Janet Varney, a multi-hyphenate in comedy, voice actor and more, is a testament to the benefit of keeping our minds and options open throughout our lives. Some know her best as Korra from The Legend of Korra and the flawed and layered Becca Barbara on You’re The Worst, while others may know her from hilarious parodies like Burning Love or a slew of podcasts that go deep into a person’s past or into fictitious reaches of space. As You’re The Worst currently airs the final episodes of its five-season run, Varney spoke with PRØHBTD about her diverse resume, CBD and how a pragmatic person can actually make it in Hollywood.
How was it being part of You’re the Worst, and what are your thoughts on it wrapping up?
It's been an amazing experience. After reading the pilot, I immediately felt it wasn’t going to be picked up because it was so good. It was such an amazing surprise to hear that it had been picked up as a series and now we’ve had five joyous seasons of working together. For me as a fan, [it was great] getting to see the amazing writing Stephen Falk and his wonderful writers are doing every year. They’re pushing boundaries, and not just for the sake of it. In a weird way, it was like being completely grounded in this world and exploring real stuff in addition to over-the-top stuff that some of us think we could never do.
What was it like to tap into a character like Becca?
Becca's amazing, but she's so unlike me. I voiced a superhero with magical powers [on Korra], and I still felt like I connected with magical powers more than I connect with a lot of what’s going on with Becca. So, she's very, very different from me. It’s a little alarming how quickly I felt like I slipped into her character. I can't even say that I know a dozen women like her because that's not really been my experience. From the beginning, I think I connected with this terribly deep insecurity, and that was my way to feel empathy for her so that hopefully she doesn’t come across as just a complete cartoon.
What was the process like of getting your own show, Fortune Rookie, made?
It was definitely a long time coming in terms of preparations. It was something that I began marinating on probably seven or eight years ago.
I had my first and only experience visiting a psychic based on a very, very high recommendation from a friend. I always desperately wanted to believe that stuff was real, but I also desperately avoided actually confronting any of it because I was pretty sure I was going to be disappointed. My experience was much more about seeing this person and then trying to make things fit after the fact. That felt very dangerous to me because then you're basing your future life choices on what someone, who may or may not be psychic, has told you is going to happen. You have to wonder if you start to self-fulfill those prophecies in a way that is potentially very unhealthy.
I ended up pitching IFC a version of it that was like a weird, magical realism version of LA. I promise I did not think about this when I was creating it, but it absolutely has the Portlandia feel of shitting on a place that we also clearly absolutely adore. IFC pointed out this happy synergy, and I pretended like I did that on purpose! That's why I brought Fred [Armisen] into the first episode because we have been friends for like 17 years, or something like that.
Like your character in Fortune Rookie, did you ever think about taking a break from acting?
I was getting back into performing and acting after more or less abandoning it. By the time I went to college, I actually was so bent on living in San Francisco that I was very pragmatic. I thought, “I can't do both. I can't live in San Francisco and be an actor because I'll never be able to pay my rent.” So, I guess I kind of let [acting] go.
I had gone to an Arizona college for the first couple of years. Then I moved to San Francisco and established [state] residency for a year and then went to SF State. I was leaning hard into set design and the production and stage class side of theater, and I even looked into whether I could transfer these over into interior architecture and design and maybe make a career out of that. I did many things that were very much outside of acting.
Then, while I was at SF State, busily avoiding acting, I met my partners at SF Sketchfest. We formed a sketch group, and when I say we formed, I mean I very reluctantly agreed to do some brainstorming at a few improv sessions. Very tentatively, I started writing sketches and stuff.
I really credit those three guys for believing in me and being great friends and collaborators, and I realized within that first year, that not only should I not have been afraid of this, but I wondered what I’d been waiting for. It felt so right. Through opportunities created by this sketch group, I ended up coming to LA to work and have been doing it ever since.
You also do podcasts like The JV Club and your new show, Voyage to the Stars. What can we expect from them?
The JV Club is a podcast, and I’ve done about 310 episodes. I interview wonderful people—everyone from musicians to authors to painters to writers, comedians and actors about their awkward teenage years and how so many of us have these mutual experiences, or if not mutual, then parallel vulnerabilities. It's just always such a wonderful way to get to know someone. I've had friends I've known for years on the podcast, and I've found out things about them that you just wouldn't normally know unless you're having this kind of in-depth conversation about these very fragile, fraught years of life.
Voyage to the Stars is very fresh in my mind because we've just launched our first episode. It stars Steve Berg, Felicia Day, Colton Dunn, me and an amazing group of guest improvisers. It's pretty unique in the podcast world in that it's very tightly outlined. Not unlike a Christopher Guest movie, we go into our recording knowing who our characters are, knowing what the arc of the show is going to be, with beats that we need to hit for the purpose of storytelling. Then within that, it's almost like you're writing a sonnet or a haiku. You know you have to do everything in this structure. Within that is the sort of freedom to grow your world and really put your own stamp on it.
It's basically a sci-fi space disaster comedy where three humans played by Steve, Felicia and Colton end up on an alien spacecraft that they’re able to reboot. There's an alien AI on board that they name Sorry by accident, and Sorry has some memory corruption problems. Sorry’s prime directive is being of service to whatever entity is on the ship and whatever their mission is, but she has this simultaneous total disdain for humans as well. It's unclear at any given time whether she could just kill them all if she wanted. They're lost since they passed through a wormhole, so now they're having these Star Trek-esque adventures on different planets.
Do you have a preferred method where you're your most free to create?
I think it's so great to have the freedom not to choose. I'm definitely not one of those people who settled down in LA with one core goal. Whatever opportunity came my way, I simply thought I'd be a fool not to do this or do that.
I've said yes to stuff with absolutely no idea where it was going, and they have been the most delightful things I've done. The Burning Love team approached me and said, "Hey, Janet, if you're free, we'd love to have you do this thing. We're just gonna make this short little teaser to try to get someone to make it." We did that, and it turned into this amazing experience of playing this character I just absolutely loved while being surrounded by the best and brightest of comedy. If you're in the comedy world with lots of writers and performers, you're constantly being asked to, or asking others to, do things like that. Other times, I just go and shoot something for my friend, and we'll have fun, but it'll go nowhere, and that's fine.
I heard you're a fan of CBD.
I am. I smoked a lot of cannabis in high school and early college and definitely was a huge fan. Then I started having weird paranoia, so I stopped. I no longer had any relationship with it, just an appreciation, like being at a concert and smelling it and thinking, "Oh, I wish I could still partake of that."
Watching what's happened to the cannabis industry over the last few years has been really fascinating. As things have become more niche and directed towards symptoms, healing and health, in addition to recreational, I started imagining dipping a toe back in. I started by taking a few drops of CBD at night when I was really anxious. I was waiting for a high and then realized people really do know what they're talking about and there's nothing psychotropic. It just relaxes the body. Gradually I moved into the 1:1 ratio CBD-to-THC body oil because I have a neck issue from flying off my bicycle and landing on my back once.
It's been really amazing to grow a new relationship with it. I always hate to say this because it sounds so dorky, but it's like this is my relationship to it as an adult. It looks completely different in every way than when I was younger.
Where can we keep up with you and your work?
Follow me on Twitter @janetvarney and on Instagram @thejvclub and with Stan Against Evil available on Hulu. If you like The Simpsons, you will laugh at Stan Against Evil. It's created by Dana Gould, who is responsible for many of the best years of The Simpsons, along with his colleagues at the time. If you're thinking it looks really scary or you don't like horror stuff, rest assured that it's really not what you get if you watch the show.