Allison Janney is one of those rare actors who has had a successful career in film, on TV and Broadway.
Yet despite winning four prime-time Emmy Awards for her role as C.J. Cregg, press secretary turned chief of staff, on the NBC hit drama, “The West Wing” (1999–2006); an Emmy for her role on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”; and two consecutive Emmys (2014–15) for her current role on the CBS sitcom “Mom,” 58-year-old Janney had given up the dream of winning an Oscar.
In fact, she’d never been to the Academy Awards until March 4.
“A friend invited me to go, but I wanted to wait until I was nominated,” Janney told Jimmy Kimmel, though she doubted it would ever happen.
She said there hadn’t been any Oscar-worthy roles available to her until Steven Rogers, her friend since the 1980s, wrote the script for I, Tonya, about Tonya Harding, the Olympic figure skater who was disgraced and banned from the sport when an investigation revealed that her ex-husband and manager, Jeff Gillooly, hired someone to take a baton to the knee of Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan, a few days before the Olympic trials.
“Steve’s the reason I’m here at the Oscars,” said Janney, who brought him as her date. “He gives new meaning to the word friend. He wrote the script on spec and refused to sell it to anyone who wouldn’t let me be in it. I owe him a lot for believing in me. He created such a complicated, difficult role that I could disappear in.”
That’s one of the extraordinary things about Janney. Most beautiful women would be afraid to appear on the big screen looking physically unattractive, playing someone with no apparent redeeming qualities, but Janney embraced it all — sitting in a make-up chair three hours a day, chain smoking, wearing an ugly wig, a ratty fur coat, and an oxygen tube, with a parakeet perched on her shoulder much of the time.
“I felt empowered by that look,” Janney has said. “I wasn’t as horrified as I thought I’d be seeing what I looked like old. It made me confident in my choices as an actress. I didn’t care what anybody thought.”
Janney was terrified playing a real life person whom she only had a little bit of information about, and she worked hard to turn Tonya Harding’s brash and abusive mother into a three-dimensional character.
“I think she was a really angry, resentful woman. Nothing in her life worked out the way she wanted it to, and I think she felt she was owed something and was going to get it through her daughter,” said Janney. “It was challenging trying to show LaVona’s humanity and convey what must have been her own horrendous upbringing.”
It was Janney’s first Oscar nomination, and she had some stiff competition for best supporting actress going up against Lesley Manville for Phantom Thread, Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird, Mary J. Blige for Mudbound, and Octavia Spencer for The Shape of Water.
When her name was called, Janney took to the stage in an elegant red gown and smiled mischievously saying, “I did it all by myself,” which she then admitted was the furthest thing from the truth.
She succinctly thanked everyone, from her fellow nominees, to the cast and crew of I, Tonya, to her family, and, finally, her brother Hal, who committed suicide on Feb. 14, 2011, and who, she said, is always in her heart.
In 2016, Janney told CBS News she’d spent a lot of time trying to help Hal, who battled addiction and depression, and it was because of him that she accepted the role of Bonnie Plunkett, a recovering addict in “Mom,” now in its fifth season.
Surprisingly, the sitcom takes on real-life issues like alcoholism, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, rape, obesity, stroke, cancer, gambling and drug addition, overdosing, and homelessness; and Janney felt it was important to be part of a show that showed people in recovery and showed there is hope.
Janney exemplifies compassion and authenticity. She is a woman who is not afraid to be herself or portray a flawed individual.
I had the pleasure of interviewing her in 2011 when she played Emma Stone’s mother in the film The Help, which recounts the relationship between a young white woman (Stone) who is an aspiring journalist and two black maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) during the 1963 Civil Rights Movement in racially charged, Jackson, Mississippi.
When I asked what three words best described her, Janney said, “compassion, generous, and silly.” That is still true. Here, “Up Close and Personal” with Allison Janney offers an in-depth view of a very classy lady.