Guest of Honor

Allison Janney’s Show-Within-a-Show

The seven-time Emmy winner opens up about finding the levity in tragedy with "Mom"... and reveals her inner Notorious B.I.G.

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Photo Credit: Kate Romero

Allison Janney has earned accolades for her performances in just about every medium, including a couple of Tony nominations. But she’s probably best known as a TV star — especially as Press Secretary CJ Cregg on “The West Wing” — a role that won her four Emmys.

She’s won two more for her latest role on the sitcom “Mom,” on which she plays Bonnie, a recovering drug and alcohol addict living with her daughter — a single Mom who is also a recovering addict. Yes; it is a sitcom.

When Rico spoke to Allison, he asked about her first impressions of the show.

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Allison Janney: Well, one of the things that drew me to it was the material, and that the backdrop of it was people in recovery. But I had no idea how big a role that was going to play. I didn’t know how far into the recovery role they were going to go, and I don’t know if the writers knew either.

So as season one went on, and season two, it came more to the forefront of the story. So we have essentially two family stories going on: The blood family… Christy and Violet and Bonnie and…

Rico Gagliano: People who are all related in the show, yeah.

Allison Janney: The people who are related, that’s what I’m trying to say, I couldn’t think of the word. Jeepers! “Related!” [Laughs.] My mind.

And then we have the sober family. The relationships that they’ve… uh…

Rico Gagliano: Recovered alcoholics and addicts who have sort of made a surrogate family?

Allison Janney: Yes, exactly. You’re coming up with all the right words, thank you!

Rico Gagliano: That’s me being a host [laughs]. But moving on — so you’ve got these two families…

Allison Janney: Yeah, the related one [laughs] and the adopted one.

Rico Gagliano: You’re welcome.

Anna Faris (center) as Christy and Janney as Bonnie with Ellen Burstyn as Bonnie's mother, Shirley. (Photo Credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS)
Anna Faris (center) as Christy and Janney as Bonnie with Ellen Burstyn as Bonnie’s mother, Shirley. (Photo Credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS)

Allison Janney: No, they’re great, and the writers have not shied away from dealing with subject matter that you wouldn’t think would be on sitcoms.

Rico Gagliano: This is exactly what I wanted to ask you about: Is there not a danger — especially in a compressed half hour that does have to deliver punch lines — that you’re going to give short shrift to these very heavy issues? Is there ever a worry about that?

Allison Janney: There isn’t. We deliver great laughs. I think we earn them, and they are far more rewarding for the audience to have gone through what we go through and laugh.  The laughs mean more. God, if you can’t laugh going through tragic things… bad things happen to all of us, and there’s always room for humor to help survive them.

Rico Gagliano: The way these characters talk about addiction, and the situations they find themselves in, feel so specific. Some of them must be real. Do you have maybe former addicts consulting, or writing for the show?

Allison Janney: Yeah. We have a number of consultants who are in recovery. I am no stranger to having… there’s nobody in the world that doesn’t have someone in their life that’s affected by some sort of addiction, or in recovery, or alcoholism. I’ve gone to Al-Anon meetings. I’ve been to Open AA meetings. I’ve done…

Rico Gagliano: As a research for the role, or for yourself?

Allison Janney: Oh no, just for myself and issues in my own life that I’ve had to deal with. And I feel very proud to be doing a show that deals with it and destigmatizes it.

Rico Gagliano: I’d like to talk about another show I expect you’re pretty proud of, “The West Wing.” Created and written by Aaron Sorkin of course. He’s known for his very verbose, super-fast dialogue. Tell me about memorizing all of those words every week, and having to deliver them at top speed.

Allison Janney: I loved it. Because I have such a fear of speaking in public as myself. Even now as I… I was getting self-conscious, because I have to have these headphones on, and I’m hearing myself talk.

So I don’t… give me a 25-page monologue to memorize and I would be so happy, because I could get that down and then spit it out. I loved the fast pace. I always loved those Rosalind Russell movies of…

Rico Gagliano: Howard Hawks.

Allison Janney: …Fast talking dames, Howard Hawks’ movies. It’s just like [imitates Rosalind Russell voice], “Hey what’s the big idea, coming in here, leaving the door open!” And those kind of dames — I love those dames! And CJ, of all the characters I’ve played, I wish I were most like her because of how quick-witted she was. It was really fun to play a character that smart.

Rico Gagliano: But you’ve been in shows like that — a “single camera” show, as they say — an hour-long comedy-drama. You’ve been in major movies. You’ve acted on the stage. But I’ve sat in the audience of sitcoms and I’ve always thought to myself, “This is the strangest situation for an actor.”

Allison Janney: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: Because you’re basically inviting the audience into your creation process. The audience sits there while you do the scene over and over again, or while you take direction. Tell me about that from the point of view of an actor.

Allison Janney: It’s very much a three-ring circus. And I found it very hard and nerve wracking. I’m used to coming out on stage fully prepared, and you come out and show the finished product. And it took me a while. I didn’t like messing up and having the audience laugh. And they love it when you mess up! And it would make me nervous. But now I’ve embraced it, and see it’s part of the show. It’s just another show going on within the show.

Rico Gagliano: You treat that like a performance?

Allison Janney: Yeah, I do, sort of. After a take is over I’ll have a prop in my hand, and I’ll throw them the prop I was working with and say, “Somebody take this out of my hands! I don’t want to do that scene again!” And then, behind the set, when they don’t see me, that’s where I go, “Oh God. I’m exhausted.”

There’s a lot of different performances going on in front of a live audience that way.

Rico Gagliano: We have a couple of questions we ask everyone on the show. The first one is: If we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?

Allison Janney: Oh! Uh, uh… “How are you?!” [Laughs]

Rico Gagliano: Wow.

Allison Janney: [Laughing.] Don’t ask me how I am!!

Rico Gagliano: That’s pretty basic, Allison! What’s…

Allison Janney: Oh God, it’s such a weighted question, because I always feel the need to answer it honestly in all areas of my life. I just don’t ever… Why can’t I just say, “I’m fantastic!”

Rico Gagliano: You’re doing pretty well — you won a bunch of Emmys recently.

Allison Janney: I did, and that’s pretty fantastic, but I… yeah, don’t ask me any questions about politics.

Rico Gagliano: OK.

Allison Janney: Don’t ask me questions about politics.

Rico Gagliano: Oh yeah — you must get those all the time because of “The West Wing.”

Allison Janney: Oh my God! People think… “What do you think about the political…” or whatever. I’m constantly embarrassed during this time, especially.

Rico Gagliano: Election season?

Allison Janney: I can’t. I can’t watch the debates. They… the dialogue is just not what I want to hear, or not what’s important to me.

Rico Gagliano: If only Aaron Sorkin wrote the dialogue for the presidential candidates.

Allison Janney: Yes, oh my God!

Rico Gagliano: Here’s our second question, which is: Tell us something we don’t know.

Allison Janney: Well I don’t know, I think I’ve said this before, but I don’t know if everyone knows it. But I am a rap artist.

Rico Gagliano: Um… what?

Allison Janney: I’m lying! I’m just lying, I’m a liar, that’s all I do is lie…

Rico Gagliano: That’s what we didn’t know about Allison Janney…

Allison Janney: … That I’m a liar!

You know what? I love rap music though. I don’t know if too many people would know that about me.

Rico Gagliano: I don’t know that I would peg you as a rap lover.

Allison Janney: I either have my Pandora on “Hip Hop Road Trip” or BackSpin Sirius. That’s what’s on in my car.

Rico Gagliano: We will end this interview, invariably, by bringing up some music, what hip hop track should we be playing underneath you right now as we say goodbye?

Allison Janney: Oh my gosh! Oh, now you’re going to put me on the spot! Biggie, “Hypnotize.” Play that.

Rico Gagliano: OK.

Allison Janney: Hypnotize. Hypnotize.