By Sylvia Stores Photography: Tiziano Lugli
Janina Gavankar grew up in the Midwest, Illinois to be precise, but she’s without a doubt a city girl. I catch her in town doing a press junket for the film The Way Back, the sports drama she stars in opposite
Ben Affleck that has garnered critical acclaim for Affleck’s raw performance. The premiere took place in LA and she was heading there after this quick trip. She tells me about her character, Angela, Affleck’s estranged wife in the Gavin O’Connor-directed feature, a relationship centered around addiction and tragedy. Affleck plays an alcoholic former basketball star recruited by his high school alma mater to coach the team. Demons resurface.
“It’s a beautiful script and I love this character because she is someone who has chosen herself. They’re both dealing with something and they try to go through it together but now they have to be away from each other and that’s her choice,” says Gavankar. “She chooses herself. It takes a lot of courage to be able to choose yourself in a moment like that. I’m sure many many people have been in relationships that they knew were unhealthy and how much they love and respect their partner, they can’t change their lives for them. That’s something they have to do themselves.”
Gavankar really took to the role, and while shooting she was going through personal problems of her own, as was Affleck’s much-publicized breakup with wife Jennifer Garner, and both were unapologetically putting their feelings right into the work and they were honest with each other off camera as well. “Ben is playing a character who has traces that are like his. This is a beautifully executed performance where he was unafraid to take these personal experiences and turn it into the work, but he’s not just showing up and being Ben in this film.”
You’ve seen Gavankar before, you just don’t remember. Or maybe you do because she’s been in a ton of familiar television shows, like HBO’s True Blood, CW’s Arrow and The Vampire Diaries, The League on FX, and The Morning Show on Apple TV. But what you might not know is her love affair with music. And she’s good. Real good. Real good as in trained pianist, vocalist, and orchestral percussionist, majoring in Theatre Performance at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As a high schooler, Gavankar was accepted for the Yale School of Drama’s summer camp.
“I grew up a classical musician. I was a very serious musician growing up and I still play. My chops as a musician – I’m specifically in the same zone of practice as a soloist – is something that I have formed to in my own processes as an actor and as a creator in general, an artist in general. That safe place where you just suck is really important. You have to have space that you can continue to repeat something and grow and be better.” She even did a percussion duet with Questlove a few years ago at Carnegie Hall at the Best Buddies charity benefit, an nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development, and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
But acting can call at a young age, and for Gavankar her almost accidental first exposure to the craft flipped a switch; a spiritual awakening. “I was doing a musical in high school and had an emotional experience as that character. I was only doing the musical because I was studying classical voice so it made sense to do my public school musical but I reached out to the character offered to me and I felt her longing and her heartbreak and her life and it felt like an out of body experience,” insists Gavnkar, whose both parents are from india. “I knew that day that I wanted to be an actor. That was kind of my moment, when I felt somebody else’s life and I wanted to go back there as much as possible, much to my parents’ chagrin when I told them I wanted to study another art form. That’s the one that stuck. If you told me when I was 13 years old that I would be an actor, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
But her approach has always been the same ever since she was a little girl. “Nothing has changed since I was a kid. All I’ve wanted to do is get in the sandbox and play with other artists, so whether I’m doing that as an actor, as a musician, a producer, a writer or as a director, I don’t care. I want to work with people I love and respect and the product is going to be something we’re proud of. I live for collaboration which is why I think it’s weird I ended up becoming an actor because it’s a really lonely experience and I’m just much more interested in putting something together with other people, so it makes more sense that I’m behind the camera.”
And that especially goes for women in the film industry or for any industry for that matter. Gavankar hits it head-on with strength and knows others feel the weight of it and she’s not alone in the fight for equality. “Having tough experiences are not regulated to just Hollywood. This is in every industry. If you are a woman and if you are trying to occupy space, you have to do it with courage. And because this is a very universal experience, I feel the strength in numbers and I know I’m not alone. I also know that we can’t allow ourselves to be diminished because it’s happened without us trying. I don’t think anybody is a bad person that is trying to squash women. I think it’s systemic that it happens without them realizing what they’re doing and sometimes women do it to each other. So we have to be diligent in supporting each other and holding each other accountable.”
Her next projects are filmmaking, which will give her less time as an actor but it means it gives Gavankar more time to develop projects for films. Her film Stucco, a short film she co-wrote, coproduced and co-directed, was selected for this year’s SXSW Midnight Shorts competition. Gavankar also stars as the lead, a woman dealing with agoraphobia. “There are so many times you read a beautiful script and that director doesn’t go the distance and everybody tries their best and it is what it is. I don’t regret anything but it’s disappointing. So you try to choose things as wisely as possible with the information you have at the time. And then in the downtime, I just devote myself to all of our projects.”
Photographer: Tiziano Lugli
Hair: Bradley Leake
MU: Merav Adler
Styling: Victor Blanco