Allison Janney Goes for the Gold

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It’s been a strange year for Hollywood (to say the least), full of resistance and revelations. Still, the industry is determined to celebrate — and this week we look at a few of the performances, directors, achievements, and, in one case, prosthetic jowls most likely to be honored.

Before she uttered a single, cruel word in I, Tonya, Allison Janney was fascinated by how she looked in costume as LaVona Golden — with her bowl cut, plastic eyeglass frames, and little pet bird pecking at her ear — a style modeled on a clip made famous by ESPN’s 30 for 30 Tonya Harding documentary, The Price of Gold. “I just loved what they did to me before I did anything,” she says. “It was pretty fucking great to look at.”

At age 58, Janney is in contention for an Oscar nomination for the first time, for her performance as LaVona Golden, Tonya Harding’s mother, in the meta-biopic about the figure skater, I, Tonya. For Janney, the wait is just as well, given that she has always considered herself a late bloomer. (“I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 21,” she says with a laugh.) By her own estimation, her career didn’t really take off until 1999, when, at nearly age 40, she co-starred in the film American Beauty and on TV as C.J. Cregg in The West Wing — a role that got her six Emmy nominations and four wins. Part of her late start may have been due to casting directors’ not knowing what to do with her. “I was a hard fit at a young age. I didn’t make sense as an ingénue or a leading love-interest lady. I just didn’t fit anywhere!” And part of it may have been a fear of failure. “I got a call from a casting director, and I never called her back. Why did I do that? I think I was afraid to admit I wanted to be an actor.”

While C.J. Cregg may have been a paragon of humanity, LaVona is the opposite. I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers, who has known Janney for “half [his] usable life” since their time at the Neighborhood Playhouse, wrote the part specifically with her in mind. “I wanted to write a part that was absolutely the polar opposite of her so it would be undeniable what a chameleon she is,” Gold wrote in an email. “Allison is tragic and hilarious and wounded and defiant all at the same time. It’s so layered and so alive. I’m just fascinated by it.”

At a hotel room in Los Angeles this November, Janney discussed the craft of playing someone like LaVona, the sexual-assault allegations taking down Hollywood, her sadness about Louis C.K., and the origin of the famous Jackal scene from The West Wing.

There’s something interesting about you playing LaVona right now, alongside your character Bonnie, recovering alcoholic and formerly absentee mother on Mom, because Bonnie feels like what LaVona could’ve been in a different world.
You know what, you’re right. I never thought about that before, but it’s really true. If LaVona had given up the drinking, gone to AA and found a little spiritual life, she might’ve forgiven and found a whole different way of living her life, and been kinder and gentler to herself and her daughter. But, yeah, that did not happen to her, nor do I think it will. Did you see LaVona on Inside Edition recently?

I haven’t.
We didn’t even know she was alive until a couple weeks ago. It didn’t make me feel like I had gone too far off in our depiction of her. I don’t think she’d be that disappointed in it, either, because I think the version of LaVona we see on the screen is part Tonya’s version of her mother, part Jeff Gillooly’s version, part Steven Rogers, and, in part, me stepping in and doing whatever I wanted with her.

What did you want?
Well, I wanted to make her — not “likable” — I wanted to find her humanity. I wanted to find her pain, her loss, her disappointment, and I wanted to make that come across in my performance. I wanted people to see that she was a very complicated woman, who was emotionally stunted in a lot of ways and wasn’t able to express love or give it or show it. That was just not in her wheelhouse. As someone who grew up in an abusive family herself, I’m sure she doesn’t know how to express love.

Love and affection are like foreign objects.
Yeah, like, this is strange and uncomfortable to tell my daughter: “You did a good job.” Oh god, it’s just tragic. A tragic character, a tragic story, and yet funny when all the different versions are juxtaposed with each other! My god! How can so many different people have so many different versions of the same event, the same life? You talk to members of the family, each sibling will describe a completely different childhood than the other. I’m fascinated by that.

It would be easy to overplay the character. Was that on your mind?
I knew with some of the dialogue that I had to soft-pedal it, because of the extreme nature of the look — just the costume alone and the lines. In some scenes, I tried to do as little as possible to get in the way of everything. But then also not being afraid to be strong and forceful when I need to, because sometimes I think what makes a character work and is funny, even when it’s dark, is when the stakes are really high.

How much research did you do?
I asked Steven for all the research he had on her, because he said during the interviews he was trying to ask Jeff and Tonya where she was, and Tonya said she didn’t know and didn’t care. She didn’t even know if she was alive or dead. Steven did some work trying to find her and couldn’t. I knew that I wasn’t going to have the luxury of having her to talk to and ask her questions about how she felt about this and that, so it had to be a made-up version of her. I don’t think she smoked — I know she had the bird — and Tonya did say she was an alcoholic. I don’t know what else we made up about her, but Steven said we could pretty much do whatever we want. In some ways, I felt freed up because I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, so I said, “I’m going to make her up and figure out what works for me, what I like about her, don’t like about her, what I empathize with her over, and what I can’t forgive her for.”

All I knew of her was this existing documentary that some college student did of Tonya and interviewed LaVona for, and it’s the interview Steven showed some of at the end of the movie, when she’s in the fur coat with the bird. That was really kind of a gem.

Iconic.
Iconic! I mean, I watched that clip over and over again, and she just fascinated me. I could see underneath those interviews, someone who was angry and resentful and bitter.

Sometimes I play roles and I think, especially getting around the violence, that she was an extension of me, so when I’m yelling at her, I’m really talking about myself, because we can always be our own worst enemies. It’s an acting trick that I do sometimes — pretend whoever I’m acting with is some part of me that I’m mad at, so I feel justified in being that mean. “You stupid idiot!” The way you talk to yourself sometimes is terrible! I hear myself and I go, “I can’t believe you’re talking to my friend Allison like that!” It’s really terrible, the things we say to ourselves. I thought of Tonya as an extension of LaVona, and I was playing her, so I got to use whatever I hated about myself my day, whatever I could find in that moment. I use whatever I can find in that moment. I never know how I’ll feel on any given day, but I’ve got to look around me and take what I got, and find some inspiration, some anger. But that allowed me to justify the anger and the physical stuff. Did I say too much there?

No, that’s beautiful.
Growing up, everybody told me I was good. I was playing ping-pong with my father and he’d say, “That’s a good shot,” but I’d mess up the next one and I’d yell, “Don’t tell me that! I’ll mess up! Just don’t say anything!” You know, if someone says, “You can’t do that,” then I’m going to be, “Yeah, you watch me.” I understand that dynamic too, and LaVona understood that about her daughter. She knew if she told her she couldn’t do that, she sucked, she was terrible, that anger motivated her. She was at her best when she felt humiliated and angry. LaVona knew that and took advantage of that. She could’ve loved her through it and said, “Honey, no matter what you do, I love you and I’m proud of you,” but she really wanted her daughter to have a better life than she did, and the way to do it was to keep her angry and hungry.

Do you feel like becoming successful later in your career was helpful for your craft?
It grounded me, I definitely had a lot more grounding and self-loathing in place [laughs]. I think having a lot of experience in theater, making a lot of relationships in the New York theater and having people who believed in me, but knew I was a hard fit at a young age. I know there are a lot of tall, beautiful actresses like Uma Thurman and Nicole Kidman who are my height, but they’re still half the size of me! I didn’t make sense as an ingénue or a leading love-interest lady. I just didn’t fit anywhere!

Don’t you think that’s Hollywood’s failure of imagination?
Yeah, absolutely. Maybe if I started out my career now I might find more work. Obviously, there are so many more places for women to find work, especially in TV. But you know, all the years in Off–Off–Off Broadway theater, I remember doing this one play with Stanley Tucci at Naked Angels called Fat Men in Skirts, where I played his wife, and from that he put me in Big Night. I did Alan Ball’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress and then he put me in American Beauty. Everything started to happen from all the years I put into the theater in New York City, and working, and having great parents who supported me through that.

I had some shit jobs in New York; I realized I was an unwitting drug dealer, because I was working at a nighttime receptionist at a recording studio where people would come in to do jingles. I think I was pretty much accepting drug packages for musicians coming in but had no idea! I was just like, “Oh, this is for Mr. So-and-So,” and I’d save them and go, “Oh, this came to you from Mr. Blue and Mr. Green and whatever!” I really think I was dealing drugs! [Laughs.] I did scoop ice cream. Long time there. And then finally looking for small movie roles. I definitely paid my dues, and I’m grateful for everything, and for my good friends. Steve Rogers wrote this movie and wrote this part for me, so having a friend like that who I’ve been together with all these years, it’s pretty phenomenal to be invited to the conversations I’m being invited to participate in because of this role and this movie. I didn’t see that happening for me in this world, so it’s surprising to me, but I’m thrilled by it. I don’t know what I thought. I knew I was going to play the role, but I didn’t think it was going to be doing this for me. It’s crazy.

How was it acting with a bird on your shoulder?
It was wonderful, because I couldn’t be in my head about what I was saying at all! It was kind of a wonderful thing he did for me, that bird, an unexpectedly wonderful thing. It gave me more passion to tell my story because we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot that scene, and I was like, “There is no time for this bird to fuck up this scene.” But it kind of filled me with stuff too, as I was talking, and occasionally I would say, Shut up! He’d crawl down my jacket, jump on my glasses, and I’d throw him up there while I was still talking because I didn’t want them to cut. I wish we had some of those takes. I really want to see some of the outtakes because there’s some insane stuff that happened with that bird. His name is Little Man.

And then the best part — I like to pat myself on the head for this one — right before we shot, the bird handler said, “You can’t smoke in front of the bird,” and Craig was like, “What are we going to do? You can’t just all of a sudden not smoke.” I said, “Yes I can.” And I turned to the prop guy and asked him, “Do you have an emphysema oxygen tank?” and he said, “Yes I do,” and I said, “Go get it!” I was just amazed that he had it. That’s a really good prop guy to have something like that lying around that was not called for on set at all. So I put the oxygen plastic tubing around and Little Man got in there, and all of a sudden he became obsessed with the tubing and started poking at it and poking at my ear! I was like, “Now you’re gonna behave like this, Little Man? You were just tricking me in the audition!” I had to deal with him doing that, but we didn’t have any time to fuck around. I had to get it done, and I didn’t mind it after a while. I was so determined not to look at him. I had to smoke in a play back when I was in high school when everyone was smoking, and someone said to me that the way to look cool while smoking is to never look at it, so I decided that’s what I would do with this bird. I wasn’t going to look at him, because that would make him look like something that was always there, and that was something I didn’t always have to look at. But it was like he heard me say that and was just determined to make me deal with him poking at me. No matter what he did, I’d just throw him back up on my shoulder.

What do you think about the sexual-assault allegations coming out in Hollywood? I think of it as a reckoning.
It’s kind of scary. It’s like, who fell today? Unbelievable. I think there’s going to be some self-correction in this moment we’re having. I think it’s an empowering moment for a lot of women who’ve held on to secrets and held this shame, and how wonderful for them to be able to say it, and dammit, the shame should be on the abusers, never the person, and damn the people who try to manipulate someone else. That’s the part that I don’t want to see ever happen, that people falsely accuse people of something, but we live in this world, and there are awful people who will take advantage of what’s going on now. But I think, hopefully, we will be able to tell who those people are.

I also think that the highest office in the land is not held accountable for his behavior, and I think that’s partly why this is all happening now. It’s good that it’s happening, because I think that things will change, and I think there’s a lot that has to happen for it to really change, and it has to start with equality between men and women, and equal pay where women get paid the same as men for jobs, and men and women know they can’t abuse power and it will not be tolerated, zero tolerance for that kind of behavior. All this will be worth it for young actors to grow up and not know what a casting couch is. How great for us to be in that place. I think things are going to get a lot more difficult.

It’s sad when [it’s] someone like Louis C.K., who is so brilliantly funny, and I wish that maybe he had gotten help earlier so that he wouldn’t be in this situation, because I feel so sad for the women that had to go through that and sad for all of us who won’t be able to hear his comedy for a while. There’s a lot of disappointment and a lot of people in this world who have some crazy ideas about love and sex, and I just hope that those who have ones that are not legal can get it sorted out before. Oh, I don’t know how to talk about this.

Is there a part you think you’d kill in but you haven’t gotten the chance to do?
Well, LaVona is a good villain. I’d love to do a James Bond-y kind of villain! I mean, I love watching Daryl Hannah and Uma Thurman’s kick-ass fight sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 2. I want to one of those badass movies!

Like a badass femme fatale?
Yeah! Am I too old for that? I don’t know! I would love to do that! It would be incredible. Oh, please! I want somebody to write me that part. What else would I want to do? Just, the more screwed-up and complicated and messy the character, the better.

I would love to see you as a badass killer!
I know, right? I’m very physical. I’d love to take some guy down, like a Harvey Weinstein–type guy!

My understanding is that you wanted to be a professional figure skater when you were young.
I did!

Did that experience inform this world at all?
Not at all. I committed a lot of time to it, and it made me really happy, like I could not wait to get my skates tied! It brought me such joy. I did a lot of ballet. I was very graceful and coordinated on the ice. I could do a couple of double jumps, but it was apparent that I couldn’t do all the ones I needed to. I remember my coach picked this song from Man of La Mancha for my first skating program, and I was so scared of it! He picked this strong song that begins with like a “dum dum” because I’m a big, tall, girl and it scared me to death. I couldn’t ever fill up that music with my skating. I think I needed a really timid song that I could be graceful in. I was not able to be the powerhouse he wanted me to be. He left, and then I went through a plate-glass window and had to be in the hospital for a really long time and I missed my first year of college. When I healed from that, I just went off to college and put the skating to bed, and hadn’t been back on until this movie. So I actually got to go to a rink, thinking there was a scene where I’d be able to skate. I got my skates, got on the ice, and it was really nice to get back on the rink. I got back to doing my crossovers pretty well, but there was no way I was going to be able to do a jump or any of my spins. I was like, how did I do this? I just suffered a bout of vertigo recently, which was the most bizarre thing I’d ever experienced in my life!

Is it because you’re so tall?
Shut up! [Laughter.] I don’t know why I got this! It was really painful. Starting to do a spin on the ice, I was like, No, no, no, I’m not going to do this. I don’t need to reactivate that vertigo thing. I was excited that Steven was writing a movie about Tonya, just because I knew who Tonya was before many did.

Were you Team Tonya?
I think I was. I just wanted to watch her to see what she would do next. She was fierce, a real competitor. I didn’t know she was going through all this stuff in the figure-skating world, that they were telling her she didn’t fit in, and she needed to be more like this, and how frustrating that must’ve been for her to feel like she wasn’t being recognized for who she was. “Why can’t I just be me? I’m a great skater.” I didn’t realize all that was going on until I read this movie.

How did the White House press briefing come about that you did last year?
I didn’t know I was going to do that until I arrived in Washington and they said, “Oh, by the way, they asked you to start the press briefing this morning,” and I said, “No, no, no!” I got terrified. I was like, “I am not C.J.! Don’t make me do that!” But I did it anyway. It was terrifying going out there, and I think I said I was terrified, because looking at the real press, some of them were not having it! They were like, “Oh, C.J.’s here, yeah, yeah, don’t make a mockery of what we do.” Some of them looked pretty unhappy that I was there, and I was very intimidated. But I guess a lot of people got a kick out of it, because people love C.J.! I loved her too. I miss her.

A C.J. question to end: When you were filming “The Jackal” scene, were there ever any other musical choices?

I was really into music at that point in my life because I spent a lot of time in my trailer waiting. Richard Schiff and I would sit in my trailer, and he would play air guitar and I would lip-sync to songs. We just did the dumbest stuff with our time. I could’ve learned another language or done something useful with my time, but instead we did this. I had this Chill CD, and it had like 80 songs on them. One of which was “The Jackal,” and I thought it was a really cool song, so I learned all the lyrics to it, and I did it just to make Richard laugh. One night, Aaron came into the trailer to see what we were doing because he just heard peals of laughter coming from my trailer, and then he came and watched me do it, and the next thing I knew, he put it in! And not only that, we filmed it and then afterwards, he said, “We have to do it again because you were doing it as Allison doing it, and you need to be C.J. doing it. I don’t think C.J. would be as confident as you are.” So he made me do it again, and had me not be as confident as I was.

*A version of this article appears in the November 27, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Allison Janney Goes for the Gold