gavankar? Log on to the Microsoft interactive search site
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!')."