The Legend Of Korra lead Janet Varney talks fun with fandom and strong female leads
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The Legend Of Korra’s Saturday-morning debut on Nickelodeon in April was watched by 4.5 million people—a million more than watched the season-five première of Mad Men a couple weekends earlier. Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, an enormously popular three-season Nickelodeon cartoon set in the same world, where specially talented people can “bend,” or control and shape, either water, earth, air, or fire via martial-arts moves. (The universally loathed M. Night Shyamalan film The Last Airbender adapted the series’ first season.) The original show picked up a hugely devoted adult fan base in its three-year run, and those fans have stuck around to debate the merits of the new Avatar, Korra—a teenage girl who gracefully dodges pretty much every stereotype about female cartoon characters. As Korra wraps up its first season with a double episode on Saturday, June 23, The A.V. Club spoke with Korra’s voice actress, Janet Varney—also a founder of SF Sketchfest, and a Nerdist empire podcaster—about the token female Muppet, sound-booth jokes, and how she and Azula are bros.
The A.V. Club: Would you say more adults or kids get in touch with you about Korra?
Janet Varney: I get a lot of kids that tweet me—I’ll get a vague sense of age from some of the other stuff they say, like about being in school. But there’s this incredible base of adults who get it, who know what a great show it is.
AVC: In the last week or so, you’ve retweeted fan art, a song someone wrote about Korra, and a Fat Cosplay Mako. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen come out of the fandom?
JV: I like the mash-ups. Like, they’ll have my character and one from a different cartoon having an exchange in a comic-strip format. We’ve always recycled and collaged ourselves in pop culture, but in the last decade or so, it feels even more like this world of mushing up everything you love and creating your own little world out of it. When I was younger, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to be, like, “Oh my God, what if Fonzie and Laverne and Shirley were on each other’s shows?” [Laughs.]
AVC: “I will have everything I love in one meme!”
JV: Exactly! It’s like the gum in Willy Wonka. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s much more awkward for fans to explain why they’re really into a Nickelodeon cartoon than it is to defend an interest in, say, Breaking Bad. You were a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender before auditioning for Korra; how did you end up giving the original show a chance?
JV: Some girlfriends in Tuscon were talking about it while I was home visiting, like, “Oh my God, we’re such nerds for it,” and I started watching after that. I’m fortunate in that I do, in large part thanks to [ex-boyfriend and Nerdist podcast host] Chris Hardwick, comfortably exist in the geek and nerd world, where people are unabashedly enthusiastic about whatever they’re unabashedly enthusiastic about. [Chris] helped foster this growing sense of the nerd iconography that’s become so pervasive now, feeling like you’re part of that collective consciousness, like, “This is a thing!” That sort of ownership of “Hey, I loved the original Star Wars,” or “I love stand-up comedy,” or “I love Mystery Science Theater 3000,” all of that stuff. I’m very lucky that I was already part of a community of people who are like, “We have no problem acknowledging that this children’s show is awesome.” Obviously there were raised eyebrows, but I feel lucky in that I didn’t have to apologize for it. Above that, there’s a part of me that’s just a big dork, and I’m pretty upfront about what I’m charmed by, even if it’s not supposed to be for me. I will go into a baby store and buy stuffed animals for myself. I will not pretend that they’re for anyone else. Like, “I’m sorry, this is so fucking cute! There’s no way I’m not taking this little panda bear home.” If you go to my house, it’s not like I’m 5, but I definitely have a lot of toys, and weird, tiny miniatures.
AVC: You’re friends with Grey DeLisle, who voiced Azula on the original series. Did you know her while she was working on the original show?
JV: No—or, rather, I did, but it had nothing to do with me. She’s one of those voiceover people who works all the time—she can do a million different voices, she’s so skilled it blows my mind. I did meet her because of her voiceover career, through Matt Lillard, because Matt is Shaggy on [Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated] and Grey is Daphne. Matt and I shot a pilot together for ABC, one of the many pilots that gets shot about, like [perky] three couples! [Laughs.] I’d been hearing about her through the grapevine for a while, like, “I think you guys would really get along!” And sure enough, five minutes into us meeting, we were completely in love with each other.
AVC: Had you seen the original show at the time?
JV: I had, but I didn’t know much about voiceover at the time; I still sort of put cartoons and animation in the world of “Oh, those are real people!” I wasn’t thinking much about “Who voices this character?”
AVC: Did she have any advice for you when you were cast as Korra?
JV: I don’t think she had any specific—well, actually, I guess she did; she had already experienced the love the fans have for Avatar, so her advice was “Get ready for your life to change.”
AVC: In interviews, you give a lot of credit to Andrea Romano, the voice director for both Korra and Avatar. What have you learned from her?
JV: I’d done voiceover before, but I’d never had a series; the old adage of learning on your feet has never been more true [Laughs.] than it is for me with this show. Andrea’s so mindful about having the scene in her mind and helping you flesh out the physicality of what’s happening. When we go into ADR [to rerecord lines that don’t work with the animation], she’s able to say, “Okay, now you can see Korra’s running. So we need to make sure we’re getting the concern in her voice, because this just happened, and the urgency, because this just happened, but it’s also much more physical than we thought.” I really do jump up and down if I’m supposed to be jumping up and down—I’m pretty physical when I’m in the booth.
AVC: How do you communicate the tiny details that are off about a line reading?
JV: One of the things I love about Andrea is, she can redo the weird sounds that come out of our mouths for us. It’s embarrassing, but it’s really helpful. Like, I’ll do a line, and she’ll say, “Okay, we need to do that again, I heard a weird [strangled bear noise] in there.” Your first thought is, “Well, that was embarrassing,” but she just pointed out so specifically what went wrong that you know, unequivocally, what you need to not do. It took me a while to not be bashful about it—it’s this direct, specific, explicit criticism you don’t get when you’re on camera. You get this instinct to pull back, to tuck inside yourself and protect yourself, like [tiny sad voice], “I really screwed that up.” And there’s no time for that, and there’s no reason for that. You eventually just learn what a huge gift she’s giving you. It’s a really great way to learn how to take very specific criticism about something.
AVC: How often do you get to work with the other voice actors in person?
JV: It’s very, very rare that we don’t get to work with each other. People certainly have crazy schedules—J.K. Simmons [who voices Tenzin] is the busiest man in show biz, he’s on, like, eight different shows—so there are certain people that it feels extra-exciting to be able to be in the room with them. But they’re very careful to get us together as much as possible. We’ve recorded pretty much every episode with at least David [Faustino, who voices Mako] and P.J. [Byrne, who voices Bolin] and me there; there’s support from your co-stars, much more than shows where people just record one-offs in a booth somewhere and never see each other.
AVC: So that’s pretty non-standard for a cartoon show?
JV: You know, I don’t know the answer to that—I think Nickelodeon tries to get people in the same room as much as possible, I think they understand that comedy and pathos come out of exchanges between actors that’s hard to achieve when people are on their own.
AVC: What’s the most inappropriate thing that will not get you in trouble with Nickelodeon that someone’s said in a character’s voice?
JV: One of the things Justin, one of the sound-board aficionados, will do is that we’ll say something in character, or sometimes I’ll have to make an, uh, really weird sound, and he’ll loop it and play it back at completely inappropriate times. Like, between real takes, I’ll suddenly hear my voice again in a loop going, like, [silly car-alarm noise.] He tortures us with that stuff, and everyone else laughs. And certainly some of the more seasoned voice actors can stay in character while saying something inappropriate—but for all the improv and comedy stuff I do outside of the booth, I’m pretty serious when I’m recording Korra! It’s hard! It’s pretty serious acting work, as crazy as that might sound.
AVC: When the first two episodes leaked back in April, how did people involved with the show react?
JV: I think we were on a break or something, and actually nobody associated with the show had told me they’d leaked; I found out through fans, which is kind of perfect. I started getting tweets and emails, that’s how I found out. My reaction was, like, “Oh! Really? God, I have to Google this!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you watch it? Was that the first time you’d seen it as a whole?
JV: It was! I had seen tiny, tiny bits of it from ADR—the first snippet I saw of it, I totally cried, like, “It’s so beautiful!” [Laughs.] Oh man. So I felt super-guilty, but I watched the first staticky, crummy, small leaked thing thinking, “I probably shouldn’t be doing this.” But how could I not?
AVC: In March, you started a Nerdist-network podcast, The JV Club, where you talk to actresses and female comedians mostly about their experiences as teenagers. Did playing a teenage character start you thinking about that, or had it been on your mind before?
JV: I think I started recording the podcast before I got Korra. I can’t remember the exact chronology, but I started recording episodes a year before I started releasing them. For me, it was less about playing a teenage character and more about the relationship I’ve had with Los Angeles since I moved here. I had a pretty normal, non-Hollywood life for most of my 20s in San Francisco. So when I came down to L.A., I was kind of shocked by the tough things people respond to in the business. And one of the ways that worked for me to diffuse some of that hard stuff was to think of it as like high school. Like, your physical appearance means more than it should, and you’re easily defined by it, people want to pigeonhole you based on who you hang out with, there’s a lot of backstabbing—and there’s a lot of great stuff, there’s a lot of bonding and connecting. And the more I talked to other girls about it, they all sort of agreed with me.
AVC: What cartoons did you love as a kid?
JV: I feel most strongly about The Muppet Show, in terms of freaking out and getting super, super excited. That was a bigger deal to me than cartoons. And later, probably older than I should have been, I was definitely obsessed with Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I didn’t watch that much Saturday-morning stuff; I liked watching cartoons after school, and that was more Scooby-Doo and Super Friends—I definitely wanted to be one of the Wonder Twins.
AVC: The Muppet Show, while it’s wonderful, is actually a perfect example of how rare the multiple strong female characters in Korra and Avatar are; there’s just the one major female Muppet, and she’s obsessed with pink stuff and her boyfriend.
JV: You know what—this is shameful, but I’d never thought of it that way! I can’t believe I managed to go through a liberal-arts and theater education and take all these women’s-studies classes and never have addressed that the Muppets were all boys, except for one pig who was obsessed with herself! [Laughs.]
AVC: Some media coverage lumped Korra in with Bridesmaids, The Hunger Games, and Brave in this year’s whole “Female leads can work! Who knew?” zeitgeist. What do you think about all the trend pieces?
JV: I don’t mean to be a Negative Ned, but I think everything’s kind of cyclical; this is just the latest version of [silly voice] “Hey, look! Sisters are doin’ it for themselves!” [Laughs.] If you and I went down to the library and looked at microfiche, we’d probably find articles from 1987 all, like, “The dawn of the new era of the female lead! Molly Ringwald and John Hughes are turning Hollywood on its ear!” [Laughs.] I don’t mind it so much—some great iconography comes out of it—but I worry about the backlash. I worry about programming being made in a rush that’s an attempt at capturing that spirit, and I worry that it’ll get mucked with by the market. Things will come out that aren’t as good, and everyone will react poorly to those things, and then suddenly women can’t do those things for themselves anymore. Not because of the creators themselves, but because the machine creates these ditto-copies that suffer in comparison. I hope that doesn’t happen; I hope in two years people aren’t going to be like [Laughs.] “Ha, yeah, remember when we thought women knew how to write?”
AVC: So you’re not super-optimistic.
JV: Well, it keeps getting better, but it’s the whole Bob Balaban thing: “Never be hot, always be warm.” Bridesmaids was phenomenal, it deserves every accolade it’s gotten, and it’s exciting for every woman in comedy. I just want that to settle into the canon and be a building block, and not have people capitalize on it and harm the good it did.
AVC: Have you seen the M. Night Shyamalan Airbender movie?
JV: Nope! And I never will. [Laughs.]