Allison Janney Reaches Great Heights in Acting (INTERVIEW)

The gifted performer talks about costarring on 'Mom,' making her upcoming movies, and, oh yeah, being mentored by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
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Allison Janney Photo

Allison Janney at the People Choice Awards, January 2015. (Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency / Featureflash Photo Agency /">

While many actresses of a certain generation lament the scarcity of good roles, not to mention steady work, Allison Janney remains among a select group of thespians whose phones just don’t stop ringing. The figuratively and literally tall talent—she stands six feet—has stayed incredibly busy since she entered the industry nearly two decades ago. 

Whether she’s supported leads such as Meryl Streep in The Hours and Melissa McCarthy in Spy, supplied the voice for other species in Finding Nemo and Over the Hedge, or been part of the ensembles for independent films like Big Night and Juno, Janney always deftly delivers the goods. She’s happy to take on any project that allows her to flex her acting muscle, and not just up on the big screen. Janney currently stars with Anna Faris in the CBS hit sitcom, Mom, as Bonnie Plunkett, an unabashedly inappropriate alcoholic in recovery. And she recently was a featured player on Masters of Sex on Showtime. Both roles earned her an Emmy in the same awards season, a rare feat in Hollywood.

But she is perhaps best known on television for her memorable turn as presidential press secretary C.J. Cregg on the NBC drama, The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons. Janney earned four Emmys and four Screen Actors Guild Awards along with a slew of other nominations for her portrayal of Cregg, which she has said is the most impactful and life-changing role she has ever played. It landed her an invitation to the White House as well and ultimately opened doors to a celebrated career. This past April, Janney returned to her Cregg roots when she crashed a White House press briefing in character the day before the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. She actually was asked to attend to speak about the impact of addiction, something she has learned more about through Mom and also experienced personally, having tragically lost a family member to the disease.

Trailer for CBS' 'Mom':

Janney grew up in Dayton, Ohio, as a typical Midwestern kid and excelled in athletics. Her mom was an aspiring actress who attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and roomed with and befriended the late Eileen Brennan and Rue McClanahan at summer stock theater. However, she decided to forego show biz for full-time family life when she married Janney’s father, a businessman and jazz pianist. Janney remembers meeting Brennan and thinking acting “was a pretty neat thing” for a profession. When she later attended Kenyon College to study the craft and was directed in a school play by alumnus Paul Newman, the deal was sealed. Newman and wife Joanne Woodward mentored Janney and encouraged her to move to New York City to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse. She followed their advice and went on to also gain award-winning acclaim on Broadway over the years in productions that include Present Laughter, A View from the Bridge and 9 to 5.

Bio chatted with Janney shortly before she slipped into C.J. Cregg’s skin once again, reuniting with West Wing costar Bradley Whitford to do a signature “walk and talk” for a skit on James Corden’s The Late Late Show. Although she hasn’t played a commander-in-chief, she certainly commands the attention and adoration of TV-watching, theater-loving, movie-going audiences. 

When was the first time you knew you were famous?

Well the Emmy [for The West Wing] was pretty amazing… I just remember standing up there accepting that award for C.J. Cregg and I think I said that, 'This is the first time I actually feel like I can admit and come out of the dark shadows, and admit that I’m an actress.' So I said, 'My name is Allison Janney and I’m an actress.' My career started very [late]. I mean, my Broadway debut, I think I was 38 when I had that. I spent a lot of time in the trenches in New York doing a lot of off-off-off Broadway theater. I was a late bloomer in a lot of areas in life.

Allison Janney West Wing Photo

Shown: (back row) Rob Lowe (as Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn), Martin Sheen (as President Josiah Bartlet), Allison Janney (as Press Secretary C.J. Cregg), Richard Schiff (as Communications Director Toby Ziegler), John Spencer (as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry), Dule Hill (as aide Charlie Young), Janel Maloney (as assistant Donna Moss); (front row) Stockard Channing (as First Lady Abigail Bartlet), Bradley Whitford (as Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman). (Photo: NBC/Photofest)

Speaking of C.J. Cregg, she crashed a recent White House daily press briefing.

Yes, she did [laughs].

You were there, however, to speak about an important issue: the opioid epidemic. How did that all come about?

It came about through doing Mom, of course. It’s a show about people in recovery… I went to Washington D.C. back in the fall to represent Mom and the Face Addiction Now Rally on the mall, and I went and I spoke in front of more people than I’ve ever spoken to in my life… It was exciting and I got to meet the Surgeon General, who was a lovely, lovely man, I just adore him, and he came out to visit us at Mom… [Anna Faris and I] did a PSA [about addiction] with the Surgeon General and then he asked Chuck [Lorre, Mom creator, writer and executive producer] and Anna and I to come to DC to be on a panel that was talking about the opioid epidemic and obviously other people facing other addictions…  It’s always an added benefit when as an actor if you do something, you put something out into the world that’s actually helping people…. The press briefing thing was sort of sprung on me. I almost didn’t do it because I was so nervous. It’s a different thing. I’m far more comfortable being C.J. with a script than I am being Allison. I’m actually very shy and uncomfortable.

Janney crashes a White House press briefing to bring to light the opioid epidemic:

Your body of work is so eclectic and extensive. IMDB lists you as having 113 credits, and you always have projects in some stage of development. Are you happy with the trajectory of your career? You’re so busy, it doesn’t seem like you’ve ever faced any gender or age discrimination.

You know, I feel pretty lucky. I think I probably had some height discrimination early on [laughs]. I really think that was why it took me a while to grow into the sort of parts that I would play. There was a lot of low self-esteem. Those issues probably stopped me from pushing myself… I knew I wanted to do it, I knew I was good at it, but I didn’t have a real fire in my belly. This friend of mine back in New York said, 'Allison, I just have this feeling you’re going to be successful in spite of yourself.' [laughs]

You were your own worst enemy it sounds like.

Yes, always have been, still am. In my career, I am so so happy and grateful for everything I’ve gotten to do. And yet, I wish I had started off earlier so I could, I don’t know… I certainly have not not gotten work because of my age, but I’m just gonna pray and hope that the roles will still keep coming as I get older. And they have so far, so I don’t see why I should think they wouldn’t keep coming, but I think that’s just one of the pitfalls of being an actor… Do I still got it? It just never goes away. But I feel pretty fortunate that I’ve had what’s the closest thing to being a steady job as an actor, which is life on a hit TV show, The West Wing the first one and now Mom. I hope it continues to do well, because I really like having a steady job. I feel better when I’m working. I tend to not know who I am when I’m not working. That worries me a little bit… I’ve been fortunate to be so busy, but I haven’t developed any other skills. I’m like 'Dammit, I gotta develop some other skills.' [laughs]

Allison Janney Mom CBS Photo

Allison Janney as Bonnie and Anna Faris as Christy in CBS' 'Mom.' [Episode: 'Sawdust and Brisket.'] (Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/CBS ©2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

What about height discrimination? You were quoted as saying, “Years ago, one casting agent told me that the only roles I could play were lesbians and aliens.” Did this discourage you? And how tall was the agent?

It was a woman, too. She wasn’t short… There were a lot of tall actresses at that point: Sigourney Weaver, and Kelly McGillis who was big right around that time… Christine Lahti was working a lot. And someone said [to me], 'Well, those women are drop-dead gorgeous!' You know, people said some pretty awful things, but I always knew, I’ve always known that I could do this. There was some strange confidence I had. Even though I didn’t have the ambition really, I had the competence.

Considering that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were among your mentors and encouraged you, I’d say you had acting chops very early on. How were they as mentors?

Joanne was incredible. Paul was, too. But Joanne was the one who really gave her time to a group of us in New York, and would invite us out to their house in Connecticut and we’d do play readings. And she made it possible for us to put on scene nights in New York, to have agents come. I mean she really put herself out there for a bunch of us young actors. She was instrumental in getting me to be a member of The Actor’s Studio, even though [laughs] I’ve never even gotten to take advantage of that or work out there, because I moved to Los Angeles! She was great. Paul directed me in my first play in college and through him I met Joanne. He told me if I ever, ever needed a favor that he would be there for me. He said it has to be very specific and I said okay, so I never knew what to ask him for, so I never did. But it always felt really good to have that in my hip pocket, to know that he had said that to me. It gave me an enormous amount of confidence.

This year, moviegoers will see you in quite a few films: 'The Girl on The Train,' 'Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children' and 'Talullah.' Tell us about them.

Talullah is a movie I’m really proud of. Sian Heder is the director/ writer and I think she’s extraordinarily talented. I think it was a beautiful story. I got to be reunited with my dear friend Ellen Page [from Juno]. I love this story about these people, these women’s lives, that their family units were fractured, all of them, for one reason or another… Their lives intersect in this amazing way that’s life changing for all three of them.

Miss Peregrine’s Home, I just had an opportunity to work with [director] Tim Burton and I’d never met him before and I wanted to do it. I just sort of pop up in a couple of scenes. It was more of a just I-gotta-meet-him, I-want-to-work-with-him. I’m such a huge fan of his, so I went over and had a couple of days work on that film.

Trailer for 'The Girl on the Train':

And then Tate Taylor, who did The Girl on the Train, he’s my dearest friend. He just puts me in every single movie that he does... It’s just our thing we do. It’s kind of our ritual. He finds me, whether it’s on Get On Up, where I literally had one line, to The Help, where I got to play Charlotte Phelan for a lovely story arc. And then Girl on the Train, I get to play a detective in that. Whatever Tate does, I’m in because I love him so much. It was a lot of fun. I got to mostly work with Emily Blunt, who’s divine and a lot of fun. So I’m excited for that movie to come out for him.

And, then, of course, there’s 'Mom,' which will be going into its fourth season this fall. That must be so gratifying.

It is. You know I’m not part of the creative process in terms of where the show goes and the direction it goes in. I just get the scripts a couple of days before they come out. But I’m really pleased that Chuck and the writers have gone as far as they’ve gone in the direction, actually dealing with the things that happen to people in recovery, and not shying away from things that happen in life… It’s definitely first and foremost a comedy, but we are not afraid to deal with issues that happen in life and especially to people who are struggling with addictions and in the recovery process, which never ends.

What’s the most fun about playing Bonnie? You certainly have a great love life on the series, especially now with [actor] William Fichtner. It’s better than your TV daughter’s!

Yeah, yeah [laughs]. Oh my God… I get such joy out of playing someone like Bonnie [who] is so not like me and someone who’s so inappropriate and so just unabashedly selfish. It’s just delicious to get to be that way and be so inappropriate and bad and do all the crazy, physical comedy that I get to do… I’m really enjoying this whole process because of everything I get to use, every muscle I get to use, the physical comedy, the timing and working in front of an audience, and then also having these incredibly emotionally dark scenes and moments that we get to film… It’s really a nice job I got here.

Your work on 'Mom' has earned you two Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, so now you have seven Emmys. Congratulations on that!

Thank you, thank you.

This ties you with Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner for the second highest number of Emmys for performing. So where do you keep the statuettes?

I moved into a house a year ago and am still trying to figure out where everything goes. I have them in my office on these beautiful shelves. And they’re all lined up there and they look beautiful. I think I finally found them a home.

I read an article that included things audiences may not know about you: that you dreamed of becoming an Olympic skater, that you “make a mean sangria” and that you “love to throw theme parties.” I also read you’re great at salsa dancing. Is there anything to add to this list today?

Oh my God, some of those things are truer than others that you just said. I’m not a great salsa dancer, but I do love to salsa dance… I’m trying to think of something positive to say rather than negative because my mind is thinking of all the things I’m not happy with myself about… The only guilty pleasure I have is pasta. [laughs] That’s really kind of boring, but pasta with cacio e pepe? That’s pasta with pepper and cheese and butter. I’m so boring, I can’t think of anything else. I like to drive around and talk on the phone [laughs], with my Bluetooth on, of course! That’s my office. I like to call people… Like right now I’m pacing around in this room. If I were driving, I feel it relaxes me to drive and talk on the phone… I like to play board games. Oh, you know what I love? Phase 10 is not a board game, but that’s my obsession.

Is that a video game?

No, it’s a card game. You can buy it at Target… It’s my go-to game when I have people over, and we just sit around and play Phase 10 all night. Cards Against Humanity I love. I do love a lot of card games… And that’s about all I got.