Allison Janney on The Help, Her Mentor Paul Newman and Overindulging in Eggnog This Holiday Season
After approximately eighty roles in television and film, four Emmy awards, two Tony nominations and countless Kaiser Permanente ads, the inimitable Allison Janney has certainly earned her place among Hollywood's best character actresses. In her most recent film, the Civil Rights-era comedy-drama The Help -- Tate Taylor's adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel -- the Ohio-bred thesp channeled her own mother to play the worrisome mama bear to Emma Stone's boundary-pushing protagonist. In lesser hands, Charlotte Phelan could have been a thin character -- a Southern woman more concerned with her daughter's marital prospects than her happiness -- but Janney summoned fear, humor and subtlety for a fully-fleshed and fully-flawed character who earns her personal growth.
In celebration of The Help's home-video release this week, the quadruple Emmy winner phoned Movieline to reminisce on her character's cure for lesbianism, her one television role that changed lives and the time Paul Newman cast her in college -- all while suffering a bit of a holiday-season hangover.
You've been in so many films and television shows; do you ever just turn on the television and flip through five consecutive channels that are airing Allison Janney projects?
No! I've never had that happen. I have seen that American Beauty or one of my movies is on but I've never seen them coincidentally on at the same time. That would be amazing.
Do you stop and watch?
No, I usually don't, I have to tell you. I'm one of those actors who doesn't like looking at themselves. Years after I can. I can look at Drop Dead Gorgeous now and say, "Oh my God! I know I was playing trailer trash but I didn't look so bad." I can look at American Beauty. I just need some time to transpire. That being said, if I do watch, it won't be to watch myself. It'll be to have all of those memories come back and to remember what it was like filming. That's what lingers.
The Help was based on a book, but did you base your character on anyone you know in real life?
I think most of my characters have my mother's sensibility in there. She's someone who always inspires me and informs my characters because I think she is heartbreakingly funny. She doesn't try to be funny but her commitment to the things she thinks are important sometimes [are funny]. When Charlotte tells [Emma Stone's character] Skeeter that there is a root tea that could cure her if she is a lesbian. Those moments are just very fun for me to play. I love playing the tragically uninformed and stuck-in-their-ways types. I also related to Charlotte in that I have too much fear in my life. I'm afraid of change. That's how I really got into her character -- because I knew what it's like to not want anything to change. That's all life is though is change. I just want to hold onto things too tightly and I think that Charlotte would too.
I was so grateful to Tate for giving her some redemption at the end since that wasn't in the book. It was wonderful to get two moments -- the one when I dress down [Bryce Dallas Howard's character] Hilly and throw her off of the porch and the moment where she finally sees her daughter for who she really is and not for who she wants her to be. That was a great moment to get to play. She was a really rewarding character to play because I got to do a 180 and completely change. She was an amazingly complicated character to get to play.
What's your history with Tate?
This movie was kind of like a family business. Tate and I have known each other since 1988. Octavia [Spencer] as well, and of course [author] Kathryn [Stockett] and Tate grew up together in Jackson. We knew Kathryn through Tate. Brunson Green, who is one of the producers is a dear friend of ours too. We're all really good friends. We made a lot of really low-budget movies on weekends or whenever we got together, so for this to happen is just an unlikely Hollywood story. It's very satisfying -- the loyalty and friendship, which were some themes in the movie too.
I'm glad you were able to film in Mississippi and not Los Angeles as Mississippi.
That was so important. That informed the acting and the characters. Being down there just felt more authentic in your role. To be in these houses and these great locations -- people opened up their homes and we were filming in these big, old houses with beautiful wrap around porches. It really was 114 degrees and you've got corsets on. I feel like now, if I ever have to do a show on Broadway that is set in the South, I will know what that is. It just really gives you a good foundation. It feels like you're in a different country down there, I swear. Knowing the history of what happened down there -- it's just a shameful part of our history. To be down there -- I don't know what I'm trying to say. I'm sorry, I'm so hungover. [Laughs]
What did you do last night?
I went to a tree-trimming party and I think I ended up trimming myself a little bit. Sorry! What were you asking?
Let's change direction: As an actor, are you able to use your acting abilities in real-life situations? Are you a convincing liar or able to dial in a dramatic performance with a customer service rep to get your way?
You know what, I'm terrible without a script in front of me. I can't. I wish! That's why I'm an actor though because I love having everything written out for me and I can just say it. Even just talking to you now, it's frustrating because I can't ever finish a sentence or finish a thought. It's very frustrating. I wish. My friends though -- they would tell you that I can be overly dramatic, especially after a couple of egg nogs. [Laughs]
You starred in the last Diabo Cody-Jason Reitman collaboration. Have you seen Young Adult yet?
I have not, and I can't wait to see it. I know it's going to be amazing. I wish I could have been in it, but I can't wait to see it. They were both so wonderful to work it. I can't wait to see The Descendants too. There are a lot of good movies this year! The Artist, I want to see that. What else?
I'm excited for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
That's right! When does Mission Impossible come out?
I think next Friday in IMAX.
Oh, it's going to be in IMAX? That's going to be fantastic. I will wait in line to see that.
It's amazing that in spite of your lengthy filmography, you haven't worked with Tom Cruise yet.
You're right. I've never worked with him, and I don't think I've ever met him either. Nope, I never have. I used to work out with Katie [Holmes] at Barry's Boot Camp, here in the Valley. She was in the same class as me. But that's the closest I've been to Tom Cruise.
It's been five years since The West Wing ended, yet that series is still very dear to a lot of people. Do you carry any bits of C.J. Cregg with you?
I love her. I wish that I carried more of her with me than I actually do. She is kind of my hero. What a great woman to get to play! I wish that she could have lived on and done other things. She's just such a truly great role model for women and that's one of my characters and one of those instances where you felt like you got to give back. I feel like I really got to inspire young girls. I get so many letters and see people on the street who come up to me and say, "Oh my God. You changed my life. I was majoring in this and I changed it to this and now I'm going to work in Washington." Aaron Sorkin really inspired a lot of people with that show. Getting to play C.J., that was an important female role on television and I am still really, really proud of it in a different way than I am of my other characters. Like in Mr. Sunshine, I loved my character, but she was the exact opposite. C.J. will always be the role that I'm maybe most proud of in terms of what it said to the world.
Are you looking to get back into television?
I am. I'm looking at some other shows now figuring out what's going to become a reality for me. I very much want to be back on television and I'm actively looking for the right script for me. I'm chomping at the bit. I'm a worker bee -- I need to be working all of the time, so I'd love to find a home for awhile on a good television show.
Are you thinking drama? Premium cable drama?
Oh, I'll go either way. I don't care. I particularly like things that have a healthy dose of comedy and drama. I like things that are a little messy and complicated, not just punchline-punchline-punchline. I'm not a fan of [the sitcom format] as much. I don't know if I've ever done that, other than, I suppose Mr. Sunshine. As long as the writing is great, I will go anywhere.
Finally, is it true that Paul Newman cast you in one of your first plays while you were in college?
Yes it is. He had gone to Kenyon College and he came back to christen the brand new theater there by directing the first play. I read for him, he cast me and he and Joanne Woodward kind of became my mentors as I started off in this world of acting. When I came to New York, Joanne got me into the Actor's Studio. She directed a group of actors and formed a company and gave us the opportunity to act as a young actor. Usually, you have to find agents. Everything is such a catch-22 when you're starting out with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward's support -- it's a great leg up in this business.
I know you have about four movies in post-production. Which one are you most excited for audiences to see?
The Chris Colfer movie, Struck By Lightning is a beautiful, beautiful movie that I'm very proud to be a part of. Josh Radnor's movie Liberal Arts is going to Sundance, and I'm excited about that. I'm anxiously awaiting both of those movies, and I think that they are going to do really well.
[Top photo: Getty Images; Help photo: Dale Robinette/DreamWorks II]
Follow Julie Miller on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.