Janina Gavankar has worked in Hollywood productions and gaming studios alike. Most notable for her role as Luna Garza in TV’s True Blood, Janina also made waves in the gaming realm by providing the voice and likeness of Star Wars: Battlefront II’s Iden Versio. She holds that each medium presents its own challenges, and that acting in games is not the cakewalk that some might think it is.
While Janina has played major roles in multiple games, she wasn’t introduced to the genre until her late twenties. “I started playing video games in 2007,” she explained. “I had a really strict upbringing. I wasn’t allowed to play video games. I didn’t even know they really existed.” Janina was hyper-focused on classical music throughout her childhood, playing the piano, percussion, and training for classical voice. She started her gaming excursion during the birth of AAA titles, when the Wii was first released. “In one year, I played the first Portal, the first Assassin's’ Creed, Bioshock 1, Half Life 2, Zelda, and Rainbow Six: Vegas,” she recalled. “I had a friend who was like, ‘You’re a gamer. Here’s the Orange Box, play this!’”
Her love for games grew to such an extreme that she wanted to be part of their development--but breaking into the industry proved to be a challenge. “At first I was like, ‘I love video games!’” she said. “I would just ask people, ‘Do you work in video games? Can I be friends with people who make video games?’ I found nobody, but I did Tweet a lot.” Eventually, Janina sent in an audition tape for Far Cry 4’s Amita and landed the role. Since then, Janina has gone on to star in games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Star Wars: Battlefront II, and Afterparty.
From Hollywood to Games Performance
Janina immerses herself in every aspect of the creative process that she can, a task that she states allows her to better perform her role in a production. “I’m a nerdy actor,” she jokingly admitted. “I create a backstory, and I think about what motivates every part of that person. I’m walking around the world, obsessively thinking about how I’m experiencing it, and how the other person living inside of me would experience the same moment. I’m not sharing it all the time, because it’s probably exhausting to everyone else. For me, it’s my happy place.”
While she goes about preparing for roles in both television and games in the same way, she states that each medium presents its own unique set of difficulties. She explained that Hollywood is subject to what she calls the ‘vanity factor,’ whereas games allow actors to present a purer performance of a character. “I’m a theater school kid,” she said. “Theater 101 is, they make you roll around on the ground and be an idiot, because it makes you get over yourself. You can put the skin of someone else on. Vanity is evil, it is your enemy, and that’s what you’re taught. The best place to live in that theory is the performance capture world, not Hollywood.”
Janina likewise explained that motion capture is just one piece of the puzzle for games actors, and that modern technology is able to capture actors’ subtleties and nuances through motion capture. “It’s a strange and beautiful place between theater in film,” she stated. “What I did [in Battlefront] was a very subtle performance. What I did with my face was not much. I just felt things, and they captured it. It was a risk though. I’d do a take and say, ‘Is this big enough?’ The director was like, ‘Do less, we’ll catch it.’ He let me trust what I was doing in subtleties was enough, and it was.”
On Diversity, Appreciation, and Breaking into the Games Sphere
Janina’s experiences in games has allowed her to understand the many hours of hard work that goes into creating them. “I love it so much more,” she said. “I’m so much more invested when I like a game, and I have so much more compassion when I don’t like a game. It’s so complicated. I definitely have less nerd rage. Now I’m just like, ‘Why? How?’ You know people are killing themselves. No one is trying to make something bad.”
Janina likewise champions diversity in the gaming sphere, and believes that with more voices in the space, more diverse stories will be told. “Diversity within the games industry is a big conversation right now, and it needs to be,” she said. “Bring your weird. The weirder you are, the better the industry will be, because it adds to diverse conversation. I just want to play good games!”
For those looking to break into games performance, Janina holds that hard work and determination are crucial to landing roles. “Train,” she advised. “You might get hired once, but on that job, they will figure out quickly that you are a faker. Take it seriously. There are so many places to be a creative, or on support staff. It’s such a new industry. Somebody will say yes, especially in the indie world. There is tons of space.”
Currently, Janina is working on a project with Night School Studios, and has many more projects to come in the future. You can hear more about Janina’s work, activism, and experiences in games performance in We Are’s E3 panel: Voice Acting and Performance Capture: An Intimate Conversation on Bringing Video Game Characters to Life.