Janeane Garofalo Comes Russian In
Janeane Garofalo has had an eclectic career, shining in everything from films such as The Truth About Cats and Dogs to television series such as The West Wing, to her many successful gigs as a stand-up comedian. But her current role as the tough-talking Russian-emigre Diana in The New Group’s production of Erika Sheffer’s bracing drama Russian Transport, now at the Acorn Theatre, is definitely a change of pace for this versatile performer. TheaterMania recently spoke to Garofalo about the role, taking on a thick Russian accent, and her childhood memories of New York.
THEATERMANIA: What made you want to do this play now?
JANEANE GAROFALO: This idea came strictly from Scott Elliott, the director. I don’t know why or how. I’m eternally grateful, but I don’t know why he contacted me. I had never worked with him before. I originally passed because I thought, “I’m going to suck, I can’t do this.” He made it seem so easy, so by the end of a one-hour conversation, I was doing it. He is the best director I have ever worked with and now I feel like I don’t want to work with anyone else, ever.
TM: How do you see Diana?
JG: I know she is supposed to be sort of the architect in the downfall of the family, and a person that people could come to dislike, but I don’t see her that way. I see her as a person that is a pragmatist more than anything, and her main concern is the financial stability of her family because they are struggling right now. I definitely wouldn’t talk to my kids the way she does, though.
TM: You have turned down screen roles due to their violent content or their inappropriate nature. Did you have any reservations about taking this part?
JG: Diana is not like me, a middle-class kid from the suburbs. She is a poor person from pre-Perestroika Russia. So it’s hard to judge someone whose environment is so compromised in a way that I can’t relate to. Back when mainstream scripts would come my way and there was no reason for attractive women to be killed or harassed in their underwear — things that have nothing to do with the plot –I’d turn them down. But Russian Transport is well-written and everything in it has everything to do with the plot.
TM: In the show, you have a thick Russian accent, and you even speak Russian at times. Did that come naturally to you as a performer?
JG: I feel like I’m sucking terribly! We went over the dialect with coaches. At first, I thought the accent was coming easily, until I was told by the coach that I was making a lot of mistakes. Then I became increasingly self-conscious, and therefore less accessible. The Russian itself was initially very difficult because there are so few similarities between Russian and English. It’s much easier now. But when I hear myself with my own ears, I sound like I’m doing a crazy character!
I actually do the accent constantly around the house, and my boyfriend Pete is irritated to no end. He rolls his eyes and leaves the room immediately.
TM: You’re originally from New Jersey. What are some of your favorite New York memories from when you were a kid?
JG: As a little kid, I was terrified of New York, because on the Lower East Side at that time it could be quite intimidating. But I always knew I would one day live here. That was the plan — especially after I saw the movie Desperately Seeking Susan. I just loved that movie, but that really sealed the deal.
TM: Have you and Ben Stiller ever considered turning your book, Feel This Book into a play?
JG: No, we sure haven’t! I don’t know how you would turn that into a play. I’m sure Ben would laugh in my face if I even brought anything like that up.