'Imagine making a movie, except a hundred times harder': Star Wars Battlefront II's Janina Gavankar
True Blood actress says pop culture industry just beginning to give gaming the respect it deserves
Janina Gavankar knows how to make an entrance: accompanied by a retinue of fully armoured Stormtroopers marching to the Imperial anthem.
Such was her introduction to gamers around the world at Electronic Arts' E3 news briefing earlier this year to announce the next blockbuster Star Wars video game.
"I am Janina Gavankar," she boomed, "and I play Commander Iden Versio in Star Wars Battlefront II." Her black dress was accented with the same military markings that denote her character's elite trooper status.
She remained as stern as her in-game character for a few segments then broke into a smile, thanking her mom in the audience and gushing at finally being able to talk publicly about the role of a lifetime.
The actor, whose previous credits include television's True Blood and Sleepy Hollow, has a charismatic, easygoing stage presence that instantly made her a favourite among gamers and the enthusiast press. "Please let her host everything [at E3] next year," wrote Polygon's Ben Kuchera.
'It has been a very loud week'
Fast-forward to the week before Battlefront II's release, and the wider narrative has gotten more complicated.
Fans erupted with discontent at its in-game economy, locking major characters like Darth Vader behind a tedious progression system, as well as its loot crates that randomize in-game rewards and, many argued, pushed players toward paying real money for rewards rather than earning them through gameplay.
- Inside the huge consumer backlash against Star Wars Battlefront II
- Loot box brouhaha: Are video games becoming too much like gambling?
As the lead character in the single-player story, Gavankar's involvement in the controversy was tangential. But that didn't stop any tweet about her promotional appearances from being buried in responses about loot crates instead.
"It has been a very loud week for my cellphone. Any time there has been a change ... as we've gone through the process of this launch, it's like my phone just starts vibrating and it won't stop. So I know something big has happened," Gavankar told CBC News of the lead-up to release.
"This is what it's like to be a part of, ostensibly, the most anticipated game of the year. And it has been exciting to be a part of it, in every way."
Gavankar, who is of South Asian descent, joins an increasingly gender- and background-diverse cast of leads in the new era of Star Wars, including Daisy Ridley, Felicity Jones and John Boyega.
"It's crazy. I'm so thankful that Lucasfilm and EA – and Disney, quite frankly – would choose to put a person of colour in the protagonist's spot of a Star Wars story. You know, growing up I didn't dream of this, because I didn't think it was possible. And it just means everything to me."
It's an improbable culmination for an actor and self-professed mega-geek who, growing up, wasn't allowed to watch television or movies in the first place.
"Growing up, I had a strict upbringing.… I was playing piano and percussion and studying classical voice," said Gavankar. "And so I missed a lot of pop culture references."
That all ended in high school when a friend introduced her to Star Wars, and she was immediately captivated by the opening crawl accompanied by John Williams' orchestral score.
"I was suddenly like, 'Oh, this was what I was missing.' And of course I was forever changed."
Gavankar to Hollywood: take games seriously
She likewise became a passionate fan of video games when she started playing in 2007 – a banner year for games releases that included all-time classics such as Bioshock, Assassin's Creed and Portal.
Since then Gavankar has loudly proselytized the games industry among her peers in Hollywood, many of whom wouldn't give the medium a second thought.
"Imagine making a movie, except a hundred times harder. That's what making a video game is," she said.
"Every interview I do, I get to talk about the games industry as a whole, and what it takes to make a video game. And how I'm actually quite a small part of what it took to make this game. I get to represent something that is so much bigger than me, and I'm very proud to be able to do it, and I'm very proud to be a part of bridging the gap between mainstream coverage of video games."
Over the months-long promotion tour for the game, Gavankar proved herself equally comfortable chatting on the set of Good Morning America or talking about the minutiae of the games industry with hardcore gamer haunts like Kinda Funny Games.
It's a delicate needle to thread. Even in promotional segments like Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer, the realm of the nerdy is still the butt of jokes more often than not.
"I think that the perception of the demographic that makes up gamers is skewed," she said. "Gamers are savvy, gamers are passionate, and I think gamers in general are talked down to and misrepresented in mainstream media. I myself am one, so I can tell you we come in many forms."
Gavankar said she's able to turn heads when she brings up the undeniably huge numbers the triple-A sector of games can boast: budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, hundreds-strong development teams and revenue in the tens of billions.
"They're just starting to take the games industry as seriously as they should," she said of many in the pop culture industry and mainstream press.
"But that's OK, because quite honestly, the games industry doesn't need the mainstream media to pay attention. They will exist with or without it, just like they have thus far."