Janina Gavankar Talks Diversity In 'Sleepy Hollow'

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Her career includes stints on True Blood, Arrow, and The Vampire Diaries. She's voiced several video game characters. And now Janina Gavankar is joining the cast of Sleepy Hollow as Homeland Security Agent Diana Thomas, starting with the Season 4 premiere on Jan. 6. She's worked extensively in comedy and straight drama too, but somehow, the fantasy genre just keeps pulling Gavankar back in. "My theory on why I keep ending up in this world is that this world is one that celebrates strong women," Gavankar tells Bustle in an interview. "And that’s the world I want to be working in."

Diana Thomas is certainly one of those. Sleepy Hollow looks markedly different in its fourth season, with the action moving to Washington, D.C. and Crane partnering up with a new friend in the wake of Abbie Mills' death. Though Gavankar's character and Crane share a military background, they're programmed to deal with threats — supernatural or otherwise — in their own separate ways. "He’s sitting around talking about the nuances of a demon and all I want to do is kill it," Gavankar says. "'Kill it fast. Will my gun work? Shoot it. Shoot it now.' It’s a fun odd couple perspective."

Sleepy Hollow straddles the real world and the one that lies beyond it. As a veteran, a government agent, and a single mother, Diana is a great example of that duality. "There are plenty of female marines who work in the Department Of Homeland Security that are moms," Gavankar says. "This is a very real person who deserves to be on television and represented right."

Tina Rowden/FOX

Fortunately, she had an invaluable resource to turn to. Gavankar's brother-in-law is a father who works in counter-terrorism. Together, they built a 15-year backstory for her character, including where Diana got her degrees and where she did her tours. "My brother-in-law knows more about the safety of the United States Of America than you or I are allowed to know," Gavankar says. "That’s the exact same thing my character is going through."

And when she's thrust into Crane's world, Diana gets confirmation of the existence of another, more elusive brand of evil that she now has to grapple with. "She has to go home and look at her child with the information of what’s going on in the world and all she wants to do is keep her daughter safe," Gavankar explains. "Having that to root every single episode in is helpful."

Sleepy Hollow struck a chord with viewers right off the bat by casting a woman of color as its lead and featuring a diverse supporting cast too. Nicole Beharie left the show after Season 3; now Gavankar is stepping into that spotlight. The value of that representation is not lost on her. She "abso-f***in-lutely" appreciates Sleepy Hollow's commitment to having a cast, a set, and a writers room that "looks like how the world looks." And she's inspired to see the change in other areas of fantasy and science-fiction too. Gavankar says:

I just went to Rogue One and I was embarrassingly sobbing in my seat, because there were four men of color in the biggest franchise in the world. Growing up I never thought that would happen...ever. The fact that I get to be a part of that in a small way...to have been working when the change happened, it’s huge. It’s bigger than me.

Diversity in itself is a statement in the current political climate. But Sleepy Hollow may be addressing the perversion of what Gavankar calls Crane's "dream realized" more directly this year. "It is sometimes easier to highlight the human condition when it is told in the fantasy paradigm," she says. Especially with the setting moved to the capital, Sleepy Hollow would be remiss not to respond in some way to how the republic Crane fought to build is now at odds with itself. "Something that might have been nostalgic is no longer nostalgia because of this turmoil the country is going through right now," Gavankar says.

Who would have thought that a show about a resurrected revolutionary war hero would be so relevant in 2017? Janina Gavankar's arrival coincides with the beginning of a new era in Sleepy Hollow.