Janet Varney on ‘Stan Against Evil’, ‘The JV Club’, and Empathy in the Age of Trump

Janet Varney -Photo Credit: Kim Simms/IFC
In her latest adventure, Janet Varney stars as Evie Barret, the new sheriff in town on the comedy horror IFC series, Stan Against Evil. Varney is the recipient of excessive gore to the the face, spooky frights, and consistent undermining by the former sheriff played by John McGinley.

She battles a legion of demons gathered in the town of a 17th century witch burning envisioned by show creator Dana Gould. The critically acclaimed show was picked up for a second season this month. Varney also plays the role of Becca on FXX’s critically acclaimed series, You’re The Worst and is the voice of Korra on the beloved subversive animated Nickelodeon series, Legends of Korra. On her fantastic Nerdist podcast The JV Club she interviews women (and sometimes men) on comedy and the shared awkward experiences of adolescence. If you like puppets (and who doesn’t?) don’t miss Neil’s Puppet Dreams, a web series she co-created, produced, and wrote with Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka in collaboration with Nerdist and The Jim Henson Company. You can catch Varney at SF Sketchfest, the comedy festival she co-founded and co-produces with her partners, David Owen and Cole Stratton. The upcoming festival run in January will mark SF Sketchfest’s 16th year. I spoke with Varney about her podcast, her dream role, and snake wrangling in Georgia.

Stan Against Evil is so funny and really scary! It was surprisingly frightening.

I’m so glad! Not that I want you to be afraid, but that was the balance we were all hoping to strike. We didn’t want it to be so overtly preposterous that it was all laughable, we wanted it to still have some genuine “yikes!” moments.

How did Stan Against Evil come about? What was the audition like?

I did audition for it — but Dana actually wrote it with me in mind, which I always have to stumble over because it’s crazy to me that someone that I loved so much as a standup comedian and a writer on The Simpsons would want to create a part for me to do. So I’m tremendously honored. I did still audition for it and very luckily, I agreed with Dana that I was the right person for the job, and at that point it was offered to me and I was just so excited. Dana and I always joke that whenever something that wonderful happens, you always immediately wait for the other shoe to drop. What’s going to keep this from happening? Are they going to fire me? Is the show going to get cancelled before it even airs? You create all this emotional padding to not be disappointed. It’s just been wonderful and — knock on wood — it will continue to be wonderful in season two and I cannot wait to reunite with the cast and the crew. I just loved the experience. When you’re shooting in a short period of time, it really is a little bit like boot camp. You really bond hard core immediately and you support each other all along the way. It was a real postpartum experience when I got back to Los Angeles. Here you have this group of people that falls in love with each other and then it ends and you go oh, I don’t get to see these people every day anymore. So it gives me something big to look forward to.

Did anything surprising happen behind the scenes?

Gosh, just so much goo. But I guess I knew that was coming. I think the thing that we all thought was so funny and also real life scary, was the first day of shooting we met the snake wrangler who was on set in the middle of the woods at all times so that if a snake made an appearance he would wrangle it and put it in a box to keep it safe and away from us. I don’t think he actually had to wrangle one, but every time you’d see him you’d be reminded that oh yeah, there’s a creature out here that can bite me. Hopefully these little critters won’t mind that we are taking over their space and hopefully we’re not leaving too much of a footprint.

Were there any genuinely frightening moments in the making of the show?

Well, I was tied to the stake — I say that like it’s an everyday occurrence because for that show it kind of was — but I was tied to the stake and we were shooting the first episode where Mick Ignis, who is a wonderful character and creature actor who played Stella Stanis, a creepy witch character, was coming toward me with a torch and, everyone was so safety first on the show, but as actors we had to set the tone for what we felt comfortable with. But I was just so into it and Mick was so scary and great that there was a point where I had a blonde hair strand that was flapping out in the breeze and I think it got a tiny bit singed? Where I was suddenly like, huh this is kind of close to me. I definitely caught the smell of burning hair, but it wasn’t a serious emergency.

How did you prepare for the role?

I took a gun safety lesson — that was intense — but most of it was wanting to be as prepared as possible with my lines. Again when you’re shooting fast and furious and there’s a lot of stuff you have to keep track of in addition to that, the responsible thing is to be as prepared with what you’re supposed to say as possible. And I don’t say that as a goody-two-shoes, I’ve definitely worked on shows where I’ve been more lax about that, either because the tone of the show allows for that or because I think I’m going to be able to pick it up and work with it, but I was not going to mess around on this one.

John McGinley plays a very sexist former Sheriff who insists on schooling you on how to do your job. Have you encountered sexism like that in your career?

No, never. Totally kidding. Yeah. I mean that’s a bigger picture question right now that many of us are thinking about in a different way than maybe we were pre-early November. It’s really hard. I think I’m very lucky to live in the place and time that I do, I don’t take that for granted. I think that there’s still a lot of stuff that’s still really embedded in people in regards to race and gender. It’s institutionalized in the United States in a lot of specific ways that are hard to identify. It’s something that I’m committed to be better about and more than anything trying to be sympathetic and empathetic not just to people who experience racism, but also to racists and to sexists. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry and that there aren’t times when fighting back is the most appropriate course of action, but I think that trying to understand motive if for no other reason than to have a plan of attack that will be the most effective is important. Sometimes it’s really easy to have an emotional response to something that comes from something emotional and not logical. That’s something that I try to check in with. Just because someone is putting something to me that is emotional, doesn’t mean that my reaction has to be immediate. I can take a moment to think about it and come at it in the best way possible.

On an episode of your podcast, the JV Club, you invited anyone who voted for Trump to reach out and talk openly about why they made that decision. Did you receive any responses?

I got one. I got a lot of responses, but those responses were ‘Thank you for saying that in that way, because I’m also trying to understand,’ or ‘I don’t feel that way, I’m just angry but it’s probably good that someone doesn’t just feel angry,’ to ‘How could you do that? You should just be angry.’ And then I got one from a listener that said, ‘I’m really scared to send this to you, I’m really nervous, and I feel some shame about the possibility of being judged by you, but I’m going to go ahead and take the plunge because I’m a regular listener to the podcast and I did feel the sincerity of your outreach.’ She confessed to me that she had voted for Trump and that she was, in fact, a bisexual female in her twenties of Puerto Rican descent. So every part of that as it was revealed to me in that e-mail shocked me more and more. None of those things would I have imagined. For her, there were some real personal things that had to do with family in the military and disabilities in her family that she felt had been negatively impacted by Obamacare. She had come to believe some of the rhetoric about Hillary Clinton and though she did not have respect for Donald Trump or think he was a good candidate, she truly did feel she was voting for — in her words — the lesser of two evils. Obviously I did not walk away going ‘Oh I should have voted for Trump’ but I really appreciated her coming to me with that and it was really eye opening. The idea of the us vs. them, I think is incredibly dangerous. It might be effective for some people in some situations, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt good walking away from a scenario having totally alienated myself from another person. That doesn’t mean rolling over, but it doesn’t mean immediately assuming something about someone that might not be true.

Why did you decide to start the JV Club podcast?

Well, I love the podcast medium. I really like the intimacy of it. You’re just listening to voices in your ears. So I wanted to do something and then I thought what am I going to get tired of talking about vs. what do I want to talk about? I’m not going to make any money doing this, most likely, so if I’m doing this I want it to be something that I can be excited about. When you share something about your adolescence, it’s a way to roll over and show your soft underbelly when it comes to talking about your past and the person that you once were. I think there’s a tremendous connection between that person and the person who you become on a really visceral level, but the discussion is also not invading someone’s personal life in the moment. I like to know what are the things that kind of hang on in adulthood even if you don’t want them to, like wanting to feel like the popular kid at the party or even get invited to the party at all. Also I like showing young people that everyone struggles and we all have these humiliating things that happen to us and it’s okay to be — as Keegan-Michael Key said on the podcast — still cooking, and not be this person who everyone adores.

Has there been a favorite moment with a guest doing your podcast?

My boyfriend says I get high off my podcast. And I really do. I guess I knew I was a people person, but I didn’t know how much till I had a podcast. I feel this fierce loyalty to all of the guests I’ve had. Maybe it’s silly to feel like you have a connection to someone who you talked to for an hour for those people that I didn’t already know — but I kind of do. I have a lot of affection for people who take that time out, they weren’t paid anything, and to share that honesty and vulnerabilities, you know, they are okay in my book.

I heard you on the Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast. I think it’s awesome that you’re so open about your mental health struggles.

Yeah, I was actually just watching Survivor and there were two people on the show with crippling anxiety and they were really honest about it. One of them had a panic attack on the show. I was just so moved and so proud of them both for doing it, and they didn’t necessarily set out to be an example for other people, but that certainly was a side-effect. It’s bad enough to have stuff like that and then to add shame on top of that, it’s just not going to do you any favors at all. That’s what I hope to be a part of communicating is that you’ve got enough on your plate if you’re struggling with that and feeling like you’re broken because you’re going through something like that is hard way to exist.

What does your dream role look like?

I think there’s part of me that’s longing to play a Sherlock Holmes or sort of a House character, like a real detective. Like a real, moody detective. Like a real sarcastic, mentally ill detective. I think it would be really fun to do something like that. I’m really drawn to procedurals as a viewer. Boy, I know shooting that stuff is hard work, but I think it would scratch a lot of itches to be part of a show like that.

I would definitely watch that.

From your lips to the industry’s ears.

What else is coming up?

The comedy festival that I co-created and produce will have our 16th annual festival in San Francisco starting January 12th. We’ll have a ton of great shows. Kids in the Hall and John Hamm are doing shows, a Peter Bogdanovich tribute. Some real eclectic things. Jeff Goldblum does a music show with his Mildred Snitzer orchestra. You can check out the full lineup at SFSketchfest.com.

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