As part of ABC’s new summer programming slate, The Gates is a supernatural drama about an ultra-exclusive, gated community made up of residents who are guarding a dark secret. With a town comprised of vampires, werewolves and witches, struggling to suppress their cravings, things are just bound to go wrong, especially when the newest residents are a totally unaware police chief and his unsuspecting family.
In The Gates, actress Janina Gavankar plays Leigh, a deputy in the police department with a shocking secret of her own. The musician and vocalist who has appeared in theatre, commercials, short films and indies, recently spoke exclusively on the phone to Collider about being a part of the current vampire craze and how much she loves the supernatural/sci-fi genre. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
Question: How did you get involved with “The Gates”?
Janina: It was pilot season and I was grinded. Pilot season is always crazy because you audition for a million things, and really, in the end, it’s not up to you. There’s so many moving parts, you just have to be consistently good and know that it’s all about the right fit. I got lucky because my right fit was a show that was already picked up for 13 episodes. So, I booked it and I started working, and now I have a dope show. This show is so great!
What would you say to potential viewers to get them to tune in to the show?
Janina: I’m a geek. I will admit that I love this kind of stuff. I love supernatural stuff. “Battlestar Galactica” was my favorite show. I love big ensemble shows where there are a lot of things going on and you have to really pay attention because there’s a lot of nuanced work and universal themes are being explored. We’re definitely that kind of show. Because of that, this is absolutely a show I would watch, even if I wasn’t on it, but luckily, I am. As a geek, this is a show that I would love. It has something in it for everybody because there are three sets of people in it – the high schoolers, the parents and the cops in the middle. There’s quite an age range, so everybody watching is going to have somebody that they feel attached to. It’s also a really big, sexy cast. It’s like, “These people are so beautiful. Why is everybody so beautiful?” And, they’re not conventionally beautiful. They’re very interesting faces. There’s definitely something in it for everybody. Also, the thing that makes us a little bit different than all of the other supernatural and vampire shows is that we have more than just vampires. We have werewolves and witches, and other things that I can’t tell you yet because that would be a spoiler.
Who do you play on the show?
Janina: I play a cop named Leigh, and she is a pretty by-the-book cop, except that she, herself, has a really dark secret that is so nuts. I didn’t know the secret when I booked the show. They told me in my production meeting and I basically had to play it cool, but I walked out of that meeting and was bouncing to my car. I was like, “This is the coolest gig, ever!” It’s so neat. I’m genuinely excited about this show. It’s about a gated community, and everybody is just trying to keep their shit together, be normal and live in fabulous suburbia, except that we’ve got vampires, witches and werewolves, and everybody is trying to live amongst each other and deal with their own stuff, like addiction and feeling out of place. These kids in high school are going through puberty, and what does that mean if you’re going through puberty and you’re a werewolf? That must be awkward. We get to mix really universal, human themes with supernatural mythology. That discovery and creation is interesting to me.
Will viewers learn why all of these people are in this community together?
Janina: Absolutely! Yeah. Even for my character, shit goes down in the third episode, that you never see coming. It’s like “Lost,” in that way. They touch upon a different character each time, and you go, “Woah, I didn’t see that coming!” A lot gets revealed, as the episodes go on.
At what point will the viewers learn what your character’s secret is?
Janina: The secrets run really deep. There are not really close-to-the skin secrets. The people walking around in The Gates are there for safety. Most of them are hiding from something, my character included. The storytelling on this show is done really well, so they don’t just go, “Oh, by the way, here are all the cards.” You really have to pay attention and walk with us through this while we reveal things as we go along.
How big of a challenge is it for you to be such a fan of the show, but not be able to talk about it to anybody?
Janina: I’m a fan of this type of show and I’m really anti-spoiler, so I think like a fan. It’s actually really easy for me to be like, “I’m not telling you anything!,” because I wouldn’t want to know either. I’d have my fingers in my ears and be like, “Don’t tell me!” I haven’t even told my mom. It’s easy for me to keep secrets because I’m proud of the show.
As an actor, since you’re learning little bit about your character throughout the course of the series, do you create your own backstory, so that you can figure out where your character is coming from, in any given situation?
Janina: Absolutely. I’m a backstory over-doer. I could spend three days telling you everything about her. But, you take cues from the script, the producers and the creators, and then together you get to build the rest of it. I remember I pitched this idea and they were like, “Great, we love that!” And then, suddenly, before I knew it, it was an official thing that will be revealed later. That’s great! This is the first show I’ve joined the first season of, so it’s the first time I get to really watch the creative process from the beginning. I joined “The L Word” in their fourth season, so they were already a well-oiled machine. But, we get to create this world and these characters together, and they’re very open to it. I’m sure they were so picky about the cast they chose because they wanted to be able to make it collaborative. Everybody is dedicated and knows where they’re coming from.
What was your first exposure to sci-fi and the supernatural, and what was it about that genre that you really enjoyed?
Janina: I didn’t really realize it until I did “Stargate Atlantis” and I was like, “Why do I like this so much? I get to run around for two weeks and shoot mutants with a sub-machine gun. This is awesome! Why do I like this?” And then, I really looked back and realized that I read the Douglas Adams books really early and I read all the Michael Crichton books really early. I had nightmares because I read Sphere way too early. I wasn’t allowed to watch television, but when I did, I watched “Bewitched,” “Small Wonder” and “Out of This World.” I sat around trying to touch my fingers together to stop time. I totally did! But, when I look back on it, I used to watch shows with really empowered women who had special powers, and now I’m on one. That stuff marks you, for sure.
From your perspective, what do you think it is that makes vampires and werewolves so appealing? Can you understand why the fans are so devoted and dedicated?
Janina: I think there’s an innate sexuality that is attached to vampires and werewolves. It’s passionate and sexual, undeniably so. It’s just part of the mythology. The permutations of the mythology, throughout the years, is so diverse. You get bitten on the neck. There’s homoeroticism, and it’s always been like that, throughout the ages. And, it deals with immortality and all of the things that people think about anyway. These are just themes that recur. We’re putting a really human face on it. That’s what I’m excited about. It’s like, “Hey, I’m trying to keep my life together and make a better life for my daughter.” It’s much more human themes than just being Monsters R Us.
Having been known for your role on “The L Word” prior to this, when you’re part of such a groundbreaking show, does that raise the bar for you, as far as the quality of the projects that you look for after that?
Janina: It has definitely raised the bar. I was very lucky to have that be my first break because I worked with such quality actresses, who had been in the industry and doing solid work for decades, like Jennifer Beals, Pam Grier, Marlee Matlin, Cybill Shepherd and Annabella Sciorra. Because of that, even if I wasn’t going to on my own, I had to rise to the occasion. So, any project that I walked into after that, that’s just what I came with. It raised the bar, absolutely. I’ve been really lucky. I think that you really get what you recognize is in the universe. I was working in Chicago, in theater and in commercials, and anything that anybody would let me do. When I moved to L.A., I had made a choice to be a character actor, meaning that I wanted to become somebody else. That’s what attracted me to becoming an actor, in the first place. And, if you look at my work so far, I’ve been very lucky to be able to do just that. People don’t recognize me from gig to gig. They have no idea. But, that’s really what I strive to do. I strive to stip myself down completely and build another human and become them. Even just the guest spots that I’ve done, throughout the years, have all been extreme from a pregnant meth addict last year to, to this totally normal girl-next-door in “My Boys,” to this really aggressive convicted felon in “NCIS,” to a trooper in “Stargate Atlantis,” to this crazy improv show, called “The League,” where I played this doctor, but it was hilarious. If you look at everything I’ve done, each character is so wildly different from each other, and that’s what “The L Word” afforded me the opportunity to do. I want to continue to play characters that are not like me at all, and transform.
Once you were cast on this show, did you do any research into what it would be like to be a cop in an exclusive community or town like this?
Janina: Yeah. I grew up in Joliet, Illinois, which is not a small town, but a small city, outside of Chicago. One of my best friends growing up – who’s my mom’s best friend’s daughter – is a cop, so anytime I have a stupid question that I’m really embarrassed about, I call or text her and I’m like, “So, what side does my gun go on?” So, I actually have access to all the information I really need. But, because this is supernatural stuff, you really just have to make it up on your own. You have to use your imagination, be childlike and make broad choices on your own ‘cause you can’t figure it out unless you go to Transylvania.
What did you think the first time you saw yourself in the uniform?
Janina: This is really well tailored. We have The Gates version of a cop uniform. The Gates is a very private, very exclusive community. It costs a lot to live in The Gates, so you might as well have your cops well fit. It’s a good uniform.
Will viewers also get to see your uniform in regular clothes?
Janina: Yes. In Episode 3, you see her out of the uniform. And in Episode 7, you definitely see her out of uniform. I’m laying in a raft in a pool in a bikini for the entire episode.
How has it been to film in Shreveport, Louisiana?
Janina: We are afforded the opportunity to leave all of the nonsense and the noise behind, and fall in love with each other and create a world together, and just focus on the work. On our days off, we all hang out with each other and make music and go to open mic nights. We are having a blast bonding and, when we’re on set, we work our asses off.
Is there anyone on the show that you wish you had more scenes with, but that you haven’t gotten to work with much?
Janina: Yeah, absolutely! There are quite a few. I’m working with everyone in the next episode, but I’m really looking forward to working with Chandra West, who plays Devon, and Rhona Mitra and Luke Mably. We haven’t crossed over into each other’s storylines completely yet, but we all intertwine, at some point. It’s coming. This isn’t a pilot. We were afforded the opportunity to spend five months creating 13 episodes, so we don’t have to show all the cards right away. We can really take our time.
Does the decision on a Season 2 really on what the ratings are like?
Janina: Yeah, it always does. They need to see the numbers in the first few episodes, and then we’ll know. So, everybody tune in!
When and how did you decide that you wanted to be an actor?
Janina: I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor until pretty late in the game. I think I was around 16. But, I was a musician first. I really thought I was going to go to college and study music performance. I was a performer, but I play really big instruments, like the marimba and the piano, and I sang. So, in high school, I had this epiphany when I was the lead in the musical on my public school stage. I was like, “Oh, my god, what do I do? I’ve spent my whole life studying the wrong thing!” But, it worked out in the end, so it’s okay. I definitely didn’t know until later, and then I started the pursuit. But, I’ve always done a few things at once. I’ve always been a musician and an actor, at the same time. At this point in my career, all of it informs each other – every medium, whether I’m painting or designing someone’s apartment for them, or whatever.
Do you get much time, these days, to focus on your music as well?
Janina: Yeah, I just released the music video for a project that I did. Music has always been a part of my life. It’s funny, people ask me, “If you had to chose one, which would you chose?” But, if I was a painter, nobody would ask me that. I make music all the time. I have another project that I’m working on as well.
What do you get from music that you don’t get from the craft of acting?
Janina: Music informs my work so intensely. The better actor I become, the better pianist I become, and vice versa. I was playing a piece, just recently, that I haven’t played in awhile and, because I’m working on the show and I’m working actor muscles and emotional muscles so much more, I played it in a way I’ve never played it before. At this point in my career, they are one in the same. Even though I do transform into all these other people, I could never deny that there’s not the tiniest bit of myself in each one of them. You explore parts of yourself that maybe you don’t want to admit are real parts of yourself. It’s all fascinating brainwork.
Do you have any idea what you’d like to do next, in your career?
Janina: Absolutely! I want to do a musical so bad. I don’t care what it is. I’m not picky. I just want to do a musical. I’m shameless, but it’s true. You want to do things that you watched when you grew up. I grew up on The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and Singin’ in the Rain. I watched those, over and over again, so of course, I want to do musicals.
THE GATES premieres on Sunday, June 20th on ABC