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Allison Janney on Sundance, Learning Reiki, and Wanting a TV Show

Allison Janney. Photo: Getty Images

Allison Janney had supporting roles in two Sundance movies this year — and, as usual, she managed to steal the spotlight left and right: In The Way, Way Back, written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, she plays a loose-lipped, booze-swilling single mom who spends the summer with family at the beach (Steve Carell plays her brother). In Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely, she plays a Reiki master who offers sage advice to her dispirited friend (Rosemarie DeWitt); her improvised Reiki scene is a hoot to behold. We spoke with Janney about the two very different parts, her towering height, and what she really thinks of Reiki.

Hi, Allison, how are you?
I’m, well, sick. I’m on my way to the doctor to find out why I can’t get rid of this thing, but I have a feeling being at Sundance and getting four hours of sleep a night might have something to do with it.

You play a Reiki master in Touchy Feely. Did you observe any Reiki masters to play the role?
When Lynn asked me to do this, I said, “Okay, full disclosure: I cannot stand Reiki therapy myself.” I’ve never gotten it; it’s just a little mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus for me. I don’t buy into it for some reason. I want to. I really want to, but I can’t somehow. I get almost anxiety-ridden because I’m like, “Just touch me! You’ve got to touch me!” And so I did — I went to some lovely Reiki people who I really enjoyed. It was nice to play someone who was very centered and calm. I mean, she was one of the only characters in a movie of people very uncomfortable in their own skin.

Your scene with Josh Pais was hilarious when you’re trying to make him feel less nervous at his first Reiki session. How did you approach that?
That was so much fun to have an activity like that with someone like Josh, who’s not afraid to go all the way with his choices. He was so committed to being uncomfortable and nervous, all I had to do was put my attention on him and really try to get him to relax and use all the things that I’ve heard in my lifetime of people trying to get me to relax. That was the one great improv that came out of that. I always, in my real life, try to go to some place that makes me feel safe or comfortable. You know, on a beach or somewhere. So I was trying to get him to [go there]. “Let’s think about where you feel most comfortable.” And then Josh finally says, “The office.” Which was so funny because I was like, “Well, why don’t we try to get you out of the office.” And he’s like, “No, I like the office.” “Okay, well, where in the office are you sitting?” It was hysterical.

And then of course your role in The Way, Way Back was totally different. You play a booze-swilling mom who says inappropriate things all the time. Did you base her on anyone in particular?
Probably what I hope I don’t turn into. She’s a nightmare! I do have lots of people in my life who don’t have boundaries, and it’s always so curious to me, those kinds of people that just don’t get it. Like, are you serious? How can you not know that it’s inappropriate for you to barge in here and invite yourself somewhere? I just think it’s so funny, those people that don’t have edit buttons.

Your character is so mean to her kids. Was that fun for you to play, even though you wouldn’t want to be that kind of mother?
Well, you know, it was shocking on the page. I was like, “Really? Did she really say that? That’s so mean!” But I made choices in the scene. Like, no matter how outrageous the thing I said, I would always just go in and kiss [my son] River or hug him. You know, I tried to put the physical love in there. I wanted to make sure that the audience saw that she is not without love for her children. She does adore them and love them and need them.

How tall are you?
I’m six feet. Five foot twelve is my joke, but I’m six feet, yeah. Most people are not as tall as I am so I’m always either, you know, wide-leg stance with a knee bent or, you know, the kind of splayed legs.

Has that ever been an issue as far as interacting with other actors who are way shorter than you?
No, I mean, sometimes people love to take advantage of that. Aaron Sorkin wrote one of the funniest lines for me and Kristin Chenoweth [on The West Wing]. We were in a scene together, doing a walk-and-talk. I think at first they made me have my shoes on and took Kristin’s off, and I look down at her and I said, “I can’t believe we’re even in the same species.” So people like to take advantage of it for comedic reasons. Anyone who hires me is very aware of my height and doesn’t have a problem with it.

You seem to be an actor that’s constantly busy. Do you feel pretty comfortable where you are, or do you still have a fear that jobs will stop coming?
No, I’ve always had [that fear]. I always worry that there’s not going to be another thing. I mean, I always know that there will be, eventually, but I get nervous. That’s what this business is all about, unfortunately. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t get nervous about whether there’s going to be a next. I personally would love to find a television show to be on for a while, because I’ve got a nice home here and I’ve got three dogs. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where it’s just nice to have a little consistency and work from home and not travel around so much. This whole summer I worked on a lot of indie movies and was, you know, sharing bathrooms with actors. They’re just like summer camps, which was really fun, but I need to make some money and be at home for a little bit.

Allison Janney Wants a TV Show, People