You might recognize Janet Varney as the voice of Korra in The Legend of Korra. Or, if your tastes run a little more into the horror genre perhaps you’ve seen her on Stan Against Evil. She’s been in a lot of amazing projects and more recently assumed the helm of one of her own making: Fortune Rookie.
Partnering with IFC and working with a lot of wonderful people, Fortune Rookie explores Varney’s life in an alternate dimension where she decides to give up acting and pursue being a psychic after being told she had the gift by a psychic in the bathroom. We sat down with her at New York Comic Con to talk a little bit more about the show, which fans can watch online right now.
How would you describe Fortune Rookie to someone you were trying to convince to watch the show?
I would say, and I didn’t know this going in, but I would say it is Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Portlandia. It is an alternate reality version of myself whose far more egotistical and a little more naive about what’s important in life. All the characters sort of play the side of themselves.
There’s nothing cringe-worthy about it, the way Curb Your Enthusiasm gets underneath and feels uncomfortable, but its funny. I wouldn’t say there’s that. I would say its a surface level of “you’re kind of an idiot and a jerk” mixed with this very fantastical, lovingly making fun of elements of Hollywood.
It is a very, very silly, joyful show. I had so much fun making it. It was absolutely like, “let’s call all our friends and see who wants to do something they’ll have fun doing. What are they great at? What do they like to play?” Then just setting ourselves loose on that. It is really great.
What inspired the premise for you, since you are both creator and star?
I went to a psychic many years ago now because I had never gone to one. I’ve always wanted to believe stuff like that. I’m totally ready for an alien to visit me. I’m super ready for a ghost to come hang out with me. That’s never happened. I wanted to be psychic when I was little and wanted to be fully telekinetic. I would just sit and focus on making a ball move across a room – never happened.
I saw the psychic and I did not have the experience my friend did. I was really bothered by it. [My friend] said it had come true, but mine didn’t come true. So I really spent a lot of time thinking about it and a lot of time looking at the mechanics of what it takes to be a fake psychic.
Then coupling that with, why is LA the perfect place for a person like that to take advantage of people? What is happening in that city that allows for that kind of magical realism? People make fun of us! “Oh are you drinking your green juice and talking to your psychic and wearing your crystals?”
I think that there was something there that I couldn’t let go of. I wanted to explore it. What came out of it ended up being so much more fantastical than I expected. I love it. I have never gone through the editing process of something that came from my own brain. I just assumed by the end I would be sick of it and just hope other people like it.
Instead, because everyone is so great in it and working with Drama 3/4 Productions, the production company and what they brought to the table. [I got to] work with all these great actors like Roday from Psych and Laraine Newman from SNL, Fred Armisen from Portlandia. So many people who are magic to me!
I never get tired of watching it. I’ve watched bits and pieces of it – only watching the entire thing twice – and I still love it so much.
It makes me laugh and there are so many Easter eggs buried in it. It is dense in terms of little moments and little tips to something else. I love it, I’m excited for it to be out in the world!
Was this your first foray into being in this role for a show? Was it your first time doing creation, editing, etc.?
Yeah. And I don’t want to say like, I sat and spent 1000 hours editing. That would be a disservice to Drama 3/4 Productions, but I sat in for as much as I could because I was so excited to learn. My writing partner, Brandon and I, were such a huge part of the scoring process. We had two different amazing composers who sort of blended their two styles for different chunks of the story telling.
I think that one of the things I had to reckon with was that there’s something to being a woman with strong opinions whose also afraid to make people upset. I think it is true of a lot of creative women. That was something I really had to look at, I never really want to seem like “oh its my show”. You don’t want to any argument to end with “well its my show! So we’re doing this.”
I wanted to be as collaborative as I could but something I found out myself [was that] the moments I thought “oh, I must be approaching aggressive” or “diva level” because I’m standing strong on this idea, all of these men and women around me didn’t feel that way at all. It was a real point of reckoning. Why do I think I’m a jerk just because I’m standing up for my opinion? When everyone else around me is like, “hey, cool, she’s standing up for her opinion.”
That’s a takeaway for me. My generation still has a ways to go in terms of feeling comfortable to go, “hey I’m an okay person, but I feel really strongly about this and that’s important to me”. That was a side-effect I think I needed to see and understand in a new way.
That’s awesome. It sounds like it was a really cool learning experience for you.
It was a really great experience. I loved it and I can’t wait to do more. I hope I get to, it was a dream. There was never a point at which I was never like, “oh my gosh, this is what it feels like!” And then it is terrifying. But when the stakes are higher the feeling of reward is deeper.
When you were pulling in all these guest stars, some of which you mentioned already, how did you pitch it to them? How did you pull them into this wacky, palm-reading madness?
The good news is definitely that I’ve had the benefit of working long enough now in the business and form these lasting friendships, that I did have a little bit of cred going in. I think people were really tickled by the script. The actors and people who came to the friends-and-family little mini-screening we did is like, “here’s all the hard work that paid off; here’s what it looks like”, to the premiere we just had. I’m like “oh you came again!” And they’re like, “oh god, it is so funny, I’m going to go home and watch it tonight.”
Just to feel that it wasn’t just calling in favors… I worried it would feel like “oh, I’m now calling my friend to do this dumb thing I’m doing.” And it didn’t end up that way! It ended up with people being like, “oh my god I loved doing this! I loved that character!” Or, the fifth episode is a bunch of people like Michael Hitchcock and John Michael Higgins from Glee and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Oscar Nunez who was Oscar on The Office, and Ian Brennan who created Glee, and my friend and former sketch partner Cole Stratton that produced this giant comedy festival every year…
I was like, “I think you guys would be really funny as an aging boy band who never made it.” They leaned so hard into those roles that people walked away from watching that episode saying, “are you going to create a spin-off show for them?” They’re so wonderful. That’s the most extreme version of that – they just owned it so hard. No one dialed anything in. It was like, those characters belong to you now, we have to do more.
With what you just said about the actors leaning into the roles, how much did they get to influence what they bring? It is a little quirky, they’re playing themselves but they’re playing a different version of themselves.
Yeah, some are and some aren’t. That’s the thing, like the boy band they don’t play themselves at all. Oscar is not Oscar, his name is Beat Boy. Michael Hitchcock plays a character named Badger, he’s the tough one.
Then, with some like Roday, I knew as I was writing it that he’s going to bring so much to this. So he did it, then he dialed it up to 12 and he just killed it. So yes, when someone is playing themselves I felt much more prone to say “do you want to say it differently? Do you have an idea? What do you want to do?” There was a lot of play and improv there which was great.
I’ll leave off with one last question. One of the scenes that had me cracking up in the first episode was that weird ice cream situation. Where did that come from?
That is very much something that comes from Brandon and me just being around LA together, and neither of us being from LA, both of us having lived in San Francisco that loves being very sarcastic about LA. Truly seeing too many ice cream shops, this sort of idea of, “wait a minute, people are lining up for ice cream in a city where everyone is super fit, and looks amazing all the time. This is bullshit.”
So it was this sort of marriage of, what would it be like if you’re just standing in line because it is cool to get ice cream. But are you really eating ice cream? That became the through-the-looking-glace, Alice in Wonderland moment of, what if it was all of that but what you’re really buying was someone breathing it on you.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Fortune Rookie. The first few episodes we’ve seen were hilarious and we’re looking forward to catching up with the whole season.