For a woman who has played a witch (The Vampire Diaries) and a shape shifter (True Blood), the role of a normal human NYPD officer might seem less than exciting. But Janina Gavankar is just as passionate about playing Detective Meredith Martinez on NBC’s The Mysteries of Laura as she is about everything else in her life, from acting and music to gaming, guys and deep-dish pizza. The Indian-Dutch native of Joliet, Illinois, whose credits also include The L Word, The League, Barbershop and Think Like a Man Too, opened up about all of it in this candid conversation.
You’ve played some pretty out-there characters. This one must seem tame by comparison.
The truth is that as a brown girl in Hollywood, people want you to sort of be either a law enforcer or a lesbian, and I’ve played both proudly, but I really try to hold out and only do it when it’s something interesting and a different spin on what we’ve all seen a million times. This is that: It’s funny, it’s serious, and there is an awesome mystery every week, like Columbo—I loved Columbo growing up. And this is a character I’ve never played before. She’s a pain in the ass. Debra Messing’s character, Laura, is the bane of her existence. Meredith believes that she works twice as hard as Laura and never gets the credit. I’ve played a cop quite a few times already, but I try to make sure they’re interesting, multilayered women. I try to pick projects where I can transform into someone who is very different than I am. It’s not always allowed though. People really try to keep you in this little box.
You’ve had some pretty cool roles, though.
I was very lucky. Right out the gate, my first series, which was already a hit, was The L Word. I moved here from Chicago and booked that show right away. I wasn’t even here a year. The character was amazing. She was a hard-core, swagged-out Latina from East L.A. who had a ton of game. I played basketball. I had cornrows. I miss her. True Blood was another massive gig I walked into. Such a great show—great writing and universal human beings applied to the fantasy genre. Like Battlestar Galactica—I’m a huge fan.
“If you’re cute, then great, but I’m telling you I will look past it. If I want to lick your brain, come on over.”
I hear you’re a big gaming fan too. What got you into it?
My ex-boyfriend is a gamer. I found myself sitting on the couch wanting to take his controls, and then he would go to work and I would [take over]. Then a friend got me the Orange Box, with Half Life 2 and Portal on it, and it changed my life. I became a gamer and now I’m obsessed. When I have like three days off, which is never, I play three days in a row. There’s no bathing. There’s no making of food. I literally just eat leftovers. I’m obsessive, generally in everything that I do. My process is that of a geek. I’m a fan girl. All this Hollywood stuff is all just for show. The truth is I’d rather be at home playing Watchdogs right now. I’m finishing all the side missions in Watchdogs. I have two more left and then I’m playing the Last of Us. But Portal is my favorite.
What about less sedentary activities? Do you work out?
Yeah, I have my trainer. I hate every moment of it. I figured out when I started that I had to lose a few pounds before anyone would hire me even though I was totally healthy and normal. I’m from Chicago—I love deep-dish pizza. I had three s’mores earlier.
When did you know you wanted to act?
I was Maria in West Side Story in my high school musical and I was in the show not because I wanted to be an actor, but because I was studying classical voice and I wanted to do whatever the singing thing was. It changed my life. I’d thought I was going to be a percussion performance major and got into the drum corps, but I got into a summer semester at Yale for acting and then music took a back seat.
Do you still play?
Yes, I still do. I play marimba on my friend’s film scores, and I release music whenever I can. I sing, play piano and I also produce my own music when I have time. In White Orchid, a thriller with Olivia Thirlby, I play her neighbor who is a musician, and I had to learn a Chopin nocturne.
OK, I just paused Portal. This had better be good.
Do you have a game plan for your career?
I’m an obsessive creative, that’s my thing, so I’m always scheming up creative things. As an actress, the truth is your choices are very limited so I’m honored to be working. But I’m an optimist. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t be able to survive in this business. I plan to be doing this a very, very long time. I’m going to be people’s grandmothers.
What makes you feel sexy?
I feel my sexiest when I’m in a juicy conversation with an extraordinary individual. If you’re making my brain tingle, then it’s on.
What else attracts you in a man?
After brilliance, it’s work ethic, humor, meaning they don’t take themselves too seriously. If you’re cute, then great, but I’m telling you I will look past it. If I want to lick your brain, come on over.
Do you have a physical type?
I can name a few ridiculous Hollywood crushes. Sacha Baron Cohen, Nev Schulman, the guy with Catfish. Adrian Brody. I love Jewish boys. They’re all smart and they’re all hard-working. I think they’re super-cute. Also, when my father came to this country from India, a Jewish family adopted him, so I think he has put a love of Jewish families somewhere in my brain.
Is it hard to find someone who meets your standards? Do you intimidate guys?
I don’t think I intimidate guys. Most of my friends are guys. I’m a guy’s girl, but I’m also highly supportive of really strong smart women. All my girlfriends are badasses. My dad died two years ago, but he was awesome, a rock star. I guess we’re all trying to find our daddies. But once I find a guy and I’m with him, I’m really in it.