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We Spent Half An Hour Talking To Allison Janney About 'Drop Dead Gorgeous'

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1999 was Allison Janney's star-making year. It started with her role as a guidance counselor turned erotic-lit writer in "10 Things I Hate About You" and ended with a small spot as Chris Cooper's withdrawn housewife in Best Picture winner "American Beauty." In between came her defining role on "The West Wing" and a memorable turn as the trailer-park firecracker Loretta in "Drop Dead Gorgeous."

When "Drop Dead Gorgeous" opened on July 23, 1999, it was many things: a beauty-pageant satire, a dark teen mockumentary, an A-list ensemble and a gigantic flop. Reviews ranged from mediocre to scathing, and the movie grossed a paltry $10.6 million. Today, it's nearly impossible to come by. Its shelf life didn't transfer to the DVD era, meaning it's unavailable on streaming services and the likeliest way to obtain it is by purchasing a used copy on Amazon for about $40. Yet somehow "Drop Dead Gorgeous" maintains a permanent slot on any list of modern cult classics.

The story of a small Minnesota town's unyielding obsession with an annual teen beauty pageant whose contestants often meet odd deaths, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" also stars Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Brittany Murphy and a then-unknown Amy Adams aspiring to be crowned the Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess. Kirstie Alley plays Richards' mother and the pageant's overbearing organizer, while Ellen Barkin is on hand as Dunst's mom. (Janney's Loretta is Barkin's character's neighbor and best friend.) Even without such an all-star lineup, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" should have squared nicely with grim teen comedies like "Heathers," "Jawbreaker," "Dick," "Election" and "Sugar & Spice," which shares a screenwriter in Lona Williams. (As BuzzFeed points out, Williams changed the writing credit on "Sugar & Spice" to the nonexistent Mandy Nelson after New Line Cinema tamed some of the movie's darkest elements in the wake of the Columbine shootings.)

It's Janney and Adams who may have made the biggest splashes in "Drop Dead Gorgeous," though, even if they had yet to secure the caliber of fame they know today. Adams was praised for her performance, which was also her first big-screen role. It would be another six years before she became a breakout star with "Junebug," but her character, Leslie Miller, remains a highlight of "Drop Dead Gorgeous." Adams is currently filming a movie and was unavailable to speak with HuffPost Entertainment, but we spent a delightful half hour gabbing about the film with Janney, who has nothing but fond, if hazy, memories of its creation.

allison janney

Do you find yourself being asked about "Drop Dead Gorgeous" often? It's such a cult favorite.
It’s the thing that people out of the blue come up to me and say, “Oh my god, I absolutely loved you in ...," and I’m thinking they’re going to say “Mom” or “The West Wing,” but instead it’s "Drop Dead Gorgeous.” I love Loretta! I don’t know what makes a movie a cult movie. I don’t understand what the ingredients are or why. I think it’s the subject matter: a beauty pageant -- I think that’s really fascinating to people, and a mockumentary story is fun and the fact that Kirsten Dunst is in it and Amy Adams is in it and Brittany Murphy is in it. There are so many actresses who have resonated with different generations that were in that movie that it continues to stay alive.

Are you asked about it more often than "The West Wing"?
Oh no, it’s not more than “The West Wing” or anything like that, but it is kind of fun when the fans are fanatical about it. My favorite was when I was in an airport. This was a while ago; I would say like 10 years ago. I was sitting in an airport next to these teenagers, and they were quoting lines that Loretta said. It took me a while. I was like, “That sounds familiar.” And then all of a sudden I realize, “Oh, they’re talking about Loretta.” And then I said, “Excuse me, did you know that I played Loretta?” And they started screaming and of course they had a huge photo op afterward. They really didn’t know they were sitting next to me. It was great.

How did the movie enter your life?
If I’m not crazy, I think I had just done “A View From the Bridge” on Broadway with Brittany Murphy. John Papsidera cast "Drop Dead Gorgeous," because I think Brittany auditioned for the movie and told him he needed to cast me in it, if I’m not crazy. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. And I read the script and of course wanted to be a part of it because I love humor like this. I love slightly off humor, sort of inappropriate humor. It’s just more fun. I loved the character of Loretta; I thought I could definitely play this trailer-trash woman. And I went in and auditioned for [director Michael Patrick Jann] and Lona, and they wanted me for the part, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. My brother lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and I was there for five or six weeks. It was a nice-sized role, but I don’t think they really accommodated my schedule. I was sort of a nobody at the time in the film cachet. But I was happy because I was there with my brother and I got to hang out at the Mall of America more and really get the accent and work on that. I had a lot of fun getting to know Kirsten, or Kiki, as they called her on the movie -- I don’t know what they call her now. But they were just really sweet, lovely girls. And then Nora Dunn and, oh God, who else? Oh crap, don’t you have the cast list in front of you?

So many great people. Mindy Sterling! Did you know who else was involved upon taking the part?
I knew Ellen Barkin was in it, and I was terrified. I’d never met her before, and literally the first scene I had to do was a scene in the audience watching Kirstie Alley perform at one of the pageants, which when we shot it, Kirstie Alley had already wrapped, so she wasn’t even in the scene. I wasn’t actually looking at her on the stage. I had to sit next to Ellen and be her best friend immediately. It was overwhelming and I was completely intimidated but fell in love with Ellen. She couldn’t have been nicer or more fun to work with. And then Denise Richards, I think I was in one scene with her. Brittany and I, we weren’t in that many scenes together, but I knew her, so we hung out in St. Paul. Mostly I got to hang out with my brother, which I loved getting to do.

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Ellen Barkin has a beer can welded to her hand for much of the movie. Was that a prosthetic?
I remember a stick, and her arm was held out at an angle with the beer can in it. I honestly don’t remember how we fixed that on her hand or if it was a prosthetic she held on to.

You mastered the accent at the Mall of America? I'm imagining you striking up conversations with random people using Loretta's voice.
No, I would just hang out there and go into stores and follow people to eavesdrop on them and listen to the accents. I had a recorder and I would surreptitiously try to record people. We had a great dialect coach on the movie, too, Michael Buster. The more time I spent there, the more I soaked in, especially with my brother and his friends. I think I can do the accent better now than I did back then. I’ll just start talking like Loretta sometimes. Like, (Janney breaks out Loretta's accent) "Oh yeah, are we on 'Cops' again?" She’s fun. The one ad-lib I said that I was proud of was “I got some!” That was my one ad-lib because I don’t think I knew how to ad-lib at that point in my career. And then I think I did ad-libs with the bartender in some little side shot of me throwing Goldfish in his mouth. I said, “If you can catch it ..." -- something like that.

Have you ever discussed the movie with Diane Sawyer?
No. Why?

Kirsten Dunst mentions her in just about every scene.
Oh, that’s right, she does! She wants to be like Diane Sawyer! I never talked about that with her, and I know her husband [director Mike Nichols] very well. That’s so funny, I completely forgot about that reference. She does say that in every single scene. I wonder what she thinks of it. (HuffPost reached out to Sawyer for comment, but she was unavailable.)

"Drop Dead Gorgeous" pokes fun at so many sensitive things: anorexia, mental handicap, class distinctions, religion, gun rights.
Do you think that would get made today?

That’s what I’m wondering. I don’t think so. Did you have any hesitations upon reading the script?
No. None. It’s a mockumentary, so it’s all a spoof. I didn’t think for one minute that it was making fun. But nowadays I don’t know. It’s such a different world now. You can’t say all that. That’s why I was kind of amazed that “Bad Words” came out, because that was pretty politically incorrect everything. I loved being part of Jason Bateman’s movie and I love him and being dangerous with stuff, but of course you don’t want to offend anybody. So I don’t know if it could. I’d like to think it could, but it’s a different world.

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Your makeup and hair is part of what makes Loretta. It's all about that thick blue eye shadow and bright yellow Las Vegas shirt. Did you have a hand in crafting her image?
I definitely decided that Loretta would have a bad tan that would be a little orangey. Maybe her neck would be a different color than her face. And then we discussed that her idea of glamour might not be everyone’s. She might wear blue eye shadow with bright red lipstick. She definitely has a confused sense of glamour, a trailer park-tinged sense of glamour.

I love that you tie up the Vegas shirt above your belly button.
I think that was a costume-department decision, but I’m sure I went along with it, thinking, of course, that Vegas would be a mecca for Loretta, that she would want to go there. I’m sure she had never been to Vegas. She loves going to the Holiday Inn by the airport. I don’t think Loretta’s been anywhere, and I think Vegas is her idea of heaven.

Was it hard filming your coverage during the audience reaction scenes without the beauty pageant actually unfolding onstage?
It was incredibly difficult. It was my first day working on the movie and I had to sit there and react to things even when I had no idea what they were. The director would say, “You’re looking at this now, you’re looking at that." We had our dialogue we had to say, and we knew it was in reference to something that Kirstie Alley’s character did, and we knew what it was from reading the script, so we just did it from what we imagined her doing. We had to play and pretend like we knew what was going on.

In a good way, it seems like you've sort of circled back to your "Drop Dead Gorgeous" ways with "The Way, Way Back" and "Mom." Do you have a penchant for middle-aged characters still living like they're in college?
No, I just respond to the material and if I feel like I can bring the character to life in a believable way, I go for it. Fortunately I haven’t done just one type of part in my own career, but there are always ones that are similar. There’s a little Loretta in Bonnie and in my character from “Way, Way Back.” They’re not the same at all, but they’re very similar. They could be in the same AA meetings.

Did you pay attention at all to the mixed reviews and poor box office?
No, I have a feeling probably the writers and producers and directors all paid attention to that stuff. As far as I was concerned, I was just happy to be involved in the movie. I’ve never really read reviews because I just don’t. Coming from theater, I just know better. So I stayed away from that stuff and just did the movie. I love that people still reference it and come up and say they love Loretta and, "Will you say a line from 'Drop Dead Gorgeous'?" I bet you’d find that the actors remember more of how much fun it was and the producers would be more disappointment in how the movie did.

What do you remember about the movie's premiere?
I wasn’t really included in the paid ads or any of the promotion for that. They didn’t ask me to go to the premiere of that movie, so unfortunately I didn’t get to go to it. I was not even included in the poster on that. They usually don’t ask you if you’re not included on the poster. Because then they have to pay for you to get there, and that involves money for the studio to pay, so of course they’re not going to want to pay for everyone in the movie to come. I understand that.

Which of the cast members have you kept up with over the years?
Whenever I see Kirsten, we always have a special fondness for each other even though we haven’t worked together since then. But that was a special thing we got to do together, and I got to spend a lot of time with her and she was lovely, so I think she has fond memories of me from that, too. Ellen Barkin, I’ve seen a couple times in New York. I’ve hung out with her after theater things, and it's great reconnecting with her. And Amy Adams was in “The West Wing." Brittany Murphy we lost, of course, which was sad because I’d just come from doing Broadway with her and then I did another movie called “David and Lisa” and then went into “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” I did a number of things with her, so that was very sad to lose her as a friend.

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Did you and Amy Adams break out "Drop Dead Gorgeous" lines on the "West Wing" set?
I think at the time, actually, she had to remind me. I didn’t know she was in it. At that time, Amy wasn’t really a known commodity, so she may not have even told me she was in it with me. I don’t remember. But it was kind of amazing to look back and think about who else was in that movie.

Where is Loretta today?
I’d like to get a chance at playing her again. She’s probably made her way to Vegas by now, don’t you think?

Hopefully she and Kirsten Dunst's character went together.
I would love to do a “Drop Dead Gorgeous 2” in Vegas. There are now beauty pageants for older women, too, I think. That’s going on. So I think Loretta will do beauty pageants for the grandmother set.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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