Come to Papi

Whether she likes it or not, everything Janina Gavankar touches turns sexy

When Papi’s on the scene, all heads turn, but when Janina Gavankar (the woman behind this season’s L Word chick magnet) walks into a room, she’s happiest when nobody notices her at all. That phenomenon’s not likely to last with the roll her career’s been on these last few years. Janina chats with GO about her inner geek, her TV family, and Papi’s transition from sexual predator to complex character.

What’s all this about you being a singing, dancing, drumming, piano-playing actor of stage and screen? Don’t you have a favorite thing to do?

My favorite changes. If you asked me five or six years ago I would have said I’m a musician, but now I would say I’m an actor, whatever that means. When I was in Chicago I was doing it all. I like to have a lot going on at the same time, but sometimes you just have to focus the energy.

I saw some of your photography on online art community deviantART; I love the Nintendo Pumpkin. Do you still get behind the camera?

I do a lot of art direction, more so than photography. But I was so proud of my Nintendo pumpkin! I wasn’t allowed to play video games growing up, so I missed out on that whole culture. We just got the Wii, and it is insane. I am so addicted to Zelda on the Wii; it’s problematic honestly.

I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Nintendo’s Wii, spelled w-i-i. It’s got a remote control controller, and when you’re playing this game, you actually fight using the controller as a sword. It’s possibly the coolest thing on the face of the planet.  The only thing I really had available to me [as a kid] was the original Nintendo at a neighbor’s house, so I’d sneak over there and play Dr. Mario. I have serious Dr. Mario matches for hours on end with my boyfriend, and I have gotten to the point where I can kick his ass. You should print that so it can be in print that I kick my boyfriend’s ass at Dr. Mario, and he can read it and be mad.

Of course, we definitely want to make your boyfriend mad. What’s your favorite way to geek out, besides Dr. Mario?

I really love DevaintART; it’s sort of social networking done right, a platform for artists. And I’m learning CSS coding. I sometimes update my own website…that’s really embarrassing, but I’m super geeky like that. I send all the [L Word] cast members awesome links to the best of YouTube.

Then there’s your super geeky virtual web persona, “Ms. Dewey.” One of the  favorite quotes, according to geek bloggers, is, “If you get inside your computer you can do anything you want to me.” Is it true you filmed around 600 interactive search responses like that in three days?

Yeah, I had a great time; it was just a matter of rationing energy. There was this amazing directing team, two guys called Sausage…

Of course they are. I can’t help but see a parallel between Ms. Dewey and Papi’s come hither looks…

Yeah? They’re both really different from me. Maybe Dewey’s more like me than Papi is, just because she’s geekier. They both crave attention. If Dewey doesn’t get it she gets annoyed with you. I’m not like that at all.

How do you go about channeling Papi then?

I always have to take a moment where I kind of do a little dance, and I start playing a song in my head. Papi has a different beat than I do. It’s groovable, kind of danceable.

Let’s pretend that Papi was suddenly a real person, and that you were suddenly a lesbian – do you think she could get you into bed?

I’m generally scared of people who’ve been around the block that many times. And there are definitely Papis walking around, living and breathing. I actually know one. But would I hook up with Papi? Um… I think if I did I wouldn’t tell anybody.

In that same pretend world, which of The L Word characters would you have a crush on?

I would have to say that I’d be friends with Papi first of all.  Papi’s like a great best friend.  But who would I have a crush on?  Alice, all the way. She’s adorable! She’s funny, she’s quirky, she’s a great friend. Yeah, I would totally go for her.

Just like Papi did…Very interesting. Was Leisha Hailey the first real lesbian you’ve had to make out with for your craft?

Yeah, I guess so, but look, I don’t really care. You know, it’s just as weird as making out with a guy.

It’s weird making out with a guy? Oh, right, you mean when you’re acting.

Yeah, yeah. I kind of have this sort of “so what” theory. I just hope that our next generation can have this attitude. Like, gay? So what. There’s a lot of gay people in the world. Straight? So what, there’s a lot [of those] too. That’s why shows like this are important not only for our generation, but for the next generation too. On my website there’s a number you can call; it’s a private voicemail, and I get hundreds of phone calls. Whether they like the character or not, they’re calling me. I wish I could call all these people back too. Maybe one day I’ll go on a rampage and say, “Girl, I got your message. Thank you so much. Papi loves you too. I’m sure she’d love you over and over.” Most of them are really sweet, but my favorite one was after my first [episode]. They were clearly at an L Word party; I could hear it in the background. The girl goes, “Papi, we all want to fuck you right now.” And I go, “Yes! I have done my job.”

Do you worry about being typecast as a sex goddess?

Oh god. That’s awesome. No, not really. I don’t see myself like that. I don’t think that’s what I’m selling on a daily basis.

You’ve mentioned that you’ve never played a role that was at all like you. If you did, what would that character be like? Which The L Word character are you most like?

I would be a cross between Alice…I wish…and ummm…that’s hard! I don’t know, Alice and Tina?

Right… so do you think it’s weird that Bette learns sign language practically over night?

We don’t know what the passage of time was. The great thing about Bette is that when she commits, she is so in, all the way in. She’s very tenacious. More so in the past though, because I think this season is more about her letting go. [Jennifer Beals] is so lovely, and her baby is amazing. She and Laurel [Holloman, aka Tina] both have the cutest children. Everybody has the cutest babies and the cutest dogs.

Everybody brings their kids and dogs to the set?

Yeah, mine’s like 80 pounds, so I can’t really do that, but if you have a small dog it’s there. We’re like a big family.

When Papi first came on the scene, some fans were annoyed with her one-track mind. Now she’s speaking up about things like Tina’s sexuality and her loyalty to Tasha. What’s going on in Papi’s head?

That’s the evolution of the show. Next week major stuff goes down, but I’m not telling. You will be shocked.

Papi’s a gay Latina, but you’re straight and of Indian/Dutch descent. Is one aspect more difficult to master than the other?

She’s so different from me that it’s like starting from scratch. I’ve stolen a lot of characteristics from male friends of mine. This one guy has a certain rhythm to his step, and I stole it. I steal as much as I can from people, and I throw it into the character.

You’re really good at it. What kind of insight into the LGBT community have you gained from being on The L Word?

I didn’t realize how important the show was, possibly because I’m like, it’s a great show about complicated women who happen to be gay. It’s so important for the next generation to have access to a show like this. I’m honored to be a part of it.

Check out Janina at and Catch her on The L Word Sundays at 10pm on Showtime.

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