A “Legend” in Our Midst: An Interview with Janet Varney
by Dan Casey on April 27, 2012
Chances are that you already know Janet Varney – after all, she’s the host of our very own The JV Club podcast – but did you know that her voice commands the powers of earth, fire, wind and water? Well, if you were one of the 4.5 million folks who tuned in to the premiere of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, you do. Varney, in her first major voice acting role, lends her mellifluous tones to Korra, the star of the show. I got a chance to catch up with her about the challenges of voice acting, what it’s like to have cosplayers of your very own and Muppets. We talked an awful lot about Muppets.
Nerdist: First of all, congratulations. We heard the The Legend of Korra premiere got around 4.5 million viewers, which is just staggering.
Janet Varney: Thank you! I’m still kind of processing that information. A ton, a ton of people saw it online when it leaked and when it became available as a sneak preview on iTunes, so I knew a lot of people had seen it already. I’m blown away by the 4.5 million and I’m super blown away knowing that that many people had seen it already. It’s just amazing.
Janet: Yeah, it was the biggest premiere in three years for Nickelodeon. I’m so proud to be a part of it. I just can’t say enough good things about the show.
N: I just watched the first three episodes and I was really impressed because I wasn’t overly familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it seemed very accessible. It seemed like the Pixar motif where there’s a show for kids and a show for adults, which gave it enormous crossover appeal.
JV: I couldn’t agree more. I would’ve been happy just doing something that was aimed at kids because I love kids’ programming. But, when I got this job – and I did have an awareness, I watched the old series – I really felt like I won the lottery because I’m so in awe of programming that manages to cross through so many ages successfully. It’s such a huge achievement. And it’s something that Nickelodeon creates that’s very specific and it knows what kind of shows to aim at what kind of viewers and provides really great entertainment. A lot of their shows appeal to a broad spectrum anyway, but, what I guess I’m trying to say is – and I’m never trying to insult a show that has a more specific audience – obviously the target audience for this show could happily live in the 6-11 range because, to your point, there’s plenty of stuff for young kids to like. I’m not saying that programming that doesn’t hit all of those age groups is lazy, but I do think that it takes a whole other level of care and attention and thought and writing skill to bring everything that gets brought to this table here. You know what I mean?
N: Exactly. It’s a fine line to toe and not everyone manages to execute it as artfully as you folks have in these first three episodes.
JV: I have to give it up to [series creators] Michael [Dante DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko] because they just create a whole world and every time I read a script, the writing team, above and beyond the creators as well – I mean, I write myself, but I certainly don’t write the kind of adventure stories with all this humor and heart that these guys are writing in this whole other world that has been created and I don’t know, I kind of want to sneak into the writer’s room at some point. The fact they’re able to see the stuff in their heads, then make it live the way it lives on the screen, I don’t understand it. I don’t even understand how that’s possible [laughs]. If you want me to write, like, two kooky sitcom characters making some jokes, I could probably handle that, but if you ask me to create a world where two animals combine to become super animals and you have all these amazing powers and you’re crafting all these amazing relationships between the characters and you’re creating these crazy mysteries that need to be solved, adventures, villains, that would be way too much for me to bite off.
JV: I have done some. I’ve done small, short animations. I did a pilot for Nickelodeon that didn’t end up going to series. This is really the first out-in-the-world series that I’ve done.
N: What challenges does voice acting present versus those of live-action?
JV: For sure, I didn’t have a ton of experience doing stuff off-camera. It’s still kind of hard for me some days to realize that no one’s asking me to put makeup on and look nice. No one’s going to fire me if I’m a little unkempt. We live in an industry, in a city, where people get fired at table reads. It’s a business. People get hired for a show, then they walk in to a table read and somebody with the network says, “I didn’t remember him looking like that,” you know what I mean? It breeds a paranoia for the on-camera stuff that you get embedded into you and the fact that this particular side of the industry is so forgiving in that way… it’s really celebrating the key elements that it does in voice and emotion and acting in a very pure way. I guess that’s my answer. In a way, the challenge is getting used to the fact that it’s a really pure form of acting and as I’m getting more used to it… boy, it’s really all that I want to do. You hear that from a lot of actors who cross over from on-camera to voiceover. It’s not about being lazy or sloppy or anything like that; it’s just, somehow, it feels more distilled. It’s really about your skill, your talent and…[sighs] it’s so nice. It’s so nice.
N: That’s a really nice sentiment. I think you really hit the nail on the head there.
JV: I hadn’t thought about that. I hadn’t really articulated it like that before. It was a really good question and it got me thinking.
JV: [laughs] I know! Thank you. This is already more of a therapy session. I mocked it earlier, but we’ve come back around to therapy.
N: Another question about the process: when you record, do you typically have the other voice actors in the booth with you or do you record solo? I always think of The Simpsons model where they used to record together, but now it’s all patched in separately.
JV: I think they’re all probably in their tubs. Like their warm hot tubs.
N: Their hot tubs full of money.
JV: It might be a hot tub full of money – I take it back. There is no water in the hot tub; they get into their hot tub full of money, then they’re able to record. Those guys amaze me; I am so impressed at the level of skill that some of these voiceover actors who have been doing it for a long time, as well as, I’m sure, some beginners who are instantly able to create that electric energy you normally need another actor for. I think it’s an interesting – well, let me answer the question first. We do record as a group. Everyone’s schedule is crazy and the fact that Nickelodeon manages to juggle and balance all these moving parts while prioritizing the cartoon – they’re artisans of scheduling at Nickelodeon. Because we have people like J.K. Simmons, Mindy Sterling, Dave Faustino and P.J. Byrne, all these people who have very vibrant on-camera careers as well, and Nickelodeon’s dedication to getting us all into a room has been extraordinary. I’m so grateful for it because I do much better when everyone’s around. Very, very rarely do I have to go in and do it alone. The parallel I’m trying to draw is, I’m a comedian and I come from the comedy world, but I’m not a stand-up. Again, you’ve raised this in my mind for the first time, but it totally makes sense to me that I’m not into stand-up because I’m not interested in being on stage alone and I’m not interested in doing voiceover alone for the same reason. I think coming from an improv/sketch background, I’m just used to having people around me to feed off of and support. I like to “yes, and,” my friend.
N: When you get the script and it comes time to record, is it more matching the dialogue to the animation or do you record dialogue first?
JV: We record first. We record and then it gets animated. One of the really cool things about that for us that we’ve all kind of recently discovered, as episodes have begun airing, is there’s enough distance between when we’ve recorded and when it gets animated – and we’ll have recorded episodes in between – that there’s this weird, magical buffer that exists in a way that I’ve never experienced with any on-camera stuff where I kind of don’t remember saying the things that I’m hearing my voice saying and I’m not seeing myself on-screen. We’re able to just settle down and enjoy in a way that we never do when we’re on-camera. I’m able to experience my work in a completely new way. It’s far less painful. [laughs]
N: That’s a really interesting phenomenon. Part of that freshness and feeling of newness must come from seeing the emotion behind the dialogue manifested within the fully animated world of Korra. The animation is so lush and beautiful that it must add another dimension to the experience.
JV: Absolutely. When Bryan took a couple of us into his office, months ago, after they’d just finished the trailer, that teaser that came out months ago to whet the whistle of every fan out there, it wasn’t the first time and it certainly wasn’t the last time, I promptly burst into tears. It’s just gorgeous. It’s beautiful to look at and then when you add the amazing music, I think – and not to speak ill of some of the brighter, poppier cartoons that are maybe a little louder and more frenetic than ours; they have their place and I love them – it’s so much more cinematic. It’s like a great film. You almost don’t notice the music because it’s so good at setting the tone for the show. Every piece is of the production is like that for me; it’s a really well-oiled machine and I think that the result speaks for itself.
N: Avatar’s mythology was surprisingly dense for what’s ostensibly a children’s show. Do you think Legend of Korra has any sort of learning curve for first-time viewers?
JV: I don’t think so. I think they’ve done a really nice job; it certainly has a dense mythology and it kind of goes back to what we were talking about: it’s enjoyable on a number of levels. For the diehard fans who are very familiar with the old series who treasure that mythology and want that same depth, they will not be disappointed. But, for anybody who hasn’t seen the old series and are just interested in getting to know a new set of characters and a great story, I think you can absolutely drop yourself right in. I think you probably experienced that when you watched the first couple of episodes. Sure, there will be references that I might not understand, but I can always go back and get to know the old series. At the same time, there’s so much happening so quickly and there’s such a rich story being presented that’s brand new that it doesn’t really matter. It’s up to any viewer to kind of take what they want away from it and that includes young kids, who kind of love it for the character and the great lessons that are being explored for them, and for adults, who love the storytelling for the same reason, but also this steampunk technology and anime look. I was talking with the cast members and I think for the first time I really understand – all due respect to fans who dress up in costumes – I look at the costumes that characters wear in Korra and I think, “I want that!”
N: That brings me to my next question. We’ve already started to see Korra cosplayers. What is that like for you as an actress?
JV: Total and complete joy. I love it. All of those people can probably better represent Korra physically than I’d be able to. I love that they’re out there doing it. I love the fan art. I’m such a fan of seeing all the little tweaks and interpretations and people’s ways of honoring their appreciation of the show. I think we’ve already made it very clear that I’m a crier. It doesn’t take much. If I see a super cute gal – seriously, does anyone say “gal” anymore? – you can call me on this: track me down and smack me in the face if I seem like I’m anything other than thrilled by it.
JV: Yeah, that’s a tough one. As with any great triangle…some might say that the perfect guy is a combination of both. So, she should date both. No, that’s not what Korra would do.
N: On a very special episode…
JV: [laughs] I don’t know. I think that is my answer. I’m pretty crazy about both of those characters. I was going to go on to some tirade about how Korra doesn’t need to focus on love right now; she needs to focus on her training and becoming the Avatar, but I don’t want to chide my own character.
N: The anti-bending protest scene from the pilot brings to mind dynamics like those from X-Men or even, on a grander scale, the Occupy movement. Do you think the show speaks to real world issues or is it more archetypal in nature and I’m just projecting?
JV: Yeah, that came up for me too because I love X-Men. I don’t think you’re projecting, but I think you’re saying two things that are both true. I think any great story like that is archetypal and all it does, when we look at what we’re surrounded by in our culture right now, is continually serve as a reminder that there’s a reason that we have archetypes and stories that are epic in that way. We are human beings who keep kind of falling into the same crevices over and over again. There is an us vs. them thing that keeps happening. That’s what I love about the show: it plants those questions that are so important for young viewers to really consider even before they know they’re considering them. Not to get all “let’s plant subliminal messages in our children” on you, but I do think that kids are extremely bright, extremely sensitive, extremely intuitive. I always say I owe my sense of humor to The Muppets because I didn’t necessarily know what was going on when I watched The Muppet Show and obviously Sesame Street was made just for me. I use The Muppet Show and, as another example, when you brought up Pixar as something that has something for everyone, because that stuff gets in there and, yes, it’s as simple as “I saw someone being bullied on Legend of Korra and I saw how that made Bolin feel and I don’t want to make anyone feel like Bolin felt because I love Bolin.” If it’s just as simple as that, a tiny reflection in a microcosmic way of a child’s life all the way up to your point exactly, like the Occupy. [laughs] Although in this case, I think we may have our villains reversed because I certainly don’t want anyone to oppose bending. I do think that stuff gets in there and in a larger way helps inform youth about taking a stand against that stuff. It forces kids to reckon and problem-solve and kind of search their feelings to see what they agree with and form opinions. Man, we’re all in a lot of trouble if kids don’t know how to do that.
N: On a lighter note, any chance we can get a RiffTrax version of Legend of Korra?
JV: [laughs] Someone tweeted that at Bill and Kevin, I think. I think my writing partner Cole said something like that: “Do you want the ultimate trip? Do you want to hear yourself riffing to yourself as a voice?” I would be really excited to see a fan riff. I would love to see what people come up with doing their own riff of Korra. Hopefully they won’t crush my ego too much, but it’d be really fun to see something like that. If anybody ends up reading this and they want to try their hand at it, I guarantee I would do everything I could to watch it.
N: Great. We’ll put out the call. I also wanted to say congratulations on the success of your The JV Club podcast. It’s been a welcome addition to our fair family. What’s the experience been like so far?
JV: Thank you so much. I was just telling one of the fine ladies over at Nickelodeon that I feel bad for anything else in my career right now that’s Hollywood-based because I’m so disinterested in it if it’s not The Legend of Korra or JV Club. [laughs] I didn’t know, none of us really knew, when Korra was going to air. I’m sure you saw it if you were poking around online; it was a mystery to everyone – we didn’t even know when it was going to start airing. The fact that there ended up being a correspondence in time frame with my podcast going live and Korra going live, they’re both two things that I had been doing for about a year before they saw the light of day. To have both of them kind of crack open at once was terrifying, but incredibly exhilarating and fulfilling to me in a way that I’ve never experienced in my career. I’ve been so lucky and had a great career so far, so I have no complaints. I’m kind of a people person, so I don’t have a lot of bad experiences shooting and stuff like that, but my life has been enriched by the fans in a way that nothing I’ve ever done has. That’s the key. The work itself – I love doing the podcast, I love the ladies I’m interviewing, clearly I love the sound of my own voice (I’m not sure when that happened or why) – all of that is great. The difference when you start getting a response from people – Chris Hardwick said, “I know you’re loving the process of doing this work, but when it hits the public, aside from the things that are going to hurt your feelings, it’s so made up for by the feeling of community and feeling connected to people who are enjoying what you do.” I’ve experienced a little bit of that before, but, man, this has just been… like nothing bothers me anymore, and I only have the fans to thank for that. [her voice gets higher] I’m getting choked up right now. Because I’m a crier. Anybody who reads this, if you can just make sure to communicate that nothing bothers me the way that it might have without them, I feel so lifted up and supported by people who take the time to say they enjoy what I do or they like Korra, they want to be tough like her, they want to protect other people or anything like that is just food for the soul. I know that sounds super hippie, but it’s super awesome.
N: No, not at all. It’s much deserved. Who can we look forward to in upcoming episodes?
JV: Oh, well, hm… you’re always torn about wanting to announce everything and getting people excited about what’s upcoming and wanting to surprise people. I was thinking about it today. I really want to announce somebody before I record so I can take tweets and have them ask real questions, but then I’d have to actually say who the person is in advance. Yeah, I mean, I guess I could just say, right?
N: Well, if you don’t want to spoil it, how about this: who would be your dream guest to get on the show?
JV: Well, if we can use the publicity machine for this, I will say that I tweeted Jane Pratt who created this magazine called Sassy, that I loved and many other girls my age loved as a pre-teen because it was this magazine – I don’t know know if you’re familiar with it, but there’s really no reason you would be since you’re not the demographic – that basically was for teenage girls. It was not a high fashion magazine; it was really for real girls and that was the message it projected every issue. Let’s talk about real stuff. Let’s have real girls in the magazine. Granted, they were still like skinny models, but it was super empowering and it really inspired me. That’s kind of what I have in mind as one of my influences to do The JV Club. That this is interesting to men and women out there is the most delightful surprise. If any of this is getting into the heads of young girls in their teens and twenties and making them feel that it’s okay to be weird, you should just figure out who are and be okay with that. Anyway, I tweeted Jane Pratt, but she did not get back to me. I really want her to do the podcast because I want to pay tribute to her, so she should definitely want to do it. As far as really famous people go…. huh? I just want Emma Thompson to be my best friend. I just want her to come to my house, take a seat on my rug and sip some iced tea on The JV Club. You want me to aim high? I’m not sure I could aim much higher unless they were no longer alive.
N: Well, I heard through the grapevine in Us Weekly that she’s a big iced tea drinker. She’s just like us.
JV: I knew it! She’s just like us! Actually, I think she bends over and drinks it upside-down like people do when they have hiccups. She’s that kind of celebrity.
N: One last question: apart from Korra and JV Club, are there any projects about which you’re excited that you can share with us?
JV: Maybe you had some insider information and knew to ask this, but I do have something else coming up. I’m completely losing-my-mind excited about the Nerdist Channel show coming up that I produced and created with Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, a show about Neil Patrick Harris and how he always dreams in puppets.
N: I actually did not know you were working on that and, I have to say, I am so excited for that.
JV: Yep, that’s my baby. I had a baby with two gay men and that’s what came out. We’re in the process of writing that right now and I’m losing my mind. I’ve already outed myself as a giant Henson Company nerd and since I first made the acquaintance of just one employee at that company seven years ago, I’ve tried to weasel my way into their world. I’ve been successful, but this definitely trumps everything in the past.