Janet Varney: The Legacy of Avatar Korra
It was my tremendous pleasure to interview Janet Varney! She is an Emmy-nominated actor, voice artist, musician, writer, producer and dog-owner. You may know her from The Thrilling Adventure Hour, Stan Against Evil, and as the voice of Avatar Korra in The Legend of Korra!
We talked about the impact of playing a character like Korra, who has such a huge impact on so many people. How that changed her as a person and as an actor. The wider legacy of the show in the upcoming comics, how Korrasami affected animation at large. Also, we delved into how women are treated in the industry and what sorts of roles are becoming available.
Check it out here, and there’s an abridged transcript below.
JC: It’s been 2 years since Korra ended, but it’s still a big deal and attracts huge crowds at conventions. I couldn’t get into the panel at New York Comic Con!
JV: Yeah, that was a fun one, but the room was a little small. That was something Dark Horse was thinking was ‘did we do the right sized room for this?’ And I was like ‘I don’t know! It might be a little small!’
JC: That was introducing the (Legend of Korra) comics. How much of the comics have you seen?
JV: I haven’t seen anything more than the rest of the world has seen. The stuff that we were playing around with at the panel was just stuff that’s since become available, or has been out there for people to enjoy. We gave away a bunch of fun Avatar and Korra related books. The poster book was pretty new and that’s just absolutely stunning.
JC: Having the experience doing something that has had such a big impact on people, how does that affect you as a person, and as an actor?
JV: Absolutely! As an actor, I don’t how if it affected me too much, just because the means by which we record the show has always been the same. It was very consistent. You’re in a darkened room either by yourself or with other actors when no one knows about it, and then you’re in the same dark room after people have started watching it. It would be amazing if you had to suddenly go record it in a coliseum with a bunch of people staring at you, I’m really glad that’s not the case.
The scripts are so beautifully written that even when you’re recording it, you still feel like it’s really happening. So credit to Mike and Bryan, and the extraordinary staff at Nickelodeon and the writing team.
On a personal level
JV: As a person it definitely affected me. Doing that show, and then doing my podcast – the JV Club – they both came into the world at around the same time. I think round about that time I was also doing Burning Love, which also came out. So that was a little triangle of three things that I really, personally loved and cherished, and they were also things that were very well received.
I was very vulnerable about them because I was very close to all of them, and luckily they all had an emotional impact on people. More so than any other stuff that I’ve been really proud of. It’s just a little different when you get feedback from people that is a little more emotional, or just appreciative on a level of… ‘listen, this speaks to something that I’ve been through personally’. Or ‘my daughter went through this and it brought us closer together.’
It really changed my response to my own work; it really changed my relationship to my work.
Now I love doing stuff that’s just frivolous and fun, but that foundation that gets built underneath where you feel like you’re doing something that is having a lasting impact on people. It’s just a very addictive feeling.
Both of my parents are teachers and I watch the impact they had on people’s lives, and the impact they had on people. My dad will have people come up to him and say “You taught me in 1985 and you’re the reason I became [blank]!” So far I don’t think anyone’s said “You’re the reason I’m in prison.”
In general, I saw that impact that my parents had and I always have carried around a little bit of performers’ guilt. So these things, and Korra is the biggest anchor; those are those moments where you think ‘oh god! I’m so grateful that Mike and Bryan pulled me into something that affected other people’. I’m not the person who made it, I’m just the person who gets to stand as an ambassador for it.
JC: You are, in some ways, the avatar of the show?
JV: [laughs] That’s a really good point!
JC: The ending of Korra saw Korra and Asami begin their relationship! Since then, other animated shows have take steps towards diversity and representation. Adventure Time, and Steven Universe are two big examples. Have you seen attitudes changing in the business?
Are there things being made now you would never have thought possible when you were first starting out?
JV: There was stuff before Korra, and it maybe didn’t get as loud a voice. So, I think the whole Avatar team felt really honoured to be part of something that was seen as sort of a watermark in some way.
One of the most exciting things is that I look forward to within a few more years (and certainly within a decade) of people looking back on what a big deal it was and going ‘God, isn’t that crazy what a big deal it was?’ It seems so silly that that had to be a big deal. That we wouldn’t have already crossed that threshold, and that LGBT+ characters wouldn’t just be a part of any form of entertainment.
The same way that we look back on things. For a mom to say ‘oh god, no one got a PHD when I was in college. You’re supposed to go to college to marry a man.’ Those things where we look back now and are like ‘That’s insane!’
JC: What about the kinds of roles you’re seeing coming up for women? Has there been a shift of any sort towards more rounded and complex characters?
JV: I think they have. That’s a good point. There have always been outliers where people have just really wanted to make the stuff that they want to make. That’s really hard to get through the cogs of the machine of show business.
Even people who get a lot of grief – TV executives and stuff – many of them really want to do strange, new, different and complex stuff. It’s just hard because it is a machine and there is a tremendous amount of money involved and there’s a lot of conservatism inside that. Even though the arts are ostensibly where you go to be the most colourful and be the most loud, and show people what the world is really like, or what the world could be like.
I understand that it works the way it works for a reason, and it’s always great when shows break through, like a Modern Family, or the Korrasami bit.
In general I think that roles are more interesting because we’ve seen the success in characters on something like Game of Thrones of Breaking Bad where you’re like ‘I don’t know if I like or hate this person but I can’t stop watching them!’ And I think that really helped reshape what networks think people want to watch.
Before then it would be potentially sort of a bland family sitcom or something soap opera-y, or just a crime procedural. Those all have their place, but I think there has deffinately been a shift – especially because of the internet and so many ways to get the content we’re seeing more and more.
JC: So audiences are kind of demanding better characters.
JC: Is it the same for actors? Do you find that being given a role that’s just the wife, girlfriend love interest and that’s it. Are actors becoming more confident to say ‘No, I think my character should be more than that’?
JV: I think that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to that, ultimately, because I know that I feel that way, but I also know that I have been doing this for a long time. I’m certainly not someone who just gets an offer to do something, it’s not like that at all. But my own pickiness, by virtue of doing it for a while, has changed.
I don’t know that that’s true of a newcomer, or that any of us could afford to turn our nose up, even as the love interest. But I hope that the general groundswell of people being more picky, even the ones that have louder voices than we do, that is really famous, that says “No! We should have better roles for women!” Like a Jennifer Lawrence, or someone. Then, there is a trickle down.
JC: I have a question here from one of my fellow editors here on the Network, Rostislav. He’s a theology student, as you might be able to tell from the question he’s given me.
The Legend of Korra has a very spiritual side to it. You’ve talked about your own quote unquote ’spiritual’ feelings on the JV club, but how much did you take away from Korra in that regard?
JV: Yeah, absolutely. I think that a lot of what you see on that show is stuff that I was lucky enough to have been exposed to for one reason or another. I was raised as either an atheist or a mormon, depending on which parent you ask.
But I think that living in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Flagstaff Arizona, have afforded me the options around me of ‘Hey! Look at this religion over here!’ Or ‘Look at this way of thinking!’ and ‘is one of them absolutely right, or absolutely wrong?’
And that’s one of the things I like about The Legend of Korra and the Avatar universe. It’s clearly true for Mike and Bryan as well. They have observed what we are exposed to in the real world and created some very similar, kind of mirror world, of certain spiritualities. They leave open the possibility of a lot of stuff. It’s not just like one god with a beard. It’s not this idea of who the spirits are or why they exist isn’t meticulously picked apart like in some sort of ‘here’s this book that explains why there’s a magical mushroom!’
JC: A friendly mushroom!
JV: [laughs] Yeah! So, I like the idea that the spiritual world might even be as fraught as the regular world, but there is more than we necessarily can see. Even if your ‘faith’ is in science, your ‘faith’ in the science of not-knowing-everything-yet, which is fundamentally what science is based on. It feels like a faith of a kind.
That’s what I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t have, or that it needs to be taken away. They may be an agnostic, they may be an atheist, and just believe in random chaos, but I think it’s nice to have a faith in something. I think it’s nice to stay optimistic about things. And I think that optimism and faith are two side of the same coin.
JC: Speaking of religion, let’s talk about improv comedy.
JV: [laughs] Sure! Natural segue there.
JC: I’m an expert at segues. Improv seems to be a common attribute amongst Avatar alumni. Jack DeSenna (in TLAB), P J Byrne, and John Michael Higgins and you, of course. Do you think improv gives you unique acting tools?
JV: Absolutely! I think I would broaden the shoutout of improv actors in voice over to a much wider swath of animation in general. Improv actors tend to find they do well within it. I do think that it has so much to do with – you have less to work with but it’s true of on camera actors too.
If you can strike a balance between finding a way that you have a sense of understanding the character that you’re auditioning for. That you have the flexibility to imagine a world outside of the words on the page. While still being very respectful to those words. I think that does set you apart.
That goes not for auditioning and actors, but for anybody who is interested in broadening their social skills. Or wanting to think faster on their feet. I think improv is a really good exercise. It’s like when you tell people they need to be more physically flexible or more ‘zen’, then doing something like yoga that has these thousands of years of evidence behind it, saying ‘this really works’! ‘If you want to be X type of person, you should try this!’
I think that’s true of improv, while it may not have that rich of a history, I think that if you’re willing to do that, you broaden your social skills and your own understanding of yourself and the way your brain works. You get better at empathising with people, you feel more comfortable in situations in which you would feel shy, you feel more part of a team, and you trust people differently. So I always recommend it to anyone!
JC: When did you start with improv? I know it’s something that’s used in acting schools a lot, and you were doing theatre in High School.
JV: Yeah, I had been doing theatre just in school from when I was in first grade and there are always lots of exercises that I would characterise as improve.
But what’s funny is that I didn’t do any improv comedy until I had finished school. I never participated in any fun improv gaming teams, which do exist for people of all ages. I do wish that I would have – and I don’t mean this as a regret, I wouldn’t change anything in the present, thus wouldn’t want to run the risk of changing anything in the past!
Once I started doing it I was like ‘Oh my gosh! This is great!’ But I was deffinately already in San Francisco when I was taking classes through the Bay Area Theatre program up there, then came down here and did the UCB stuff. But also just playing around with friends in a more casual and relaxed atmosphere without even the intention of doing shows. It was just a wonderful way to spend the odd evening.
JC: Let’s talk about Stan Against Evil! I assume it’s out there on the internet, on IFC’s website, and on iTunes etc.
JC: I’ve heard you talk about it! And it seemed to have quite an intense schedule, you were doing three day shoots and things. Have the pressures on actors changed, has it become more intense as you’ve gone through the job?
JV: Shooting that season was really intense for everyone. Including cast and crew, because we only had a short time to do it. It’s a very physically active and effects-heavy show in terms of practical effects, so it’s not a bunch of stuff happening in post. That’s what Dana Gould wanted – he created the show, has a part in, writes it and is present on set all day. He is such a fan of older school horror and sci-fi and stuff. It was deffinately grueling, but it was also the most action I’ve done in my career so far.
But I loved it and I really feel like it made me stronger on just a personal level, not just physically stronger. But in terms of true grit feeling like you can get through a tough day in terrible weather and still want to go to work the next day. The huge cliche of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – sometimes that’s not true, sometimes it’s just really hard. Even when you survived, you’re like “don’t give me that bulls*it”. But in this case it was mild enough that it’s true.
I was very nervous going in about what my ability to have this marathon runner endurance would be for this shoot. The fact that I had it and we did it and made a really good show just makes me feel more confident in what I can do across the board. That I’m super grateful for!
JC: And there’s a season two coming?
JV: Yes! We’re going to start shooting it this summer!
JC: So you’re jumping right back into it! You’ve also got a second series of one of my favourite things Neil’s Puppet Dreams coming?
JV: I hope so! I might have spoken too soon when I said that. We’re certainly working on it! I don’t know if it’s going to get shot any time soon. So, I’m really hoping that that comes to fruition sooner rather than later because we have so many great ideas and such a wonderful plan of action. Fingers crossed!
JC: What’s next on the agenda for you?
JV: I would say that, really, shooting Stan Against Evil is looming large! I just finished SF Sketchfest, so I am sort of pulling myself out of that hole of exhaustion. It’s a wonderful hole, but it’s very taxing. So I’m sort of bouncing from that. I think those are really the inbetween. I’m sure there will be some guest things that happen on TV before then. And my podcast, the JV Club I try to do every single week.
JC: The JV Club is genuinely good.
JV: Thank you!
JC: It really sort of informed my own interviewing style. I like the attitude you have, in how you take people’s passions seriously.
JV: Oh good! I’m very flattered!
JV: On Twitter I am @ and on Instagram I am @theJVClub! I am not as good on Facebook, but I do post on the JV Club page occasionally. Also my website janetvarney.com. But I really do like being in the real world and looking people in the eye. I’m trying to balance a little bit better with the people that I can’t shake hands with.
JC: Well, if you want to shake virtual hands with Janet, you can deffinately find her online!
JV: [laughs] Yes, @JanetVarney is a good place to start!
JC: So, all that being said, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you!
JV: Back at you, Joel!