With more than 80 credits in film and television, Allison Janney is one of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood. She is best known for her portrayal of White House press secretary C.J. Cregg in “The West Wing,” a role that brought her four Emmy awards and four SAG awards.
In recent years, Janney, 52, has played a number of scene-stealing mothers that showcase her enormous range: the sarcastic, dog-loving stepmother in “Juno”; the ghostly, hopeless mother-next-door in “American Beauty”; the racist matriarch in “The Help”; the repressed comic one in “Hairspray.” She’s played Meryl Streep’s lesbian lover in “The Hours” and a starfish named Peach in “Finding Nemo.” Her work on the Broadway stage has earned her two Tony nominations and a Drama Desk Award for outstanding actress in a musical, among other honors.
In “Liberal Arts” –- finally –- we get to see the sexy side of Janney. She plays Judith Fairfield, a gorgeous, jaded, midlife Romantics professor who seduces a younger man. The film, which opens September 14, was written and directed by Josh Radnor, who stars as a 30-something who returns to his alma mater for the retirement party of a beloved professor and falls for a precocious 19-year-old. I caught up with Janney in Los Angeles, where she talked about the unexpected horrors of her first sex scene, where she lost her virginity and why she still feels like she’s 17.
You and Josh Radnor both attended Kenyon College in Ohio where the film was shot. So this was kind of a reunion for you?
I was thrilled to get to go back and see my old professors. We both had the teacher that Josh based the character on … I was trying to channel her. Every word was well chosen and she had this cadence that was slow and honey-dripped; it was endlessly fun to do imitations of her. We were there when school wasn’t in session so I had the opportunity to walk around and have memories come back without other students around – it was kind of magical. I got to go back to the room where I lost my virginity.
A good experience I hope?
It was a lovely moment. I had two memorable moments at Kenyon: The first was working with Paul Newman, who directed me freshman year, and that was incredible to have that experience. Not too long after that I got the boyfriend – probably due to my working with Paul Newman. I had that Paul Newman magic sprinkled on me.
I read that Paul Newman offered you a favor and you never took him up on it. Isn’t that like finding a magic lamp and ignoring the genie?
It’s like having a Valium in your pocket –- you don’t have to take it but knowing it’s there makes you feel confident. It was so exciting to work with him and work with Joanne [Woodward]. They were mentors in my life, really important.
All of the film's characters, from the youngest to the oldest, are dealing with failed expectations -- Elizabeth Olsen is dismayed by the hookup culture at college; Josh Radnor is coping with a lack of direction in his 30s; Richard Jenkins finds that retirement isn’t really what he bargained for. But your character seems to illustrate this in the most visceral way.
I definitely felt drawn to her because of her incredible disillusionment with life and men, and maybe having stayed [at that college] too long and missed opportunities. Everybody has that in life, and her [disillusionment] was so delicious. I’m glad I’m not her in real life, but women like that are fun to play.
There are some people who would use the label “cougar” to describe Judith. What’s do you think of that term?
I kind of don’t see it as a bad thing. I think a cougar is a sexy way to describe an older woman who hooks up with a younger man. I don’t know if Judith was the black widow spider who sits in that bar and waits and does it all the time -- but when a reunion comes there’s probably a hook up here and there. I think she got her heart broken pretty badly by someone specific and she needs to be serviced every once in a while.
How was it playing the sex scene with Josh?
It’s the first sex scene I’ve ever done. Josh’s parents arrived that day… they were behind the camera. I was saying inappropriate things and saying, “Sorry Mr. and Mrs. Radnor” and then there was some boob placement issue with the bathrobe. I hadn’t smoked in a while and I was chain smoking so much on the set that I literally was throwing up every two takes. It was very empowering to get to have sex with Josh on camera, but I think the throwing up and nervous sweat didn’t make him think of me in that way.
His parents being there probably didn’t help either. I also loved how the film discussed aging. At one point Richard Jenkins’ character says, “I’ve felt 19 ever since I was 19 … Nobody feels like an adult; it’s the world’s dirty secret.” How old do you feel inside?
Anywhere between 17 and 19. I definitely have not grown up in ways that I should have at this point in my life; emotionally I’m a 17-year-old. It’s awful. I have to work on this, believe me, I’m in therapy. I’m far too young to be this old.
What is the riskiest thing you've done in your life since you've turned 50?
I tell you what that is: What woman shows her breasts over 50 in a goddamn movie? I just did a naked scene in movie with Christian Camargo, William Hurt, Katie Holmes and Cherry Jones. I walked nude into a lake. It felt better than I thought it would feel. I had a talk with the D.P. [director of photography] before I did that walk …'let’s gets some backlighting here.’
What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?
I think my biggest problem is obsessing about things and I think that breathing is always good –- breathing and looking at problems as opportunities. When something happens I try to say ‘thank you for this, let me see how I can grow or learn.’
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Definitely "The West Wing" was one of them, because I felt like I was putting something I was really proud of out into the world and things felt good and right and steady. The first time I was on Broadway was huge for me. I had been doing theater my whole life and when I had the opportunity to do “Present Laughter” on Broadway I became completely overcome with panic and fear. I worked really hard to get through it -– that was a personal triumph to get over the fear.
What is your biggest regret?
I wish I didn’t worry about what people thought about me. It would have served me well when I was younger to let that go. On the flip side it makes me a great team player, I’m easy to work with and I think of the whole rather than myself. When I saw “Zelig” I thought, ‘that’s how I feel in every situation -- I try to be who someone wants me to be and become codependent with whoever I’m with.’ It’s terrible for relationships, terrible for everything –- except acting.
(Correction: The original version of this story said Janney's West Wing character was C.J. Clegg. It is C.J. Cregg. Huff/Post50 regrets the error.)