There are few actors in the world who thrill me as much as Allison Janney. Of course, like many young women I idolized her as C.J. Gregg on West Wing, but I became a fanatic once I saw the 1999 comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous where she played a trailer park flirt with a big mouth named Loretta. Since then I've eagerly awaited her comic turns, be it in Stanley Tucci's The Impostors, Jason Reitman's Juno or the bevy of other bright spots on her résumé. So, I leapt at the chance to talk with her as she did press for her latest release, The Way, Way Back.
The directorial debut of Academy Award-winning writers of The Descendants Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age dramedy that boasts an impossibly charming cast, including Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, and Maya Rudolph. Between its ensemble and Oscar-honored writer-directors, it's little wonder it got picked up shortly after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. But beyond its pedigree The Way, Way Back has an earnestness and joy to it that its cast hopes will help it stand out in a crowded summer release schedule.
In the film Janney plays Betty, the recently divorced next-door-neighbor to the vacationing family at the story's center. She's loud. She's got no boundaries. She's in a spin because her husband dumped her for a man, and she's inviting herself over. Deal with it. In her introduction, Betty spouts out about five pages of dialogue, serving as an intense introduction to her character and a testament to Janney's remarkable abilities. But her no-nonsense confessions about her gay ex, her frenemies and her youngest son's wonky eye are just the beginning of this outrageous character.
When I walked in to speak with Janney, my plan to play it cool flew out the window immediately. Instead, I gushed about how thrilled I was to meet her, calling her one of "the most smartest" women in the world and professing my love for Drop Dead Gorgeous before I even turned on my recorder. Some days my job requires talking to celebrities. Sometimes I geek out. Hard. Thankfully, Janney was lovely and gracious about my brief explosion of fandemonium, laughing, "I feel more like Loretta than anyone else I have ever played in terms of intelligence," and confessing that Loretta's beloved line "I got some" was actually an ad-lib she'd come up with. From there, I mellowed and we discussed what drew her to The Way, Way Back, the extraordinary experience of shooting on location in a real beach town, and—of course—about Drop Dead Gorgeous.
So we'll start talking about this movie. Can you tell us about Betty, and what excited you about the chance to play her?
Allison Janney: First I got a call from Jim Rash, who I have been friends with for a while and I'm a huge fan of his because I used to go to the Groundlings to watch him perform with Nat (Faxon) and Melissa McCarthy. They were all just incredible. I loved them. I idolized them. And then he called me to say he had this movie, and I immediately got excited that he said he had a part for me. It made me feel very flattered, and very excited that he thought highly of me. And then I read the script and read that first scene that Betty has, and I was just over the moon excited because she was just a big ol' hot mess, and so much fun to play. I like as an actress being challenged with a scene like that. I like being in control of the scene, and being the one who has to guide it, throw it all over the place like a pinball machine. And it was really fun. I think…we filmed that in one day, and it was the most exhausting day of filming I'd ever had. 'Cause I forgot about all the coverage (when we did my shots), and that energy level had to match it. And they were like, "Allison, you were a little higher than that." I was like, "Really?!"…It was excruciatingly hard to match the energy level every time. So, I was exhausted. But had more fun than I have ever had doing anything because of Jim and Nat. Everyone who was there just loved them.
Well, they've said they wrote the part of Betty for you.
I know! I didn't know that he wrote that part for me (until much later.) I think he's lying; I can't believe he wrote that part for me. But it makes me very flattered and very excited that he did.
And you had Ann Roth (Academy Award-winning costume designer) doing the costume design, how did that influence your performance?
I'll tell you how it influenced me. Ann Roth is a genius. She did my Broadway debut, Present Laughter, back in 1998 or something. Then I did Primary Colors with her. I did The Hours with her. And then when I heard she was doing this! I just relaxed when I knew Ann was doing the costumes because she is such a genius at creating character. She's just spot-on with her instincts and everything. So I just breathed a heavy sigh of relief when I found she was finding the right costumes for Betty. I mean there's nobody better.
Was there any piece that you wanted to take for yourself?
Oh those white jeans! At the time I thought, 'I got to have these!' And then I saw myself in them and thought, 'Nah. I think you can keep those.' But they were pretty special when I put those on, with the rodeo cowboy on them. They are hysterical. There was a beach cover-up I liked, but I didn't take anything.
You've described Nat and Jim as 'good cop, bad cop' in their approach to directing. Can you tell us about that?
I was sort of kidding. I think that they have been working together so long that it's sort of like having two of one person. So they can get more accomplished, like 'You go talk to camera, I'll talk the actors.' And they'd switch up. They knew they were one voice; they've been working on it so long. And they were great. When I did that monologue scene in the kitchen, they would come in like a huddle with these serious faces. And I was like, "Are you liking anything I'm doing?!" And they were like, "Yes. Yes!" But they wanted so much out of me, "Like on this line, do this." "Yeah, yeah, but she did that last time, let's have her do this." It was just a great energy between them. It was really fun. I just wanted to please them so much. I wanted to make them happy.
Was any part of you nervous about this being their first directorial effort?
Not at all. I've worked with a lot of first-time directors, like in this sort of situation. I think they directed other things, but not film. No, I wasn't afraid at all. I felt very confident with them. They surrounded themselves with (great people)—I mean look they got (cinematographer) John Bailey, they got (costume designer) Ann Roth. They were smart with the people they surrounded themselves with so they could do their job.
You shot in a real town. The locals came out in force to watch, and it's been described as being "a theater in the round" with people watching and applauding after takes—
Oh my god! The big party scene, you know where the big blowup (between Duncan and Trent happens)? The backyards of all these houses—we all rented houses on the same strip that ran parallel to the beach—and one of the houses we shot in is where we did the party scene, and it was amazing! This night we filmed until the sun came up and the whole night the whole perimeter of the place—unless we were shooting in that direction, then they would move—but everyone was out in full-force watching. You know, people on their own back porches are having parties. And then when we were rolling, they would all stop. It was a giant party in this town called Green Harbor up in Marshfield, Mass. It was genius. So fun.