How Allison Janney Became That Actor In Everything
The six-time Emmy winner tells BuzzFeed News about the highs, lows, and insane experiences she's encountered in her 25-year career.
Allison Janney's love affair with acting began years before she ever played C.J. Cregg on The West Wing, Ms. Perky in 10 Things I Hate About You, or any of the other dynamic women who have come to define her 25-year career.
"My mom was an actress. She went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, did Summer Stock, and was roommates with Eileen Brennan and Rue McClanahan," Janney told BuzzFeed News in her dressing room on the set of her latest project, CBS's Mom. "So, growing up, we'd go see Eileen whenever she was performing in different plays. I was too young to actually go to the theater, but I remember waiting up for her to come over afterwards and romanticizing her life a lot."
While the late Brennan may have kick-started Janney's love for performing, Janney looks at another iconic actor as her mentor: Joanne Woodward, who was married to Paul Newman for 50 years until his death in 2008.
"I went to Kenyon College in Ohio and Paul Newman went to Kenyon," Janney said. "During my freshman year they built this beautiful theater and he came back to christen it by directing the first play. I met him and Joanne when he cast me in the show and she said I had to come to New York and go to The Neighborhood Playhouse, where she went ... It wasn't a guaranteed career for me. But right after college, I went to New York, went to that neighborhood playhouse, and studied acting there for two years. Then, Joanne had a theater company she very generously headed up for us and allowed us to do plays. That pretty much sealed my fate."
What followed was several years of doing, in Janney's own words, "a lot of off, off, off, off, off, off-Broadway stuff." But she endured. "Every time I tried to leave, every time I would quit in tears when things didn't work out, something would pull me back in," Janney said, fingers opened toward the sky. "Somebody was looking out for me up there, like, 'Don't give up yet!'"
That patience paid off in 1996 when Janney made her Broadway debut in a revival of Noel Coward's Present Laughter. "I was 36 years old and that was the first time I got a big break — and it was on Broadway!"
"Better late than never" quickly became Janney's unofficial motto as one role led to another — parts that eventually became her celebrated niche.
"Being a character actress, I think it allows me to have those kinds of varied roles," Janney said. "I feel like I've been skirting around the outside, showing up in a little thing here, a little thing there; never one big thing, but it's amounted to a lot of really great roles in really great movies that, over the years, have amounted to a really nice career. I'm certainly grateful to have made a living doing this, because there really was nothing else I could do."
In her own (slightly edited) words, Janney shared her memories of some of those "really great roles" that got her where she is today.
Who Shot Pat? (1989)
Janney made her screen debut in this little-seen 1950s drama that also featured a young Sandra Bullock. She played Miss Penny, a teacher at an interracial vocational high school in Brooklyn.
"I know that was the first role I ever did on camera because I was so nervous I threw up in the sink in the dressing room. I've never been so nervous in my entire life. I think we were out at some school out in Queens ... or Brooklyn. I don't know where we were, but we were there so early.
I never saw the movie. I don't even know what I did it in it. I was just so nervous."
Guiding Light (1993–1995)
For nearly three years, Janney recurred on the CBS soap opera as Ginger, one of the Spaulding family's maids. (Tammy Lang played Donna, the frick to Ginger's frack.)
"That was the first paying job where I ever got to actually act — and I was thrilled. Soap operas always have a stigma for bad acting, but it was actually great training for Mom in terms of how the lines come in, how they change, and the rehearsal process. You have to be fast on your feet.
That was a great, great job. It was the first time I was able to pay my own rent. My father and mother were very, very pleased because I don't think they thought it was going to work out for me before this."
Big Night (1996)
Janney bonded with Big Night co-star, co-writer, and co-director Stanley Tucci when they were both performing in Nicky Silver's play Fat Men in Skirts in 1994. And, as a result, she landed the role of Ann in this sumptuous film.
"I just love that movie. Stanley just gave me that part. He just thought I would be good for it, so he didn't make me audition, which was a huge thing for me at the time. Well ... I actually did a reading for the movie, so that was probably me auditioning for the movie without auditioning. But he gave me that part, which was such a really great little role. It's probably the only romantic part I've ever played."
Primary Colors (1998)
The domino effect of Janney's performance in Fat Men in Skirts soon really started to take hold. In addition to Big Night, the play led to Janney being cast as Miss Walsh in Mike Nichols' thinly veiled, politically charged film Primary Colors.
"I started the play with a monologue, and there was this one particular performance where I had the weirdest feeling no one was looking at me. There was just this weird energy in the room. I came off stage and found out that Jackie O., John Kennedy Jr., Mike Nichols, Diane Sawyer, and Al Pacino were in the audience! To this day, I don't know why all these people were at this performance at this little theater, but it was absolutely crazy.
Mike Nichols [who's married to Sawyer] saw me in that and offered me Primary Colors. And I swear, Aaron Sorkin saw me in Primary Colors and decided he wanted me in The West Wing."
The West Wing (1999–2006)
For seven seasons, Janney played C.J. Cregg, the White House's press secretary, on Aaron Sorkin's acclaimed NBC drama. The role seriously elevated Janney's profile in Hollywood and led to four Emmy wins — two for Outstanding Supporting Actress (2000, 2001) and two for Outstanding Lead Actress (2002, 2004). Those statuettes sit on a specially constructed shelf above her television set: "I never had children. I had Emmys. Those are my kids," she said.
"There were tons of auditions. I auditioned for [executive producers] Tommy Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin, and I read that first press briefing that C.J. gives, saying, 'The president has run his bicycle into a tree.' And they were like, 'Thank you.' They didn't even want to talk to me about anything. I came out and said, 'Well, that's not going to happen.'Then I went in more three times, and had to test for the network. It was my first time going through the experience, so I was fine with whatever happened. One day I was in my room at the La Montrose in West Hollywood and I got this big bouquet of flowers from Aaron saying, 'Welcome to the show!' I was in shock. It was so exciting.
It was fun to play the smartest woman in the room and get to say all these great speeches. She was an incredibly ego-boosting character to play as well. I just felt so cool playing C.J. The way she dressed down anybody who was inappropriate or a sorry excuse for a human being. She knew how to put a word sandwich together and I've always been a fan of those Rosalind Russell, fast-talking dames. I loved the dialogue. I loved the challenge of memorizing it — especially in the press briefings. I don't work well not knowing something on the set. Some people can just ask, 'What's the line again?' That devolves my process into utter spiral shame. I have to know my shit. I have to know it cold. Then I can just come on and spit it out. I didn't know what I was talking about, but you'd think I did! I wish I could channel her in my real life. Just turn on my C.J. brain and suddenly know everything she did and handle everything she did with such diplomacy and grace.
I didn't realize how popular the show was until our second or third season, when we'd go to Washington, D.C., to film exteriors. People in Washington went crazy. All of a sudden, we became rock stars. We had to have all this security on set because there were so many fans that would show up. That was my first taste of that ... I don't really get that kind of activity nowadays. It was very cool."
"I was always trying to prepare myself for that moment, when it would end, knowing that it was going to be a big change. The hours were excruciating; it was pretty all-consuming to be in that for seven years and spend that much time with those people. So to think about it coming to an end, not knowing what that would be like felt like falling off a cliff. In some ways, I would have been happy doing that job forever.
But I think when John Spencer [who played White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry] died in December  it just felt like it was definitely the right time to end. It was time to go. It's always better to leave a party when you're still having fun. We had been so crushed by reality TV. The Bachelor killed us in the ratings, and I didn't understand that. I was so disappointed in America. I really was. I thought it would reach saturation point and that reality TV wouldn't stick around. That was my prediction. But I was very, very wrong. I guess there's room for everybody. I can't be mad at it, but I'm not a fan. I felt like it was taking away from talented writers and actors and directors. It was just an easy way for the networks to make money.
I remember filming the last scene C.J. would be seen in — when she's leaving the White House. I will never forget filming that in Washington, D.C. It was almost too much for me to take in and, at the same time, act. Like, this was happening right now and I was resisting acting it, so I don't think it was my best acting moment. I remember finishing that scene and thinking it sucked. I didn't do it the way I wanted to do it.
I think the last scene we filmed was Martin [Sheen] going around saying good-bye to everyone in the West Wing in that big walk and talk. It was kind of like a big, sad party."
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Janney's small role, as guidance counselor Ms. Perky, in this modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew became one of the film's most popular characters.
"I ad-libbed, 'Kat. Meow.' That was me. I do that on some movies when I feel like the atmosphere is right and [director] Gil Junger was open to it and just let me do whatever I wanted to do. I was really thrilled about that one. That was also the first movie where I got paid a really nice salary."
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
Janney was cast as the bawdy, boozy, trailer-rockin' Loretta in the cult classic and, once again, the actor had room to improvise.
"'I got some!' That was my ad-lib! I was a little tentative about ad-libbing, and I thought I might get in trouble saying that. But I did it anyway. In the end, there were a lot of ad-libs in that one.
I don't read reviews, so I didn't realize that movie got slammed, completely slammed when it came out. I don't remember that. I just remember that I had a really good time. I remember walking around the Mall of America trying to get that accent down. I have some of the craziest memories with Ellen Barkin and Brittany Murphy — Brittany, I had done A View From the Bridge with her on Broadway and then I did this movie with her called David and Lisa, and then Drop Dead Gorgeous. We did all this stuff together. I miss her a lot."
American Beauty (1999)
Director Sam Mendes' star-studded Oscar-winning film featured Janney as Barbara Fitts, the off-kilter wife of Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) and mother of Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). In what was becoming a recurring theme, Janney's stage work led to her casting.
"I had just done Alan Ball's Five Women Wearing the Same Dress at the Manhattan Class Company and he wanted me to meet Sam Mendes because he wanted me to play this part. I didn't have to come in and read for it. I had the inside track. I was so grateful and happy to get to play Barbara Fitz. We decided she was just on the wrong dose of medication.
She was a little overmedicated and she was probably ... well, there was a whole part of the movie that got cut out. It's brilliant the way it is, but there was a big courtroom scene where Ricky is charged with murdering Lester [Kevin Spacey], and there was a trial scene. Then, you see me finding the bloody T-shirt in the laundry and I realize my husband is the one who actually killed him. You see me deciding to send the evidence to the police, and I leave the house for the first time! That was so huge because she was agoraphobic and goes to the mailbox.
We had this whole arc and Sam called me and said, 'I'm so sorry. I had to cut everything. You were so great though.' I never got to see any of the footage, but I loved her. I would sit there and think about happy things. That's what I did when I sat there. I would be really quiet and think about happy things. No one would know what I was thinking, but I was thinking about beautiful, happy things."
Nurse Betty (2000), The Hours (2002), Finding Nemo (2003), How To Deal (2003), Piccadilly Jim (2004), Winter Solstice (2004), Strangers With Candy (2005), The Chumscrubber (2005), Our Very Own (2005)
Janney made nearly a dozen films over the seven years she starred on The West Wing. While those hiatus projects and roles varied in size, there was one common theme that all of them shared.
"I was definitely trying to not play the smartest woman in the room. Those were the characters I was getting sent a lot at that time. I get offered a lot of the same things. There were a lot of lawyers or women of authority. People either want me to play the smartest woman in the room or the drunkest woman in the room.
My best friend Cameron Watson wrote Our Very Own and he asked me to do that. I remember on Strangers With Candy, I just happened to be on the East Coast and someone fell out and I love Amy Sedaris so much and it was a scene with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, so I wanted to do that. I love dark stories and Chumscrubber was right up my alley. I ended up doing a lot of those movies as favors to friends. That's how I got a lot of those great, little parts. But I also wasn't being offered big parts in movies and I wanted to work."
In one of the final episodes of Lost, Janney played the woman who turned Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) and the Man in Black (Titus Welliver) against each other when they were just boys. Basically, the character kick-started the entire saga. To this day, Janney is flummoxed by the role.
"I was so lost and so confused on that show. And when I talked to [executive producers] Damon [Lindelof] and Carlton [Cuse], they were no help either. They didn't give me a definitive answer, so I just played it like a fucking crazy lady who killed a woman who just had a baby. That might have been a mistake doing that. I had no idea what I was doing.
I don't like acting outdoors to begin with and then I get [to Hawaii] and there's a tsunami. We had to do a vertical evacuation and my assistant was trying to wake me up at 3 in the morning, trying to drag me up to a room on the 15th floor. She's tying bedsheets to the balcony. It was crazy."
The Help (2011)
Longtime friends Janney and Octavia Spencer have starred in every film written and directed by Tate Taylor (2003's Chicken Party, 2008's Pretty Ugly People, and The Help). But Janney found herself fighting to be cast as Charloette Phelan in Taylor's high-profile adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel.
"I've been in everything Tate's done and he wanted me for the role, but the studio wanted someone with international box office chops. I was not offered that role until the week before [shooting started]. It was a real nail-biter for me. I didn't want to bother Tate with it. He was busy prepping and getting ready and I didn't want to pester him, but the offer wasn't coming. I really thought I was not going to play the part. I don't think he knows how close I was to not getting that part. Even Octavia was scared she wouldn't get her part. The studio wanted someone else. They wanted known people.
It affects me and it's upsetting when I lose things. It's when I wonder what I need to do in order to have more international box office draw so I can get the roles I want to play. But then I think, Who cares? I don't want to play that game. I know a couple things I've lost where I was traded for another actor with more recognizability. It becomes like trading baseball cards. I'll give you her, if you give me him. Which is crazy. I try not to think about it because it's not my problem. It can't be."
The Way Way Back (2013)
Another longtime friendship led to Janney signing on to play the free-spirited Betty for writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
"I almost didn't do The Way Way Back because I felt like I had played that woman before. I didn't want to play too many of those women, and I felt like I should be careful. But I did it because I love Jim Rash so much and it ended up being a great character. So I'm really glad I did that, but I was worried I might get in trouble for doing another drunk lady."
Masters of Sex (2013)
After the first season of Showtime's sex-charged drama, Janney won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama for her heartbreaking performance as Margaret Scully, a woman who embarks on an emotionally fulfilling affair with Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears) after discovering her husband (played by Beau Bridges) is gay. The Scullys briefly returned in Season 2 before exiting the series.
"I liked her a lot. I loved just going through that whole discovery process, feeling inadequate as a woman and thinking, What is wrong with me? That was a great acting job to have. I think Margaret was a character capable of so much more. She was so smart. She gave her life up for her husband, who she loved. I loved those mah-jongg games. That's how she got all the information that started crumbling her world apart. I mostly didn't talk in those scenes, which I really loved. I always say that. I like scenes where you just listen and take in and see that happening to her and you know exactly what she's thinking about her life. I think it was a reaction to The West Wing. I just wanted to shut up and let other people talk.
I didn't think it was going to be anything more than the arc from the first season. I think they planned to go in a whole different direction for Season 2, but wanted them to be in it somehow, so they wrote that very dramatic arc in the first episode — although I think they want to bring us back for Season 3, and are figuring out how to incorporate us in the show. I had no idea how good this role would be. In a way, Margaret was the most like me of all my characters in terms of my shy and quiet and reserved nature, especially with people I don't know. I tend to be shy and self-reflective and wonder."
Janney achieved a rare feat and won a second Emmy in 2014: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy for playing addict-in-rocky-recovery Bonnie on the CBS sitcom. The show, co-starring Anna Faris as Bonnie's daughter Christy, navigates a fine line between comedy and drama as the big laughs are countered with poignant storylines that tackle everything from abortion to cancer to addiction relapse.
"This writing on this show gives us so much to do as actors, which is more rewarding and real. When people ask if I like doing comedy or drama more, I say that I like to do things like this. Real life is messy and complicated and that's the most fun stuff to play. I love playing Bonnie. She's so selfish and bawdy and doesn't give a fuck what anybody thinks about her. Plus, it's such a nice schedule and I love Anna so much. I really like this job a lot."
Days and Nights (2014)
For the film inspired by Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, Janney faced an exciting career first.
"That was the first time I was ever No. 1 on the call sheet! There's just so much responsibility with that. It's so scary. I like to be buried in the middle, like sixth or seventh. But I can handle it. I'm ready to handle it."