There are certain actors who have been in something you’ve seen, but it feels like Allison Janney has been in everything—a party guest in Mike Nichols’ Wolf, a starstruck teacher in Primary Colors, the voice of a starfish in Finding Nemo, Tonya Harding’s mother in I, Tonya, the chief of staff in West Wing. And yet, audiences have never seen the Oscar and Emmy winner in a role like Lou, the title character in Anna Foerster’s new action thriller of the same name: playing a small-town recluse drawn into helping a desperate single mother (Jurnee Smollett) recover her kidnapped daughter, Janney transforms her actorly gravitas into ass-kicking intensity, following in the estimable tradition of performers like Helen Mirren, Bob Odenkirk, and Liam Neeson.
Janney recently spoke to The A.V. Club for Lou, discussing the “low twisty things” that helped her get in shape for the most physical role of her career. She also talked about how she first “conjured” the opportunity—thanks, James Corden!—and reflected on how the versatility of her career both harkens back to her theater days and gives her a muscle memory as an actor that this film allowed her to mirror with her body.
The A.V. Club: You are so prolific in so many different kinds of films and TV shows. Do you thrive on that eclecticism?
Allison Janney: I do thrive on it, and I think that that comes from starting out in the theater. In the theater, you go from one role to another and they’re always very different. I mean, I didn’t really get my first Broadway role until I was 38, but I did a Noel Coward play, and then right after that, I did an Arthur Miller play. And that was just what I did as an actress—you go from one incredibly different role to another. And I kind of loved that, and I couldn’t imagine ever being typecast in something. And I think that’s because of being six feet tall; I was never an ingenue. So I had the versatility from my theater training to go any direction. So I thrive on going from one extreme to another. I finished West Wing and went right into 9 To 5 on Broadway, playing Lily Tomlin’s role. I couldn’t go more different, and that was fun for me. So I always look for that.
This genre, action-adventure, it was something that I always wanted to be a part of. I just never thought that would come my way, being my age, and everything about it. But I conjured it. Because on James Corden’s show, he said, “What do you want to do next after Mom?” And I said I wanted to play an action hero, and I did a high kick or something. And then this movie came from J.J. Abrams, and I couldn’t believe he was sending me this movie, Lou. And I was looking for my character, like, who do they want me to play? You want me to play Lou? And I was so excited. It was exactly what [I’d been waiting for,] and yet I went, oh my God, it takes place at night in a storm? [Seeing] all of those things, I started to get a little nervous about it. But I thought, oh screw it, this is something I’ve always wanted to do. And I like this character. I had to do a lot of figuring out of her backstory. It’s not really in the script, but I liked how mysterious she was and how she was a woman of few words. I loved that she had a dog and a great truck and a gun—you’re good to go. You don’t know much about her. And that’s what I liked about it, learning as you watch it, what her secrets in her past were, and what shame she has with her and anger and disappointment. And I especially loved working on the physical reality of Lou—learning how to shoot, to fight, and kill someone.
AVC: It feels like there’s kind of a counterintuitive vanity to a performance like this, where you don’t want to look too good, but obviously you want to look good physically fighting these people. Where did you leave your own vanity at the door to best play the character?
AJ: I left all vanity at the door. I love leaving vanity at the door. I don’t know if you saw I, Tonya, but I love it when I don’t have to worry about trying to look good. It’s freeing to not have any makeup on and be muddied up to look messy and dirty and unkempt. And the training, I first talked to Daniel Bernhardt, who was our fight choreographer, and he informed me that we would be working out three hours a day and I couldn’t wrap my mind around that. Three hours a day? I don’t even work out one hour a week. Am I going to be able to do that? And he was like, “Just trust me. Come down to 87eleven.” And I’d go there, way down by the airport in L.A., and I live in the Valley, so it was a long drive every day. But I loved it when I got there. I loved working out with Daniel. He has such a lovely, indefatigable quality about him that was intoxicating to be around, and to learn these fight moves—almost like a dance. And I used to be a dancer, so that’s what I can relate it to. I did a lot of dancing and ballroom dancing and figure skating, so I was just learning new moves, and it was a new language and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I loved the challenge of it. Every day we’d do something different. We’d do some boxing. We’d do strength training. And then he would choreograph the fights, and I’d come in and we’d work in different sections of them and film them. I thought it was just massively, incredibly fun and rewarding. When you work in theater, you rehearse and rehearse so you’re ready, and I felt like that was the closest to theater I’ve ever had doing the movie because we rehearsed so much that it was in my muscle memory when we went to film those fight scenes. I was so excited to do them and was totally ready and just went at it, and I knew what was going to happen one second to the next—which is important so you don’t get hurt.
AVC: Is there an actor who successfully took on a challenge like this before you as an action hero that gave you a sense of confidence that you could do it?
AJ: Liam Neeson! I think of his movies and what he did, and I loved watching all of those. And Lou is different, but the same kind of genre. I know Helen Mirren has done a lot of the Red movies and she did fight sequences and she did Anna. Helen Mirren certainly played a badass before, and I don’t think she’s done fight things before, but she could, I have no doubt. But I definitely would want to do more. I really like it a lot. I like the training, and the physicality of it makes me happy. The rain and the wind machines, not so much.
AVC: When you’re playing opposite one actor whose character is not trained like yours, what sort of a cushion does that give you, or in what way does that challenge you to be more prepared on screen?
AJ: Jurnee was playing someone who didn’t have the same skillset as Lou did, but she was a force of nature of her own. A mother whose child is taken from her is not someone you want to get in front of either, and neither is Lou, as you find out what she’s capable of doing. So they worked well together. I mean, it was difficult for Lou to have her come along as Lou is a woman I believe, in the past I created for her, was someone who worked alone and does not need anybody—and this woman won’t go away. So you find out a lot about both of these characters’ secrets and pasts, and they kind of help each other. They give things to each other that actually change their lives in a real way, and that’s something I love, that that’s underneath what’s going on. I don’t think you usually see that in an action-thriller movie, two women who chose two different paths. One chose the powers of motherhood and the other chose to be of service to her country her whole life, and says a very important line in the script, one of my favorites, when she says, “not everybody is meant to be a mother.” And I think that is the core of Lou. She did not feel like she was meant to be a mother.
AVC: The script is beautifully lean. Whether it’s this film or others, how much do you find that the text provides everything that you need when you play a role? And how much preparation do you tend to do to explain certain choices that a character makes, even if it’s not seen or articulated on screen?
AJ: We had a lot of conversations. Maggie Cohn wrote a beautiful script and [director] Anna Foerster and I and Jurnee and I tried to work together to fine-tune it—and if anything, we took away more dialog from Lou. I was like, I think less is more with Lou. I don’t think she should say anything here. And I loved cutting away all of the fat and anything that would say too much. I think it was better for this character to not say a lot until she has to—until what happens, happens, and she has to do some talking and explaining.
But that was the first time, as a producer on this with Jurnee, we got to have more of a voice at the table about the script and got to carve out these characters and talk to all of the producers at Bad Robot. It was a very collaborative experience, which is great to have as an actor. You don’t always get that in some of the projects I’ve done. So it was fun to be at the table.
AVC: I think anyone who’s seen Primary Colors knows your physical dexterity. I’m curious, assuming that you got to 100% proficiency by the time you made this film, where were you at the beginning of it? And what was maybe the biggest learning curve in terms of the physical requirements of the role?
AJ: I really hadn’t been working out that much when this came my way. So the stamina. Danny would make me do these exercises. I wish I could show them to you here. I really can’t. But these low twisty things, my thighs got like steel from doing them. He’d make me do 150 or 200, 300 a day of these twist things that it was brutal. And I’d work out with a trainer, too. So it was hard, but I also loved it and I knew it was a job and I was getting paid to do it. There’s something that’s nice about working out when you get paid to do it. I felt like, “it’s my job,” and I’m going to do this and I wish I could find someone to pay me to work out just in my regular life.
AVC: I think we all do.
AJ: I mean, I know how to do it. Yet I’ve got to have someone there making me do it. Otherwise I don’t do it.