The actor: Allison Janney worked her way up through the ranks, paying her dues with small roles in soap operas, sitcoms, and TV movies, as well as occasional bit parts in feature films. Her profile was raised in a big way, however, when she secured the role of C.J. Cregg, press secretary for President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing. Since the series’ conclusion, Janney has rarely been at a loss for work: She’s turned in memorable performances on screens both big (Juno) and small (Mr. Sunshine), and she appears as Emma Stone’s cancer-stricken Southern mother in Touchstone Pictures’ The Help.
The Help (2011)—“Charlotte Phelan”
The A.V. Club: You had a plum role in The Help, getting the opportunity to play comedy and drama.
Allison Janney: [Sing-songs.] That’s my favorite thing to beeeeeee! It is! Because I think it’s so real. It just feels natural to me to be funny and tragic. [Laughs.] It really does. Charlotte was a fun character to get to play, and I loved being down in the South. And getting the accent was really fun. And really intimidating, because the people in the South do not cotton to bad Hollywood Southern accents. So I spent a great deal of time—they were very generous and opened their homes to us—sitting around with them, drinking milk punch on a Sunday, which is their favorite drink down there. It was bourbon and condensed milk, basically. You’d sip on that all day and listen to that accent, and by the third milk punch, I was talking like a native. [Laughs.] It was great. What else can I tell you?
AVC: Had you read the book prior to appearing in the film?
AJ: Well, I had the fortunate situation of being best friends with Tate Taylor, the director, and one of his best friends was [The Help author] Kathryn Stockett. So he introduced me to Kitty a long time before she wrote this book, so it just sort of happened that it came together, and we all ended up being able to be part of it. I didn’t assume I was going to be part of it, but I was certainly hoping I would get to play the part of Charlotte. I know there were a lot of other women in Hollywood who wanted to play that part, so I was very, very lucky that I got to do it, and I owe that to Tate, for standing in my corner and fighting for me.
AVC: While you were very young when the events of the film took place, do you have any personal recollections of civil unrest during the ’60s?
AJ: No. I don’t. I was just too young. Also, I grew up in Ohio and Boston, and I just was not aware of it. I went to school, and my school was integrated. I just was not aware of it until later, when I studied about it in school.
AVC: Were you shocked by some of the events depicted within the book, or were you aware of the atrocities that were going on?
AJ: Well, you know, I watched a wonderful documentary that Tate gave me, Eyes On The Prize, which was just a phenomenal documentary, and just shocking. That whole period in our history is a blight on America. It really is just… It’s devastating to see how people—in the South, mostly—just… Well, it’s really embarrassing. And shocking. So it was nice to see part of a movie that showed people being courageous and bringing about change in the way things were. I played a character, of course, who was afraid of change. It was threatening her. I don’t think she was necessarily a racist. I think she just liked things the way they were, and didn’t think there was anything wrong with her, or that she treated anybody badly. But she comes to realize through her daughter that she’s made terrible mistakes in her life, and she gets to sort of redeem herself. I thought that was wonderful. But I also had to do that terrible, really difficult scene with Cicely Tyson, which was difficult on so many levels. I had to sit there and look at Cicely Tyson and kick her out of my house, and then also, for Charlotte, I felt how difficult it must have been, because I genuinely feel that she loved Constantine and needed her in her life, but succumbed to peer pressure from these ladies. She just had her priorities wrong, and she made a mistake, and she got to confess it and redeem herself at the end, so it was very satisfying to get to play her from start to finish.
AVC: How quickly did you and Emma Stone find a mother-daughter bond in front of the camera?
AJ: Well, we immediately found a bond, but I don’t think it was mother-daughter. [Laughs.] I felt like we were BFFs! We were running around Greenwood, Mississippi, going to the Sonic and having our cheeseburgers. She got me to eat all this crap food, and… She’s 19, or however old she is, and she can eat that stuff. I was eating it with her, acting as if I had the metabolism of a 19- or 20-year-old. And it, uh, did not do great things for my waistline. That was a big mistake on my part. But she sure is a lot of fun, I’ve gotta tell you. There is nobody more fun than Emma Stone. I adore her.
As The World Turns (1993)—“Vi Kaminski”
Guiding Light (1993-1995)—“Ginger”
AJ: Oh my God. Ginger on Guiding Light, that was my first professional job as an actress in New York City, and I felt like I had made it! [Laughs.] I was thrilled. It afforded me… Well, I could pay my rent on what I made! It was the first time I kind of started making a living. I could pay for my rent and for other things. I started being able to take my friends out to dinner. It was my first real salary as an actress. So that was pretty big. And Vi… I think I did one day, maybe two days of shooting. I was hoping she’d go further, but she kind of ended. I think I just did her for a couple of episodes, and that was it. I don’t have much recollection about that, except that I got to wear some pretty crazy costumes.
AVC: Were you a soap-opera fan at the time, or was it just a means to an end?
AJ: I used to be. When I was 17, I had an accident and I was in the hospital for quite a while, and I started watching soap operas. I was a big fan of All My Children, and I think I watched Guiding Light for a little bit, too. And General Hospital, of course. That was huge when I was in college. So I did watch them and was aware what they were about. Learning to film them, though, it was nerve-wracking. I was very nervous. The girl who played Jenna, Fiona Hutchison, she sort of put her arm around me and guided me through the experience. So I was excited to be part of that. It’s not what I wanted, per se. I know it was back in a time where people were, like, “Oh, you’re going to be a soap actress?” Like there was some bad stink on being a soap actress. And at the time, I even thought, “I think it’s great to be working!” I didn’t want to stay doing soaps forever, but it was work, and it was a good opportunity, so I took it. I was always angry at people who looked down at them, because it’s hard work. They work really fast, and you have to memorize quickly. I think it helped me when I went into The West Wing, to learn how to memorize lines fast.
The West Wing (1999-2006)—“C.J. Cregg”
AJ: The most impactful role I’ve ever played. Life-changing. A life-changing role, in terms of my notoriety, if you want to call it that, opening doors to meeting the kinds of people I never would’ve met in a million years. Going to Washington and being invited to the White House, going to the Foreign Correspondents’ Dinner. It just opened a million doors and broadened my life so much, and brought so much to me. I was so proud of being a part of a groundbreaking show like that. It was life-changing, and I’ll be forever grateful for it.
AVC: Did you meet with Dee Dee Myers to help you figure out your role?
AJ: Oh yeah. And Joe Lockhart, and—I’m blanking on all the other ones! [Laughs.] But tons of them. I met with a lot of former press secretaries, and they were just fun to talk to. They couldn’t really help me play the character, but just telling me little anecdotes about what happened to them was fun to hear, and it made me feel like I was one of them.
AVC: Did you get the impression that politicians tended to enjoy the show as a rule, or was the look at Washington too rose-colored for their tastes?
AJ: My impression is that Democrats especially loved it. [Laughs.] It was appointment TV for them. I think more Republicans liked it than would probably admit to it, because I think Aaron [Sorkin] liked to show both sides, even though we were a Democratic White House. I loved that Aaron used to get high-ranking Republicans and Democrats in the same room who were consultants on the show, and put out an issue, and hear them argue about it. That’s how he would write the show sometimes. I think he liked to show both sides, so I think there were some Republicans who liked it, too. The thing that West Wing did was put a good face on public servants. It kind of made them rock stars, a bit. So I think they liked it.
AVC: How long did it take you to get the hang of the walk-and-talk?
AJ: I was the best walk-and-talker in the whole show. And everyone will tell you that. [Laughs.] You can say I bragged about my walk-and-talk! Because I’m a theater girl, and I loved stringing a bunch of scenes together with the walk-and-talk and having people join in and add and break off. It made it really exciting on the set. It made it like a theater performance, where you’re all, like, “Everybody ready? Set?” It made it really exciting. I thought they were fantastic. And also, I was quick at memorizing lines, and it didn’t bother me. Some people didn’t like that. So I wasn’t that popular when it came to asking for more of those. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you happy with the way C.J.’s story wrapped up at the end of the series?
AJ: Oh yeah. It was fun. I mean, I wish it could’ve gone on in a C.J. spin-off. [Laughs.] But it ended up wrapping up pretty nicely, and I think it satisfied most people with how it ended, so, yeah, sure.
Juno (2007)—“Bren MacGuff”
AJ: Oh my God. That part was… Well, I loved Jason Reitman. And Ellen Page, too. But Jason let me sort of make up stuff that I could do in scenes. He let me create Bren’s vision during one of the scenes where I was putting together all the dogs I wanted but I couldn’t have, because Juno was allergic. And it happened so fast. My part wasn’t that many days, so the best part for me was the press junket and getting to know Jason Bateman, who became… Well, I’m in love with him, basically. [Laughs.] Jason Bateman is hysterical. And Jason Reitman, too. But I was so happy on that press tour, because that cast was so much fun. I didn’t get to work with them all at once, so the press was really fun to do after. Because Jason makes everything fun.
AVC: How was J.K. Simmons as a husband?
AJ: [Scoffs.] Uh, perfect? [Laughs.] The perfect husband. He’s just a gem. He’s a real mensch, you know? He’s just a great actor’s actor. I loved playing his wife.
AVC: Were you surprised the movie became such a phenomenon?
AJ: Yeah! I mean, you always hope that everything you do is going to resonate in some way, but this really did. Yeah, it was fun to be part of that and watch that happen. And to watch Diablo [Cody] go get an Oscar. I mean, it’s thrilling to be a part of something that’s so well-received, because you feel, like, “God, that was a good movie I picked to be in!” [Laughs.] Actually, I didn’t get to pick. Jason Reitman wanted me to be in it, and I was very grateful. But it’s extraordinary to have that happen. After you work on something so hard, and then you see it being so well-received, it’s just what everyone hopes for when you do a small independent movie. It’s what you hope for.
AJ: Most difficult acting job I’ve ever had to do in my life. Didn’t enjoy acting outdoors, in streams and in the elements. It was very hard. I had to loop most of my performance for that. That’s what I want to say about that: I had to loop for 10 hours. That was not fun. I don’t like looping. And it was a weird decision, I think, in my career to do that, ’cause I… I don’t know, I thought it’d be fun to be part of such a pop-culture thing. But it was quite difficult to do, and I felt a little lost myself during Lost.
AVC: Were you immersed enough in the mythology of the show to appreciate your character? Or had you even been a fan?
AJ: No, I learned about it after. Because I didn’t really watch the show, so I didn’t know. I did my homework, of course, and knew what was going on, but I didn’t get many answers before I went in there about what was really going on. [Laughs.] So I had to make up my world.
Finding Nemo (2003)—“Peach”
AJ: [Dreamy voice.] Oh, Peach. Peach was… Oh gosh, I loved Andrew Stanton. He was such a sweet man, and I would do anything with him. He was so great, and I… You know, it’s weird when you do these parts. I was in a booth, and I wasn’t with any actors, but I was with him in a big studio soundstage doing these things, and he’d just have me do each line five or six different ways, and he’d play the other parts. He was really fun to work with, and you could just tell that he loved what he was doing. And it’s so fun to work with people who love what they do, because they’re infectious. It was a labor of love for him, doing that movie, and then to see Up take off the way it did, and also be Oscar-worthy. But Finding Nemo is a classic. And it’s so cool to be a part of a classic movie.
Big Night (1996)—“Ann”
The Imposters (1998)—“Maxine”
AJ: Oh, well, Stanley Tucci, love of my life. I did a play with him and got to know him, and he was talking about this movie he was doing, that he was getting together. And I just loved him so much that I wanted to be around him, so I said, “Stanley, let me be part of this movie. I will be craft services. I will be your script girl. Just let me be part of this in some way.” And he called me up in my New York City apartment one day and said, “Allison, I want you to play the part of Ann, the flower lady in Big Night.” He just called and offered that to me. And that was one of the happiest movie sets I’ve ever been on. The most fun. Such difficult hours, but I was hanging out with Marc Anthony! He had a wordless part in that movie, and he and I became friends. We were so silly, hanging out together. And I loved Campbell Scott. I was just so happy to be there that I could’ve worked 24-hour days and not complained a bit. I was having such a great time. Really one of my favorite movies I got to do.
AVC: So did he then call you up a few years later and say, “You want to do another one with me?”
AJ: Yeah, totally. For a while, I was fantasizing that he was going to have an acting troupe, that we were gonna be together and keep doing movies as The Stanley Tucci Acting Troupe. Or whatever. I don’t know what he would’ve called it. [Laughs.] For that, I bleached my hair blonde, and the woman who did it ruined my hair, so my hair had to be cut off completely after that. That was a big mistake I did during that movie. One of the funnier things I remember is sharing a dressing room with Billy Connolly. They had, like, a rope with a blanket over it [to divide the room]. It was like in It Happened One Night. And he was on the other side from me, and I was, like, “This is surreal! I’m sharing a dressing room with him!” It was so funny! That was an odd thing about that movie. And Richard Jenkins, who is one of my favorite actors, I got to play his gangster moll. [Laughs.] We had a good time. That’s where I met Alfred Molina, who I adore. There were some great actors assembled in that cast. Steve Buscemi. It was a smorgasbord of talent and funny people to hang around.
Mr. Sunshine (2011)—“Crystal Cohen”
AJ: Oh my God. I mean, it was just a candy store for me. I had so much fun playing her, and I wish I could’ve gone on playing her, because she was really fun. I love to play those absurd women. And I got to sing with James Taylor! If nothing else, I got to do that. [Laughs.] And Matthew [Perry] is pretty great to work with, too. I had a great time. I’m sorry and sad it didn’t go, but, geez, I’m glad I got to do that.
AVC: How was Matthew Perry to work with as an executive producer?
AJ: Listen, I applaud him. He was wearing so many hats. I could see it was exhausting him, and yet he really cared about this, and really put his heart into it. I just admire him for it and applaud him. I could never do it in a million years, so I think it’s admirable. He really held it together and did it, writing and re-writing while we were doing it. He did a great job. I’m proud of him.
AVC: Given this role and some others you’ve played in the past, you aren’t exactly ramping up to take home a Mother Of The Year award.
AJ: I know! I’ve played so many motherfuckers, I can’t believe it. [Laughs.] Someone said, “Aren’t you tired of being typecast as a mother?” And I was like, “There are a lot of different mothers out there, let me tell you.” There are so many different kinds out there. “Bring ’em on,” that’s what I say. I will tackle all different kinds, and I will play a different one every time. I love ’em. And it’s ironic that I’m not one, but at least I get to play one on TV! [Laughs.]
Private Parts (1997)—“Dee Dee”
AJ: Well, Howard Stern. That’s all I can think about, because Howard is responsible for launching my career. According to Howard. [Laughs.] But I love to give him that credit that he’s personally responsible, and I’m always grateful to him. So anything about Private Parts has to be about Howard giving me my career.
AVC: How did you find Howard as an actor?
AJ: Loved him. You know what I love about Howard Stern? He’s not a joke. I loved him because he was inquisitive and open to hearing about how you act. He was like, “Tell me how you do this. What do you do?” He didn’t just shut down and do his own thing. He wanted to learn and do it right. And I was impressed with that.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)—“Ms. Perky”
AJ: My first big movie where I got money. Where I got real money that I put in the bank. That was very important to me. And to my father. [Laughs.] I remember having dinner with him, telling him, “Dad, I just got cast in this part, and they’re paying me blank amount of money,” and it was enough to put in the bank and save. And he was very proud of me. [Director] Gil Junger, he was very fun to work with, and he encouraged me to be very silly. And Heath Ledger, that was one of his first movies over here, and he was such a sweet guy and very handsome. And genuinely kind. That’s what I remember about him. It was before his career took off, but I just thought, “There’s a guy who’s going to do well,” and I was impressed by the fact that he was so kind and nice. And he remembered my name. I thought that was sweet.
Celebrity (1998)—“Evelyn Isaacs”
AJ: Oh, well, that is a story I’ll never forget. I had to say the word “triplex.” Now, I still continue to this day to say “try-plex.” But Woody Allen came over to me in the middle of shooting, I’d done two takes, and he asked, “Is it ‘try-plex’ or ‘trip-lex’?” And I said, “Uh, I don’t know. I’ve always said ‘try-plex.’” He said, “Well, you’d better find out.” And I was in this scene with all these people, and I was, like, “How am I going to find out?” It was like a Woody Allen movie in the middle of a Woody Allen movie. And I looked over, and there was Donald Trump, who was doing a cameo. And I went, “Well, shit, I’m going to go ask Donald Trump.” So I got up and walked across the room and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Trump, I’m doing a line over here, and Woody Allen has asked me a question. Do you prefer ‘try-plex’ or ‘trip-lex’?” And he thought about it, and he said, “I like ‘trip-lex.’” And I said, “Thank you very much,” and I went back and I said, “Well, Donald Trump said I should say ‘trip-lex,’ so I guess I’ll go with that.” So that’s the story I remember about that movie. But I always thought, “I could’ve just said ‘try-plex,’ too.” I think it’s just a to-may-to/to-mah-to thing.
Phineas And Ferb (2008-2010)—“Charlene Doofenshmirtz”
AJ: The animated stuff, it’s funny, I love working for that group, they’re really kind, but I just wish I had more to do. I wish they’d have me in more, ’cause I love doing animated series. I just want more of Darlene Swooshenpoofishmirtz. [Laughs.] I want there to be more! Spin-off! Spin-off!
AVC: You’ve done a few other one-off voice acting gigs, too: King Of The Hill; Family Guy; Glenn Martin, DDS…
AJ: Yes, I did. I’ve done a lot of those things. I also did a series called The Pitts that didn’t get picked up, but it was created by the same people who did The Simpsons, so I was really hoping that one would go. I’m looking for more.
[Clarification: Yes, TV geeks, there was a live-action series on Fox called The Pitts. It starred Dylan Baker, Lizzy Caplan, David Henrie, and Kellie Waymire, and it was cancelled after five episodes. Four years later, however, the network began work on an animated version of the series, with Baker and Caplan reprising their roles, Andy Milonakis replacing Henrie, who was by then starring on Wizards Of Waverly Place, and Janney taking over for Waymire, who died in 2003. Unfortunately, the pilot bombed with execs, so the series never came to fruition.]
Morton & Hayes (1991)—“Beatrice Caldicott” / “Mrs. Morton”
AJ: Oh. My. God. Well, that was a dream come true. This is Spinal Tap is one of my all-time favorite movies, and there I was getting to work with Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean… all the Spinal Tap guys! And Kevin Pollak, Bob Amaral, real comic geniuses I was getting to work with. And I made an impression on them with some of my takes, my little bits I would do. That was hysterical. That was one of the funniest things. And I loved the throwback to the old… [Adopts the patter of a 1930s actress.] “Sayyyyyy, whaddayamean comin’ here leavin’ the door open?” That kind of old-fashioned movie talk. It really allowed me to use that part of me that just loves to imitate old-fashioned movies, the way they talked and everything. It was a real fun thing to get to do. I loved it.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)—“Loretta”
AJ: Well, she’s iconic, Loretta. [Laughs.] I think I get more people coming up to me saying how much they love that movie than any other thing I’ve done. Even more than West Wing, I have to say. That movie is a cult classic, and that was a great part. I did a lot of improv in that part, and… It was a long time shooting up there for me. I hung out a lot at the Mall Of America to get that accent down, ’cause that was a hard accent to do right. And I think I got it pretty right. But Ellen Barkin was a dream to work with. Hysterical. Yeah, Loretta’s one that people remember a lot.
…First Do No Harm (1997)—“Dr. Melanie Abbasac”
The Hours (2002)—“Sally Lester”
AVC: Is there any role I haven’t asked you about that you were expecting?
AJ: Oh, that’s a good question. Maybe The Hours. Getting to make out with Meryl Streep, that’s pretty memorable.
AVC: Well, sure. And you actually worked with her before on …First Do No Harm, correct?
AJ: Yes. But I didn’t get to make out with her in that one, so it definitely wasn’t as memorable. [Laughs.] Although it was the first time I got to watch her act up-close and personal, doing take after take, and seeing that she allowed herself the freedom to be different in every take, yet just as strong. She was fun to watch. But working with her in The Hours, that was pretty incredible. And hysterical when I was doing it. It was the most aware I’ve ever been of not acting in any movie, because I was, like, “I am acting with Meryl Streep. And now we are kissing. Meryl Streep and I are kissing right now.” [Laughs.] Pretty funny.