Erika Eleniak reflects on “Baywatch” and working with Jim Varney

When your first acting job is in one of the most popular movies ever made where do you go from there? For Erika Eleniak, you go straight to the top. At age 10 she appeared alongside Henry Thomas in Steven Spielberg’s classic “E.T.” As the girl Thomas’ character, Elliot, kisses in the classroom, Eleniak certainly made an impression on young film fans. As she got older she found work on television, often as the prospective love interest of such actors as Rick Schroeder on “Silver Spoons,” Scott Baio on “Charles in Charge” and John Stamos on “Full House.” In 1989 she began a two-plus season run as lifeguard Shauni McClain on the popular television series “Baywatch!” Three years later she broke out on the big screen as Playboy playmate Jordan Tate in the Steven Segal action hit “Under Siege.”

In the two decades since she has built a strong resume’ of work both on television (“Brooklyn South,” “Desperate Housewives”) and film (“The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Chasers”). Now the proud mother of a daughter, Ms. Eleniak continues to work steadily, currently adding the word “Author” to her resume. While appearing at the Con X KC convention she took time out to talk with Media Mikes.

Mike Smith: Your first screen role put you in one of the most beloved films of all time, “E.T.” Were you made aware of what the film was about? Did you get to read the entire script or just the pages for your scene?
Erika Eleniak: No. It was very secret. The whole thing from top to bottom was kept under wraps. We were given a different name – I was told the film was called “A Boys Life.” I was pretty much told it was about a boy and an alien. Nothing beyond that. There was no script really for me – we just did our thing. And that was it. There was no hanging out around the set.

MS: Did you shoot any additional scenes that weren’t used?
EE: Not any extra scenes but I do believe I had a line or two when Henry Thomas is trying to free the frogs in class. We were lab partners and I was doing the standard “what are you doing?” In fact, it may have been as simple AS “what are you doing, Elliot? Stop it. You’re going to get in trouble.” I’m pretty sure I had a line that definitely got cut.

MS: You left “Baywatch” at the beginning of season three. Were you surprised at the popularity of the show, especially around the world?
EE: Yes and no. I think everyone was in some way. When you think about the subject matter being shown to other parts of the world…shiny California while other parts of the world are freezing…that part is definitely not surprising as to why the show got such a warm welcome (laughs)…excuse the pun! But how can you ever foresee the success of a show before it happens? You really can’t. The way it all happened…going from being on NBC, which was a really conservative network, to syndication where you could do a lot more with necklines plunging…more eye candy. More of what it eventually became. I think it certainly evolved into itself. It was a work in progress that started out as something much different then where it ended up for sure. I would say that everyone was most happily surprised.

MS: I was very fortunate to have known Jim Varney. Do you have any special memories of working with him on “The Beverly Hillbillies?”
EE: I do! Whenever people ask me about Jim Varney I always have to say that he was one of the most soft-spoken and sweet gentlemen. It was such a loss for him to leave us as early as he did. The funny thing that I loved about Jim was that you could pick any topic on this planet…anything off the wall, and he could talk to you for 20 minutes about it. He was a walking encyclopedia. He was just so smart and it was baffling how much information he had about the most random things. He was incredible that way. Just fascinating. And one of my favorite memories was he and I sitting in the makeup trailer before work. We were just chatting. It was early in the morning and I remember just talking about how I had started a hope chest. I had always wanted children so I started a baby clothes collection and I mentioned that I had started to collect quotes. We were just talking. And about a year after the film wrapped I got this huge box in the mail. Jim had remembered our conversation…I barely did. As I said, it was just idle chatter…”how’s the weather,” that kind of thing. And Jim had sent me two handmade quilts. One was for a baby to put in my hope chest and one was for my quilt collection. He had asked a lady from his little home town in Tennessee to make these things by hand for me and send them to me. I was blown away. My God, that was just so thoughtful…I don’t have enough time in this conversation to tell you what a sweet man he was. And that quilt is still on my little girl’s bed in her bedroom.

MS: You’ve done a lot of work in both television and film. Do you have a preference?
EE: No. Just whatever is quality…whatever is a great role. I suppose now, because I have a six year old daughter, scheduling becomes so much more important. I have a child in school so whatever comes along scheduling is always the first thing I try to figure out. Sometimes the shorter the shoot the more complicated things can become. Is it a matter of getting someone to take her back and forth or if it’s a little bit longer do I pull her out of school, take her on set with me and do independent study with her? As for the medium, there’s no preference as long as it’s an amazing role. But where it does become more preferential is in the scheduling. Right now I have a couple of movies coming out. One was really just a cameo and it was a very short and sweet shoot. The other one was a much longer film shoot so she stayed on set with me with a nanny and did her school work there. It’s worked out really well so far. I love television and I love doing films. I will always love doing films. As long as it’s a great, interesting role I have no preference.

MS: Are you working on anything now?
EE: I just finished two films. One is called “Meant to Be” and I believe they’re going to release it in December. The film stars Della Reese and Michael Gross and Dean Cain and it’s a really very cool story with a great twist that was so appealing when I read the script. I also have a cameo in a Lifetime Channel movie called “Holiday Spin.” I love Lifetime. I really love the stories they tell. They tend to focus on relationships between people. Ralph Maccio is in it, though unfortunately I didn’t get to work with him. And I’m also in the middle of having a children’s book published. We’re in the artwork stage right now. It’s certainly a learning experience for me because I’m totally new to that world. There are layers and layers and layers to go through in the process and we’re just getting to the part of getting the artwork accomplished between myself and the illustrator and the publisher. So I’ve got a few things in the pot!

Janet Varney talks about voicing Korra on Nickelodeon’s “The Legend of Korra”

Janet Varney is known best for voicing Korra on Nickelodeon’s “The Legend of Korra”.  She also appeared in the first season of Syfy’s “Insane or Inspired?”.  Currently she is working on HuffPost Live, a live streaming network. Janet took some time to chat about voicing Korra and what we can expect from season two of the show.

Mike Gencarelli: How did you end up landing the leading role of Korra on Nickelodeon’s “The Legend of Korra”?
Janet Varney: Well I have wanted to do voice over for a while but didn’t have a lot of experience in it. I was something that was a dream of mine. I was working well on-camera but like every good dissatisfied artist, what I really wanted to do was something that I wasn’t getting successful in [laughs]. Mostly because the little kid in me was completely fascinated by being a part of cartoons. I met with a few voice over agents and then asked me “What do you like most about voice work? Promos? Commercials?”. I told them basically I just want to do cartoons and they appreciated my honesty. When I got the audition of Korra, it was basically just a normal process for any on-camera role. We even got put together with the other proposed cast to see how the chemistry was, so I got to read with David Faustino and P.J. Byrne. When I found out I got the role, I was in a Jo-Ann Fabrics & Crafts in the Valley, getting crafts supplies. My agent called and told me the news and I ended up screaming and jumping up and down all by myself in an aisle of this fabric store. It has turned out to be one of the best jobs, I have ever had. It is an absolute dream.

MG: Did you look back to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series” at all?
JV: I was a fan of the original series. I think because of the original legacy of the show and how beloved the series was, I think we all felt like we had a responsibility to the fans to do something that would live up to the original. I so felt pressure that the fans were ok with what I was doing with the character and fulfilling their expectations.

MG: Tell us about your podcast “The J.V. Club”?
JV: The timing on that was really great. I decided to focus on, before Korra took off, a way do a podcast with a unique point-of-view and voice. Fan of Korra are even crossing over to the podcast now as we discuss the challenges of being a young person and then how those challenge present themselves as an adult.

MG: I am a big “Jaws” fan myself, tell us about working with Rifftrax to spoof “Jaws 3”?
JV: Oh yeah, “Jaws 3”. I used to love that movie. What is so great about some of the spoofs we get to do is that when you are younger you don’t necessarily know how bad something is that you like. But you still always seem to love it growing up even though it doesn’t hold up and was terrible to begin with. I still love that movie…sort of…even though it is terrible. It was the perfect movie to riff on. We just recorded “Flatliners” as well, so that will be coming out very soon.

MG: Speaking of spoofing, how did you get involved with Syfy’s “Insane or Inspired?”
JV: It was a super fun show. I had done some “Chelsea Lately” episodes and a few other panel TV shows, so it seemed like such a good fit. It has really been a real hoot some of the things we get to view, which are pretty hilarious. I also love the other people on it like Owen Benjamin and Ben Gleib. We don’t always get to see each out since we are recording at different times but it is still fun.

MG: You must own a lot of the same clothes, since you didn’t change your clothes each episode?
JV: [laughs] The bad thing is that I never realized that they were going to be combining clips over the series of episodes. The second time I showed up, I was wearing something completely different. They said “No, no, no, no…you need to wear the same clothes”. I got real familiar with that outfit and will probably never wear it again [laughs].

MG: When can we expect the second season of “The Legend of Korra”?
JV: We already recorded all of the episodes for the second season. Now, they are just being animated. It takes a long time to create that beautiful animated world. I am not even sure if Nickelodeon is 100% sure when we will be airing it, but I am sure sometime in 2013. I can tell you having recorded the scripts, it is just phenomenal. It is beautiful, interesting and strange. We get to meet some new characters and visit some new places. I am really excited and I think fans are going to love it.