Allison Janney on Mr. Sunshine, Matthew Perry's Helpful Insults, and Missing Aaron Sorkin
Allison Janney returns to primetime Feb. 9 on the ABC comedy Mr. Sunshine, playing Matthew Perry's unpredictable boss. The four-time Emmy champ will exercise the comic chops she brought to Juno and Hairspray, dotting her punchlines with classic C.J. Cregg smarts. We caught up with Janney at the TCA press tour in Pasadena and discussed Mr. Perry's candid commentary, her love-hate relationship with auditions, and her response to West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin's dialogue in The Social Network.
Are you aware there was once a category on Jeopardy! called "Allison Janney Was in That?"
Are you serious?
Oh yeah. The implication was that you've been in plenty of strange bit parts over the years. Do you feel like you've been in everything?
Well, I do feel like I've been in a little bit of this and that, like I pop up in movies. Definitely when I first started out, I would just get little parts in movies here and there. "Oh my God, you were in that?" I guess I could say that about my career. I just never knew that everyone else would know -- or that I'd be big enough to be a Jeopardy! category.
Do you have a favorite of those small parts?
Yeah. It was just on the other night -- Big Night. It was one of the first that I'd gotten to do. I'd done a play with Stanley Tucci, and he cast me in that part. He gave it to me. There were two parts that I got from doing plays, which I loved because I didn't have to audition. Stanley gave me that part, and then I did one of Alan Ball's plays called Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. Then he offered me the part of the mother in American Beauty. That was amazing. So those movies were great to be a part of. Mike Nichols also put me in a movie from seeing me in a play -- a very small part in that movie Wolf? I have just one little thing at the end of a long tracking shot that I had to say to, I think, Christopher Plummer. So I just kept little things like that.
Must've been nice to get Mike Nichols' approval -- most important theater director of the past 50 years, maybe?
I'll say. He wrote me a beautiful letter, which I have framed in my bathroom because that's where we put things like that. People see them there, and it seems like you don't really care that much. I'd done a Nicky Silver play and he wrote me a lovely letter. I cherish that.
Looks like on Mr. Sunshine you'll be exercising your ensemble chops. I think of you as a part of many excellent ensembles. Do these types of productions end up feeling similar? Or would you say they each stand out?
Yes. And I have to say, maybe this is from my theater training, but I like being an ensemble actor. I think acting is a team sport. I like being with people -- and it's what I love about Matthew [Perry] and this show -- he's the star, it's his show, but he wants everyone to shine. Everyone is so uniquely different, but the thing that's different about this than The West Wing is its a comedy, so everyone brings his or her own comic timing to the table. On West Wing, it was a lot of policy and memorization and talking, knowing your lines. It was a lot of intense dialogue. This is more of an improv-y, childish, silly thing. It's the opposite, but everyone works really well together. We all push each other to be funnier and go further, but we tell each when we've gone too far. I like being with people who do that, who tell you you've gone too far. Matthew once said, "As your friend and director, don't do that with your face. You look really ugly." But I love that! It's like when someone says, "You've got a chunk of chive in your teeth." I like those people. I like the people who don't let you go on and make a fool of yourself.
So you don't like auditioning?
I don't feel I'm very good at it.
That surprises me. You strike me as a "hard sell" type of actor.
No, I'm not. I get nervous. And yet, I'd rather audition than get cast in a part where someone doesn't really know my work, but they're casting me because my agent got them to cast me. I don't want to walk on the set the first day that way, and feel like -- that'd make me feel nervous. I want to be there because the director knows my work and wants me for the part, and not because my agents wouldn't let me audition because -- you know, when you're at a certain level, your agents don't want you audition. They want you to get offered parts. Unless you really know you're working with, sometimes it's better to get to know them by auditioning.
Can a production be disorienting if you don't feel like you've properly earned the role?
If I haven't auditioned, I feel like I'm auditioning all throughout the process of doing a movie. Whereas if you've auditioned and gotten the part, then you feel like you can do your work. And yet I'm a hypocrite, because I'd rather get offered a part than not. [Laughs.] I'm very complicated! Certain people can get offered a part and not worry about it, but if I haven't worked with them before, I'd rather audition.
What's been your most comfortable moviemaking experience?
Well, I think the one I just did in Mississippi, The Help -- by dear friend Tate Taylor directed it. I've been in every single movie he's ever done. We have a real easy relationship with each other. I love that when someone just leaves you alone. I hate it when directors fish. They don't know what they want, so they keep poking at you to do something different. I like when either they leave you alone or they say something that sparks a creative thought in you. But I hate the poking.
All the sudden it's like you don't know how to walk.
I take it you've seen The Social Network. Did the dialogue take you back to your West Wing days?
Oh, it did. There were so many favorite lines in there. One of them was that scene with Justin Timberlake where he says he's an entrepreneur, and the girl says, "What have you preneured lately?" That's so Aaron. It's so smart and clever. It was a treat for me to listen to his dialogue. There's almost nobody better than Aaron Sorkin. I just know how good he is at riding that line between not being too sentimental -- not being overly sentimental, but hitting it right on the mark. He's just a genius.
Finally: How will you surprise us in Mr. Sunshine? Can you give us some Allison Janney sizzle?
Yeah, I'll tell you: I figure skate. I sing with James Taylor. I slap Matthew Perry. And those are three things?
You've done well.
Have I? Thank you.