You’ve seen Janet Varney in memorable roles like Becca Barbara in You’re the Worst and Carly in Burning Love. And you’ve heard her voice as the titular Korra in The Legend of Korra. But her acting career almost didn’t come to be. It was only after her friends convinced her to join their comedy troupe in San Francisco that she strayed away from her more sensible plan of becoming an architect or interior designer.
We recently talked to Varney about founding SF Sketchfest, running around in a pregnancy pad and four-inch stilettos in You’re the Worst and her humble beginnings as “Party Girl” in Catwoman.
[To hear the audio version of this interview, click here.]
How did you get into acting?
Oh boy. Well, I’ve kind of been doing that my whole life, which I don’t mean to say is the same way as people who are like child actors with agents and doing commercials and stuff like that. Definitely that was not me. I did start doing it when I was in first grade. I went to a magnet school in Tucson, Arizona. I don’t know how familiar you are with magnet public schools, but you know, they tend to emphasize different areas of studies.
It was a magnet school that pulled all different kids from socio-economic backgrounds and different ethnic backgrounds and put them all in one place, which I think is kind of a great thing. Not to get into the politics of education, but this public school’s emphasis was on fine arts and performing arts. They just offered fun crafts, all the stuff that I think all kids should have that kind of fleshes them out into better human beings. That becomes very precious when you don’t have a big budget for education. This is a school where we got to make stuff, learn how to play instruments and do plays. That was really something that I started really, really young through school. I wasn’t a kid who did anything outside of school. I just did the school plays and stuff. That’s what I went to college for.
When I was in college, I thought, “This is going to probably be the last time I do this, because no one can make a living doing this. So I should enjoy it while it lasts.” I was more pragmatic as a 17-year-old kid than I guess I am now, weirdly.
Did you have a plan? What was the path that you were going to go down?
Well, I really didn’t have one. I started pursuing theatre as a major, I think my sophomore year. My freshman year, I was very much conflicted. I just wasn’t sure if I thought it was even worth it. I was like, “What am I going to do with this? Am I going to teach?” I have tremendous sympathy for aimless youth, whether they’re bright or not, I just really can understand the sense of like, “Wait, I’m supposed to know what I want to do?” In my case, I was 17 when I graduated from high school. Before that, of course you’re looking at colleges. It’s like, “I’m 16 and I’m supposed to have this sense of what my entire life course is going to look like based on wherever I go to school.” I didn’t have any money. My parents are both teachers, so I didn’t have any money.
Yeah, I think I was undeclared my first year of college and I totally settled on theatre because honestly I didn’t feel like I had anything better or anything that I cared more about.
Did you graduate college and just continue to pursue acting?
Not really. I kind of took care of my required credits. All this sort of like performing, writing, costumes, anything that falls in the less technical, more creative side – I took care of all of that stuff for my major at NAU, which is the college that I went to for my first two and half years, which is in Flagstaff, Arizona. Then, I left school to move to San Francisco and establish residency. You had to work for a year to become a California resident and then I could go for it with in-state tuition to San Francisco State.
By the time I moved to San Francisco, I had determined that I wasn’t going to complete my degree in theatre and I was going to pursue something else. I really knew I couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco if I was pursuing theatre.
When I got there, I had already gotten to the point where I thought, “I think I’m going to actually pursue architecture and interior design kind of stuff.” I don’t know if this is still true, but the degree that you get at SF State if you’re studying that – I know this sounds crazy, but the degree on your diploma is “Home Economics.” I was like, “I won’t be able to look myself in the eye. This feels so 1950s. ‘I learned how to make an apple pie!'”
It haunted me. I also looked at what I was really looking at in terms of all of the credits that I already had that just wouldn’t have served towards anything. I ended up just sticking with theatre. As I was sticking with it, it really was like, “Well, this is just what makes the most sense for me to do, not because it’s going to be something I pursue professionally, but because this is what I already have so many credits in.”
At the time, I had a few different jobs in San Francisco, but they all were leaning into this interior design or decorating. I worked as a part-time sales associate at Pottery Barn for the holidays and then they kept me on and kept promoting me. Then I went and worked for a really kind of chi chi interior design firm as a project manager – this is all when I was still in school part-time – and then I went and worked as a buyer for this other home furnishing store. I thought where I would end up was owning my own store. That was the pie in the sky dream when I was in my very early 20s. I was in a band. I wasn’t doing any acting at all.
A couple of friends that I had had from college said, “We want to start a comedy group and we think you should be in it with us.”
And I said, “First of all, I have never taken a single class in comedy or anything.” I was a goof, I guess, but I had not taken improv in school or been in any sketch groups or anything like that. I was really reluctant and they just kind of dragged me in and made me keep coming and it was really fun. We started doing some shows and that’s how we ended up starting our festival, actually, because we were looking for places to perform in San Francisco and it was really hard to find a place that wasn’t a stand-up comedy club where people would go, “What are these fools doing?”
We partnered with five other groups that we knew in San Francisco and said, “What if we turned this into a festival where we rent a theater for a month and we all take turns co-headlining with each other?” because we didn’t want to do a million shows; we just wanted to do a fair amount. Over the course of that month, we just kept rotating out. Each group got a chance to perform a couple of times with a different group and it just went really well. We sold out like all of our shows.
That’s how we started growing the festival. It really was from the ground up. We didn’t know anything about producing a festival, but the next year we thought, “Well, how hard can it be for us to invite people to apply; other young sketch groups from other cities? Everyone loves San Francisco, they’ll love coming here.”
That’s really where that started and that’s also how it ended up being a career for me, is that because we were doing that and because we were doing some shows that people in Los Angeles who were very smart managers saw – my first manager had recruited a lot of their talent out of San Francisco and I guess they just knew, “Here’s this place that’s a 45 minute flight away where we can see really great up-and-coming comedy that no one in LA is bothering with and we can break them into show business,” or whatever; I’m not sure. They definitely really believed in this sort of San Francisco theme and they coaxed me down there. Our group got invited to perform at the HBO Aspen Comedy Festival.
I just ended up doing it because people kept saying, “You’re stupid to not take these opportunities. There are people who live down in LA and bus tables and work so hard to try to get the kind of exposure that you’ve accidentally stumbled onto. Don’t be an idiot.”
I was really reluctant. I really was. I guess I started working, as scary as it was. I think that’s true for a lot of people who end up doing the thing they love – it’s terrifying as much as it is exciting because you suddenly realize, “Oh, this is what it feels like to really do what you’re passionate about and, oh my God, what if this gets taken away from me?” Again, like anything, like relationships or finding that right career, that right hobby, when it clicks in, it’s both exhilarating and terrifying.
Looking at it now, do you think that that was just you protecting yourself or do you really think that you truly backed into your career?
I don’t know! That’s a great question. I honestly don’t know. I know that sounds nuts, but I’m just not sure. I really thought, “Okay, I’m not going to do this thing that I think is enjoyable.” It wasn’t even something I felt lacking in my life, when my friends came at me and said, “Let’s do this comedy thing.” I don’t know. I think, now I can’t say for sure, but I think I probably would have been fine if I didn’t end up doing it. I don’t know.
It’s been such a long time now. I think about it and I think we all, in this business, have that. People say, “Don’t have a backup plan because you’ll just fall into it because it’s too hard to not know what your next job is going to be or to feel like you’re at the mercy of show business.” I always kind of did have the sense of, “Well, I guess if this all goes away, I’ll just go back to …” because this was, I guess, Plan B in a weird way. “I guess I’ll go back to Plan A if Plan B doesn’t work!”
According to IMDB, you are known for playing “Party Girl” in Catwoman.
Sure, everyone’s talking about it. Everyone’s talking about it.
You know, that beloved classic action movie, you were “Party Girl.”
That’s the thing that IMDB does. It just takes whatever thing. I don’t even understand that, but it’s true for other friends, too. I’ve been looking up someone for Sketchfest to list whatever their credit is going to be or what have you. Yeah, sure enough, I’ll see whatever the top movie is that they were a glorified extra in, and like you said, it’ll go, “Known for …” and it will show you three things. Every single time, almost without fail, I’m like, “What? Known for what? Known for ‘Popcorn Seller’ in It’s a Wonderful Life? What’s happening?”
Hopefully you’re not offended, but even having seen Catwoman in the theater, we can’t say we remember “Party Girl,” though we’re sure you were great.
I’m very insulted and I’m going to need to end this call. No, I don’t blame you. To be honest with you, I don’t know what the other two things are that are listed above that. I can’t think of what they are because Catwoman really was the first job I got that I can think of. It might have been a friend’s independent movie or something that I did when I was still living in San Francisco, but I don’t even know what those other two things are, because I hadn’t even moved to LA yet. I was just down here staying on a friend’s couch, auditioning for stuff, and I got that. It was definitely a very immediate initiation to the way the business works.
I think what we found out was that it was additional scenes. Again, I’m not the expert on Catwoman, so I could be completely wrong about this, but what I remember anecdotally was that they had shot the whole rest of the movie, but I think part of it had tested so poorly that they had to reshoot some of it. For some reason, this was an extra pick-upped scene. I don’t think that it had even existed in the original version, or if it had, they had to reshoot it for some reason. It already felt like a sort of haphazard. I feel like the crew was like, “We thought we were done with this job,” kind of thing. We shot all night long.
It was one of those, like, they bring you in at two in the afternoon and then you don’t even do anything until 2 am. It was definitely very unglamourous. I even remember thinking, “Oh great, this is what I signed up for. This is exactly why I didn’t want to do this,” because it was not that exciting. But, having said that, I did go see the movie in the theater as well, and my name was in the credits and that was very thrilling. They got me. They got me after all.
You saved the movie! You did that one pick-up scene that made Catwoman!
I did! That’s why it won the Razzie, I think, probably, because of that. That marvelous scene.
You’ll be happy to know that the two films listed before it on IMDB are The Legend of Korra, which makes a lot of sense, and Drillbit Taylor.
Oh, that’s nice. It’s not even chronological. It’s just like, for some reason, they’ve taken probably the most popular thing I’ve done and then they just drew two movies that had giant budgets after it regardless of what my participation is. I get it. We’ve cracked this code, you and me. This is great!
Speaking of The Legend of Korra, that is a very cool project that you’ve been a part of. How did that come about, and what is it like doing voice acting?
It came about just through an audition. I really didn’t have a lot of voice over experience, almost none. A couple of years into being here, I was very intimidated by it. I feel like there’s this sense and maybe this is true for a lot of people down here – I think again, because I wasn’t pursuing this avidly – I certainly put in my time having my heart broken and all that kind of stuff. I have friends who graduated from the UCB program and get on a hit show and immediately are making, like, $50,000 a week. That is not me, I did not have that experience, I was not a golden child by any stretch of the imagination. Was I luckier than many? Yes. Was I as lucky as many more? No.
I did have this “golly gee” kind of perspective about the whole thing, again, because it wasn’t something I was pursuing and because I had been reluctant to even be coaxed down to LA. I had this sense that I think served me well, because certainly, desperation is something that people can smell when you walk into an audition room. I think that’s a chemical thing, a fact. I didn’t have that because I was so skeptical of the whole thing.
I think in that way, that maybe served me, but I also had this “Why me?” and “Why would I get this?” or “How is this even happening? God, I wouldn’t know the first thing about XYZ.” Even after I started working as an actor, I still felt that about other things. I think that probably is true for other people who didn’t even have the experience beginning that I did. I think that you might look at it in the same way that a stand-up looks at improv and says, “I don’t know how you do that,” or a soap opera actor looks at a comedian and says, “I don’t know how you do what you do.”
There was a sense of that for me with voice over, but it was also something I had a secret fantasy, as many of us do, about being a cartoon character voice. Even though I didn’t have a whole lot of experience, I had gone to my commercial agent, who had a great voice over department, which is where I still am for voice over, which is Abrams Artists, and said, “I don’t know how to do this, but I would love to try.” They set me up with someone.
They said, “Here’s where you should go for coaching, and we actually give some free classes through our agency as well.” I did all that stuff, and they were kind enough to start submitting me with auditions.
Nickelodeon is a really, really great network for understanding and appreciating comedians. They just get it and they love comedians and they don’t care. Certain people do the dirtiest stand-up in the world can still be cartoon voices. They’re not overly precious about, “Oh, just because,” you know? Just because somebody does this stand-up routine that we would never let our children watch doesn’t mean that they can’t be a great comedic actor and they’re not worried about that bleeding over one to the other. That’s one of the things I love about them, because I’ve seen some of my favorite comedians and comic actors get roles on kids’ programming, which I think is great.
They had some sense of me, maybe, in that regard, and they started bringing me into audition. Korra was, I think, the second job that I booked through Nickelodeon, and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I was even in the running. It was a long process, all things considered. They brought me in a few different times, and by the end, they had us doing chemistry reads with some other people that were in the mix. When I finally got it, I guess I didn’t realize it had already been picked up to series. I thought it was just a pilot. I almost had a heart attack when they said, “No, no, no, you don’t understand, this is a thing that will be on the air.” I was just gobsmacked. I was so thrilled. I’ve told this story many times, but I quite literally jumped up and down in a public place when I was on the phone finding out that I got it. Yeah, it was great. I can’t even believe how lucky I was to get that job and I love that show and I love all the people I worked on it with.
Let’s talk about You’re the Worst, which is a great show that you are delightful on.
Oh, good! Delightfully hateful.
Delightfully hateful. Yes, you’re a great nemesis.
Oh, God. That’s sort of the problem, it’s like everyone on the show is kind of a nemesis to someone else or to themselves.
Yeah, it’s hard to say that there’s a true hero of that show. Edgar would be the closest.
Yeah, Edgar’s a real sweetie. He gets in his own way more than anyone else can. That’s about it for him. Yeah, I love that show. It’s such an honor to be a part of. I think Stephen Falk’s just so brilliant. That was another show where I did the pilot and you try so hard to detach from things in this business because things just never come to anything or they go away or you get replaced. There’s just so many places and times that something can go horribly wrong so that you don’t end up having the job you want.
That was another one where I shot the pilot and I was like, “That’s really fun.” I really feel like I remember saying, maybe to another cast member or to a friend, “That was so good it will never get picked up,” which gives you a real good idea of how cynical we become in this business. When it did, which was many months later that I was given the good news, I was like, “Oh my God, it made it through! It snuck in!” Then, to find that critical acclaim and to be really loved and appreciated by FX, which is a great network, is just really cool. It’s really cool. I’m so proud of those guys and I’m so glad you like the show. That makes me really happy.
The show is really fascinating because the first season was very funny and very well-done, but it grew into a darker and more nuanced show last year. The second season was very emotional with the way it dealt with depression. It has become this really amazing show and it’s been cool to see it develop.
I totally agree. I remember talking to someone in the business, a manager or someone was talking about it, and he said, “You know, I love the show, I love the first season, and then I started watching the second season, and by about the third episode, I kind of sat up and said, ‘Wow, he’s going to go there, he’s doing this. This isn’t one episode where his character is bummed out. This is a thing.'”
He kind of felt the same way as you. He sort of went, “Wow, good job.” I do, I think that’s great, because it is such an irreverent show and it’s so funny, it could totally survive just on this silly biting quality that it has. He wanted to dig deeper and he keeps doing that. The writers on the show are fantastic. I’m really excited to see what happens in season three.
What is it like filming the big party scenes on the show? Are those actually enjoyable to do?
Yeah, they’re really fun. Both times, those real sweeping kind of epic last episodes were directed by Matt Shakman, who I absolutely love. He is a tremendous director. He was actually a child actor and I can’t remember what the show was. It might have been Just the Ten of Us, or something like that. He’s so great. I mean, I’m throwing up in my mouth a little bit when I say this, but he’s really a director’s actor, an actor’s director. He’s so brilliant. He directed some of the first season of Fargo, to give you an example, and he directs a lot of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The way he and Stephen, I’m getting really inside baseball here, but the way they kind of conduct the set, because it starts with those two people, the showrunner, Stephen, and the director, Matt, and all of our directors have been fantastic. That’s a lot to bite off, in terms of the amount of stuff that happens in that particular space with the big parties.
They’re just so calm and mellow, thus everyone seems calm and mellow. It really becomes so enjoyable. Was it super enjoyable to run over and over and over around the sloped gravelly yard and up a set of precarious stairs with a pregnancy pad in four-inch stilettos? No, but that’s comedy.
They really make it a lot of fun. Yeah, it actually is. It’s just one of those jobs that you don’t heave a big sigh and then go, “How can I possibly be complaining about this, this is great?” Yet somehow, I am. There’s none of that. It’s just really fun.
Speaking of large, awkward gatherings, let’s talk to you a little bit about Burning Love. How much was that show scripted and how much was improvised?
It was a real combination. I’ve never worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but my sense is that there was maybe a similarity there, which is that I don’t think we ever went into a scene having no idea what the goal of the scene was and I never like to say, “Oh, it was totally improvised,” because I think that does a disservice to Erica [Oyama], who created the show, and she and Ken [Marino] are husband and wife and they worked on it together. He directed. She’s so funny and she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Even stuff that wasn’t in a script, we would improvise off of it, but then she would come in with a little zinger. I would be improvising something, and then at the end, they would be like, “That was great, let’s keep almost all of that, if you can remember everything that you just said, and let’s tag it,” and then Erica would be like, “Can you try this at the end?” and it would just be some great line.
The scariest part about saying that something’s improvised is, I think, that it immediately creates this idea in someone’s mind that whoever created the show and wrote the show wasn’t really doing anything and that is definitely not the case with Burning Love. But, they also knew that they were bringing in a bunch of people that they trusted and that they wanted to work with, because that was a complete labor of love initially. They were like, “Look, let’s all play, let’s all make each other laugh,” and that’s exactly what happened. That was another dream job.
Honestly, you’ve just listed the three things that have been the easiest and the most fun for one reason or another, but ultimately the material and the people. You can work on a job that you don’t necessarily end up thinking is the greatest result, but you can have loved it. In the same way we can love a job. I loved working at Pottery Barn, can I say, all due respect to Pottery Barn, that it had to do with that company or was it about the people I worked with? There’s stuff that you walk away from and go, “Wow, that was a tremendously fun experience.” Am I excited to have my dad watch it? No! Or, you can go, “Wow, the end result of this is really a great show, and I wish that my experience working on it had been more positive.”
Those things that we just talked about, those are all examples of something that were both. You have an amazing time working on it, the people are wonderful, you fall in love with them and then you actually have this end product that you feel proud of and are honored to be a part of. There are those kind of dream jobs, for sure.
It’s a credit to you on Burning Love that you have a character that was very funny, but could have easily been a one-note character. Obviously, the joke is she’s clearly a lesbian on this dating show, but I think what the show ends up doing with it is really this fascinating journey for your character.
Thank you. Yeah, that was not something where she wasn’t gay when we shot the little teaser. When I was asked to do it, she wasn’t gay. The very first thing we shot was literally like, we spent a day shooting a thing at someone’s manager’s house or something like that and it was just, “Let’s shoot this thing and try to sell it, and see if we can make some webisodes.” That’s what it was.
We came in, and they had given us a rough outline of what the different characters were that people were going to play and mine was just the athletic girl. She’s athletic, sporty. I said, “You know, I don’t want to overstep, but how would you feel if she was gay, but not talking about it?”
They were like, “Let’s do it!”
We had a blast shooting that little teaser. Again, when we found out we could make more, I was just over the moon.
They really lead into that. The outline, the structure, that Erica had in mind for the scope of the show definitely lead into that and I was excited. I wasn’t ever interested in playing it in some sort of weird stereotype kind of one-note way. I can’t say there’s really a process, it’s just when you’re working with great people and you’re just kind of sinking into this world that they’ve created, it just feels really easy to just be a person and not have it be, “I always have to get to this point, it always has to be about the fact that I’m gay, or it always has to …” It just becomes like, wow, this is just a girl who does not know how she got there and is just trying her very best to navigate through it with some semblance of grace, whatever that means for her, you know what I mean?
I love that character. I love her.
She’s great. One of the best running jokes in the first season is her increased frustration with getting picked, like where it’s subtle at first and eventually she’s just like, “Really?”
Yeah. Can’t believe it. It’s sort of leaning into the trope that someone would be attracted to someone who’s not trying too hard. Sort of like, “God, I’m really fascinated by this woman who seems completely disinterested in me.” I like the playfulness of that because I think in life that’s so often true, in a way that it shouldn’t be. Instead of honesty, there’s all this game-playing and I think making fun of that in a show and having it not be, “Oh, this girl’s just playing hard to get and he just keeps being drawn to her,” it’s like, “Oh, she’s playing hardest to get, because she desperately does not want to get got,” you know?
There’s one more thing that hopefully makes your list of things you found delightful, which is the podcast Spontaneanation.
Oh God, don’t even get me started on that! That’s just hanging out. That’s not even work or a job, but thank you.
That is exactly what it feels like, just hanging out, which makes it really fun to listen to.
There’s got to be someone out there, and I don’t think it would bum Paul [F. Tompkins] out for me to say this, because I’m sure he feels the same. I’m sure there’s someone out there that’s like, “They have to stop laughing at each other. This is not my thing, it’s too silly, they’re having too much fun, they’re not grounding it in reality,” because I’ve done plenty of improv that’s very grounded.
This has not been that experience, but it is one of the joys of my life. It is so fun. We’re so far ahead that we don’t need to record any except for what we’re doing at SketchFest. We don’t need to record any. I think everyone who’s a regular on that show, it felt really sad when we realized we weren’t picking back up until later in 2016. We’re all just chomping at the bit to get back in there and goof around.
Paul’s amazing. He’s one of those people that, I started out as just a huge fan of his when I moved to LA and became familiar with his comedy. When people would say, “Do you like stand-up?” I would say, “Not really as a rule, but I have a couple of favorites,” and people would say, if someone asked who they were, I’m sure I would have listed David Cross, because I was a huge fan of his when I lived in San Francisco, even before I was doing comedy. I definitely would always say Paul F. Tompkins and Jimmy Pardo, and it was before I was friends with either of them. When we became friends, I had to very quickly switch over into this, “I’m all right too, it’s not like they’re doing me a favor by being my friends,” because otherwise it was sort of this weird, nepotistic, sycophantic, “I love you so much!” Which no one probably wants on a daily basis.
Is there a sense in me that checks in with that once in a while and goes, “God, this is somebody that I just have the utmost respect for, for their craft, for them as a person, for their talent and their skill and their hard work, and to be a person that someone that is a hero of yours in that way wants to be around and work with is just, that’s something that you can. That’s a well that you can keep coming back to on a bad day over and over and over again, and it never empties. It always feels like a tremendous honor. It just does.
It’s a credit to Paul F. Tompkins and all of you on that show that sometimes just the build-up to it is so much fun that it occassionally feels disappointing when you get to the actual improv.
Yeah, agreed. He’s just great. There’s nobody better. That’s really Thrilling Adventure Hour. I was thinking about that, to give it a shout out, because so much stuff that I do live or these recorded things that I do with Paul and stuff like that, the sort of seed from that was getting involved in Thrilling Adventure Hour, which is this wonderful community of people that I hope to always work with until I drop dead. Also, I hope that doesn’t happen very soon. It’s just a group, because every little offshoot from my involvement with that show has just been a delight, so I want those things to keep developing and rolling out and finding ways, opportunities, for us to work together, either as one big group or in individual pockets.
It’s reassuring to know that if you do die, that we’ll have years of Spontaneanation prerecorded that we can listen to.
Right! Oh, we’ve definitely talked about, how creepy! I could die in March and there would still be episodes coming out. My ghost! It’s crazy. It’s crazy.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Find out more about Janet Varney by visiting her website or following her on Twitter. The 15th annual SF Sketchfest is currently underway.