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Shape-Shifter

Actress Janina Gavankar transforms herself into all creatures great and small for the HBO series True Blood.

To become part of True Blood is to enter an existence that is complicated and stressful, yet endlessly flexible. Such was the lesson actress Janina Gavankar ’05 AA learned when she debuted two years ago as sultry skin walker Luna Garza on HBO’s supernatural melodrama. This vampire-intensive series has expanded to accommodate all manner of paranormal beings. Luna must not only balance her responsibilities as a divorced mom and public school teacher, but contend with the hotheaded werewolf who fathered her daughter and face the trauma of having grown up orphaned on a Navajo reservation, where her ability to change into any animal or person she chose was considered a bit too witchy. 

As True Blood kicks off its sixth season this June, 32-year-old Gavankar has transmogrified herself into more living organisms than most performers dream of in an entire career. “At this point,” she says, “I’ve shifted into a horse, a mouse, a fly, a dog and even into two other humans. What’s left? I’d love to shift into a dolphin ... talk about a pain in production’s ass!”

Gavankar was uniquely prepared for her role as shape-shifter. Professionally and recreationally, she’s always been as comfortable in otherworldly landscapes as in our own. She made her breakthrough in acting as the star of a Microsoft viral Internet marketing campaign. Appearing before a futuristic cityscape in hip-clinging black dresses, Gavankar played Ms. Dewey—the living embodiment of the software giant’s short-lived search engine, who answered users’ queries with sass, often mocking Google and Yahoo.

The campaign’s directors told Gavankar she’d be playing “a sexy librarian type,” she recalls. “Ironically, they had no idea what they were dealing with because … my geek hubris took over. Six years later, with three series and the slew of strange people I’ve played, Ms. Dewey’s still my favorite character. She could kick [the iPhone’s] Siri’s ass any day.”

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Gavankar was born and raised in Joliet. She was already a percussionist, classically trained pianist and singer when she became interested in drama during her junior year of high school. By graduation, Gavankar was wondering how to further her musical and acting ambitions. Then she enrolled at UIC.

“UIC let me be in its band, choir and everything else I chose to be in,” Gavankar says, noting that the University even “respected the fact that I still wanted to take marimba lessons and allowed it as an independent study.” Gavankar also was impressed by theater professors who were performing on stage in Chicago. “I could go see their shows during semesters,” she says. “I was so enamored with them, and I still am.”

In 2012, Gavankar showcased her acting and musical abilities in a video single called Waiting for Godot (named for the play by Samuel Beckett). The electronica ballad features two incarnations of Gavankar singing and facing off against each other—one in a cocktail dress and pumps, the other in black neo-punk regalia and combat boots.

Earlier this year, Gavankar played McKenna Hall, a stylish vice cop on Arrow, a new CW series crime drama. Her character pursues the show’s mysterious vigilante—based on The Green Arrow of DC Comics fame—while unwittingly rekindling a romance with the superhero. Wounded late last season by a character named Helena the Huntress, the fictional police officer announced that she was leaving town for rehabilitation—thus, leaving room for Gavankar’s possible return.

When she’s not transforming herself on True Blood, or chasing comic-book heroes in Arrow, Gavankar heads for the virtual game world. “Nowadays, gaming is my one sole re-laxation-mode vice,” she says. Gavankar used to describe herself as kind of nerdy, despite outward appearances. Today, she is willing to give her digital passions more credit. “Well, I call myself a geek more than a nerd,” the actress says. “Geeks are unabashed in their love for something. At this point, we not only have zero fear of our zealous ways, but we celebrate them.”   

Ed Liebowitz

 

 

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