There’s a solid chance you want to outright abandon your current job as you read this. Wouldn’t it be freeing to flip your boss off as you walk out the door?
If you’re not there yet, I bet you’ve at least fantasized about pivoting to an entirely new profession. Let’s run off a few reasons why that is unlikely: 1) You’re mediocre to good at what you already do; 2) It’s a brazen and unnecessary risk for most ordinary people with bills to pay; 3) Fantasy is undefeated versus reality, and the fear of failure often keeps people from fully committing to a dream.
None of that self-doubt phases Janet Varney, who trades acting for psychic endeavors in her new IFC web series, Fortune Rookie. The series, which is co-produced by Drama 3/4 Productions, follows a fictional version of Varney who is convinced she has psychic abilities when she’s told as much by a bathroom fortune teller. Undeterred by the absurdity of the situation, this egotistical version of Varney quits her acting career and commits to a life of palm readings and tarot cards in a decidedly half-assed way. Not only is she a newbie to the psychic community, but she’s also impossibly bad at it.
The real Janet Varney is exceptionally good at what she does; one can argue her heroic character, Evie, should be the titular evil-slayer in IFC’s horror comedy Stan Against Evil; and her standout scenes in FX’s You’re The Worst, alongside actor Todd Robert Anderson, are either cringingly surface level or surprisingly candid, but always hilarious. Her popular podcast, The JV Club, routinely has a who’s who of headliner comedians and Hollywood superstar guests. And as if all that hasn’t kept her busy enough, Varney created, co-wrote (along with Brandon R. Reynolds), produced, and, of course, stars in Fortune Rookie.
The eight episode first season, which is now available to watch on IFC.com, is a refreshingly surreal look at what it means to throw yourself into a new gig and fake it until you figure it out. Helping fictional Varney out on this adventure is an excellent group of guest stars, including Fred Armisen, Laraine Newman, Scott Adsit, Oscar Nunez, and, naturally, Psych’s James Roday, just to name a few.
We spoke with Varney about psychics, the show’s origins, and what job the real Janet Varney would quit acting for.
Did you have an interest in fortune tellers to launch you down the path to make the show?
I think a lot of young people probably had a similar experience, which was that when I first started hearing about the idea of being psychic or having any kind of paranormal powers, I was so excited. As a little kid you want to believe that maybe you’re going to be the person who proves it’s real or if I just think hard enough, if I just focus hard enough on that ball over there across the room, surely I’ll be able to make it move.
So I definitely just inhaled whatever books at the little school library I had at my various grade schools, and read up on all of that stuff. And I definitely was not, at that age, interested in it being debunked.
Now that I’m an adult, I have equal parts cynicism and still the imagination of the kid who is always still waiting for someone to be like, “Guys, we proved it. We finally proved it. It’s a thing.” You know?
So, that’s definitely something that I’ve always kept with me and have held onto, those competing forces inside my own brain. I had never been to a psychic, I think in part because I didn’t want to be disappointed and because I was very much afraid I would be.
You can watch Fortune Rookie Episode 1 below…
Did you end up seeing a psychic before making this show?
A few years ago, I had a friend who went to a psychic and couldn’t tell me enough about how right [the psychic] had been about all this stuff that happened in her life up to and including meeting this guy that she ended up marrying, and getting this very specific job that she somehow intuited was on the way for her. She could not stop telling me about how amazing it was.
I thought if there ever was a time for me to take a chance and pay someone money for probably no reason, this has gotta be the most ringing endorsement, right? I went and saw this guy who lived in a very fancy mansion in the Mulholland Drive area. I just remember having the thought, “Listen, if this guy is living this kind of lifestyle, maybe he really does have the gift, this is going to be great.”
I do not feel that he was of much use to me. I cannot say that much of what he said resonated tremendously. I certainly kind of fell into the spell of trying to make things fit afterwards, which I think is also the fascinating thing where you then start to kind of influence your own future because you are looking to fulfill those prophecies, so there’s this tremendous amount of weird power that a psychic can have.
An L.A. medium in a luxurious mansion sounds like it could be the premise for a reality show.
Oh, totally. It was pretty weird. He was like a Bond villain. I’ve never thought about it that way before until this exact second. I mean it really was. You walk up this steep set of outside stairs to go into this mansion that was just resplendent in kind of grotesque way. It had thick, shag carpet and a small, barking, expensive-looking dog, and just gold where it doesn’t need to be. And he sat behind like a huge desk and his weird psychic office and I’m thinking of that now, I’m like, “Wow, he really could be a Bond villain.”
How did that experience influence what ultimately become Fortune Rookie?
That [experience] morphed into various iterations of Fortune Rookie over the last few years, some of which were me germinating this idea of a scripted half hour, where a character, who certainly is not Janet Varney, is a con artist, and then grows a conscience. We had a version that was kind of like The Daily Show where I was actually going to interview real psychics, quote unquote real psychics, and give readings to people on the street.
And then where it landed with IFC just ended up being this scripted show that is a version of me who is told I’m psychic by a bathroom psychic who we never actually see – we want flashback to that in season two.
Despite all evidence to the contrary and believing none of that up until I’m told I’m psychic, this version of Janet is egotistical and self-centered enough that if someone tells her she’s talented, apparently she decides it must be true. And so here’s this way of her abandoning show business for this other new thing that makes her even more special to the world and also gives her permission to stop agonizing over things like acting.
It’s a crazy, goofball, strange, surreal show we ended up creating. There is this weird, underlying thread that actually is kind of meaningful to me, which is this idea that it’s really easy to be afraid if you care about something. You don’t want to be hurt by whatever that thing is, so you don’t completely commit to it. You come to understand that even with this shitty version of myself, through the show, there’s a lesson where you actually have to mean it. You can’t just pretend that you’re following your dreams, you have to actually take chances and risk being heartbroken by them.
So you’re already on IFC in Stan Against Evil. How did you end up pitching the network for the web series?
If IFC wants to make a show with you, it’s because they love what you’re doing, not what they think they can make you do with their power of will and money. They are certainly not known for having high budgets, we all kind of joke about it, but they have a really good sense of humor about themselves, but they are also fiercely proud of the creative mind that they engage.
Anybody who’s a showbiz nerd, be it on the inside or the outside of things, knows that at this point there are way too many projects that start out wonderful and then go through a network development process and then come out unrecognizable. So when you go into something with IFC, you know that you’re going into it with their full support of the initial idea, which I think is really… there’s something to say for that.
Let’s talk about all the great guest stars! A lot of comedians that are working right now seem to love popping up on different projects, whether it’s podcasts, shows, or web series. I feel like there’s one giant group text in Hollywood that all the cool people are on right now.
That’s definitely one of the most fun things about having done this for long enough, and I would say specifically about the comedy community as well, and even more specifically, the kind of alt-comedy community, whatever that means anymore. It’s populated with a lot of people who really like to stay busy, who really like to stay inspired, and hustle, and work with their friends. I feel like I’ve found a really wonderful place for myself in this community of people who absolutely love working together, yet also really love sitting at home at night instead of going out. It’s great. We love each other, we socialize, and we get to veg out on the couch.
If you left Hollywood tomorrow, like your character in the show, what profession would you actually take up?
That’s such a great question. My answer when I was younger before I ended up doing this stuff would have been to maybe open up a little home furnishings shop in San Francisco because that was sort of the dream I was pursuing when a thing that is way more dream like actually kind of took me, which was show business.
I fairly recently got back from doing the London Podcast Festival with Paul F. Tompkins, and it gave me the opportunity to stay over and actually do a couple of other little trips in Europe and go to France and Denmark. That was such a heavenly trip. I think my answer is maybe someone giving me some reason to need to live in France for a while, maybe just teach there or just to be able to use my French. That’s something my mom did when she was my age and so, I think it would be really fun to maybe have some reason to be in France. Let’s say to teach in France.
You can stream Fortune Rookie now on IFC.com.
Editor’s note: An earlier verison of the story ommited Todd Robert Anderson as Varney’s co-star in You’re The Worst. We regret the error!