Note: This exclusive profile of Allison Janney was originally published in the Spring 1998 issue of the Kenyon Alumni Bulletin, shortly before Janney was cast in her breakout role as C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing.” At the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday, Janney won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the 2017 film “I, Tonya.”
There are actors, and there are stars. Allison B. Janney ’82 is an actor, and that’s just fine by her. With a Tony nomination for her leading role in the Broadway revival of “A View from the Bridge” and roles in several critically acclaimed movies, her career is a proven success. After almost 16 years as a struggling actor in New York City, Janney has perfected her craft. Still, there is no Manhattan penthouse for her, the scripts aren’t pouring in, and luxury vacations, or any kind of vacations, are a rarity for her.
“I just want to be a great actor, and I don’t have to be a superstar,” Janney says.”That’s not what it’s about for me at all, but I think you always want more. I have to sit back and make myself be happy. I don’t ever feel like, wow, I’ve really made it.”
After years of off-Broadway plays, bit film parts that often ended up on the cutting-room floor and a couple of soap opera stints, the Dayton, Ohio, native’s career took an upswing with her 1995 Broadway debut in the revival of Noel Coward’s 1939 comedy “Present Laughter.” In 1996, she made a splash in the film world with her part in “Big Night,” a highly praised and commercially successful film directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. One of her most recent film roles — and her largest to date — was opposite Jennifer Aniston in this spring’s “The Object of My Affection.” In the film, she plays Alan Alda’s wife. Alda’s daughter, Elizabeth Alda ’82, attended Kenyon with Janney. The first time Janney met Alda he was “Mr. Alda,” father of Liz.
“So I made the movie, and there I was calling him sweetie,” says the 37-year-old actor. “It was just so weird.”
The critics provide much of the evidence for Janney’s talent. Ben Brantley, a critic for The New York Times, called her performance in “A View From the Bridge” “a dazzling shift from the wry sophisticate of last season’s ‘Present Laughter’.” In “Present Laughter,” he called her performance “the most fully accomplished on the stage.” Such praise goes unnoticed by Janney, who says she never reads the reviews. When “A View From the Bridge” opened, she had the stage manager announce that people were not to discuss the reviews in front of her. If the reviews are bad, she takes them to heart. If the reviews are good, she thinks they aren’t good enough.
Janney’s voice is soft and throaty, and her attitude toward being a serious actor is accentuated by her surprise that people are interested in her life and career. There is no air of celebrity about Janney — nothing to let you know she’s worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. While it’s tempting to contemplate her recent success as placing her “on the brink of stardom,” that’s not a subject she’ll approach. “I never trust this business at all,” she says. “My feet are always on the ground. It’s a roller-coaster ride. Maybe it’s because it’s taken so long for me to get any sort of recognition, but I’m always afraid I’m not going to work again. Even people who are incredibly famous and successful tell me they feel this way. It’s part of the business.”
When she arrived at Kenyon in the fall of 1978, Janney intended to major in psychology. After discovering that she would have to take a course that involved rats, she decided against that route and became a theater major. As a first-year student at the College, Janney was cast in a play directed by Paul Newman ’49. Later, after graduation, she went on to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City at the suggestion of Joanne Woodward, Newman’s wife.
“I’m an actress because Paul Newman went to Kenyon College,” Janney says matter-of-factly.
After her turn in Newman’s production of Michael Cristofer’s “C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby,” the first production in the Bolton Theater, Janney went on to star in many other campus productions. She played Arkadina, a character in her 40s, in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” directed by Professor of Drama Harlene Marley. “That’s a role that’s almost impossible to ask a college actor to do, but Allison made it work,” says Professor of Drama Thomas S. Turgeon. “We knew she had a gift, and now she’s paid her dues. She's been at it, working, all these years, and now people see what we saw when she was here. It’s very gratifying.”
Janney’s role as Arkadina was only the first of many parts that would find her playing characters older than her age. The reason? Her height, she surmises. Little has been written about Janney that doesn’t mention it. And it’s true: Allison Janney is tall. Six feet tall to be exact. She says her height put her career on hold for many years. “I didn’t work at all in my 20s,” she says. “I’ve always been cast in the older roles. It’s been a waiting game for me. My time came later in life because of how I look physically.”
During the waiting game, agents wouldn’t touch her. When she reminded one agent that there are many tall actresses, such as Sigourney Weaver and Kelly McGillis, the agent attempted to cast the die for her career when he replied: “But those women have something in common. They’re drop-dead gorgeous.” “People can say such brutal things, just brutal,” says Janney.
She lowers her head a bit, her voice becomes a little softer, and she shakes her head as she recalls the difficult times of her career. “People would always tell me how great I was and that I was so talented, yet the business side didn’t want me. Nobody. You have to be so dedicated and want it so badly. Otherwise, you'll just die,” says Janney. “I don’t know how I made it through those early years.”
Perhaps it was her rejection by the business side that prompted her present distaste for the politics of the entertainment industry. As an actor who’s not a star, Janney isn’t handed her roles on a platter, and she confesses she isn’t good at attending the “right cocktail parties” to get them. This leads to occasional disillusionment with her chosen career. “I guess it’s all about money. You think that things happen for people because they’re talented, but many times things happen just because someone brings in a lot of money. It’s so political,” she says. “I still tend to think my phone should ring just because I’m a good actor.”
Janney’s phone is ringing more and more these days. Her character in “A View From the Bridge,” who’s the wife of a blue-collar Brooklyn longshoreman of the 1950s, is a stretch after some of the rich society women she’s played. The opportunity to work with playwright Arthur Miller was one of the reasons she decided to do the play. “This was the first time I’ve ever worked with a playwright and enjoyed having him in the theater,” says Janney. “I didn’t get nervous when he was present. He was so smart, and he was never discouraging.”
Although she’s worked with such prestigious directors as Miller and, in last year’s well-received film “The Ice Storm,” Ang Lee, Janney says the most character-building lessons she learned, the ones that made her the successful actor she is today, were learned at Kenyon. “Tom and Harlene are still my favorite directors,” she says. “Tom taught me the most important lesson that I’ve learned in my career. He told me I needed to listen more.”
It’s the critics who are listening now. The first time Janney saw her name in a New York Times review, she felt validated as an actor. “I thought, ‘Now there’s a record that I did this,’” Janney says, “some sort of proof that I was legitimate.”
In the previews for the heavily hyped movie “Primary Colors,” Janney was shown falling down the stairs. Her cameo as a literary-program head, who’s starstruck by John Travolta’s Clintonesque character, was limited to the first few scenes of the film, yet she still made the trailer. “I call myself the trailer queen,” she says. “No matter how small my part is, I’m always in the trailer.”
While hers is not yet a household name, Janney does occasionally get recognized. The first time it happened was while she was eating at a restaurant in New York City, shortly after “Big Night” was released. “I got really angry. I was wondering if something was wrong with my teeth. I’m trying to enjoy a meal, and this woman is staring at me,” she recalls. “Eventually, the woman approached the table and said, ‘Excuse me, were you in “Big Night”? It was so wonderful.’” At that point, Janney’s anger turned to delight. She isn’t recognized often, so she says the novelty has yet to wear off.
While people might conclude that being able to see Janney at the local multiplex means she’s now destined for lolling around on luxury yachts, it should be noted that on this early spring afternoon, she has just returned from her first vacation in six years. Her trip to Costa Rica, which consisted of white-water rafting, hiking, bird watching and horseback riding, was made possible by a break in performances of “A View From the Bridge.” The initial limited engagement had ended at the Roundabout Theater, but because of the play’s success, it was opening for a second run at the Neil Simon Theater.
“It’s such a treat to take a break and know you’re coming back to work,” she says. The way she explains it, taking a vacation without a job to come back to is next to impossible. Things always pop up at the last minute, and if an actor wants to work, it’s going to be tough to make it to New York from Costa Rica for a spur-of-the-moment audition. If Janney needs a job, she observes, she can usually land one by buying a non-refundable plane ticket or enrolling in an art course. “If I buy a ticket to anywhere in the world, it’s guaranteed that I’ll get a job. It’s like my travel agent gets me more jobs than anyone else,” she says. In many of the creative classes she takes in her free time, the participant’s money can be refunded up until the fifth class. Janney says it’s just before that fifth class that a job materializes.
Before making it to Broadway, while working in “rat holes on the Lower East Side,” Janney says she and the cast would make jokes about what they would do “for the Broadway performance” of the play. “We’d always say, ‘for the Broadway production we’ll do this or that.’” Often-times, cast members would wear their own shoes as part of their costumes. In her first Broadway play, the costume department supplied her with shoes that were handmade in Italy, recalls Janney with a smile.
She isn’t sure what’s next in her career, so she’s open to almost anything. Janney says she prefers stage work over film, although she has two new films — “Six Days, Seven Nights,” in which she plays a fashion editor, and Tucci's next movie, “The Imposters,” in which she’s a gangster-moll type disguised as a French countess. While she’d like to make another film like “Big Night” or star in the next “Good Will Hunting,” Janney says she’s flexible if the script is right. More than anything, she wants to keep it all in perspective. “I always remind myself how fortunate I am. I get to do the work I want to do,” she says. “It’s only in the last two or three years I’ve been able to say I’m an actress and feel good about it.”