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Allison Janney - What a Way to Make a Living

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

Allison Janney

What a Way to Make a Living

by Jay S. Jacobs

Allison Janney is tired. She’s been putting in seven-day weeks, doing eight shows a week in her Tony Award nominated role on the hit Broadway musical 9 to 5. It is also awards season, so she has been hitting the red carpet regularly. Plus, her latest film role – in the comedy Away We Go by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes – is about to be released.

Therefore, even though she’d rather be sleeping, Janney gets up this morning to meet with a bunch of members of the press corps to discuss the new film.

Of course, Janney is no stranger to hard work. She spent several years putting in twelve-and-more-hour days on the hit TV series The West Wing as CJ Craig, the hard-working White House Press Secretary-turned-Chief of Staff. Besides, she is a working actress, and knowing that the downtimes sometimes come in that lifestyle, so she is more than happy to be too busy as it beats the alternative.

In her supporting role in Away We Go, she plays Lily, a loud and kind of obnoxious woman unhappily married to a repressed and miserable husband played by Jim Gaffigan. Her character is a former co-worker and friend of Verona and Bert (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) who hopes to talk the rootless couple into moving to Arizona to live nearby - frankly just because she is so bored with her life as it is she is hoping having friends there may shake it up.

Janney sat down with us and several other websites in a roundtable to discuss the movie, the musical, her career and how she has been surviving with so little sleep.

How are you?

I’m good. I’m exhausted, but I’m fine. Lately I’ve been burning the candle every which way. Once the Tonys are over I think my life will get back to normal a little bit – besides doing eight shows a week on Broadway.

Making the movie must have been a vacation.

Truly it was. I got to be in Phoenix, Arizona. In 120-degree heat.

Yes, Jim [Gaffigan] said it was really hot…

It was. I’ve never been under such heat in my life. Filming at the dog track – right out in the bright sun. We really had to drink a lot of water. I got faint a couple of times. It was serious heat. I never had to perform in those conditions. I felt bad for the dogs, too. I wanted to go and rescue them all and take them home with me. I felt really sad about the dogs.

So, in a way you were almost in a hallucinatory state to play that character?

I wasn’t. I was sick. I was on antibiotics. Antibiotics and the sun, not a good combo. It made me dizzy.

You worked with Sam Mendes way back in American Beauty, his first film. Could you talk about his growth as a director?

Well as far as I’m concerned, he was right on from the get-go. Sam has such a confidence about him that is so attractive. As a director, to be that confident and enjoy what he does. You know when people really love what they do? It’s just nice to be with them and be around them. To have rehearsals for American Beauty, he had us all sitting around a table. Even me, I didn’t have that big a part in it, but to be there every day for rehearsal, I really felt like I was a part of the movie. I love that he knows how to talk to actors and give good direction and inspire the actor. He’s not just a traffic cop. He really knows what he is doing. Then to work on this with him, even more. After all the successes he’s had, he’s even more confident. Encouraged me to go out on a limb with this character. I mean, she’s big. Lily is a big character. I was a little nervous about going as big as I did, but he just was like, “Go on, you can be bigger than that!” I hope I get to be part of his acting troupe.

Did you or any of the other actors give him tips on comedy? This is really his first comedic film.

Well, he’s a funny man. He’s married to Kate [Winslet], who is pretty funny, too. Did you ever see her on Extras? They are fun. Sam is a very funny, smart-witted guy, so I think he knows what he’s looking for. He doesn’t need any help in that department. I would follow him off a cliff.

Your character is pretty broad. Was your theater background helpful in that sense? You could really push it…

Yeah. I think when anyone gives me a direction, I go big. Then they tell me to pull back. Better to be big and then pull back than not be able to go big at all. I always haven’t had a problem embarrassing myself. (laughs)

A lot of the movie is about finding what your definition of home is and revisiting your past. Have you had any experiences coming up from your past or your old hometown since you have become a well-known actress?

Well, there’s Facebook. (laughs) Just in terms of people contacting you from your past. Also, now being on Broadway, I’ve had a lot of people come backstage who I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s been kind of bittersweet. I felt a little sad, a little nostalgic for the past. “Wow, it was that long ago we went to college together? Oh my gosh. Look at you now.” It’s been kind of amazing to reconnect with so many people. Now everyone knows where I am, so they can come find me. Anyone can come backstage and it’s kind of… it’s nice. But it always makes you feel like: Oh, did I make the right choices? What did I do? Look what they did. Everyone has a little bit of that. I think that’s the biggest lesson that the movie. I always thought is should be called Anywhere You Go, There You Are. That’s one of the hardest lessons to learn, just to be at peace with where you are. Your home is where you are or where you make it. It doesn’t matter where it is. I feel that wherever I am working is home.

Congratulations on your Tony Nomination.

Thank you.

Besides the nomination, what has been the highlight about being in 9 to 5?

Working with Dolly Parton. That’s been just crazy, to be in her presence every day. To be hanging out with Dolly. She’s an extraordinary woman, so generous. It’s nice to be around someone that’s that famous and see how down to earth they are, lovely they are. She’s really truly, truly talented and so smart. Sometimes you forget, because of the way she dresses and looks. You do kind of judge her. You have a preconceived notion of what she is like and then you find out she’s actually not in any way cheap or tawdry. (laughs) She’s incredibly smart, brilliant, talented. That’s been pretty great. Then just getting to sing on Broadway and dance. I get this one big number I do in a white pantsuit with all the boys. It’s like a dream come true to do a number like that. Seven people in the world get to do that. I was really trying to think; how many people get to fulfill that kind of fantasy?

I saw it last weekend. It’s really pretty amazing. Where do you get all that energy?

I don’t know, man. I’m sleeping a lot and not having that much of a life outside this right now. This is a huge day for me today. I’m going to go home and sleep until I have to go do the show. I have no personal life right now.

Where does your passion and energy for acting come from?

My mother was an actress and I’m sure that’s where it started. But I think I really enjoy getting to be… I get so excited when I read scripts, when I read good writing. I get excited thinking about saying that line. I don’t know what it is, but I love it so much. I think it’s just that it’s not me. Not to be self-deprecating, but I do sometimes find that I’m always at a loss for words. To get to play a character, the script is all there and you know more. It’s great. It’s just a real satisfying feeling to get to do that. I like to be other people.

I was reading that you were discovered by Paul Newman.

Yes. Well, I went to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Paul Newman went there. He was a graduate. When I was a freshman there, he had built a beautiful new theater. He came back to christen the theater by directing the first play in it. It was written by Michael Cristofer. I met him, got into the play and then I met Joanne Woodward, who then told me to come to New York to The Neighborhood Playhouse. I did plays with her that she directed. They took me under their wing and I was very lucky to get to hook up with them. It was really nice to have them when I came to New York. Joanne would have us all to their house in Westport. We’d do play readings and she directed us in plays. She was very generous with her time.

What was that first play?

The one I did in Kenyon? It was called C.C. Pyle and the Bunyan Derby. It didn’t go anywhere from there. It didn’t go anywhere. But Michael Cristofer won a Pulitzer Prize for The Shadow Box. And he’s an amazing actor. Did you see him in the park in Romeo and Juliet? Oh my God, he’s a fabulous actor. But anyway, that’s that play. I didn’t go anywhere but Paul Newman directed it.

Lily and Lowell have such different personalities. Did you, Jim and Sam figure out a backstory on how they got together and if there was ever a spark there?

I think it was a drunken night in a bar. Truly, I think the lighting was low (laughs) and Lily and Lowell probably got drunk and made out. They probably dated for a while and then just got engaged because they were scared they weren’t going to find anybody else. They ended up together in such a tragic relationship. They are so desperate to have Verona and Burt come live with them. Please save our lives! (laughs) Actually, I don’t think Lowell would even care.

What’s going to happen to their kids?

I think they actually probably will be fine. (laughs) They probably will. Oh my God, isn’t that awful, the last scene with the girl talking with the truckers? Hopefully they will be resilient and tough. They need to get some love somewhere. They’re not getting a lot from their parents.

What was it about this script that stuck out for you? Most of the characters just get a little time and then the film moves on.

It’s definitely a road movie. I’m a huge fan of Dave Eggers, so I kind of was predisposed to like it. (laughs) I love him so much and the part of Lily was just so fun that I liked it right away. I like his writing. I don’t know what my first impression was with it. In fact, I think I said I’d do it before I even read it, really.

Do your characters remind you of people from home in Ohio? I know people from Cincinnati like that…

You do? (shocked)

Who end up in the same scenario…

Tragic and too loud. That’s what I love about Lily. She thinks she is the funniest person on the planet. As far as Lily is concerned, she should have been a standup comedian. And (long pause) she’s just tragic.

Yet you don’t hate her. How do you relate with her and get that across as an actress?

Because I think you have to identify with her and see some of her tragedy. You have to have some feeling for her. Empathy for her. That’s what I like to do, whatever character I play. I have to find something that I like about them or that I relate to. I think it’s her unhappiness, sometimes that I can relate to. The feeling that you’re with the wrong person, I can relate to feeling that way. I don‘t have kids, but I can relate to that. Oftentimes to the tragic side of characters (laughs), I don’t know why, but…. Many times I think I shouldn’t, though. The parts that make me sad, that make them human. That’s the part that I respond to, no matter what they cover it up with – the big joking or whatever. It’s nice to know what’s underneath.

It’s quite a contrast to 9 to 5.

Yeah, Violet is the opposite of Lily. She’s incredibly put together. Has her own insecurities, but, you know. Violet and Lily wouldn’t like each other.

You’ve done movies, TV and theater. Can you talk about the differences – the rigors of it?

When I did West Wing the most demanding thing was the time commitment. And the early calls – the 6:00 am calls when I’m not getting to the set until 3:00 pm. Trying to maintain your anger and your poise (chuckles), because you start to feel: “Oh my God, I could have been at my brother’s bar mitzvah” or whatever. It’s just a scheduling nightmare. The waste, the amount of private time I had in seven years – in lifetime I should have only aged two years. That is a real downside, sitting around in your trailer, just waiting, waiting and waiting. The actual work is really fun. Broadway, that’s all about maintaining your body and your throat for the performances. It’s grueling on so many levels. The singing is new for me. I have to protect my voice. I have to make sure I don’t get sick. I have to go to sleep or not go out after the show. I have to really maintain my health. That I never worried about. If I had a flu, I could still do a walk and talk. But to kick while trying to sing and run around, it’s so demanding. Once the show is up, it’s doing it for a year for eight shows a week. But I love them all. I just want to work, so I’ll suffer the pros and cons of every one of them.

The film has a cast that is primarily known for work in TV more than films. How did that affect the acting process?

It didn’t really come into play. The thing that came into play the most was trying to not laugh when I did those scenes with John and Maya and Jim. We really would just get the giggles and not be able to stop. Sam finally got really mad at us and said, “Stop the scene. We’re moving on. We can’t get through this.” We were like, no, come on, we can do it. Then we’d do another take and we’d all start laughing. That was really fun, but really sad too. We were like, come on. I was pinching myself. Jim Gaffigan is a very funny man. I never really knew his work before I got cast in this with him. Now I think he’s amazing.

It must have been nice to share the scene with a man as tall as John Krasinski.

I love it! It was pretty great. I got to kiss him. Oh my God, it was so much fun. Yes, he’s wonderfully tall. It was very nice to not feel like a giantess.

So when you saw the movie assembled, what did you think?

I haven’t seen it. Everyone has seen it. I’ve been too busy doing 9 to 5. I looped. I did some looping. I saw some of the stuff. I was looking like (fakes shame) “Oh, my God. She’s so big.” I think I’m going to see it next Monday. Every other screening, I’ve been ensconced in 9 to 5, so I haven’t been able to see it.

Just in reading the script, there are a lot of comic parts like yours, then more serious parts with other actors. Did you have to keep that in mind when you were doing your more comedic scenes – how they would affect the more dramatic ones in the movie?

No. I don’t think so. As long as they were grounded in some kind of reality. It was a part of Lily, so you can go anywhere if you know the truth about the character.

At what point did you know that comedy was meant for you?

I grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show. I was in love with that show. Tim Conway. I mean that was the best comedy. That was what I grew up watching. Every time I thought, that’s what I want to do. I love to do physical comedy. I’m not a stand-up comic. I can’t come up with the funny jokes. But I know behavior that is funny and physical comedy. I’m lucky I get to do that.

You’ve gotten nominated for awards – The Emmys, and now you have the Tonys. Does it feel different dealing with one awards season vs. the others?

The theater award season seems much more manageable, much more civilized than the world of TV award shows. It’s much more a circus. A huge circus. The Drama Desk was just nice, there wasn’t the volume of people you had to talk to. It wasn’t as large. It was more manageable, so you weren’t spent after talking to the press. It was nice. It really actually made it more fun to be there, because it gets exhausting to do that red carpet for the Emmys. You’re like, can I go home now? I’m exhausted. It’s very stressful. Everyone is looking at you.

Do you feel that there is a correlation between the vibe of Juno and this film?

Maybe that they are small films. They are not big budget films, so they feel very similar. They are dealing with something small, something very human – like trying to find your home or teen pregnancy. (laughs) I don’t know. Very real issues that people can relate to. Maybe that’s what. They feel small.

You have played so many interesting characters. If you could hang out with any of them in real life, which would it be?

(laughs) That’s funny. I think… (long pause) I think CJ would be great to know. She’s a great gal. Also, I can’t remember my character’s name in Drop Dead Gorgeous. She’d be fun to hang out with. She’d be fun to drink beers with. But CJ would be the one.

Can you talk about your upcoming pilot? It sounds cool.

Well, that was cancelled. Unless they got it back on. We did it, it was a pilot and they didn’t pick it up. I would have loved it. It was really fun.

What’s going on with the Hairspray sequel?

Well, they haven’t asked me to be in it yet. (laughs, then dramatically) Fools! Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are friends of mine. I’ll be talking to them very shortly.

Zac Efron will be the holdout.

Yeah. He doesn’t want to do Footloose. He won’t do musicals.

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: June 3, 2009.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2009 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2009. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2009. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2009 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2009. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2005. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.


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