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Allison Janney won our hearts as the smartest girl on the smartest show on TV. Now she’s back on the small screen, killing it with a whole different skill set—as «the world’s first GILF» on CBS’s Mom.
«Did she steal this stuff?»
«Order it all on someone else’s credit card?»
«I know—she hijacked a truck from Z Gallerie!»
The cast and crew of the CBS sitcom Mom are pausing midrehearsal to ponder the latest crime committed by Bonnie, the recovering addict and colossally inept matriarch played by Allison Janney. In the scene at hand, Bonnie has shushed up the scruffy single-mom abode of her daughter, Christy (Anna Faris), in animal-print throws and bordello-red furniture—merchandise that we know must be hot because (A) Bonnie is currently unemployed and broke enough to move in with her daughter, and (B) this is a sitcom in the purest sense of the word: At the sound of approaching sirens, Bonnie vamooses out the kitchen door—to go, where, on the lam? No one knows. In sitcomland, you know only what pops up in this week’s script, and even that is subject to constant revision. However, Janney is less concerned with «motivation» than with the getaway itself. She has just bolted four times, each time rechoreographing her 6’0″ whirligig of limbs to extract the biggest laugh possible. Though whirligig may be misleading—there are ballets with less precision than Janney’s comedic timing.
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The previous day, at a coffee shop in Studio City, I asked Janney how much time she had to talk. «I have as much time as you need,» she replied easily—words possibly never before uttered in a celebrity interview. This is partly salt of the earth, Ohio-bred graciousness, and partly due to the fact that Janney is a certain kind of celebrity—widely recognized and even beloved, but, well, niche. Mind you, she took home four Emmys in her seven years on The West Wing and has appeared in more than 40 films: as a neglected housewife in American Beauty, as the wisecracking Midwestern stepmom in Juno, as a cancer-ravaged Mississippi matron in The Help, and, this year, as a raucous, loose-lipped neighbor, stealing every scene she was given in The Way Way Back. That Janney herself is the sole thread of connection between these characters is a testament to her range—heartbreaking to hilarious, stoic to zany. «I think she’s the kind of genius who doesn’t quite understand the force and scope and nature of her talent,» says actor-director Josh Radnor, who cast her as a stone-cold academic (and sexual predator) in 2012’s Liberal Arts. Radnor reckons she’s something akin to a Stradivarius, able to play any piece and make every note sound better. «She can be vulnerable, she can be cruel, she can be adorable, and she can be sexy—she can play that down or play it up.»
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Even so, somehow Janney has remained the kind of character actor who makes each fan (and hers are legion) believe that they alone can appreciate just how good Janney really is.
Those diehards may have to learn to share. Because at 54, when most actresses are bemoaning the very real dearth of interesting roles out there, Allison Janney could be on the verge of becoming more famous than she’s ever been, or ever expected to be. This fall, you could spin the dial practically any night of the week and land on her: Sunday on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, Monday on Mom, and, in between, sparring with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a guest spot on Veep.
All of which, by the way, Janney has approached with a certain moxie that seems somehow new. It’s the flush of success, yes, and at least partially, she reports, the result of discovering Pilates and abandoning bread—and, along with it, about 20 pounds. And it’s also that hair, the glossy, sumptuous mane that Bonnie toys with on-screen whenever she wants to, er, rope a steer. It’s the kind of hair that says a lot, especially about a woman whose previous coiffures have skewed short and serious.
Actress Octavia Spencer remembers clocking a noticeable shift in her friend of more than a decade on the night Spencer was honored at an ELLE event in 2012. «I’m walking to the table and I see this carved back in this backless dress,» Spencer says, chuckling. «I’m like, ‘Who’s this bitch? And why is she at my table?’ And as I got to the table, I’m like, ‘Allison Janney’ »—she pauses for dramatic effect—» ’When did you get so hot? And why did you decide to wear a backless dress?’ » Spencer goes on: «The happier you are, the hotter the guys that are attracted to you. That’s all I’m gonna say there.»
Janney will be the first to tell you it was not always thus. There was a moment, a few years ago, when The West Wing had ended, and she was mourning the unexpected death of her younger brother Hal—»the most traumatic event of my life»—and had been single for a while. «I felt like, You know what, I’m done. I just stopped thinking there was going to be anybody out there for me. And then I met somebody who kind of turned my head around and woke me up, like, ‘I’m not done yet,’ » she says. «Love is such a powerful drug. And when that’s coursing through your system….» Though that relationship didn’t stick, it’s clear that the wake-up call did. Today Janney is single and dating again, and endearingly open about her desire to find someone. «I want to be a player! I’m still single! I want to feel sexy and pretty and young as long as I can.»
Surely this mental shift has much to do with Janney’s career being, as she puts it, «current again.» But with an unlikely West Wing renaissance afoot, she’s also having something of a cult moment. Since all seven seasons popped up on Netflix last year, established fans and newbies alike have been binge watching in hordes and falling anew for Janney’s unflappable White House spokeswoman, C. J. Cregg.
That, as Janney sees it, may or may not be good news. On the one hand, her West Wing cred (and Faris’ big-screen name) make even a broad, four-camera, laugh-track sitcom like Mom a must-watch, or at least a must-consider, for critics who might otherwise have written it off from the jump. On the other, Janney has found it tough enough to shake C. J. without, say, BuzzFeed’s recent post, «13 Times When C. J. Cregg Was Totally Right.» (Number three: «We need someone perceived by the American people to be irresponsible, untrustworthy, partisan, ambitious, and thirsty for the limelight. Am I crazy, or is this not a job for the U.S. House of Representatives?»)
Illustrating the point, at the end of our interview, a grandmotherly type stopped Janney on her way out of the restaurant. «Allison, I’m watching your new show,» she said, with the special familiarity accorded to TV people, «only because you’re on it.» The woman declared her West Wing devotion; on the subject of Mom, her admirer kept it brief: «It’s a departure.» Momentarily taken aback, Janney replied with feeling, «Yes, it is. But stay with me.»
Out on the sidewalk, she laughed. «What am I supposed to say to that? Well, yes, it is!»
Thing is, on Aaron Sorkin’s hyperverbal show about the daily grind of American government—which, in the beginning, nobody really believed would work, including the cast («we all thought it was too smart,» she says)—Janney’s C. J. seemed to embody no less than the ideal modern woman: a smooth-talking, deeply intelligent, slyly sexy professional who made competence seem like the coolest quality a girl could have. Absent all the standard office-gal tropes—the bitchiness and hysteria and irrational competitiveness—C. J. was sharp and supremely human, and she regularly outshined the show’s boys’ club (no one else in the cast came anywhere close to Janney’s Emmy count). And, oh, how elegantly C. J. could eviscerate rogue members of the press—her wit so fast you could barely see the flash of the blade. The portrayal was so convincing that when the show was canceled, Janney was offered a gig as an actual on-air political pundit.
«She’s the best character I’ve ever played,» Janney agrees. «She’s exactly who I would want people to think I was: incredibly smart, incredibly quick-witted, funny, vulnerable. And she’s a woman—a real woman.»
Janney has spent the seven years since the show went off the air explaining, with real chagrin and little success, that she’s not actually all that into politics. «If we started talking about politics right now, the conversation would be very short,» she says. Somewhat embarrassed that she can’t live up to people’s expectations, she avoids the subject altogether. «Either people think I’m really like her and they’re too intimidated to ask me out»—she hoots at this—»or they think I’m exactly like her and they go out with me and think, Hmm, she’s not like C. J. at all!»
Fifteen years ago, this was the last problem Janney ever expected to have. She didn’t hit real success until age 38, when she made her Broadway debut in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, opposite Frank Langella. A few years later, winning her first SAG award, she gave a speech about how, early in her career, «I never wanted to say I was an actor, because I didn’t feel like I was one,» she said. At one low point, she’d spent several days taking aptitude tests to find out what else she might be good at. «They told me I’d make a great systems analyst,» she says, cocking an eyebrow. «I better just stay an actress,» she figured. «At least I know what that is.»
She and her two brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio; their father works in commercial real estate and still harbors a passion for jazz piano; their mother, a former actress who had once roomed with Rue McClanahan and Eileen Brennan (watching Brennan onstage as a child first gave Allison the bug), quit acting to marry, happily taking on the role instead of «doyenne of Dayton,» her daughter says affectionately. Janney attended boarding school at Hotchkiss and harbored the girlish dream of becoming a professional figure skater. That hope was shattered, quite literally, when she ran through a glass door at a party at age 17, cutting her leg so deeply that she was hospitalized for some eight weeks. It was «a turning point,» she says, one that left her with a long scar and, to this day, pain in her right foot. More than that, it shook her to her core: «It made me feel very vulnerable all of a sudden.» She spent a year at home recovering from both the injury and the shock, then packed off a few hours away to Kenyon College. There, fate intervened again. Paul Newman, a Kenyon alum, and Joanne Woodward came to campus to direct a play and zeroed in on the young Janney; they advised her to go to New York City to enroll at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse. After graduation, that’s just what she did.
In New York, dividends from her father’s company paid the rent, preventing the kind of hand-to-mouth existence she says might have driven her from acting altogether. She served as the night receptionist at a recording studio; she scooped ice cream in SoHo. And she auditioned. «I was so freaking tall and uncastable in New York when I first started out,» she says. And when she did get parts, «I always played 40-year-old women when I was 20.»
Janney was not built for that kind of constant scrutiny and rejection. Whether it was kicked off by her accident or, more likely, part of her constitution, the well-honed ability to access and magnify emotions that makes her so effective as an actress also makes her deeply sensitive and unflinchingly self-critical as a woman. In her theater days, on off nights when she’d fail to muster tears on cue, «I felt like I’d lost a patient on the operating table. I was like, goddamn it, I didn’t do it tonight. I would beat myself up.» Even now, a middle finger from a pissed-off L.A. motorist will get under her skin, and stay there. «I’m a sponge,» she says remorsefully. «I sometimes don’t want to go out of my house because it’s like, Who’s going to make me cry today?» This she says semi-jokingly. Yet it’s clear that Janney views herself as a work in progress. If indeed she has become a systems analyst, the system is her own. «I’m just trying, you know, to figure out who I am as a person and what I want. I’m constantly looking under my own rock and thinking, Why do I react this way? Why do I do this?»
One thing she says she does not agonize over, though, is her talent. «I always felt that I was good,» she says. «There’s something about doing this—I feel I can do it. I’m meant to do it.»
Standing in the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting room on the Mom set—even more depressing in real life than it looks on TV, down to the garish linoleum and generic inspirational posters—Janney is visibly reveling in her new gig. «I go through menopause on this show, I gotta be a grandmother—I’m letting it all hang out,» she says, laughing. «I’ll be the world’s first GILF!»
Series creator Chuck Lorre, king of the four-camera format—the force behind CBS’s payday juggernauts Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike & Molly—sees Mom as a show about redemption: the often bungled and occasionally poignant attempts Bonnie and Christy, two generations of addicts, make to turn their lives around. The unglossy premise and working-class backdrop has inspired critical comparisons to two other female-centric shows Lorre had a hand in: Roseanne and Grace Under Fire. «I’ve always been interested in characters—the rebirth of an adult, someone starting again,» Lorre says, «and hopefully the comedy comes from their willingness to change, and their lack of tools, emotional and otherwise.»
Bonnie has a long way to climb. Among the known details of her backstory: She «took her daughter out of school to Canada to open an Ecstasy hub that was disguised as a nursery; she took her to Mexico and smuggled drugs in her baby carriage,» Janney says. But in Janney’s hands—and in her soothing bedtime-story voice—Bonnie retains a certain elegance, not to mention an almost inexplicable likability. «She can play a self-centered, narcissistic human being and you love her,» Lorre says. «That’s, I think, some kind of essence of the human being, you know—it goes beyond craft.»
Post The Office and Modern Family, there is something distinctly retro about a show that all but clangs you over the head when you’re supposed to laugh. But on Mom, the jokes have real barbs, and together, Faris and Janney make the comfort-food format zing, following spiritually—if not topically—in the footsteps of shows Janney grew up watching, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Carol Burnett Show. For Janney, who spent so many years doing the tight, precise dance steps of West Wing «walk-and-talks,» the screwball physical stuff is one of the best parts of the new job. She «does this glide,» says Faris, who is «just in awe» of how her costar uses her lanky body to punctuate a line. «Her spine and her legs are, like, fused together—like a snake. If you watch it, it’s so cool.»
Anticipate the joke, speed the line, hold for the next line—»there’s almost a science» to that rhythm, Janney says, and «when you get it right, and everything works together, and it flies out of your mouth—that’s a great drug, that laughter.»
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