Rising Star: Janina Gavankar, True Blood’s newest Shapeshifter via Acess Hollywood

He’s been abandoned, pushed around, beaten up and had his heart trampled on, but this season, love is finally on the way for “True Blood’s” bar owner Sam Merlotte in the form of new brunette beauty (and fellow shapeshifter) Janina Gavankar.

Wide-eyed and with a beguiling mix of confidence, innocence and a little mischieviousness in her deep brown eyes,’s newest rising star is on a path toward charming Bon Temps and beyond.

But, as it turns out, her series regular role as Luna on the now hit HBO show almost didn’t happen.

The actress — perhaps best recognized for her roles on the “L Word” (she played strong Latina lesbian Papi) and ABC’s “The Gates” (she portrayed deputy Leigh Turner) — had to be coaxed into even auditioning after feeling a little “prudish” after only seeing the pilot.

“I was very aware of it, but I was like, ‘I’m not going to do it,’” she recalled of being approached by her people about the role of Sam’s shapeshifting love interest, Luna. “They were basically like, ‘It’s ‘True Blood’ and there is nudity involved,’ when they sent me the material.”

Having found regular work since her move from Chicago to Los Angeles several years ago, including recurring roles on the now-canceled “Traffic Light” on FOX, and FX’s “The League,” Janina wasn’t ready to jump at the opportunity.

“’Fine, I will only do it if it’s a strong recurring,’” she recounted of her conversation with her agents. “They were like, ‘It’s a series regular.’ I was like, ‘Fine, I will only do it if’ — ‘cause I know everybody has sex – ‘I will only do it if she’s not a vampire, because vampire sex kind of freaks me out.’ They are like, ‘She’s a shapeshifter!’ I’m like, ‘Fine!’ My last thing was, ‘I will only do it, if I am not like a stripper,’ and they [said], ‘She’s a school teacher.’

“I auditioned the next day,” she added.

While taking on the “True Blood” role has meant some disrobing, Janina credits the veteran actresses she met during her “L Word” stint – stars like Jennifer Beals, Pam Grier and Cybill Shepherd — for helping her become more comfortable with baring it all on camera.

“That was a show that dealt with sexuality. These women are uber-smart and dedicated to telling important stories and playing full-bodied characters, so they had no problem in that show doing it right,” Janina said of the risk-taking acting and the lessons learned during her first big job in Hollywood. “Some of them are like, ‘Eh! Do it while you’re young,’ And I was like, ‘Gosh I never thought of it that way.’

“And I am the kind of actor, I just don’t like seeing people hold back,” she continued. “You can tell when an actor is holding back. I don’t want to be that actor. I want to be the actor who gives their all.”

While she hasn’t felt a big shift in her popularity just yet, the day after “True Blood’s” Season 4 premiere, the actress admitted she boarded a flight out of town for an indie film she is currently working on (“Satellite of Love”) and overheard the passengers discussing the show’s return, something that made an impact.

“That was crazy! Can you believe that?” she said, still surprised by the conversations.

So far I’m really liking Janina’s new character….very mysterious….

Lessons in Democracy True Blood Style via

Aside from all the sex and supernatural species, one of the most interesting elements of True Blood is its power structures—the vampire governmental structures, not the I’ve-got-sharp-teeth-and-you-don’t power structures. Power relies on the memories of the people governing and being governed, and their ability to believe that it has been this way pretty much forever. Even on July 4th, celebrating Independence Day, Americans are all too young to remember the monarchy they broke free of, and so the fireworks and slogans are all celebrating a way of life that is already cemented into being. The people who seriously believe America is in imminent danger tend live in the hills with an unhealthy amount of ammunition and are generally considered to be out of touch with reality.

But vampires are older, and the majority of them started life in feudal relationships and monarchical structures—and they continue to use them, regardless of what the young human societies get up to. Though vampires have pushed to continue scientific progress through the ages, with vampire Pasteur inventing True Blood (and here it is clear that vampires are a bit unused to modern PR strategies as well—a campaign featuring the lifesaving Pasteur as a vampire seems like it would be such a brilliant coup), they use their existing system of government rather than build a new one. Bill and his fellow believers in humane harvesting of blood infiltrated the monarchies, but it doesn’t appear they intend to change the structures themselves, or even change their original uses very much. In fact, it is unclear which is having more effect on the other—Bill on the power structure, or the power structure on Bill.

With their long-held feudal mindset, it would naturally be difficult for the vampires to understand how galling requiring a “protector” would be to Sookie. Plus, the idea of regular women being independent is still just the latest fad to someone as old as most of these vampires. Sookie has lived her whole life in a society without feudalism, whereas the vampires see those relationships as standard good sense, like starting your 401 K or shelling out for health insurance. As Pam points out, Eric is her maker, therefore she could never be expected to go against his wishes; Eric, much as it irritates him, follows Bill’s orders because Bill is now King of Louisiana. With this in mind, Eric’s nonsensical notion that the deed to a house includes the people in it begins to have some internal logic after all—it’s more or less how things worked for most of his existence.

Times are changing, though, hastened on by technology—terrorizing a crowd quickly gets complicated if it is being widely broadcast. As Pam says, and many leaders can probably sympathize with, everyone is having to get used to allowing “these good people practice their constitutional right to be fucking idiots”—at least while the cameras are rolling. With no cameras present, Eric’s dealings with the budding necromancers are decidedly undemocratic… and then someone stronger comes along. It’s like a mini-government text book, wrapped up in blood and fairy dust to increase the appeal.

Russell Edgington will return in Season 5 via

Bill Compton is going to have to protect his throne, as Denis O’Hare confirms that the (former) vampire king of Mississippi will be returning in ‘True Blood’ season 5.

Even though the continuing adventures of Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood season 4 are just beginning, plans are already underway for the next season of HBO’s hit series – plans that include the long-awaited return of Russell Edgington.

Speaking with Film School Rejects, Denis O’Hare confirmed that he will be returning as the one-time vampire king of Mississippi when the fifth season of True Blood begins. As a fan-favorite character – and one of the few positives to come out of True Blood season 3 – viewers have been wondering if/when Russell Edgington would break free from the underground cement prison that was supposed to house him for the next 100 years.

Acknowledging that the producers had always planned on bringing his character back, O’Hare reveals that the return of Russell Edgington was never an “if”, but “when” scenario. With the fourth season of True Blood introducing many additional characters (not to mention witches), the producers were trying to decide whether or not it would be better to have Edgington’s return fall within the final episodes of season 4, or in the beginning of season 5.

Denis O’Hare says:

“They were definitely bringing me back, it was just a matter of if they wanted to bring me back the last couple episodes or bring me back at the beginning. So they decided to do it at the beginning of season 5.”

When we last left the crazed vampire king in the True Blood season 3 finale, Edgington was firmly cemented within the depths of yet unknown construction yard. With no available comparison to the events that occurred in “The Southern Vampire Mysteries” novels that the series is based on, it’s difficult to speculate exactly how Edgington will free himself – or who may help him accomplish that difficult task.

No matter the reasoning behind Russell Edgington’s return, one thing is absolutely certain: when Edgington returns, he’s going to be crazier and angrier than ever before. Even though Edgington was supposed to sit for 100 years in his cement coffin, the two years that would have passed by the time True Blood season 5 premieres (barring any additional time jumps) must have completely decimated the already fragile psyche of Mississippi’s fallen royal.

I personally would love to see Russell and Bill go at it…and I must admit I’d be cheering on Russell!

Turning the Page with Nelsan Ellis via indiewire

You may know Nelsan Ellis from his character, Lafayette, on HBO‘s hit fantasy series, True Blood.  However, did you also know that he’s an acclaimed short film director and screenwriter?  This year Nelsan has stepped into the filmmaker’s seat again, co-penning and directing the dramatic short, Page 36.

After exhaustively reaching out to his publicist to request an interview, I was able to speak to his long time filmmaking partner J David Shanks; he passed along a message to Nelsan that S&A was very interested in speaking with him about the film and voila…a day later, I received a reply!  Nelsan was kind enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to speak to S&A about his upcoming film as well as some exclusive tidbits on his preparation for the role of Lafayette in True Blood.  Below are some highlights from our chat…

Monique: Hi Nelsan, so great to talk with you today! I would like to start off with this question…as an actor which do you prefer, film or television?
Nelsan: I personally prefer film over tv.  My ultimate love is film.  I’ve always loved film ever since I was a kid.

Monique:For black actors in general, which category needs more representation?
Nelsan: I think there could be more black faces in film, tv and theater…actually.  I think we’re underrepresented in all three mediums.

Monique: You’ve written a few stageplays, am I correct?
Nelsan: Yes, I have.

Monique: What types of stories are you interested in creating and do you think that there’s been certain stories featuring black people that have been covered over and over again?
Nelsan: Yes.  I think we’ve been known for sort of “mom on the couch” dramas.  It almost limits us in a way.  In this big, vast, human experience…all we know how to do is the “momma on the couch” drama.  When you see other cultures films, you see a myriad of different aspects of the human experience that they deal with.  For some reason, we’re not worthy to explore all the different human experiences.  It’s like we’re being looked at as either being limited or not being able to do the full human experience.  I don’t know what it is.  It’s not that we don’t have those stories, we’re just not included in them and we don’t do them.

Monique: I want to talk about your new film Page 36 screening next month at the ABFF but this is not your first foray into producing and directing…you also directed wrote a film called Trespass?
Nelsan: Yes. you’re right.

Monique: Seeing as that film [Trespass] was a finalist in the HBO short film competition in 2006, did you feel any pressure when beginning the process of Page 36?
Nelsan: I never feel any pressure to achieve or do anything.  I only feel pressure to do my very best, to be on my own back to do my very best.  I never put pressure on myself beyond that because I can’t control beyond that.  But yeah, I’m a better filmmaker the second go around with Page 36.

Monique: In what ways was the process [of directing] different this time?
Nelsan: I knew more.  I’ve grown…I’ve become a better filmmaker, a better collaborator.  I’ve become a better artist, I think, and just a wiser man.  It was a way easier process in many ways and a more difficult process because I knew more technical aspects of film this time around.

Monique: Like your previous film[ Trepass], Page 36 deals with family strife—particularly with the father and son.  What draws you to this subject matter?
Nelsan: Well this film deals heavily with the relationship of black men actually.  There is a strong father and son thing.  I grew up without a father.  My father was around but I didn’t grow up with him.  I’m very close with my father now.  I think father and son relationships are deeply complicated and that’s why I like dealing with that.  In this, because I have three brothers, I wanted to deal with how black men deal with each other.  Also, just on a human level experience, what a man can result to if he’s desperate enough.

Monique: This marks your second collaboration with writer, producer and actor J David Shanks.  You guys seem to make magic together.  How did you meet and what led to your decision to team up on these particular projects?
Nelsan: I actually saw [J David] Shanks in a play and I thought he was the best actor in the play.  He just had this urbanism that’s rare with men, in general, in California.  It seems like when men move to California they become androgynous.  Shanks had this urbanism…and I knew he was from Chicago.  We hooked up and he was in a play that I wrote.  I really feel in love with the dude, his wife and his family.  Our first collaboration was Trespass.

Monique: What do you think it is about the two of you that clicks?
Nelsan: I’m a quirky, kind of different artist.  I like tackling subject matter that frightens people.  Shanks is not afraid to do that either, so it was a good fit.  We’re very honest with each other.  We both value production value, good actors, good storytelling…We both think we know absolutely nothing so we’re always trying to improve, trying to get better.  We’ll probably be working together forever.

Monique: I must ask you about Trueblood, although I know [by now] you’re worn out from answering so many questions about it.  Your character is so fascinating and, personally, one of my favorite characters along with Rutina’s.  It has been written that in your preparation for the role of Lafayette, you listened to Rhianna and your mother and sister inspired the character.  What other avenues of preparation have you/do you travel in order to make the character yours?
Nelsan: Well, the first season Lafayette was a drug dealer, he ran a gay porn website and he was a prostitute.  So, I went to a lot of gay clubs between New York and California.  And I also frequented the prostitute spots…the spots where gay men are known to frequent.  I would pop up there and I would watch them a couple of nights, then I would go out and try to prostitute myself.  I was like ‘if somebody tries to pick me up, maybe I’m doing it right.’  I never quite did it right…everybody thought I was a police officer.

Monique: Are you serious?  Did you really do that? (laughing)
Nelsan: (laughing) I didn’t really tell anyone this before but I did do that.  I get a character that I’ve never played before in territory that I’ve never traversed before so I was like ‘I got to get in and figure out how to do this.’  At Julliard, you learn to research as much as you can about a character, and the life of the character, then the more you can bring to the humanity of the character.  Yeah I did that and it informed me.

Monique: What do they call that…method acting?
Nelsan: They call it method acting, yes.  No, I didn’t actually go and get in the car with somebody and do the “do” with somebody.  No, I didn’t do that.  If somebody asked me would you do this character, playing a prostitute?  I’d have to say, I know where the prostitute spots are.  How else are you going to approach the character not knowing pieces of the character which informs you on who he is?

Monique: You have chemistry with, what seems to be, the whole cast.  I wonder if that’s something natural or from doing research like you said?
Nelsan: It’s, natural.

Monique: Was it ever a consideration or desire of yours to play a gay character?  Or do you not aspire to portray an archetype like soldiers, murderers, gangsters, etc…Is it more about the character and level of depth?
Nelsan: It’s the character.  It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s interesting to me.  There’s nothing I wouldn’t do in terms of the character.  As long as it’s interesting, I’ll play it.

Monique: Do you think Lafayette is a diverse character?
Nelsan: I do, yes.

Monique: Are there any directors or actors you’d like to work with in the future?
Nelsan: (pauses) Many.  If I can say one, it would have to be Paul Thomas Anderson.

Monique: Okay, interesting choice…what about actors, anyone in particular you‘d like to work with?
Nelsan:Morgan Freeman.

Monique: (laughs) We talk a lot about him on S&A.  He’s a very blunt man.
Nelsan: Well good, so am I.

Monique: Do you have plans to do a full feature length film because, so far, you‘ve done short films?  Are you approaching that time when you’re going to step into a full feature?
Nelsan: Yes, I am.

Monique: Really? Do you already know what it’s [the film] going to be about?
Nelsan: Hopefully it’ll be the film I wrote about my sister who was murdered or it’ll be a full length feature of Page 36.

Monique: Page 36 is premiering at the ABFF.  Do you know if it’s going to get any type of distribution so a wider audience can see it, I know it’s a short film?
Nelsan: Well HBO buys all five of them and they show it on their showcase.  Can’t be that.

Monique: So we’ll get to see it.  That’s awesome!

I would like to thank Nelsan Ellis for taking the time to talk with S&A. I wish him all the best with his new film and continued success in his acting career! I would also like to thank J David Shanks for reaching out to his friend and collaborator on our behalf…and last but not least, Cynthia and long time S&A reader, Tamara who were my research bees on this interview. Without them I would have never gotten it done! Gosh, this is coming off like an Oscar’s speech…(laughs)