“I’m just a girl who cain’t say no…”
Allison Janney has broken out into song. This one is from the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Oklahoma!, sung by the coyly promiscuous Ado Annie—a role for which, when you think about it, Janney would have been perfect casting once upon a time.
Don’t worry. The dire state of quarantine hasn’t spiraled to spontaneous showtune combustion, at least not yet. Janney is merely musically explaining a conundrum, the collateral plight of a performer who is, somehow, perfect casting for just about everything. When that’s the case, you get asked to do a lot of things. And when you’re like Janney, a girl who, by her own admission, “cain’t,” you don’t say no.
“I probably am a bit of a workaholic,” says the actress, who in 2014, accomplished the rare feat of winning two acting Emmy Awards in one year, one for scoring belly laughs as a recovering addict in the CBS multicam sitcom Mom and one for breaking hearts as a lonely wife who has never experienced an orgasm in the prestige cable drama Masters of Sex.
In 2018, she played the mother of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya—LaVona, a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking tyrant in a cheap fur coat who fed her only crumbs of affection to a parrot perched on her shoulder—and won the Oscar, Hollywood’s highest award. After returning to the Mom set, the first new project she agreed to with her new golden leverage was Lazy Susan, a microbudget comedy starring Sean Hayes in drag as a woman in the throes of a midlife crisis.
“Friends ask me to do things, and I don’t want to say no,” Janney says, explaining that Mom operates on a two-weeks-on, one-week-off schedule that has allowed her, in the time since her thank yous to the Academy wrapped, film a starring role on a network comedy and still appear in the upcoming Breaking News in Yuba County, Lazy Susan, Bombshell, The Kominsky Method, The Addams Family, DuckTales, Human Discoveries, Troop Zero, F Is for Family, Break a Hip, and, most iconically, Ma. “I was starting to get pretty exhausted and need a bit of a break.”
That break came as much out of circumstance as it did necessity when the novel coronavirus brought the world to a halt and shut down Hollywood.
Janney had one episode left to shoot in the current season of Mom and was heading into production on the action thriller Lou when, in early March, she traveled to her hometown in Ohio for what was supposed to be a short visit of a few days with her parents. She’s been there ever since, and will stay until things go back to a semblance of normal.
“I never thought I’d be home like this,” she says. “I haven’t spent this much time with my parents since the 10th grade.”
Funnily enough, there’s an unexpected link to that time in her life to the project she’s promoting now, the HBO movie Bad Education, which premieres Saturday.
Directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds), the film chronicles the largest public school embezzlement scandal in U.S. history.
In 2006, Frank Tassone, played by Hugh Jackman, was the well-liked superintendent of schools in the Roslyn district of Long Island when it was discovered that he had pilfered a cool $11 million, spending it on trips to the Caribbean, weight-loss treatments, and rent on an Upper East Side apartment he secretly shared with a male partner. His accomplice was Pam Gluckin, who stole $4.3 million herself, lavishing it on renovations for her Hamptons home and jet skis. The whole thing was uncovered by a student working for one of Roslyn’s high school newspapers.
Janney plays Pam, in all of her Lawnguh Eyelind-accented glory. It’s a vibe she knows well. Her mother’s family is from the Five Towns area—about 30 minutes from Roslyn, depending on traffic on the Cross Island Parkway—and she spent summers there when she was growing up. “I fell in love with the accent back then,” she says. “I thought it was the coolest accent ever. So classy.”
To Janney’s credit, she didn’t hang up the phone after this writer, who is also from Long Island, shrieked in her ear at the suggestion that the notoriously harsh accent is “classy.” Laughing, she explains that there was something about the elongated vowel sounds in the way women there say “very”— vahh-ree—that tickled her. She started speaking that way to impress her friends back home in Ohio.
She worked with a dialect coach for Bad Education, but suffice it to say she’s been training for the role nearly her whole life. Yet again, it’s a character that suits her perfectly. And yet again, it’s nothing like any character she’s ever played.
Maybe all these varied characters, moods, and styles fit her so well because, in essence, nothing was supposed to suit her. At six feet tall, casting directors and agents at first didn’t know what to do with her. But she found her way to a later-in-life bloom—a Broadway debut at age 38, a move to L.A. for a legendary run on The West Wing a year later—and now a run as one of the most awarded and in-demand actresses in Hollywood.
It’s a fruitful, emotional time in her life, which brings more poignance than she may have expected to the current standstill, back at home where it all began. And that’s how she found herself on the phone singing showtunes, sharing stories about Paul Newman, wondering what C.J. Cregg would think about all this, grappling with the weirdness of the world now, and revealing how her seven seasons of Mom have helped her family heal from an unspeakable tragedy spurred by addiction.
There’s a scene in the middle of Bad Education where you meet Pam Gluckin’s family. She enters their home shell-shocked after the walls of the multi-million dollar scam she erected come crashing down around her. The family is angry and confused. There’s crying and shouting and a physical altercation.
By page count, it’s one of the longest scenes in the script. As it plays out, it’s also one of the most intense and emotionally complex. Janney, of course, killed it every time, on every take. “After the shoot a couple of our younger actors told me that watching Allison do her thing was like attending a master class,” Finley says about directing the scene.
It’s a deceptively difficult role. Bad Education’s darkly comic tone relies on Pam, with her exaggerated accent and brashness, for its early laughs. But the brittleness of her ego and genuine pain is needed to ground the stakes.
“Allison has a gift for playing characters that are larger-than-life but also feel real: real pain, real motivation, real pathos,” Finley says. “I, Tonya is just the most recent example. She has that rare mix of comic timing, precise control, and go-for-broke bravery.”
Beyond the can’t-make-it-up surreality of the events behind the film, there’s something that’s at once evergreen and acutely timely about the film.
How often are we confronted with headlines about people in power’s crass betrayals of those they’re supposed to be helping—and yet we continue to be surprised each time. It’s all especially provocative now, in light of the daily dispatches from the White House.
“There are so many parallels you can draw to the current administration,” Janney says. “It’s a cautionary tale in not blindly trusting people in power, and that there have to be checks and balances. People will and people have crossed many ethical and legal boundaries and justified it to themselves. It’s shocking, and it's one of the one of the more unsavory parts of humanity.”
That Janney is asked to play someone as unsavory as Pam Gluckin is still somewhat of a surprise to her, given her ties to a different administration.
When an actor plays the same character for seven years and 155 episodes—and, more, wins four Emmy Awards for it—there can be a tendency for it to define you. C.J. Cregg on The West Wing was such a vibrant example of a complicated, intelligent, morally upstanding woman and political player that, when the series was over, Janney wondered if it was going to end up pigeonholing her “and I would just play lawyers and politicians forever,” she says.
That she didn’t end up spending the rest of her career onscreen in sensible blazers, she suspects, is owed to her roots on Broadway, and the fact that, before The West Wing presented her as a leading lady, she had done so many memorable supporting roles in movies. “I started on Broadway in a Noel Coward comedy,” she says. “The next season I was doing Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge.”
That ability to nail vastly disparate tones may also be why it’s hard to imagine anyone else in her role on Mom, as a recovering addict named Bonnie.
It’s a show that introduced her character’s backstory with her daughter (Anna Faris) comedically complaining, “I’ve watched you lick cocaine crumbs out of a shag carpet.” Bonnie’s retort: “It’s not a sin to be thrifty, dear.” In the episodes since, Bonnie has supported her family and friends in AA through relapses, depressions, death, and dark journeys through sobriety—not exactly the ground you’d expect a multicam sitcom from Chuck Lorre, the guy who did The Big Bang Theory, to cover.
Janney won two Emmys for her work on the series, which, in its seventh season, is the rare long-running broadcast TV series to continue to curry critical favor, earning a Best Comedy Series nomination at the Critics Choice Awards earlier this year. The subject matter at hand is universal—addiction has touched almost every family in America—but often shrouded in secrecy or shame. The show doesn’t just destigmatize recovery, it shows people surviving it.
When it came time for Janney to shoot her first share in one of the show’s AA meetings—“Hi, I’m Bonnie and I’m an alcoholic”—she was purposefully and, it turns out, excessively serious and gentle with the material. Lorre immediately ran up to her, tsk-ing, “No, no, no…” People in AA have an extraordinary sense of humor about when they were using.
“It’s almost like a badge of honor when they talk about it,” she says. “I learned so much about what it was like for people when they share. It taught me a lot. So I know it’s teaching other people a lot, too.”
Janney’s brother, Henry—who went by “Hal”—battled addiction and depression. Her family spent a long time with him in the world of recovery. In 2011, Hal committed suicide. Janney dedicated her Oscar win to him, saying in her speech, “This is for Hal. You’re always in my heart.”
“I hadn’t done a multicam sitcom before, and then this subject matter came up and I took it as a sign that that it was something I was supposed to do to honor my brother,” she says. “Every day I go to Mom, I’m always thinking of him and grateful that I’m showing what can happen when you get recovery. But my brother didn’t get it. And so when I get to show people what it’s like to get it, that means a very lot to me. It means a lot to me.”
The show has been a salve for many people these last few weeks, with its nightly reruns a bright nightcap to long, anxiety-inducing days of social distancing. In fact, you could stage somewhat of a buffet of Janney’s work as soothing or, at least, distracting quarantine programming. A recent viewing of Ma, the utterly insane horror thriller from last year that features a cameo from Janney, attests to that. “You should check out Drop Dead Gorgeous, too,” she recommends. “It might be fun to revisit during this time.”
She’s appreciated the various shows and movies that have helped pass the time these past weeks, but has found herself rather contemplative while watching them. Mundane things suddenly start to seem profound.
“Isn’t it weird how quickly looking at people mingling together in movies, it's like you're looking at old history?” she says. “It already seems so foreign to look at movies of people interacting in a party situation. I don’t know… I just think it's weird how quickly I look at a movie’s party scene and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they're doing that….’” She trails off. “Weird.”
That kind of uncertainty reminds of one of my favorite things that Janney has said in the past, something that seems applicable now more than ever. In a 2012 edition of Esquire’s “What I’ve Learned” feature, she said, “A friend of mine carries a Valium in her pocket wherever she goes. She doesn’t take it, but knowing it’s there gives her comfort.” It’s a great line. Funny, but also sort of beautiful.
She laughs that hearty Allison Janney laugh when reminded of this. The quote was part of a larger anecdote invoking Paul Newman, she explains.
Newman directed a play she was in as a student at Kenyon College. (Later, Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, would help her get into the Neighborhood Playhouse when she moved to New York in 1982.) He told her that if she ever needed a favor, let him know and he’d do it.
She never took him up on it, “but that was my Valium in my pocket, knowing that I had someone like that in my corner who I could call,” she says, fading away into a quiet, rumbling chuckle. “But now, with everything, I definitely have taken a couple of Valiums from time to time.”