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Allison Janney On Sex, Sorkin And Being The Tallest Woman In The Room


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's continue our series of Emmy nominees with Allison Janney. She's nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her performance on the CBS sitcom "Mom." She's already won two Emmys for "Mom." One was in 2014, the same year she won for her performance in "Masters Of Sex." She won four Emmys for her performance on "The West Wing" as White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg. This year, she won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance in "I, Tonya."

I spoke with her in 2014, and we started with a clip from the first season of "Mom." Janney plays Bonnie. When the series begins, Bonnie is a single mother who's done a lot of drinking, partying and sleeping around, but she'd recently gotten sober and was trying to improve her relationship with her adult daughter, who's had her own alcohol and drug problems. In the scene, Bonnie is calling her daughter in the middle of the night with some surprising news.


ANNA FARIS: (As Christy) Hello.

ALLISON JANNEY: (As Bonnie) Are you awake?

FARIS: (As Christy) At 2:30 in the morning - you betcha.


JANNEY: (As Bonnie) I think I'm pregnant.


FARIS: (As Christy) Oh, God. Can I not be awake? How is that even possible?

JANNEY: (As Bonnie) What kind of question is that? I happen to be in the bloom of my life.


FARIS: (As Christy) Half the men in Napa Valley have been in the bloom of your life.


JANNEY: (As Bonnie) What?

FARIS: (As Christy) Nothing. Did you take a test?

JANNEY: (As Bonnie) I don't need to. I've got all the signs. I missed my period. I'm moody. My nipples are incredibly angry. Trust me; there's fruit in these loins.


GROSS: So as we heard in that clip, there's a lot of laughter in the series. And in the scene that we heard, there was, like, laughter after every single line.

JANNEY: I know.

GROSS: And is that all laughter from the audience. Is there a laugh track, too? Is the laughter sweetened?

JANNEY: Well, I know. Some people - it's amazing, but they're really - the live audience is there, and they were - they are laughing after every single line. And it's - and you have to hold like you do on the stage in live theater. You have told for the laugh. And then when we don't get a laugh on a line that - usually after the take, it'll be a big pause, and the writers will be furiously thinking of new lines. And they come up with floor pitches - is what they call them. And then they come in with notepads and tell us, now say this this time. Now say this this time.

And they do the take again. If the audience laughs, we move on. If they don't, they keep writing. It's kind of a crazy night - tape night with the audience there. But those are all real laughs. And as to whether or not they use a mix of laughs with other laughter, I don't really know. But I know that I'm there, and hear the audience laughing with us, so...

GROSS: In the series "Mom," your character goes to twelve-step meetings because she's a recovering alcoholic and is only recently sober. I know that your younger brother committed suicide, and I believe he had been - that he had had a drinking problem. And so I'm wondering what it's like for you to treat alcoholism in the kind of lighthearted way that the series does after seeing, you know, how deadly it can actually be.

JANNEY: Yeah, definitely was - the loss of my brother was a huge moment - life-changer for me. And I spent a long time trying to help him get sober. I sent him to countless rehabs. I tried to be there to help him. And when I lost him I - you know, this show came - "Mom" came along two years after, and I just - I thought this is good. I want to do - I feel like I am qualified to be in this world. And I've gone to many Al-Anon meetings, many open AA meetings. I've been to rehab places with my brother. I just know that world. I've had to go through it a lot. And I felt like I wanted to be a part, and I didn't feel that there was anything - anyone was making fun of this process at all. I thought it was time to show a family struggling with this because it just seems like these days everybody is struggling with being - you know, recovering from something. And I wanted to be part of that. I want to show what that's like.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Janney. So I think a lot of people first got to know you as C.J., the press secretary, on "the West Wing."


GROSS: Let's hear a scene from that. And this is a scene - President Bartlet had MS, but he was not telling people about it.

JANNEY: Right.

GROSS: And in this scene, Oliver Platt, who plays the White House counsel, has learned that the president has MS and has been keeping it from the public. And he's trying to figure out who on the White House staff new and has been helping in the cover-up and who didn't. So here he is questioning you about whether you participated in covering up that information.



OLIVER PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Have you ever lied about the president's health?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Should I have my lawyer here?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I'm your lawyer.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) You're the president's lawyer.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I'm the White House counsel, C.J. Have you ever lied about the president's health?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) When did he tell you?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I'm sorry.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) When did the president tell you?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Six days ago.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) And Josh?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Two days after that.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Toby?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Two days before he told me. C.J., have you ever lied about the president's health?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) And Leo he told more than a year ago.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Yeah.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) And I've had this for about six hours now. So maybe giving me some room wouldn't totally be out of line. You know what I'm saying, Oliver?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) C.J., I'm going to have to ask you some questions. The less you can be pissed at the world for no particular reason, the better I think.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) I don't know you.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I'm sorry?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) I was told to report to you. I don't know you. You've been here, what?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Three months.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Three months.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Yeah.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) So why should I trust you?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Well, I don't care if you trust me or not.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Imagine my shock.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I've got better things to do with my imagination.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) I think this is going really well so far, Oliver. It's almost hard to believe that four different women have sued you for divorce.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Well, you can do that if you want, C.J. I've been through it a couple times with Josh and Toby, but sooner or later you're going to have to answer questions.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Either to you or...

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) A grand jury.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Compelled by...

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) A Justice Department subpoena.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Well, I have to tell you it'll be the first time I've been asked out in quite a while, so...

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) It's entirely possible that the president has committed multiple counts of a federal crime to which you were an accomplice.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) That much has sunk in in the last six hours.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Has it?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Yes.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) So why don't you knock off the cutie pie crap and answer the damn question?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) What was the question?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Have you ever lied about the president's health? What is your answer?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Many, many times.

Oh, C.J.'s in trouble.


GROSS: That's my guest Allison Janney with Oliver Platt in a scene from "The West Wing." So I always wonder when you do that kind of snappy retort type of Aaron Sorkin dialogue, does it improve your ability to have witty retorts in real life and to have razor-sharp dialogue when you're speaking extemporaneously?

JANNEY: Oh, Terry, Terry, would that that were true.


JANNEY: But no, I can't - I don't have that. I don't have that razor wit that C.J. had. Politics scared the crap out of me because I did not grow up in a family where we talked about anything really but, you know, pass the peas, and do this. I had no idea what I was talking about half the time. And I have to - you know, I would study my lines and read, like, going, what the hell am I talking about?

I learned a great deal doing that show, and I loved it. But I felt just really fish out of water when we'd go to Washington and be - you know, go out to dinner. I'd meet, you know, all of the former press secretaries. And, you know, to be sitting around with Dee Dee Myers and Joe Lockhart and talking, I just would - I would get so nervous. I wouldn't know what to ask them. So I felt a real pretender to the throne.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2014 interview with Allison Janney, who's nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the CBS sitcom "Mom." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our Emmy series and my interview with Allison Janney. She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the sitcom "Mom." Last year, she won an Oscar for her performance in "I, Tonya," as Tonya Harding's mother. When I spoke with Janney in 2014, I had no idea she'd have a role in a movie about a figure skater.


GROSS: So when you were young, when you were a teenager, I think you didn't want to be an actor; you're thinking more about being a figure skater.

JANNEY: Yes, yes.

GROSS: But then you had a really bad accident and injured your leg.


GROSS: What happened?

JANNEY: I was 17, and I was at a party that my friends and my parents were throwing. It was an outdoor party, and there were these sliding doors - some of them open, some of them closed - right by the band. And I just - I hit one of the windows, and it was - and sort of the lower part of my body, my right leg, went through. And then the glass kind of guillotined my right leg. And I was so embarrassed that I'd hit the glass. I didn't know that it happened. I turned to the band, who had stopped playing. And I was like, play; just keep playing. Keep playing. Keep playing. I was so embarrassed. And then I turned around and looked at everyone just, like, staring at me and I was like, uh-oh.

It was like a Fellini movie with all of these people's faces popping in over my head and looking at me with, you know, cigarettes. And my older brother came in to, you know - someone was trying to put tourniquet around my leg, and he shoved them aside and put my - held my leg up over my heart to keep the - you know, so I could keep my leg. I mean, I may be going into too much detail.

GROSS: Was your leg almost - was it at risk of amputation?

JANNEY: Yeah. I mean, I lost - well, first of all, I lost, like, three-quarters of my blood. I lost an artery and cut tendon. And it was - I was in the hospital for, like, seven, eight weeks. I missed my first year of college. I - you know, and after that of course I didn't really - I didn't skate for a very long time. It changed a lot of things about my life and sort of made me a little more fearful I think, unfortunately - just afraid of mortality and losing things, you know - things happening, you know?

GROSS: How did that figure, if it all, into your decision to act?

JANNEY: Well, it definitely took out the possibility of being a skater. And I wasn't that good anyway. I was graceful, but I'm too big. I couldn't - it was - that's such an athletic sport, and I was very graceful. And I could have been an ice dancer maybe. But that went away, you know, and then I had to take a year off 'cause I did recover and had all these skin grafts and things I had to go through. And then I went to Kenyon College, which is where I hooked up with, you know, my freshman year - Paul Newman, who went to Kenyon, came to direct the brand new theater they had built there. And he came to christen it by directing the first play, and I managed to get in that, and then that sort of started the acting ball rolling.

GROSS: How tall are you?

JANNEY: I am, you know - I say 5'12", ha-ha.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JANNEY: I am - I'm definitely 6 feet. And in my heels, I'm 6'3", yeah.

GROSS: Now, how did that affect you as a teenager? And how did it affect you as a young actress when you were getting started?

JANNEY: Well, it was - you know, I was always - I went to a school with, like, you know - first through twelfth grade's under 300 kids. It's a school called Miami Valley School in Dayton, Ohio. And I was just, you know, so tall. It wasn't until I went to college, to Kenyon college that I started having my first date. So I was sort of a late bloomer in a lot of things, and I always felt that way.

And I felt like my career started late, and I think it was because of my height and maybe some of my confidence issues. But I, you know, was playing 40-year-old women when I was 20, when I was - you know, and I just - I didn't get considered for ingenue roles, or I just wasn't - I don't know. Maybe I just wasn't ready, or things started happening when I was - I think when I turned 38. I started to have a career. So, you know, I think my height probably did have something to do with it. But it's also helped me in certain parts. I think I've - it's made me definitely more of a character actress in terms of my love of doing comedy or being - you know, I get cast as either the smartest woman in the room or the drunkest woman in the room.


JANNEY: Those are the two - a lot of stuff in between, but I do do well in getting those kind of parts - authoritative or completely crazy, which I love. I love doing - I love both of those kinds of roles.

GROSS: Allison Janney recorded in 2014, the year she won an Emmy for her performance in the CBS sitcom "Mom." She's nominated again for her performance in "Mom." Tomorrow we'll continue our series of interviews with Emmy nominees and hear from Stephen Colbert, Jake Tapper and W. Kamau Bell. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.