When actress Janina Gavankar confidently took to the stage at E3 2017, flanked by Stormtroopers to the iconic Empire score, the crowd went noticeably quiet, even from 5,000 miles away in the UK. "Hello. I am Janina Gavankar, and I play Commander Iden Versio, leader of Inferno Squad in Star Wars Battlefront 2."
By this point there were some cheers from the crowd, but I still had my metaphorical jaw on the floor. Was I seeing things, or was a fellow Indian actually on stage at the world's biggest video games show, presenting one of the biggest, most anticipated games of 2017? It turned out my eyes weren't deceiving me, as before me was the figurehead of Star Wars Battlefront 2. Not a side character, not a marketing ploy, but the leading character in the game based around one of the largest film franchises of all time.
There aren't many of us Indians around the gaming industry, much less so in leading roles in blockbuster, triple-A games. So when I sat down to talk with Janina Gavankar recently, I was intrigued as to how her heritage had impacted her gaming in childhood, as it did mine, as well as how she landed the role of Commander Iden Versio in Star Wars Battlefront 2.
How did video games first enter your life?
Janina Gavankar: Well, I did not grow up playing video games. I had a really strict upbringing, so I didn’t get to watch television, or play games, or watch films, I had no idea what I was missing out on until I started playing in 2007, which was like the best year to start playing video games. In 2007, if you look at what was released, it was like the first Assassin's Creed, the first BioShock, the first Portal, Resident Evil 4, it was absolutely the best year for video games, until 2017 of course. And so I started playing all these video games, and realised wow, there was this whole world that was made for me.
I'm in the same position as you, in that I didn't grow up playing games, partly because of my similar upbringing in an Indian family. Would you say that that contributed to your limited access to games growing up?
JG: Yeah they were just strict, you know? And I'm really glad they were because it turned me into who I am today, which is a really focused individual. My parents set me up with all the skills to achieve what I wanted to, which is probably like you, and thank god they were strict.
Jumping forward many, many years, how did it feel to go from that to standing on the E3 stage earlier this year and showing off arguably one of the biggest games of the year?
JG: Well I brought my mother to that, it was a family affair. I've been watching E3 pressers for years and years, so not only did I feel that pressure in general, but I've been watching them just like everyone else, so I felt the pressure when it came time to do it. I still can't believe EA let me do it, because I don't know if any other actor has been able to represent their game like that for an E3 presser before, so I feel really honored that they let me do it.
How important do you feel that is, in pushing for diversity in video games, to have not only a woman but an Indian woman starring in one of the year's biggest games?
JG: It takes at least 3-to-5 years to make a video game, at least a triple-A video game. Everybody knows that at this point. So, you have to think that 2017 has really been a great year for diversity in video games, and that means that that line in the sand, and that decision to make a change in representation had to have happened half a decade ago. And in some ways, when you do that kind of math in your head, you realise that the gaming industry is ahead of Hollywood in many ways. [...] I can tell you this, to be part of the change, that it's just [the] beginning.
I also noticed that you had a role in the Horizon Zero Dawn DLC.
JG: That was awesome for me, it was such a big deal because I 100-percented that game earlier this year and I put over 90 hours into it, and then suddenly when I was cast in the DLC. It was like getting to play a cameo in something you love so much. Also, if you go to my site AltFound.com, you'll see that I interviewed Ashly Burch months ago, and it was great for me because I was getting a lot of advice from her on performance, and because I had just started working on Battlefront 2. So back then, I was getting a great deal of advice from the star of Horizon Zero Dawn, and then I got to work with her.
With your roles in Horizon Zero Dawn and Star Wars Battlefront 2, how do the casting and auditioning processes for those two games compare, and did you know what roles in which games you were going for at the time of auditioning?
JG: So for Battlefront they did not tell me what it was, but they don't have to tell you. I figured it out because of NeoGAF, because I'm a super lurker in there, and I know that we all wanted a story for Battlefront 2. So as soon as I saw the name Motive, I knew that this was Battlefront 2, and I started freaking out. Because one, as a gamer, I was like "Finally we're going to get a story," and two because it was the most stressful thing ever. I had no idea how big the role was either, I didn't know if it was some tiny thing, I didn't know if it was the lead, I had no idea. Until I had my face scanned, I didn't know that this was the protagonist of the game.
That's kind of been a focus of the voice actor’s strike this year, and it's kind of impossible to talk about voice acting in 2017 without talking about the strike. Did you support the strike while it was ongoing this past year, where one of the core issues was knowing the role and the game when going into an audition?
JG: Yes, because you should be able to choose whether to work on the project or not. As I go forward I'm actually pretty picky about what I work on, one because I am a gamer, and two because I want to support studios and the stories that I think are important. You can't work on everything, so I want to make sure that I'm supporting the things that I want too. So yeah, I have to know, and it would be devastating for me to pass on a project because they wouldn't tell me, and to find out later that it’s something I would've wanted to work on. But it's a risk you have to take, because the last thing I want to do is get tied up in something that I don’t want to do, and something that's going to be bad, and a story that I’m not going to be proud of. I also understand that I'm an anomaly, and that I'm very lucky to be picky, so I'm really only speaking for myself here, but it's important to know what you’re working on as an artist.
In 11 years of using Twitter as the first actor on the platform, how do you feel about the state of Twitter in 2017?
JG: The great thing is that the people at Twitter are aware that changes need to be made. They're listening to feedback like now, you'll [hopefully] see some changes coming up soon on the platform. We're in a volatile state right now, not only in the US but across the world, and so Twitter has become an important and integral part of how we communicate in mainstream media. Some changes are going to be made to ensure that it can be a respectable media. It's funny because back in the day, the way that they described Twitter was “answering the question that hasn't been asked yet," which is the most vague thing. Some people used to laugh at it, and now it's become what it is. I don't really have an answer for that, but it has changed the world, that's for sure, for better or for worse. I do think that it is in flux, and we will see changes shortly, in the way that it exists.
I understand that there's more Battlefront 2 story DLC coming out alongside The Last Jedi in December. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
JG: I can tell you this, that a lot of people have been tweeting things about the First Order at me, and I've been dying to tell them that they will be dealing with the First Order in the third act of this story.
We see Kylo Ren at the end of the game, could we be seeing other characters from The Last Jedi dropping in?
JG: Well that I can't tell you. You've seen Kylo, so you're right about that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.