Allison Janney on Overcoming Obstacles

The acclaimed actress talks about taking risks on Broadway and in her new movie.

By Patti Greco
Allison Janney onstage in "9 to 5: The Musical"
Photograph: Photo by: Joan Marcus

You said a while back, before 9 to 5, that you wanted to do a musical someday.
Yeah, it’s one of those things that I thought, well, gosh, it would be fun. It’s the one arena I had not tackled because I never really considered myself a singer. I grew up in a musical family, so I can sing; it’s just terrifying for me to sing in front of people. Now I can sing the 9 to 5 songs in front of people, but if you ask me for any other song, I’m like, No!  ? ?

What made you take the plunge??
Joe Mantello [the director] gave me the opportunity to do a workshop, to work on it for three weeks, so I got to get my feet wet and see what it felt like. If it hadn’t been for that—it was basically a fancy audition, we were just kind of trying it on for size—I don’t know that I would have done it. Because I had a lot to overcome in my brain.

Like what??
Like, you can’t sing! You can’t be in a musical! Who the hell are you? All those things that we tell ourselves for whatever reason. Oftentimes there are things we think we can’t do, but then when given the opportunity to, we’re like, OK, that doesn’t feel as bad as I thought it would, and you know what? I kinda like it!? ?

Did you discuss the role with Lily Tomlin, who originated it in the movie??

No, but I knew Lily from The West Wing and I adore her. I think it’s safe to say she really likes me too. So I felt very comfortable. I couldn’t be Lily, but I kinda get her—I like her sensibilities, and who she is as a woman, and I thought I would be honored to step into her shoes and do this. I didn’t feel like she would be too upset about it.

What about Dolly Parton—has she shared any pearls of wisdom with you??

Dolly’s just been very supportive of me because she knows how nervous I’ve been with the singing. She constantly told me, "You got it, don’t worry." That did wonders for me, since it’s her musical and it’s kind of intimidating to sing in front of Dolly Parton, who is one of the most talented songwriters on the planet. Her music is just beautiful.  ? ?

Let’s talk about Away We Go, in theaters June 5. You play a character who is obnoxious—a mother who says the most inappropriate things about and to her kids—but somehow you feel for her too. What do you think of her??
That character is larger than any I’ve ever portrayed in my life. Large, large, large. [Director] Sam Mendes [with whom she worked in American Beauty]—I would fall off a cliff for him because he’s such a great guy. He really knows how to talk to actors, and he just encouraged me to keep going. And I trust him. But I definitely do like to play crazy characters. I just hadn’t gone that far with something before, and he let us do a lot of whatever came up or came out.

What do you think draws you to “crazy” roles??
There must be some pathology there somewhere. I don’t know [laughs]. I think most actors like to play crazy people, but I like them because I like to find what I love about them. And what breaks my heart about them. I like to find the wound in people; that’s what makes them who they are.

Read more from Allison Janney—including her thoughts on her first nude scene—in MORE’s July/August issue, on sale June 30.

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