Talking Up Downtown: Janeane Garofalo

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Actress, Comedian, Political Activist, Writer

Janeane Garofalo is probably best known for her numerous television and film appearances (24, Reality Bites, The Truth About Cats and Dogs), her stand-up work and hosting duties on Air America's The Majority Report. This winter, however, marks the first time Garofalo will star in a play: the Off-Broadway production of playwright Erika Sheffer's debut, Russian Transport. The work, staged by The New Group, tells the story of Diana and Misha, an immigrant couple in Sheepshead Bay struggling to maintain their car service business.

While the play opens for a limited engagement Jan. 17 at the Acorn Theatre, Sheffer and Garofalo will grace the stage of 92YTribeca Jan. 11 to discuss the work's back story and its path to the stage.

Is Russian Transport the first play you have starred in?

I did Love, Loss and What I Wore [last year], but that was more people sitting and reading vignettes. I've done some work with The Fire Dept. theater company?they are very avant garde?I don't even know how to describe it. It was less structured than a play.

This is my first official play. I have been a fan of The New Group, and I never imagined that I would be asked to participate in something like this. It is both daunting and exciting?I have never had that feeling with my work, being both excited and terrified.

What terrifies you?

That I could suck. That I could be horrible. The other actors are so good and New Group does such good stuff. I think, What if I am the weakest link? It is the usual debilitating self-loathing.

What appealed to you about Russian Transport?

First, it came as quite a surprise that they wanted me. My agent told me that the director, Scott Elliott, asked if I would like to do this part [Diana] in this play. I don't usually get asked that. The script was really, really good, which is unusual. Most of the scripts are mediocre at best.

Initially, I passed. I thought I couldn't do it, play a Russian immigrant mom who is running a business. I didn't think I could vacillate between the English with the Russian accent and the Russian dialogue.

I met Scott to tell him this and by the end of lunch I had agreed to do it. He talked me into it, but he is one of the greatest directors I have ever worked with. He says all the right things all of the time.

What did he say to you that convinced you to sign on?

He just said, "You can do it. I'm never wrong. It's not going to be a problem at all."

And for some reason, by the end of the lunch I thought, I can do this. He had absolute confidence. He is always unfailingly confident, that is one of his gifts. Beyond that, it was also a very good script.

How does preparation for a play differ from preparing for a stand-up show or a film or television role?

Well, I can't speak to all plays. I can only speak to this one. Every day you go in and drill it, drill it, run it and run it. Scott is so intuitive. He guides you through and asks questions like, "What if you felt this way?" or says, "Now this time, be really excited." He takes you through these exercises. It makes you feel that you are collaborating.

In a lot of TV and film work, directors don't have the time or the inclination to unpack things and get under the emotion, especially in mainstream work. In studio films, it is much more about the look and appealing to the most amount of people; of course, that isn't true of the indie film world.

As for stand-up, my approach to stand-up is so undisciplined and it has been that way since 1985. Sometimes I wish I was more disciplined.

Given the news that has come out in the last year, from the Arab Spring to the potential Republican candidates, do you find yourself missing having an outlet like your Air America show to express your views on current events?

Yes and no. Sam Seder [who co-hosted The Majority Report on Air America] still does his shows. [Seder developed The Majority Report into a podcast in 2010.] Sometimes I go on his show or I do other people's podcasts. I discuss it to a degree in stand-up. But I do miss the Monday through Friday at Air America - I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the medium of radio. I learned so much, there was so much information coming in all the time. I still have outlets, but not as regular. I still do find that I can communicate in that way with people.

Because you are very politically outspoken, have you found that people come up to you on the street and want to engage in that kind of dialog?

Occasionally. It used to happen all the time during the Bush era. It tends to always be some right-wingers. They know I am an easy target as a 5-foot-1 female. They don't do it to a Sam Seder or a Tim Robbins. They don't do it to the big guys.

Garofalo and playwright Erika Sheffer will discuss Russian Transport at 7 p.m., Jan. 11, 92YTribecca, 200 Hudson St.,

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