Allison Janney is the actorly equivalent of jumper cables. Whether kicking off Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret as the devastating victim of a bus accident, or firing off indelible zingers in her new comedy, The Oranges, the character actress has a special knack for spurring a film to life. With the precious idiosyncrasies of her sweatshirt-rocking stepmom, she enriched the offbeat domesticity of Juno, and in one of her many scene-stealing turns, she spiced up 10 Things I Hate About You as an erotica-obsessed guidance counselor. Ever since her Emmy-winning role on The West Wing got her on casting directors’ radar, Janney has been that rare actor who can have you howling over risqué transgressions while still presenting an openness that’s uniquely comforting. She’s the trusty friend who offers pearls of wisdom and then happily gets you drunk, and her straightforward earnestness has allowed for a growing mix of roles, in films as diverse as The Hours, Strangers with Candy, Hairspray, and Life During Wartime.
Janney can currently be seen in writer-director-star Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts, another movie given a boost by her trademark powers. Playing an aloof and discontented professor with cougar-ish tendencies, Janney uncorks her lusty side while keeping sharply composed, a cool balance and personal departure she faithfully nails. To discuss this role, and other roles past and future, Janney recently called in from the backyard of her home, which suffered a burst pipe just hours before the interview. One can’t help but make the connection between the incident and Janney’s on-screen work, a largely unabated flow of fine, standout performances. Putting aside her mini-household tragedy, the statuesque actress gushed about mock-bedding her director in front of his parents, sitting through a 10-hour shoot in a pool of blood, the many times she nearly quit the business, and how her can’t-come-soon-enough star vehicle could happen.
I’m sorry your basement got flooded. Here’s hoping for a speedy clean-up. Do you live in New York?
I live in L.A. Where are you right now?
I’m in Brooklyn.
Ah, okay. I haven’t lived in New York since 1999. That’s when I moved here, for The West Wing, which I didn’t think was going to lead to me living here, but it kept going, and I got kicked out of my apartment in New York because I wasn’t living there 364 days out of the year. So I’m in L.A. now. And I was never one of those New Yorkers who hated L.A. I’m fine wherever I am, as long as I’m working. I love my house, and I have my three dogs and a nice yard. It’s a little more manageable having three dogs outdoors here than it is in New York.
I’ll bet. So let’s jump in. Much of Liberal Arts deals with revisiting the thrill of college. Which college memories stand out most for you?
Well, I had a very specifically wonderful early college experience. As you probably already know, I went to Kenyon College, where the movie was shot, and Josh [Radnor] went there as well. In my freshman year, I got cast in a play that Paul Newman directed, because he had gone to Kenyon College too. So that was a pretty amazing, memorable time in my life—to be directed in a play by Paul Newman and be hanging out with him everyday. That was remarkable. I also lost my virginity at Kenyon College. That was a big moment too.
Yeah, it was my first boyfriend. But I can’t give you anymore details than that!
I’m assuming the Kenyon College connection attributed to your taking this role.
Absolutely. And I knew that Josh had based [my character] Janet Fairfield on a professor that we both shared. We both had very fond memories of this woman. She still teaches drama there, and she’s who I was trying to channel in the part. I just loved what an articulate mess she was.
Were you ever able to see her later, after you’d graduated, like Josh’s character does in the film?
Oh, no. And she isn’t like this character, she just talks like her. Every word is chosen very carefully. It was fun to try to think about her when I was playing it. [Josh’s and my] scene in bed, mind you, had nothing to do with that [laughs]. That was just a lot of fun to do. And, well, Josh’s parents were there watching that day [laughs]. I was a little intimidated—pretending to have sex with their son, and making strange sex noises, then apologizing. “Sorry Mr. and Mrs. Radnor!” But it’s fun. That’s why I love to act. She was really delicious to get to play.
Was there anything major that was cut?
Yes, well, the only sad thing for me was that I had a lovely couple of scenes with Richard Jenkins where you saw that our characters made a connection. And Richard’s one of my favorite actors on the planet, so I was sorry they had to cut that out. But I think Josh was afraid things were getting tied up too neatly and he wanted to leave some messes, which I totally understand.
Janet Fairfield is a romantics professor, and she quotes some great writers in the film. Who are some of your favorite writers?
Oh boy. Well, back in college, I really wasn’t much of a reader. I’m always such a bad student, I don’t even remember who we were reading. Right now, I’m reading Patti Smith’s biography. And I read The Marriage Plot [by Jeffrey Eugenides]. Just finished that. I enjoy reading now so much more than when I was in college. Back then, I was more interested in doing the plays and having fun and socializing.
I actually just finished The Marriage Plot too.
I loved that book, especially since it’s set right around the time when I was in college. I kind of hope they make a movie of it.
They are making a movie of it. You should go after a role in it!
I know. Oh, god. That, and [Elizabeth Strout’s] Olive Kitteridge. I read that a couple of years ago when it came out. Both books had a profound effect on me.
What sort of attributes make something an Allison Janney role? Are there certain things in a script that allow you to say, “Yeah, I can do that”?
I don’t like to play characters that are straight-on, or too honest, or too serious. I like to play a character that’s incredibly flawed, and complicated, and maybe has a little tragic unhappiness underneath, mixed with competitiveness and drive. And the more complicated and the more fucked up, the better. There always has to be a sense of humor, where you can see the humor in the tragedy. I like being funny, but not trying to be funny. I like characters who have some need that just ends up being funny. That’s the kind of thing that I love to get into—just the most bizarre characters that are grounded in absolute reality. I’m trying to find a television show to be in, and people want me to develop [something], but I really don’t know how to write. I don’t know how to do that. I just know that when I read something, I can have an immediate reaction—“I can do this, I want to do this, it scares me, I want to try it.”
Is it more fun to be icy and stern, like your character in Liberal Arts, or to be more ebullient, like you’ve been in the past?
I like to mix it up. It was sort of hard to play [Janet], because, yeah, I do find it easier to be more ebullient, and scattered and all over the place, and she had to be more centered in all of her…business. It was a little challenging because I do like to move my arms a bit [laughs], and I had to be very still. I should probably do that more often.