Allison Janney’s Sunshine State
It has been five years since Allison Janney left the White House. Five long years in which fans of Janney’s C.J Cregg—The West Wing character for which she is best known—have waited for her to return to network television. Well—change is upon us, the time is now. Say hello to Mr. Sunshine.
Co-starring alongside executive producer Matthew Perry, Janney will be on ABC in the plum post-Modern Family timeslot, with one Friend replacing another as the unfortunately titled Cougar Town takes a mid-season breather until April 13th. In a comedy that shows a lot of potential, it is Janney whose star shines brightest. Janney has excelled as an ensemble player, and she does no less here as Crystal Cohen, the deranged, prescription-drug-addled owner of sports arena The Sunshine Center. But the actress, who has kept busy with film roles and a run in a Broadway musical, also has aspirations to break away from the pack. We talked with Janney about this dream of hers, the wild antics she gets into on her new show—including the time she surprised Matthew Perry with a slap to the face—her feelings on former boss Aaron Sorkin and the 2011 Oscar season, and much more.
SAM BELLIKOFF: Do you want to tell me a little bit about your character, Crystal, on Mr. Sunshine?
ALLISON JANNEY: The wonderful thing about Crystal is that she doesn’t have any boundaries. She’s not aware socially of what’s correct and incorrect. It provides wonderful comedy for Matthew [Perry], because Matthew’s so great when he’s reacting to what people do around him. He’s just a genius at that. We have great chemistry together, with my craziness and his great straight-man abilities. It’s pretty wonderful. Crystal’s probably the craziest character I’ve ever had to do and the furthest I’ve gone, with the only exception being Away We Go—I was pretty big in that.
BELLIKOFF: Oh, I love you in that movie.
JANNEY: Yeah, that character was kind of huge too and inappropriate in ways that Crystal is, but she’s a little more refined. My character in Away We Go was more trailer trash. Crystal’s a higher-class, dysfunctional woman.
BELLIKOFF: I see the Allison Janney trademark—obviously with drama, but even more so with comedy—as you playing the reality of the situation. Crystal is crazy and over the top, but you play her almost with a straight face.
JANNEY: Yeah, I think one of my big skills is making unlikable characters likable or real in some way. No matter how hateful people are, there’s always something vulnerable about them, or something that you can understand or relate to. I think that’s my job as an actress—to find those. It’s a challenge for me to make people like me. Maybe it’s just my desperate need for people to like me, [laughs] that I choose the characters I have to play. You will like me, I don’t care what I’ve done, you’re going to like me.
BELLIKOFF: What’s the most outrageous thing you got to do or say as Crystal?
JANNEY: For me, not so much for Crystal, but for Allison Janney, to have to sing with James Taylor. Five days’ notice that I was going to have to perform a duet with James Taylor was probably the most jaw-dropping moment of my life. [laughs] Are you kidding me? I hadn’t sung since I stepped off the 9 to 5 stage almost a year before that. If I could’ve said no, I would’ve ran and hid in a corner. But I was under contract, had to do it, and I just had to put my head down and meet the challenge. That was one of the best times I had, getting to do that scene with him.
BELLIKOFF: What would you say that you have in common with your character Crystal?
JANNEY: I think Crystal’s the exact opposite of me. Whereas Crystal doesn’t care what people think of her and says whatever she wants and has no insecurities, really, about how great she looks or whatever, I’m pretty much the exact opposite. It’s fun to get to play a character like that—someone I kind of wish I were. They knew that I used to be an ice skater, they knew that I was in a Broadway musical. There is a stripper pole in my back office, and they knew I had taken stripping-pole lessons. They’ll probably make Crystal get on that pole at some point. I think they do like to take whatever skills you do have and abuse them. That skill thing at the bottom of your resume, they take you to the task on that. If you’re lying, they’re going to find out.
BELLIKOFF: Do you get to improvise a lot on set?
JANNEY: I usually do that at the end of every scene. Matthew likes that I’m inventive that way—every take, I’ll do something different. I’m usually not as comfortable improvising with the script, because I’m not a good writer. I also came from The West Wing, where you weren’t allowed to improvise. I don’t think of myself as a great improviser, but I do like to come up with things in the moment, physical things. Unfortunately for Matthew, one scene, I decided I was just going to slap his character in the middle of a scene. He was so floored that I did that. He couldn’t even continue with the scene. He was like, “Why did you… What just happened! Why did you slap me?” I was like, “I don’t know, I just felt like I should.” And so we started the scene again and we had to stop because he was so afraid. Now we have a running joke in the series that Crystal, when she’s emotionally not sure of herself or when she’s excited, she just slaps him. So it’s kind of a fun thing we’ve created.
BELLIKOFF: Do you ever feel like she’s going over the line of taste?
JANNEY: I don’t. Of course there have been moments, when I had to throw a child, for example. There are some things I’ve wondered about, and then when I see them in the playback and I saw how much fun the kid was having, when I was throwing him, I just got into it. I trust other people to tell me if it’s too far or tasteless, because there’s not too much that I won’t do. I like to push the limits. Obviously, that’s more dangerous and more fun for everybody.
BELLIKOFF: You mentioned throwing a child… it happens in the pilot because your character is terrified of clowns. Do you have any similar fears?
JANNEY: With John Wayne Gacy—the serial killer who dressed up as a clown—there’s just something about clowns I don’t trust. I don’t think they’re particularly funny. They’re a little spooky. Not my sense of humor, I don’t laugh at clowns. I rather don’t trust them. I don’t have quite the acute fear that Crystal has of them. It’s pretty funny to have to use a child to shield yourself from a clown. [laughs]
BELLIKOFF: Tommy Schlamme is an executive producer of this show. Does it feel like a West Wing reunion on set?
JANNEY: No, it’s different, but I love Tommy Schlamme so much. He’s one of my favorite people and directors. Matthew went to Tommy to ask him to help do the pilot, and Matthew said, “I really would like someone like Allison Janney to play Crystal.” So Tommy said, “Why don’t we just get Allison Janney?” I read the first line that Crystal had to say—”Have you seen a small white pill with Spanish written on it?”—and I thought, “Oh, I love this.” I was just looking for something fun to do. I love Matthew and I love Tommy. It’s sort of a no-brainer for me.
BELLIKOFF: Speaking of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin is nominated for an Oscar for The Social Network. I assume you’ve seen it…
JANNEY: I just wish that I had a part in everything he wrote. Sometimes I wish I was a member of an acting troupe where we all just kept working together, the same people. I can’t, unfortunately, be in everything he writes. I’m excited for him, but I’m jealous that I wasn’t a part of it. I’m so happy for him. He’s so deserving of it and more. He’s one of the best writers we have in America.
BELLIKOFF: There’s kind of a troupe though. With Tommy Schlamme on this and that, and then Matthew Perry on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip… you’ve all worked together in some form.
JANNEY: He uses a lot of the same people again and again—the people he likes. I think if there’s ever a part for me, he would consider me for it. I hope so. Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, other times it helps you. It’s just amazing to work with his scripts. There’s never any fat in them. It’s all perfect, and there’s such a rhythm to it. The musicality of his writing—it’s so specific and unique to him, and such a joy to play as an actor, because there’s no sentimentality.
BELLIKOFF: You won four Emmys for The West Wing. It was obviously a very strong role. What do you think of the criticism Aaron Sorkin received for not writing strong female roles in The Social Network?
JANNEY: I think it was a subject matter that didn’t involve a lot of women. That’s all I think it is. He wrote me one of the best female roles on television, I think. He’s a wonderful writer for all people. If he chooses to write, hopefully he’ll write something that involves more women next time, because I would love to do it.
BELLIKOFF: Was there ever a role that you passed up that you regretted?
JANNEY: I got offered that role in Transamerica that Felicity Huffman did. That was a part that I was like, “Well, maybe I should’ve done that.” I’m at peace with it, but that is one thing that I did turn down that went on to do great things for her. I wonder what would’ve happened if I would’ve done that.
BELLIKOFF: That would’ve been a lead role. It seems like a lot of what you do is ensemble work. Is that something that’s just happened?
JANNEY: I do like ensemble work. I would like to do a lead role, though. I didn’t shy away from that because it was a lead role. I actually wasn’t a fan of the script, to tell you the truth. I thought the part was interesting, but I didn’t like the script. I’m desperately looking for a lead role to do in a film, an independent film, and it just hasn’t come my way yet. I’m desperately looking for that role that will put me in a lead category. Or a television series…
BELLIKOFF: The Allison Janney show!
JANNEY: Yes. I want that. Really badly. It’s just that I can’t write it. I’m kind of at the mercy of writers out there. I need a writer out there who wants to write a vehicle for me. Do it and get it to me immediately. [laughs] I do want to be a lead. I want to play a lead role in a movie.
BELLIKOFF: I wanted to talk to you about your role on Lost, in the third-to-last episode.
JANNEY: That was very daunting to go and do that. To step into a series that hugely successful, and I didn’t know what my part was going to be. I said I would do it before they had written the script, and then I saw it. I was like, “Holy shit! This is huge. This is too much.” I was so afraid people were just going to hate this episode, because I was not one of their regular characters. That close to the end of the series, everybody wants to know what happens to the characters they’ve fallen in love with, not get to know me, a new character. But I think that the episode answered a lot of questions. I didn’t even know what I was doing, frankly. I didn’t understand the reasons why I was there—the mysteries of the island. I just instead made my own little reality, made it as simple as possible. I figured I was a crazy woman, just a little screw loose. I don’t know how I got on that island. No one could tell me how I got there either, so I just assumed I got there on a shipwreck, and I went a little nutty.
BELLIKOFF: Were you a fan of the series?
JANNEY: No, I never watched it. I just thought it would be fun to be part of something that was such a big part of pop culture. But I thought I was going to be acting with more of the other people. I didn’t know that I was going to be on my own on the island, doing this whole other storyline.
BELLIKOFF: That episode… it was the Allison Janney show!
JANNEY: I know! It was hard. It was very hard to act outdoors. I don’t think I’m an outdoor actress.
BELLIKOFF: Going back a bit, your role in American Beauty… She really haunted me. How did you get into that role?
JANNEY: I decided, obviously, this woman was on a lot of antidepressants and probably the wrong dosage of medication—her brain kind of shut down. She was numb, numb to everything. I would just go and fantasize about the ocean or something beautiful in my mind. That would just make me be able to sit there and be quiet.
JANNEY: There used to be a whole other storyline. The movie went on. There was a courtroom scene where my son is convicted of killing Kevin Spacey’s character. I find the bloody T-shirt and realize my husband did it. I get up the courage to take the shirt and send it to the police as evidence. I go out of the house for the first time. There was all this stuff I had to do that became quite truncated, because they slimmed down the movie. I understand the movie is brilliant without all that stuff, but for me, personally, it was hard to see all that go.
BELLIKOFF : Annette Bening is nominated for an Oscar this year. People are saying that this is overdue, that they thought she was going to win for American Beauty.
JANNEY: She should’ve won it for American Beauty. I mean, I know Hilary Swank was there, she was so great too… Annette deserves one. She better win. I think she should win this year. I voted for her. I’m an Academy voter, and I voted for her.