Thursday, May 6, 2010
“From The West Wing to The Great White Way,” An Interview with Allison Janney
On June 22nd, 2009 I had the pleasure of sitting down with Emmy award-winning actress and Kenyon College alum, Allison Janney. After receiving directions to the side entrance of the Marriot Marquee Theatre where, 9 to 5: The Musical was located, I was greeted by a show assistant and taken up to Ms. Janney’s dressing room. It was wonderful to see backstage of a Broadway show with all of the costumes. Her dressing room was simple with white couches and flowers in vases. She stood up as I entered the room, hair pulled back under a cap, wearing a white bathrobe. She was still wearing her makeup from the matinee show, which had recently ended. She spoke in a soft, calming voice and gave off an affable demeanor. Here’s what we discussed before her dinner arrived…
JS: You have been in so many things!
AJ: I have done a lot over the years, you know, I’ve been around for a while. It’s been fun, I tell ya, Josh.
JS: Ok, so you majored in Drama, right?
AJ: I did. Theatre History with Thomas Turgeon.
JS: A fabulous man. He’s not doing so well.
AJ: I know, I have a picture of him that I got from his family and I think about him a lot. He was one of my favorite teachers.
A group of Ms. Janney’s friends stop in to say hi. After a couple of minutes, we resume.
AJ: You know, people come back after the show and they want to say hi, and Anne Harada who is a wonderful actress was in the show and now she’s at Avenue Q.
JS: I noticed you have Oprah [O, Magazine] over there. Good for you!
AJ: Oh, I love it! I just bought that one for everyone else who’s not on stage when I am. They come in here and chill out in my dressing room.
JS: Fabulous! I can’t take it! Okay, so you majored in Drama-
AJ: Theatre History. Tom Turgeon and Harlene Marley were my teachers.
JS: What advice do you have for students in the drama department and students who are graduating as far as getting their affairs in order and for those who want to be in the entertainment industry? What advice do you have for them, if any?
AJ: Well, I think, the first thing that’s important to do is pick which town you want to be in. If you want to come to New York and do theatre, if you want to just do television-I still actually think if you want to do either you should come to New York and find an apartment and get yourself enrolled in either a good school like The Neighborhood Playhouse or study with a reputable teacher from The [Neighborhood] Playhouse, or from any of the group theatre people-the Meisner technique… There are lots of schools of acting that came out of the group theatre and I think they’re all wonderful foundations for actors starting out. I think just to really get involved with a group right away, either a class-and start doing readings. You just have to keep yourself out there and keep active and also it’s important to make sure you keep yourself in shape and take singing lessons even if you don’t consider yourself a singer, its great for breath control. But, I really loved going to The Neighborhood Playhouse. That was really good for me as a foundation when I came to New York-to have a home and feel comfortable living here ‘cause it was scary coming from Ohio.
JS: I know! Miss Dayton Ohio!
AJ: Miss Dayton, Ohio coming to New York City to live! I was nervous. So, having the school, having a schedule and a place to go made the transition much easier for me.
JS: Now, are there any alumni or professors from the college that you’re still in contact with?
AJ: Not on a regular basis but, the one thing I always remember that Tom Turgeon taught me in acting and Harlene [Marley] to was to listen. That’s the most important thing- listening and you know, I think they were-Tom was such a great teacher and it was so wonderful to be at Kenyon and have teachers like that, who loved what they did so they inspired me, ‘cause who knows what else what I would’ve done. I didn’t know I was going to be an actor when I came to Kenyon. I just gravitated there ‘cause I think I loved them so much. They were such good people.
JS: What did you think you were going to do?
AJ: I had no idea. I thought maybe I’d be a psychologist. I just didn’t think about it too much and then it just happened to be that the acting worked out. It took a long time to start making money doing it. It took ‘till like, I mean jeez, when was my first Broadway show? In 1998 or something. I was working a lot of silly jobs here and I was lucky I had my parents’ support, which helped me enormously. I was really a difficult profession to choose and I still always say if there’s something else you can do, do it because most of the time, it’s not that fun. It’s hard, hard work, a lot of disappointment, terrible hours, but also some of the best highs and worst lows. It’s one of those roller coaster life choices.
JS: Is there one experience or lesson that you learned at Kenyon that you’ve kind of taken with you throughout your career and the rest of your life?
AJ: Well, the things that Harlene and Tom taught, and the acting and the plays that I got to do there, the kinds of plays and the beautiful-that Bolton theatre is so gorgeous! Oh my gosh, isn’t it a beautiful theatre? That just filled me and made me really want to be an actor are those experiences there and the college, I think, is such a beautiful campus and just the right size not too large-
JS: By the way Peirce [Dining Hall] looks fabulous.
AJ: Does it?
JS: It looks so good!
AJ: I have to go back there. I haven’t been back there in a while
JS: And the KAC, which is the athletic center, looks fabulous! They’re doing a new art building by the library. There’s so many things!
AJ: That’s amazing. I really want to come back there. Everytime, I have a reunion. I’m usually working so I can’t come back. But I did, I came back and spoke to the students about maybe five years ago, something like that.
JS: Oh my gosh-you were doing The West Wing!
AJ: I know! I was doing The West Wing, and I came back and spoke about acting. I think I scared everybody away from it ‘cause I was so-
JS: Well, it’s not for the faint hearted! So, if you were hard with them, good for you!
AJ: No, it’s not. I just wanted to make sure they know it’s not as glamorous as it seems from the outside looking in. People assume a lot about an acting career.
JS: Right. Now, you’ve been quite successful. Okay: 4 Emmys, 5 SAG Awards, hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, everything from Juno to Finding Nemo. You were hilarious in Finding Nemo!
AJ: Thank you!
JS: I was like, that voice sounds strangely familiar. Who is that? And, I look it up and was like, “get outta here!” She was hilarious! Puleeze, and everyone’s talking about Ellen, oh, we’ll get to Ellen. Okay, we’ll get to Ellen!
AJ: You’re funny!
JS: I was like, tear it up, Allison Janney! Power and height! Get it!
Height and might don’t mess with me, I’ll stomp you into the ground!
AJ: Oh my gosh! You are crazy. You’re so funny! Yeah, Nemo was fun to do. I love doing voice over work ‘cause I don’t have to get all made up and everything! I can just go in my slippers and my bathrobe and it was so fun, but it was me by myself in a room with the director.
JS: Reading lines to you?
AJ: Doing my lines and he would read the other lines. I think I saw Ellen once. We passed each other in the hallway. As I was going in, she was coming out. So, I never got to work with anybody.
JS: Well, I mean, I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing ‘cause your role was so hilarious!
AJ: No, it was fine, I was so glad to be a part of it and to get to see it after! It’s more interesting doing [those] films, you do your little part in it and you never know what the whole thing is gonna look like, so when I actually go to see these movies for the first time it’s an amazing experience.
JS: Can I tell you? You made me cry in American Beauty.
AJ: Aww. Thank you.
JS: I couldn’t take it. The whole movie made me cry, but you took that role by force! I was like, wow! And, The Hours! I was like Meryl [Streep], I love you girl, but pay attention to your lover!
AJ: And you know, I got American Beauty because you know, this is how things work for me at least and my career, that I came to New York and I just kept auditioning for Off-off-off Broadway plays and things and I did this play called Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, that Alan Ball wrote. And Alan loved my work in his play, so he got me into American Beauty, which he wrote, so you know it just sort of builds as you keep yourself out there and keep working and you know, ‘that came because of that.’ I did this play in New York, a Nicky Silver play called Fat Men in Skirts, which was amazing and Mike Nichols saw me in that and he offered me a part in Primary Colors, because he loved me, and then Aaron Sorkin saw Primary Colors and wanted me in West Wing.
JS: Of course! And then, you guys worked together again-
AJ: Yeah. Everything has a beginning you know, you can see where it started and…you can connect the dots is what I’m trying to say.
JS: How is it for you personally just watching the evolution of your career?
AJ: You know, it surprises me. I never thought I’d do television, and I never thought I would be doing a Broadway musical and I’m doing these things, so it surprised me. A lot of what I’ve gotten to do and I have been very lucky-and yet, I think everyone always says, “There’s always something I don’t have that I want. “
JS: An Oscar?
AJ: Yeah sure, why not? You’ve got to keep hungry and keep wanting it, and if you don’t then you don’t really have a reason to-
JS: You can’t get comfortable.
AJ: No, no. Once you do then…yeah ‘cause I was really devastated when West Wing ended ‘cause I was so happy just having that kind of life.
JS: A stable job.
AJ: A stable job, first time in my life a stable job as an actor–it’s crazy! Seven years that was! So, that was over. That was a huge transition to get used to, my life, not having that as my rock.
JS: Can I tell you, my CA [Community Advisor] would organize West Wing parties and he had them all on DVD.
AJ: Oh really?!
JS: We would sit in the common room and pig out on junk food and just watch you tear up the Oval Office! The title of the article is going to be: From The West Wing to The Great White Way: An Interview with Allison Janney.
AJ: Oh, I love that!
JS: I will send you a copy.
AJ: The Great White Way, I always call it the Broadway. I mean, who knew?! My director, Joe Mantello who I’ve worked with before, I worked with him in a play called, Blue Window and he directed Fat Men in Skirts. When he called me and asked me to do this, I said, no way! I mean, I think I did, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, at Kenyon, and I think that was the only musical I did there. But, I just sang in the chorus, I didn’t have a stand out front and sing solo kind of thing, I was hidden in the chorus. So, I was very afraid to do something like this, and I got to do a workshop, Joe Mantello had me come and do like a three week workshop, where I got to work on some of the music and meet Dolly [Parton] and just ‘try it on for size’ and actually I was surprised at how much fun I had and thought, you know, everyone in a musical doesn’t have to be the best singer-I can act and I can carry a tune-
JS: Well, the audience loved it!
AJ: Are you going to be able to see this or no?
JS: Well, I have $25 in my bag right now.
AJ: I’ll get you a ticket for tonight if you want to see it, I don’t know what you’re doing…
JS: I’m not doing anything, okay!
AJ: You’re not.
JS: You know what I’m doing, I’m staying away from my sister so we don’t kill each other.
AJ: Oh my gosh, you’re so funny.
JS: I’m the entertainer…and when you were talking about getting support from your family, I am beginning to see exactly what you mean by that.
AJ: I think it’s wonderful that you’re doing this [Talk of the Hill]. How are you doing this?
JS: We’re going to upload the videos to YouTube. During the school year, the Kenyon Filmmakers are going to work with me and…use their equipment so we can shoot interviews.
AJ: It’s just really enterprising of you. I love that you’re doing that.
JS: I’m a fan of you on Facebook.
AJ: You are? I haven’t been on Facebook. I forget what my password is. I have not been on in so long.
JS: With the growing importance of viral media, how do you tie that into your personal life and career? How do you utilize it?
AJ: I don’t really use it for furthering my career at all. I have a Facebook account, but I’m not good about checking into it, as I said, I don’t even remember my password. I get frustrated with it. My thing is texting, that’s the only way I talk to people, is texting. That’s the easiest thing. The Twitter thing, I really don’t understand it… I don’t know if I should do that. I’m not sure that I have that kind of career that I need to…I kind of don’t think anyone would- who would want to follow me?!
JS: Oh, no! People do.
AJ: What do you do? Why would I want to Twitter, say, “I’m sitting in my dressing room eating cheesecake right now.”
JS: But here’s the great thing about Twitter, It’s much more low maintenance… you only have to update it as often as you want. Okay, you’re bone thin, I love it. You’re so in shape, you have excellent bone structure. How do you find the time with such a grueling schedule to get in your own space and calm down and work out or do whatever you do? Do you have a regimen?
AJ: Well, I should work out, I don’t. I consider my doing the play [9 to 5: The Musical] my workout. And I have a dog, my dog Addie, there’s a picture of her right there-and I have to walk her. I get up in the morning and I usually go out by the park, either in Central Park or Riverside Park and I walk with her for like an hour or so and sit on benches and just sit with her chill out and that’s kind of my meditation thing I do. Then I come back to my apartment eat some breakfast or something- I’m not doing much when I do this ‘cause [the show is] very exhausting. I don’t go out after the show. Sometimes, I’ll have a glass of wine in my dressing room. I’ll invite the other cast members in and just have a drink and then I just go home and go to bed. It’s been a kind of a monk-like existence a little bit for me ‘cause I usually like to go out and play and stay up late.
JS: You’re booked for a year, right?
AJ: Yes, booked for a year, we’re hoping we’ll sell for that long though, the recession has been hard on the show and we need people to come see the show. It’s kind of a little sad right now. I hope we’re going to be able to get over this hump and make it for a year, but right now we don’t know.
JS: Well, I will let people know.
AJ: Give me your phone, so I can text you. Do you have another friend you’d like to bring to the show tonight?
JS: Well, no one is going to be able to make it.
[About The Heart Truth fashion show] You were a runway model for a night! How was that?
AJ: I know, that was crazy! That was hard going on, I got to walk out in front of Liza, that was fun!
JS: Liza Minnelli!
AJ: There was Heidi Klum… It’s hard to walk a runway behind her.
JS: How was she?
AJ: She’s beautiful.
JS: You tore it up. I saw you, I saw you. Working the red dress of power.
AJ: It was fun.
JS: People don’t know how stressful it is backstage, getting into the different outfits.
AJ: Oh, I know, it’s crazy that kind of stage life. Even the makeup room alone. I shut down in situations like that, where there’s so many people and so much noise I just go into my own little shell. I’m glad I’m not a fashion model. But I was one for a day. I can check that off my list.
JS: I know you talked earlier about not knowing you were going to be an actor, but who has influenced your work as an artist the most?
AJ: Well, I think, different performances have. Meryl Streep obviously inspired me to be a better actor. Laurie Metcalf is an actress that I love so much. I saw her perform in a Steppenwolf play here in New York, Balm in Gilead, and I saw her performance and I just thought-I almost thought I would quit acting ‘cause I didn’t think I could ever do what she did, but I love people who are-you can’t tell they’re acting they just throw it away. They just they’ve become someone else in front of you. They make smart choices. Certain performances have inspired me, not so much one person. I don’t tend to be that way. My mother was an actress so-
JS: Ah! It’s in your blood!
AJ: Eileen Brennan, who was her roommate- I remember loving Eileen’s performances in Last Picture Show and the Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie, The Sting. Seeing her performance and just getting positive reinforcement. Doing the acting that I guess audiences inspired me… Like, when I did one of my first plays at Kenyon, Hayfever, I loved doing that and the audience loved it. I like getting that positive reinforcement.
JS: You've done it all. You’ve done film, you’ve done television you’ve done theatre. Do you have a preference?
AJ: I have. And my preference is always whatever I am not doing in the moment. (Laughter)
JS: You’re doing theatre-
AJ: I’m like, “I can’t wait to get back to television!” I’ll be doing television, “I can’t wait to get back to the stage!” It’s always like that. I’m just happy and fortunate that I can do all of them.
JS: Yeah, and do them well, Tony award-nominee!
AJ: That’s right! As my mother says, “Tony award-winning nominee!” (Laughter) I haven’t gotten the Tony yet.
JS: You have all those Emmy’s! “Don’t touch me! I’ll stab you!”
AJ: They’re dangerous, those Emmys.
JS: How was it, have you injured yourself on them?
AJ: No, but I joked about it a lot. They’re good weapons. I have one by my bed in case I, you know-
JS: Hey! Candlestick please! Ms. Scarlett meets Ms. Janney. “How You Doin’?” You better step aside I have a red dress too! (Laughter).
AJ: You are soo funny, oh my gosh!
JS: So how was it when you won your first Emmy and the one after that?
AJ: I was pretty thrilled! I was wearing a gold, glittery dress that was the same color as the Emmy. It was sort of surreal to be there and win! I’ve never really won anything. I remember being at Kenyon and they had the Joanne Woodward award and I didn’t win that. And we were sitting there going, “Oh I didn’t win” and I’m so used to not winning things, I didn’t think I was going to win. So, I sat there and I heard, my name and I was like-I had to look at my date at the time and say, “Was that in my head or did they really say my name?” It took my breath away. It was pretty fun!
JS: Okay, you look fabulous! As Wendy Williams says, you’re “a woman of a certain age.” There’s not a wrinkle in sight, so I was wondering, are you dating? Are you single?
AJ: Well, I’m single at the moment. I ended a relationship a couple years ago this is the first time I’ve been single in a long time.
JS: Really?! How long was that relationship?
AJ: That one was four years.
JS: Wow, I hate that.
AJ: I had a ten year one before that and then an eight year one before that. Yeah, so I’ve had a lot of long-term relationships.
JS: You know, that’s the best way, though!
AJ: It is. I like to be monogamous, but, I would like to find my life partner. I’d like to find someone who-I don’t know if I have to get married or not, I don’t necessarily need that, but to right now I’m single. It feels kind of nice though for the first time in a while. To be just doing my work and having my friends, and my dog, So, I date occasionally, I have dates and stuff.
JS: You’re very tall, statuesque woman. How do people react to that and do you think that people are able to see past your height?
AJ: I don’t know, I mean, in terms of dating, some people when you’re this tall people think that you are very confident and strong and so that’s kind of fun to have people just assume that ‘cause I don’t feel that way all the time. I like being tall.
JS: It suits you.
AJ: I like my high heels too.
JS: Get it! So you wear heels? You’re not afraid?
AJ: No, no, I’m not afraid. I did have foot surgery though a couple of years ago, so it’s not as easy for me to wear them so I must say, I have been wearing flats a little more.
JS: Okay, so you do the kitten heels?
AJ: Yeah I do those, but I do like wearing them. I’d like to find a tall man, though. It’d be nice.
JS: Have you ever given any thought to producing or directing, going behind the camera?
AJ: Maybe producing, I don’t think I’d be a good director. I don’t think I want to do that. I’d like to maybe find some projects and produce them myself. So, that’s one thing I was talking about with some friends of mine who want to start a production company with me. That could be kind of fun, so I’m thinking about that actually.
JS: Oh my gosh, well if that’s the case, you definitely have to get with the viral media.
AJ: I know! I do, I do. Well, you might have to teach me.
JS: Quickly, let’s just talk about your funny, just hilarious, competitive relationship with Ellen. How was that? Being on the show and being with her?
AJ: I don’t know what my first competitive thing was with her. I don’t know how it started. I have no idea, but we started doing silly things together and then I think our chemistry was just good with each other and I adore so much. I wish I saw her more off camera, I don’t really see that much ‘cause we’re both-you know she’s really busy, so we don’t socialize that much. I just love coming to do her show and she knows I’ll do whatever she wants me to do ‘cause I make a fool of myself. “Put on a sumo wrestling suit.” All right, I do it!
JS: I think the problem there is that you didn’t have enough momentum going ‘cause she started out with a boom!
AJ: I know! I do love doing her show though. She’s one of my favorite people that I don’t spend time with.
JS: Good for you! Why do you think you still do this? Why do you think you still act?
AJ: Well, cause there really isn’t anything else I can do. Truthfully, there isn’t and I like it, I like being other people and having fun things to say. I love good writing. It just excites me. It really makes me want to be on stage. To say the things-writers are just amazing. I really think I’m an actress because I love good writing.
JS: We need to get you with Professor Macleod.
AJ: Oh, Wendy! I know, I love her. She’s adorable, she’s wonderful. She’s written some amazing things.
JS: What is one thing, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, that you would just love for people to know about you? And does that showcase itself in the way you live your life? How do you live your life?
AJ: Gosh! I think I’m pretty chill. I like simple things I’m not really complicated. I like to hang out with my friends, and if I’m going to travel, I like to be with someone who speaks the language of the country we’re going. I like to be taken care of a little bit. I’m kind of a baby that way. I like to hang out in my apartment with my friends and walk my dog and chill out. Barbecues and stuff, ya know.
JS: I’m looking at your iPod, what are some of your favorite songs or artists to listen to?
AJ: Oh gosh, there’s so much, you know what my favorite song to listen to is? “Brownstone”… and Mary Mary, “Praise You,” it’s called and I put that on ‘cause I host a dance party in my dressing room every Saturday night at 5 minutes to places and the cast comes in and I put on some crazy song and we dance around.
JS: And get the energy going-
AJ: And get the energy going, yeah. I’ve got a lot. I’ve got Beyonce, some Nina Simone, some Burt Bacharach. I’ve got some Groove Theory. I’ve got Common, Anita Baker. I’ve got a whole bunch.
JS: Good for you!
AJ: Now, give me-I want your information so I can text you.
JS: Okay. Conclusion of the interview!
AJ: “Conclusion of the interview!” This has been fantastic!
JS: It sure has. I love it!
Among other projects, Ms. Janney has recently appeared in the film, Away We Go, and will be appearing in the May 11th episode of LOST, titled, Across The Sea. You can follow Ms. Janney now on Twitter. Thanks to publicist, Karen Samfilippo, for helping to arrange the interview! By the way, 9 to 5: The Musical was hilarious! It was a great show and Ms. Janney gave a wonderful performance!