I had the pleasure of meeting Janet Varney about a week before the premiere of Book Two of The Legend of Korra (currently in its second season on Nickelodeon). A friend of mine invited me to an improve show, which she emceed masterfully, and it was fun to occasionally close my eyes and listen for Korra’s voice. After the show, I introduced myself. Now, I’m not the type to get star struck. Once you’ve lived in L.A. for several years, you learn to play it cool, because this sort of thing happens. But this is an Avatar-verse celeb, and not just that…an Avatar. Still, I kept it cool.
A few weeks later, Janet was kind enough to give us a little time at New York Comic Con to speak about her relationship with Korra, the expectations of fandom, the show’s portrayal of strong women, and more!
Den of Geek: Your work on The Legend of Korra isn’t by far your first gig, but it’s the first time you’ve carried a series as the lead. It’s also the first time you’ve been a part of such a widely beloved franchise. Did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into and do you find it overwhelming at all?
Janet Varney: I definitely had an awareness of the original series (Avatar: The Last Airbender), I was a fan, but I wasn’t all the way through it. As I got closer to getting this role during the audition process, I had to kind of pull back and NOT watch it, because I started to really, really want it. Of course we should try for something and of course it’s great to feel passionate and want a role, but I think a lot of people in show business get so used to being rejected and having things not go our way that you have to brace yourself for stuff. It really helps if you’re not that emotionally attached to something. It’s that weird place where you have to put your heart and soul into it, but you also have to protect your heart and soul.
So, I kind of pulled back on getting to know the first series, and then I got the part. But because I’m an idiot, I didn’t realize that the show had already been picked up. I just thought it was a pilot, so I was so overjoyed just to be doing the pilot, and then the amazing Sarah Noonan (Nickelodeon Casting) grabbed my arm and made intense eye contact with me and said, “Are you ready for this?” And I said, “To record a pilot? You bet I am! Let’s get this thing picked up!” And she shook her head and said, “I don’t know how I didn’t communicate this to you already, but it’s been picked up, it’s going to series, and it’s going to be a big deal.”
And then I felt overwhelmed. The process of recording it was so amazing and such a joy, and because it’s so gorgeously animated it kind of went away for awhile, because that takes time. And somewhere in that time period between having recorded it and it coming back I really started to realize how much buzz there was about it. I don’t think the true fans were that concerned, but there was that factor of “are we gonna approve of this?” And I just thought, “I am so screwed if people don’t like what we’re doing here.” I feel really lucky that they knew what they were doing when they cast us. We just put ourselves in their hands and I think everybody is a fit and does a great job, and fans just reflected that back at us.
It was a relief. I had become so tremendously anxious because I care so much about the show! I didn’t like the idea of letting anybody down. So the fact that it didn’t go that way and it was actually fun makes it an even better experience than it already was.
DoG: Korra is a strong role model for girls and an action hero that manages to appeal to boys without running around in a spandex unitard and jiggling everywhere. The show is also notable for having female action heroes well into their forties, fifties, and beyond. What are your own feelings on the roles of women and how they are depicted in super-hero media, and what effect do you think Korra has or could have on that landscape?
JV: I’m going to have to echo a little bit of what I’ve heard Bryan and Mike (Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the show’s creators) say, because they said it so expertly. Basically, as a woman, it’s really important to me that the way that women are represented in the media should catch up. I’m not asking for total gender neutrality. It’s not like “oh, she just happens to be a girl.” But having said that, Mike and Bryan have said that they don’t feel like they set out to make some sort of strong feminist statement because, in their mind, they’re just delivering what should already be pervasive in the media. That makes sense to me.
They didn’t start from the ground being like, “We need to show everyone that a woman can blahblahblahblah!” It was more like, “Women are awesome, Aang was great, let’s have this new Avatar be a girl, and this is the kind of girl that we would want to watch. And this girl is out there, and she’s someone we know.” So they drew from a very personal place with Korra. I think that the more people are willing to do that and understand that the qualities you know…how many women do we know who can do all these things and love wearing spandex and still need to be rescued somehow…
I think if you look at the people that we know in our day to day lives, and took it back a little, and don’t necessarily focus on male/female, that’s still gonna come through. But ultimately, we’re talking about amazing women who are flawed, who have opportunities to be better, but who bring a tremendous strength of character to who they are as people. I think that’s one of the things that makes Korra so cool. She’s not overthought. She’s not someone’s fantasy in a weird way, even though she’s got all these powers. She’s very real, and that’s what I want to see more of.
I think we’ve gotten further with that from men. We like our tragic heroes. It’s like Peter Parker. We’ve been seeing Peter Parker forever where people can really relate to this idea of not fitting in and then having powers and making them work for you, but still feeling like an outsider. We see that a lot more with male superheroes, and I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see that with more and more female superheroes.
DoG: Obviously you have to identify with Korra to some degree to portray her as truthfully as you do, but is she the character you identify the most with? If not her, who?
JV: For sure. Hands down, no question! It goes back to the casting process which is a nice reminder that all you can do is your best work. It’s great to be an actor and it’s great to embody something more than who you are. There still is really an element of truth inside of you that you’re bringing to the surface. Even if it’s a character that’s completely different from you, there’s still a connection there, and that’s what makes you honest.
I think that’s the reason we all got cast. Mike and Bryan make no secret of the fact that they hear PJ Byrne’s voice in their head when they’re writing Bolin, and sometimes they’ll say “Oh, Bolin would never say that,” and then PJ says something in the room that changes their mind. “Wait…he would say that!”
So, without knowing necessarily that they were casting people who were like the characters, I feel like more and more the two kind of inform each other a little bit. So with me and Korra, I feel like all of her flaws were the things I connected with most immediately, and I think those are the things that got me cast. You know, the stubbornness, the sarcasm, the protecting yourself behind that shell where you’re cracking a joke instead of admitting how you really feel. The impatience. It’s all very human. Korra’s got a really good heart, and she reminds me to think with that part of myself and not let the hard things in life make that shell harder.
I do get really impatient so that entire first season when she’s trying to master airbending and everyone is telling her, “breathe, slow down, be patient with yourself, don’t be so frustrated.” There was a takeaway from me in nearly every episode where I was like, “OK, be the leaf Janet…be the leaf.” Sure, for me it’s about traffic and for her it’s about the Equalists, but still…(laughs)
DoG: One of the major criticisms of Book One was its pacing. Many people feel the ending was rushed and would have liked to have spent more time exploring some of the concepts and issues introduced in the back end of the season such as Korra’s loss of her water-,earth-, and firebending and the creation of a new class of people: former benders. What would you like to have seen more time spent on story- or character-wise? Do you think it’s possible for the writing team to revisit those issues in future episodes?
JV: I think you can see some of that in the comics, and even in fan-fiction. I’m a huge fan of seeing people taking these concepts and running with them. I will say in Mike and Bryan’s defense that they always wanted to have a really clean, tight story, and I think some people were used to Aang’s story.
I respect that they wanted to come at this season fast and furious, they wanted to do a really tight story. They wanted it to be more like some of the BBC live-action series where they just knock out 13 brilliant episodes where there’s no fat to be trimmed. Having said that, sometimes the fat is delightful, and I totally get why people were like, “we could have used more! We want more development of this or that!” It’s a compliment!
I think that in some ways seeing Korra cope with the losing of powers and stuff like that is something that I’d love to see more of. I would invite people who want more to kind of go out and check out the comics and even the stories out in the fan world and explore some of these ideas and really delve deep.
DoG: Just as with Avatar, the whole cast seems to really enjoy working together. You seem to have a lot of fun. Is there anyone in particular you really look forward to doing scenes with?
I will say that PJ and David and I love working together and we work together all the time, and that’s such a treat and I don’t want to gloss over that. But I will say that on a personal and professional level that adding John Michael Higgins to the cast has just been the best time ever. I think he’s a genius. He’s a great person, so when he comes in and starts doing stuff that’s a very golden day for me. I just adore him. He keeps the energy very lively in the room and everyone wins. Whether or not my scenes are with him, just looking across and seeing him being brilliant is just great!