Beware of SPOILERS for the Stargate Atlantis episode “Whispers” in the interview below!
Some know her as Ms. Dewey. Others recognize her as Papi in The L Word. But in the Stargate neck of the woods, Janina Gavankar is gung-ho hothead Dusty Mehra, part of an elite all-female unit stationed in the Pegasus Galaxy.
In our exclusive interview, Janina fills GateWorld in on the details of shooting her first episode, “Whispers,” reveals her love for her character’s teammates, and goes in depth into the psychology of Dusty. She also tells us about other recent projects, particularly Ms. Dewey and her music background.
GateWorld’s interview with Janina is almost 28 minutes long. Listen online at your leisure, download it to your MP3 player, or subscribe now to the iTunes podcast! The full interview is also transcribed below.
GateWorld: For GateWorld.net I’m David Read, and I’m talking with Miss Janina Gavankar, who prefers just Janina — like Cher.
Janina Gavankar: [Laughter] It’s, like, just Jack on Will and Grace. Or you can just call me “Janina Z.” Anyone who knows me online, from anything I do online, they all see me as “Janina Z.” Because that’s my tag.
GW: Sweet. Now you were recently in Atlantis as Sergeant Dusty Mehra.
JG: Yeah. You say that like such a white boy. It’s actually “Mehra.” Which is Indian.
GW: Alright, so you were recently, like, down on, like, Atlantis. [Laughter] I’m terrible.
JG: You know the best part about being on Stargate? I really realize how important the fans were even before I got there. So I book the gig, I just find out, and I swear the fans knew before I knew. So I go to the forums, of course because I’m nerdy. I’m hanging out in the forums, seeing the people trash-talk. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they’re going to have an all female team. That’s so lame. Because girls can’t kill aliens.” I don’t know. Whatever their stupid reasons for hating us before they’d even seen us.
Yeah, that’s right, I read you. If that was you, and you wrote that on GateWorld, I read you. Yeah, and I sneered at you. Ha. Ha-ha!
GW: That wasn’t me! Oh you’re talking about them.
JG: The proverbial person listening who wrote that smack talk. Yeah, I read it. And I laughed at you. Ha-ha-ha! Ha. Ha. Anyway.
Originally I auditioned for this role and on the paper it was Sergeant Dusty Wells. Just [a] nondescript name. Then I’m hanging out in the forums and I see Sergeant Dusty Mehra. And I was like, “They made me Indian. They made me Indian because I’m Indian!” And I found out through the fans. How cool is that?
GW: That is very cool.
JG: Yeah, it was to me. I just met a guy today. Wait. What is his name? He played a billionaire who invented things. Charles Shaughnessy!
JG: OK. Well, he and I were both comparing notes and we were all excited to hear about Stargate Universe because we were like, “Maybe we’ll work together! You never know!” He said he had a great time working on it. Everybody who works on Stargate says that it’s a great time.
GW: You know, that’s why they’re still on the air. Because they make people happy both in front of and behind the cameras. And the fans. So that’s great. So what do you think about Stargate Universe? You think there’s a place for the female team to transfer over there?
JG: I think the universe is run by a female team. [Laughter] I don’t know. I know, specifically, that the three of us would love to be back. Christina [Cox, “Major Teldy”] came over to watch the episode. I had a huge geek-out fest. You know, mostly it’s really hard to watch yourself as an actor. It’s a horrible experience having to watch your face do stupid things that you weren’t expecting it to.
In this case, sci-fi is so much fun that you don’t think about schmacting or if anything didn’t land the way you wanted it to. You just have a blast watching aliens die. [Laughter] It’s great! It’s great.
I had my man friend, my boyfriend, he runs DeviantArt.com. So I had all the guys that work at HQ come over and we all had a geek fest and watched it. So we all just hung out and had a great time geeking on some Stargate. Christina came over. Nicole was going to come over, too, but she got my email in the last minute. We were all bummed. I was like, “We were so close to getting the band back together, man!”
One of my friends was like, “I hate you. I can’t believe she didn’t get the email. Don’t you know it’s your responsibility to get Nicole de Boer and me in the same room at the same time?”
GW: Yeah, I saw her at Comic-Con! She’s fantastic.
JG: She’s the cutest little pixie. So adorable. And she’s cheeky. She had such an edge to her. I just love her. We were flying back from Vancouver to LA together and she’s got this adorable little baby. This little munchkin of a baby. All three of us were sick at that time. All of us had a cold. We were all hanging out. She has such an edge and she’s so funny. I love her. And also Christina! Christina’s hilarious as well No one knows that about Christina!
GW: She was in Stargate a long time ago. She had such a great part but she had to play a bad girl. And then she had a die.
JG: Because the bad guys can’t live. They can’t live! I mean they can if they’re … Well, no. They can’t live. Eventually we all must die.
GW: Well it was an interesting piece because she was a good bad guy.
JG: I’ve got to watch it.
GW: Yeah! It’s Season Five. It’s an episode called “The Sentinel.” Very good. And I was like, “Yes, she’s back!” Yeah, she’s great. And who was it that got the axe?
GW: Leela Savasta! Yes, the poor thing.
JG: I know, we were bummed. It’s just sad. Because you bond and then someone gets killed along the way. You don’t shoot things in order. You go to work the next day after they’ve died. And you’re like, “But you’re dead already!” You’re already mourning their loss. It’s kind of sad.
GW: Had you been a Stargate fan in general before getting this role?
JG: I’m a sci-fi fan. I never let you finish any one of your sentences, by the way. Have you noticed?
GW: No it’s fine!
JG: Oh, good. I’ve been a sci-fi fan my whole life. I was doing a question and answer for Joe’s blog and someone asked me that. I reached into the confines of my mind and pulled out all the things I’ve been a fan of sci-fi wise. I was like, “My God, I’ve loved sci-fi since the beginning of time and I didn’t even realize it until now!”
I grew up reading Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues and all of the Douglas Adams books and all of the Michael Crichton books. I read Sphere way too young. Way too young, man. I wouldn’t prescribe that to any child under the age of eleven. “Really, actually you’re kind of a wimp, Janina. Get over it. It’s OK. It’s a sphere. Big whup.
GW: Did you seek out this role or did they call and ask if you would be willing to do it?
JG: It was just a normal audition. I’m sure they saw a bunch of people. I read that they saw a bunch of people and that they had a hard time choosing. They saw a lot of people. But I went in reading for Christina’s character not on purpose. By mistake. They sent me the wrong sides. I was completely prepared except for the wrong person. And then I had to go somewhere else quickly after the audition so I had no time to prepare for Dusty. So I just read it once and then went in. And it was just like, “Alright! Throw this up against the wall and see if it sticks.” And it did. It worked out well.
GW: She was a firecracker.
JG: She’s a firecracker, but she’s also the blunt object. She’s not the quickest in the bunch, but she’s the funniest, for sure. She’s over everything. She’s like, “Whatever.” I thought that’s hilarious.
GW: This episode was, [for] pretty much the entire franchise, their first real attempt at horror. Are you a fan of horror and how did you think this episode turned out for that?
JG: I am less of a fan of horror than I am of sci-fi, I would say. I love action. I got excited to be part of anything that was different than what a show normally does. When someone says, “We’re going to do a completely different thing and we’re going to use you!” You just jump in with both feet. So yeah. If it was noir, if it was silent or if it was a musical, even, I’d be very excited.
GW: And you can sing and dance!
JG: Yeah. All of these, by the way, I’ve pitched to Joe. “You know when we come back we’ll be doing a noir episode, right?” Where do I send my script pitch because I will do that!
GW: I’m not sure if you heard this week’s podcast where we discussed this episode. I commented in the podcast. This team is the reason why I’m disappointed that Atlantis has been cancelled because when it goes to movies they’re going to prioritize their storylines. Probably we’re not going to see these guys again. They deserve to be in a few more shows.
JG: Thank you! Well there’s always Stargate Universe.
GW: That’s true! That is true. Was the fog ever too much for you to handle? Did you get used to it after a while?
JG: When you had to blow your nose later … it was an “after the fact” sort of thing. Those of us who have asthma … But really, it was fine. Everybody on set had masks except for us. But you know, we didn’t go in until … We had stand-ins. They didn’t push us in until later.
The people I felt the worst for were stunts. All of the eyeless mutant Michael things. They were in that makeup the whole entire day with their eyes covered, at lunch. At the end of 14 hours they were still in massive makeup. Veins were painted all over them. You can’t touch your skin at all otherwise you’re going to screw it up. They had no peripheral vision. It was like blind mice holding hands and walking places.
GW: They really couldn’t see?
JG: They couldn’t see! They could hardly see. So imagine. “So now your sight is gone and now you can’t breathe.” As it is you could hardly see your hand in front of your face in the fog without your eyes covered. So, yeah. I felt bad for them. We did not have it tough comparatively.
GW: Oh, jeez. Yeah, I’d be thinking “What’s the size of my paycheck going to be this week? What am I going to make up for this? This is bad.”
JG: Well you know, when you’re guest-starring on something you’re so happy to be there. You don’t have to ration energy for five months. You just have to do it for two weeks. So the light at the end of the tunnel is much brighter than it is for someone who’s a regular on a show like that.
GW: Exactly. Did you find the episode scary? Either shooting it or watching it afterwards?
JG: Shooting it … No. Not so much. I did have a moment when I really couldn’t see where I was walking and I knew that someone was going to jump out at me. There was a moment when I was like, “This could go terribly wrong. I’m holding a gun, everybody. And it’s loaded. Awesome.” So that was fear in another way. In a less horror way than more of just a real-life “this could go terribly wrong and someone might just be burned to a crisp” sort of way.
The episode … It’s really hard for me to pull myself out of something that I was there for. So not so much. Maybe if I watch it in a year and a half from now or something and I’m completely outside of it. My mother and her best friend watched it and then they both had nightmares that night.
They were talking and my mother was like, “You know, I didn’t sleep well last night.” And her friend said, “Yeah, I had nightmares.” “Really, you too?” [Laughter] “We’ve done our job.” Yes. Thank you.
GW: When you do a horror story, like the teen horror movies like Scream. You always have those stereotypes. And Dusty was very much a hothead gung-ho. Most people were taking bets that she was going to be the one to go “poof.”
JG: Yeah. I think that’s exactly why they didn’t make her go “poof.” No red shirt for me!
GW: Lucky you. That’s right. Originally I felt the character was kind of annoying. Not you, but the writing of it. Your performance made me laugh several times.
JG: Oh thank you. But you were like, “Oh, this is the standard gung-ho chick.”
GW: It was very cliché. “OK, we’ve got the hothead in our horror episode who’s probably going to go ‘poof.'” I rewatched it and I was like, “There’s something about this character that’s really endearing.” Even though she’s constantly sending sneering faces over to Beckett and to Porter, there’s still something about her that’s quite charming.
JG: Because she’s left someone at home. There’s all this backstory that you just don’t know about. So many things. There’s reasons for her sneers.
GW: Really? What are those?
JG: Well, one, I always just assumed that she was just really protective of everybody and she doesn’t want anybody to go make a fool of themselves in front of someone. It all comes from an actual protective place. There were a few lines of back-story that didn’t make it to the final episode.
GW: Oh really? Do tell.
JG: There’s a moment where we’re all sitting there. We’re talking “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice to have a Puddle Jumper right now?” “Yeah, something-something.” “So tell me about you. Do you have anybody you left at home, Dusty?” Something like, “Well, just an ex-husband that I talk to way too much.” Which I thought was such a loaded line. It was sad it was taken away because there’s so much in that line. “An ex-husband I talk to way too much.”
There’s so much there that you can play with. I don’t know. I thought it was a little bit of jealousy because she hasn’t connected with someone and even though she’s moved on from a man she hasn’t found someone to replace him with. There’s a lot.
GW: Yeah, that would explain a lot about her approach to Beckett and Porter. She’s not just being childish. She’s a little bit wounded.
JG: That’s exactly where it came from.
GW: Well that lights it all up like a Christmas tree right there!
JG: Yeah, too bad no one knew.
GW: Yeah, exactly. But we do now!
JG: Yes, we do now. Go and tell your friends! … You and I were just rewatching it at the same time before I called you. So Leela gets killed. She goes “poof.” OK, so if you die in your second episode does that make you a red shirt or does that make you, like, a pink shirt? [Laughter] Pinkish! Maybe salmon, even. Saturated salmon.
GW: For that particular podcast again, I keep on going back to it because we went on and on about this episode. I thought it was appropriate for this episode to have the fairer sex’s take. She felt that some of it was stereotypical in terms of the dialogue. In her position these four women would be very protective of each other because they’d spent so much time in the field together.
JG: Yeah! Absolutely. That was actually what I was saying before I went off on my pink shirt tangent. So Teldy comes back and I’m like, “Where’s Leela?” And she’s like, “She didn’t make it.” And we had a moment of silence, basically. I internalized it and went “Oh, my God. We just lost …”
GW: Lost one of your own.
JG: Yeah, exactly. But they didn’t keep it. And that was sad. They just moved along. Fine, OK, for the momentum of the scene, OK. I just felt that that moment was so incredibly needed and was really important.
Also when I come up to Joe Flanigan and Nicole and I’m like, “Are you OK?” I remember having that moment on set and it was so extremely important for me to make sure that she was OK. She’s just a little scientist. She didn’t get into this to kill things. She wasn’t “The bad guys who need killing” girl. That wasn’t really covered the way it was in my head, either.
GW: It was a good episode overall. I was quite happy with it. It could’ve been so cliché. The whole thing could’ve just flopped, but it was very successful. And again, it’s another one of those episodes where I say to myself, “Why? Why, Atlantis? Why’d you have to go? You were getting so good! We barely knew you!”
JG: Oh gosh, breaks my heart. We had such a good time!
GW: What roles have been the most resonating for you and satisfying for you personally over the years?
JG: Wow. That is such a huge …
GW: Loaded question.
JG: Loaded! Filled with goo! The one that I think, because she’s still alive right now, is Ms. Dewey.
GW: You know, I wanted to talk about Ms. Dewey. I just went and saw that link and I saw that search engine. I was like, “What the heck have I stumbled on to? What is this?” Tell us about Ms. Dewey!
JG: Ms. Dewey is an interactive search engine. She has a lot of fun playing with you — as you play with her. That sounds dirty. It’s a family show, people!
GW: You have to go check it out. It’s true. I was just sitting there watching you. “This is who I’m going to be talking to in five minutes? Oh my gosh! What am I in for?”
JG: The thing is I love her because she’s so different than any other character that people have really seen me play so far. I don’t know why, but this town is telling me that I’m a tough girl which makes no sense. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m really nerdy little girl who sits at her computer and plays music.
GW: But you know, I was sitting there watching that character and it looks like you pour a lot of yourself into her, too.
JG: Yeah, I think she’s probably more like me than anybody else I’ve played. Which is weird to say because she’s such an oddball. There’s a piece of me in everybody that I play. There has to be.
GW: Yeah. Except the psycho killers.
JG: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Of course. Right … I don’t understand them at all … Muahaha. She’s the front end of the Microsoft Live search engine, so she’s an actual search engine. You type in something you want to search for. She says something witty to you and then she gives you results. Hence the MS. Get it? MS Dewey. Get it? Uh-huh.
The coolest thing about her, and why she’s my proudest achievement in the whole world so far, is that they did no publicity for that site. They just put it out into the ether, sent out 120 emails to their friends, and she just blew up on her own. And then the rest is history. People are still finding her. It’s two years later or something like that. People find her every day. I have a Google Alert on her. Watching some new blog pick it up every day. She’s got a manservant and she’s still alive.
GW: That’s incredible. How many different segments did you do for that character?
JG: Seven hundred-some, I think?
GW: Seven hundred?
JG: Yeah. Yeah.
GW: How long did that take, Janina?
JG: We did it over three days. That’s it.
GW: Holy cow.
JG: Yeah, it was intense. It was intense. I cultivated a love and addiction to PG Tips English breakfast black tee. They just kept pumping me with this tea. It was so good. That’s just how I got through it. It was intense
GW: Wow. That’s incredible. What do you plan on doing next? You’ve got such a broad range of stuff. You were in music for a while.
JG: Yeah, well I still am. I just recently did a song for a movie. I do music with a bunch of different people. I put my solo project on hold for a while. My marimba’s sitting right here. I’ve got an eight foot marimba. I’m looking at it right now.
I’m doing a six-song album. Each song is about a different woman in history. I’m doing it with this crazy fabulous Russian artist named Ella Leya. She wrote it. I’m singing it. We’re collaborating together.
I have an Indian project — Indian meaning going on in India — with friends of mine. We had a song that we did a music video for that did really, really well in all the music video channels out there. So I just sent vocals over for another one. So we’ll have another club banger going on in India soon. [Laughter] Yeah! Yeah, right! If you want to check out my music just go to India and go to the clubs! Yeya!
What else? I have a film scoring friend of mine named Timo Chen who does a lot of indies. He’s just a really talented guy. We’ve been doing a lot of music together too for different movies.
GW: Wow. You are busy.
JG: I just have a lot of hobbies. Being out here … Anyone who ‘s actually doing something knows everybody else. The circles of friends just are smaller and smaller. Everybody knows each other. I just have so many people I believe in that I just want to reach out to and support any way that I can that I end up filling up my time quickly. Just really quickly. And it’s a great time to be in the industry because so much of it is just up to you to make. If you want to be in this industry it’s completely up o you. You can do whatever you want on your own.
GW: You know, if someone can get on YouTube and cry about how Britney Spears is being mistreated and then get his own talk show, you can do anything.
JG: You know what’s really funny? I met him and I have him in my phone. I have his phone number in my phone. I totally do. Chris Crocker! That’s right. … Don’t judge me! Don’t judge me! [Laughter] That’s the great part about living in this generation.
GW: Oh, I know. Anyone is a star who has the will to be.
JG: Yeah! It’s interesting.
GW: I was reading up on your Wiki. You’re from Joliet.
GW: I’m from Carbondale, so hello neighbor!
JG: Really?! Oh, well hello!
GW: Then I moved out here to Phoenix for video game development on Stargate Worlds!
JG: I didn’t know that! That’s fantastic. I’m such a gamer. I have issues with games. I’m a really hard core gamer.
GW: I’d really like to know what games you’re playing.
JG: I’m always playing Dr. Mario. Always. I just figured out what my Dr. Mario gamer number tag was recently. I should find it.
GW: Do you play classic Dr. Mario? Or is there a newer version of it?
JG: You can download it on the Wii now.
GW: That’s right!
JG: Yes, it’s so good! Here, I found it. So everybody out there, if you want to play Dr. Mario with me, bring it on baby! My friend code is 629655644933. Yeah. Bring it on. [Laughter] If you’re ready to go down you’re going down.
GW: You know you’re going to have 6,000 friends by this time tomorrow night.
JG: Hey, bring it on. I have no one to play with except for my boyfriend who I can easily beat at this point. Thank you very much. [Laughter]
GW: I know, we all need sleep.
JG: I know. It’s hilarious. But I’m glad we had our own little Skype slumber party.
GW: Oh yeah, thank you! I’m in my PJ’s.
JG: So am I! I’ve got my little moccasins on. That’s what I’ve got.