When Allison Janney was promoting The Way, Way Back at Sundance, she told Vulture that she was hoping to do a TV show. Eleven months later, she’s starring on both a network sitcom and a cable drama. On Showtime’s fifties-set Masters of Sex, Janney plays Margaret Scully, an elegant provost’s wife whose world breaks open when she realizes that her sexless marriage is not the norm. Then, on the CBS comedy Mom, she’s Bonnie, a promiscuous, free-spirited alcoholic who’s trying to clean up her act and reconnect with her grown daughter (Anna Faris). The Showtime role has all the nude scenes and onscreen orgasms, but it’s the free-wheeling grandma on Mom who may actually be the sexiest woman Janney has ever played. Vulture caught up with the actress to talk about physical comedy, her Mom reunion with Octavia Spencer, her most heartbreaking Masters scenes, and the ghost of C.J.* Cregg.
So, you’re having a sexy year!
Hey, thank you! Sexy grandmother on Mom, and sexy sex scenes in Masters of Sex — who knew that you could turn 50 and suddenly have a sex career? [Laughs.] I love it.
Let’s start by talking about Mom. Your performance on the show involves a lot of physical comedy, which is different for you.
You know, I grew up doing plays; I did Noises Off two times. I did Feydeau farces. The Carol Burnett Show is my favorite show ever. I just love physical comedy, and I thank God my parents made me take ballet and modern dance. I love to do pratfalls. And I think that they’re taking advantage of that in a good way on Mom, and kind of letting me go crazy.
You’re really good at it! It’s like you flipped a switch and your limbs all went loose.
I’m kind of a loosey-goosey person. I mean, it’s kind of more like who I am in real life, too. I love to dance. I’d rather dance than talk any day!
Prior to the events in the show, Bonnie and her daughter were estranged. Their relationship had always been tough; what do you think was the final straw that made Christy cut Bonnie out of her life?
There was some major event that happened that split them up, and I’m not sure that we’re ever going to know what that was, but I know that I’m probably the one that owes the apology. And I try to, but Christy’s just going to keep making me pay for it, which I don’t like or appreciate. And I feel that she’s not looking at the good side of what I did for her. She has no idea of the sacrifices I did make, and what I did do, and how hard I am on myself. She pities herself a little too much. I’m like, Come on, pull your boot straps up and get on with your life. Let’s go! Christy keeps wallowing in the past, and Bonnie wants to move forward.
Okay, let’s talk about Masters of Sex. The scene in which Margaret takes the questionnaire about her sex life was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen on TV.
I loved that so much, and — well, I don’t know if my mother would like to hear this, but I did channel my mother in that scene. Just because she has such a grace about her, and a soft humor, and I can just imagine her back in that time, being asked those questions. And I love her so much, but it would be the most awkward thing in the world for her to try to answer those questions gracefully. Like when Margaret says, “Well, I’m a fast learner. I taught myself Italian.” God, the writers just handled it so beautifully. I’m telling you, this was some of the best writing and the best scenes that I’ve gotten to play, really, in my life. Such a beautiful emotional journey with this woman. And she’s not a victim; she’s a strong, strong woman.
She has a resilience and a strength about how she figures out what’s wrong with her marriage. She doesn’t fall apart, which is what you expect.
No, she doesn’t fall apart. She goes to that hotel and talks to that hooker to find out how to please her husband! Her perseverance in that is just heartbreaking. She had her first orgasm, this whole world just opened up to her she had no idea she was missing — and now she knows, and now she has to deal with it.
The scene you were talking about with the hooker, when Margaret first hears the words “your husband is queer” — she laughs. Where did that reaction come from?
I think it’s a mixture of nervousness and relief and shock, and then settling into, Oh my, now what? It just sort of dawns on her that this is true. I think it’s just the very beginning of her realization of what that means. It’s the last thing she ever would have thought, but it was right in front of her and she didn’t see it. So it was a nervous laughter, and awkwardness — not knowing how to deal with that news. I think she’s going to go away from that bar and probably sit in her car and stare, and then cry, and then laugh, and then cry some more. I can’t even imagine. And I hope that I will be able to come back to the show and see what happens for her. I don’t know if that will work out, but it would certainly be worth it. I think she’s a character worth exploring more; I think it would be nice to see how she bounces back, where she goes up, what she does. I’m going to have to corner Michael Sheen this Christmas and make him tell me that I’m coming back. I certainly would love to.
Before we go, I have to bring up C.J. Cregg, your iconic West Wing character. It’s been a few years; do you find that C.J. still seeps into your daily life?
[Sighs.] I wish she did. Unfortunately, I do not have the verbal acumen of C.J. Cregg. I cannot dress anyone down for their injustices. She was just a champion for everyone who didn’t have a voice. She was such a hero. And I wish there was more of me in her. I’m not as brave as C.J. I mean, in some ways, in television, people fall in love with you as one character. It’s kind of hard to have them accept you as other characters. I’m hoping that C.J. fans will embrace me as these other two women. And I’m not cheating on her! She’s always going to be there, and she’s always fabulous, and we’re not going to take anything away from her. Also, I feel I’m always a slight disappointment to people who think I am interested in talking about politics. [Laughs.] I couldn’t be less interested in talking about politics.
I was looking at your Esquire “What I’ve Learned” thing —
Oh God, what did I say?
You said you say “yes” too often. Which made me wonder what you say “no” to.
I say “no” to a lot of things. Mostly I say no to party invitations. [Laughs.] I loathe to go out, but I need to, because I’d like to fall in love and have that in my life. So I need to say “yes” more to going out.