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Before ‘True Blood,’ actress cut teeth at UIC

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Janina Gavankar

UIC grad Janina Gavankar plays Luna on “True Blood.” “UIC has working actors teaching. They were inspiring,” she says.

Like the character she plays in the HBO vampire drama “True Blood,” Janina Gavankar is something of a shapeshifter.

On her website, the 2005 UIC grad describes herself as “Actor. Musician. Geek.”

She plays piano, drums and percussion. You can find her work on series like “The L Word” and “The Gates,” as well as in short films like “God Reschedules Rapture” on the website “Funny or Die.”

She joined “True Blood” last season as Luna, the love interest of the lead character, Sam. Like all shapeshifters in the show’s Louisiana setting, Luna can transform into animals and return to her human self at will. She’s also a Navajo skinwalker who can change into the form of another person.

Gavankar started her work by creating the character.

“Luna is just a simple person with the most complicated of circumstances,” Gavankar says.

“Ironically, I spent five months in Shreveport, Louisiana, last year working on my last series, ABC’s ‘The Gates.’ I went to (screenwriter) Alan Ball with a whole back story based on locations I already knew.

“So I have a whole Luna lifetime in my mind, but when you work on a series like ‘True Blood,’ you never know what they’re going to throw at you. You have to be okay with molding as you go.”

Gavankar has received increased media attention since joining “True Blood,” now in its fifth season (it airs at 9 p.m. Saturdays and midnight Sundays).

But she’s worked steadily in Hollywood since moving there several years ago.

The Joliet native started her film career in Chicago while she was a student at UIC, appearing in both “Barbershop” movies, commercials and industrial films. She also did some stage acting.

“I did ‘Latinologues’ at the Bailiwick, ‘The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin’ at the Apple Tree Theatre, and a lot of hole-in-the-wall shows,” she says.

“That’s what I love about Chicago. You can walk into any tiny little spot and watch an amazing show.”

Gavankar chose UIC after spending a summer semester at Yale and touring schools in New York. She found the conservatory environment limiting and the faculty less effective than at UIC.

“I didn’t feel they respected that I also played instruments, sang, and wanted to audition in the real world,” she says. “When I started roaming the halls of UIC, I never felt underestimated.

“UIC had working actors teaching. They were inspiring. Yasen Peyankov (director of theatre studies) — hands down, the best professor I’ve ever had. He lent a sense of practicality to the work. One day he said, ‘Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you don’t. You still have to do your job.’ Infinitely useful.

“Also, Michael J. Anderson (choir director in theatre and music) always supported my drive. He never made me feel crazy for wanting to achieve in different areas, and encouraged me to fly.”

Between studying and working, Gavankar played piano, drums, marimba and vocals with a short-lived band signed to Cash Money Records.

“When it started falling apart, I became antsy. One day I realized, ‘If I don’t move now, I’ll never do it,’” she says.

“I booked a flight to LA, and called whomever I knew to take whatever meetings I could. I managed to fly home with a manager who decided to take a chance on me. I flew back two weeks later with two suitcases and started pounding the pavement.”

Her efforts are paying off; there’s another film and TV series in the works. Gavankar calls the upcoming film, “Satellite of Love,” an art-house indie.

“I shot it in Austin while on hiatus from ‘True Blood.’ Four people vacation together and have to face their feelings for each other,” she says.

“The TV show is called ‘The Exes.’ They shoot in front of a studio audience. I went in thinking, ‘Ha! I’ve studied theater! I’m prepared!’ Lemme tell ya. That was not an easy gig. Therefore I loved it.”


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