er alter ego Ms. Dewey might have all the answers at her fingertips, but actress and musician Janina Gavankar is the real deal.
Gavankar, who is of Dutch and Indian ancestry and boasts classical training in piano, voice and orchestral percussion in addition to her acting skills, now lives in Los Angeles, where she is currently acting on Showtime’s The L Word and recording a musical solo album. Tech fans might know her better, however, as the face of Ms. Dewey, an interactive search engine run by MSN that recently launched as an entertaining new way to find answers on the Internet. Type in your search query, and Ms. Dewey responds with a sarcastic, cheeky or no-nonsense answer—making searching the web a little more interesting (if not efficient) than Google does.
But while Ms. Dewey is all business, Gavankar herself bears little resemblance to the no-nonsense, eyebrow-raising character she plays.
“I’m definitely not Ms. Dewey,” Gavankar says, laughing. “She was just words on a paper in an audition. I think when I auditioned, she was much more normal. When I got there she just escalated into this uber-snotty, I’m-not-amused character.”
“It’s funny,” Gavankar adds, “Because when I watch it now, I wonder, ‘Did I really do that?’ I’ve played much more interesting people, I think, than I actually am.”
But Gavankar’s favorite part of being Ms. Dewey? Surprisingly, it is her excitement about the possibilities of such interesting new technology.
“I’m like a nerd,” Gavankar admits. “I have the nerd qualities, but I don’t have the nerd awesomeness, you know? I wish I were as cool as programmers and game developers … They’re just some of the smartest, most cool, quirky people. This is as close as I can get to being part of a web site that is that cool.”
“Specifically, [the web] is a new frontier for actors, and we’re still just figuring out where this lies,” Gavankar adds. “These edgy characters and these people who are very pointed—I don’t necessarily know if I’m actually like this, but I’m attracted to projects that have something new and different about them.”
As for being a South Asian actor in Hollywood, Gavankar is is excited to be one of the new South Asian faces dotting the Hollywood landscape.
“I am Indian but I got to play this ethnically ambiguous character, and it’s just nice to have another Indian kid working,” Gavankar says. “I saw the billboard for Heroes, and I saw Sendhil [Ramamurthy] and I lost my mind. I was too excited to see another Indian working. Even with me on The L Word, Navi Rawat on NUMB3RS, [Maulik Pancholy] on 30 Rock and Rasika [Mathur] on Wild ‘N Out … I think the reason why we know all their names is because they are standouts, and we’re so excited to see them.”
With this spate of South Asian actors in the mainstream, Gavankar is hopeful for the rising stars. “We get to celebrate because there aren’t a lot of us,” she says. “As time goes on, we’re seeing less stereotypical roles and more ‘token brown kids in the ensemble cast.’ But Asian Americans make up only 2.07 percent of the working actor population. It has been, and still is, a problem. So I’ll take it … for now.”
Nirali gets the scoop from Gavankar about her stint as Ms. Dewey.
What did you expect for Ms. Dewey’s launch?
I really didn’t know if it was going to just sort of be this cool little thing in the ether that few people would enjoy, or if it was really going to pop. What’s so surprising though is that the first day it just shot up, and it really launched, and so many people had seen it. It’s definitely become a solid fixture for now. Craziness!
How would you respond to some of the criticisms that Ms. Dewey is more whimsical and entertaining than practical?
I think that’s what it was for. If we wanted it to be a 100 percent search engine, something that you would go to view solely as a search, we would have performed it differently, and Ms. Dewey would have had to be in the background and your search results would have had to be pushed forward. This is entertainment.
What are your favorite responses? We’ve been yelled at a few times for typing in words like “kiss.”
I love the cowboy western—have you seen that one? I love the gun one, she’s got a bunch of gun responses. She has manservant, and his name is Ricardo—I had so much fun with my manservant. He just happens to be this beautiful model. He ended up being the sweetest guy, and just up for anything. If you type in “intern,” I believe, you’ll see him come in. It’s so ridiculous!
When you type in “Janina,” you get a pretty interesting response—all about you! How did it feel to act that one out?
(Laughs) They made me say something about myself! I didn’t know what to say, and they let me throw in the high explosives.
Who do you think Ms. Dewey really is?
I knew what she was into. They wanted her very worldly, and they wanted her very well read, and they wanted her to own you with her smarts and know that you were not as intelligent as her. Because of that, I just felt that she was sort of amused with her own little bubble and not amused with yours.
What do you hope for Ms. Dewey in the future?
I just hope it becomes a permanent little fixture in everybody’s 10 minutes of playtime at work. If everybody just sort of hit it once a day, or a few times a week, I’d be really happy. These sort of things, you know, they either become a blip on the radar and fade into the background, or they just stay around for a bit, and I hope she says around for a bit.