Really, who doesn't love Allison Janney? She was hilarious in Drop Dead Gorgeous, heartbreaking in American Beauty, warm and cynical in Juno, and some combination of all those things for seven seasons of The West Wing. And in this weekend's Away We Go, Janney has the opportunity to take her comedic chops completely over the top, playing the sun-baked, utterly inappropriate Lily, a mom who is the first example to Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) about how they don't want to raise their kids.
During our roundtable interview Janney was as energetic as you could expect for a woman who is starring in eight shows a week on Broadway right now, playing the role originated by Lily Tomlin in the stage adaptation of 9 to 5. We talked to Janney about getting the giggles while filming Away We Go, the different challenges of TV, movies and theater, and which of her characters she'd most like to hang out with in real life.
You worked with Sam way back in American Beauty. Can you talk about his development as a director since then?
As far as I'm concerned he was right on from the get-go. Sam has such a confidence about him that's so attractive, as a director. To be that confident, and enjoy what he does. To have rehearsals for American Beauty, he had us all sitting around a table, even me. I didn't have that big a part in it, but to be there every day for rehearsal, I really felt like I was part of the movie. He knows how to talk to actors and give direction and inspire the actor. He's not just a traffic cop, he really knows what he's doing. To work on this with him, after all the successes he's had, he's even more confident. He encouraged me to go out on a limb with this character. Lily's a big character, and I was nervous about going as big as I did, but he just was like 'Come on! You can be bigger than that.' I hope I get to be part of his acting troupe.
Did you and the other comedic actors give him tips on comedy?
No, he's a funny man. He's married to Kate [Winslet], who's pretty funny too. Did you ever see her on Extras? Sam is a very funny, sharp-witted guy. He knows what he's looking for. He doesn't need any help in that department. I would follow him off a cliff.
What was your impression of the script when you first read it?
It's definitely a road movie. I'm a huge fan of Dave Eggers, so I kind of was predisposed to like it. And the part of Lily was so fun, I liked it right away. I don't remember my first impressions except for that I love Dave Eggers. I think I said I would do it before I even read it, actually.
Lily is an obnoxious character, but you don't hate her.
I think you have to identify with her, or see some of her tragedy or feel some empathy for her. That's what I like to do with every character I play, I have to find something that I like about them, or that I relate to. I can relate to feeling that you're with the wrong person. To make them human, that's the part that I respond to.
This film has a cast primarily known for TV work. How did that affect the acting process?
It didn't realy come into play. The thing that came into play most was trying not to laugh. When I did those scenes with John and Maya and Jim, we would just get the giggles. Sam would finally get mad at us and make us stop. That was really fun, but really sad too. I was pinching myself. Jim Gaffigan's a very funny man.
Was it a relief to share the screen with John Krasinski? Leading men can be pretty tiny.
I loved it. I got to kiss him. Oh my God, it was so much fun. Yeah, he's wonderfully tall.
A lot of this movie is about finding what your definition of home is, and revisiting your past. Have you had experiences like that, revisiting your past, since you became a well-known actress?
Well, there's Facebook. Just in terms of having people contact you from your past. And now being on Broadway, I've had a lot of people come backtage who I haven't seen in a long time. I'ts been kind of bittersweet. I felt a little sad, a little nostalgic for the past. "Wow, that was that long ago, we went to college together.' It's been kind of amazing to reconnect with so many people. Everyone knows where I am, so they can come find me. It's nice, but it always makes you think, 'Oh gosh, did I make the right choices?' I always thought the movie should be called Anywhere You Go, There You Are. But that's one of the hardest lessons to learn, just to be at peace with where you are. You're always where you are, where you make it. It doesn't matter where it is. I feel that wherever I'm working is home.
Besides the Tony nomination, what have been some of the highlights of doing 9 to 5?
Working with Dolly Parton. That's been so crazy, to be in her presence every day, just to be hanging out with Dolly. She's an extraorindary woman, and so generous. It's nice to be around someone who's that famous, and see how down to earth they are, and lovely they are. She's really truly, truly talented, and so smart. You have a preconceived notion of what she's like, and you find out she's not in any way cheap or tawdry. And then just getting to sing on Broadway, and dance. I get this big number I do in a white pantsuit witha ll the boys, and it's like a dream come true, to do a number like that.
Where do you get all the energy to do the show?
I don't know. I'm sleeping a lot. I'm not having much of a life outside this now. This is a huge day for me today. I have no personal life right now.
Where does your passion and energy for acting come from?
My mother was an actress, and I'm sure that's where it started. But I get so excited when I read scripts, when I read good writing, and I get excited about saying that line. I don't know what it is, but I love it so much. I think it's just that I'm not me. I do sometimes find that I'm always at a loss for words, and to get to play a character and the script is all there, and you memorize it. It's a really satisfying feeling to get to do that, to be other people.
What are the differences in the challenges of doing Broadway, film and TV?
When I did West Wing, the most demanding thing was the time commitment, and the early calls, and not getting ot the set until 3 p.m. You start to feel, oh my god, I could have been at my brother's bar mitzvah, whatever. It's just a scheduling nightmare. The amount of private time I had in seven years, and life time, I probably only should have aged 2 years. That is a real downside of sitting around in your trailer, just waiting, waiting and waiting and waiting. The actual work is really fun. Broadway, that's all about maintaining your body for the performances, because it's grueling. The singing is new for me. I have to protect my voice. I have to make sure I don't get sick. I have to go to sleep, and not go out after the show. I really have to maintain my health. And once the show is up, it's doing it for a year, 8 shows a week. but I love them all. I just want to work.
If you could hang out with any of the characters you've played, who would it be?
CJ [Janney's character from The West Wing] would be great to know. She's a great gal. I can't remember my character's name in Drop Dead Gorgeous... for heaven's sake, I can't believe I can't remember. She'd be fun to hang out with. She'd be fun to go drink beers with.