Allison Janney, the perennial scene stealer still best known to this day for her four-time (!) Emmy wining performance as C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing,” appears as a supporting player in the Sundance smash “The Way, Way Back” (in theaters this Friday), yet walks away with the film thanks to a ferocious comedic turn that ranks as one of the year’s best.
In the Fox Searchlight pickup (the company payed a whopping $10 million for distribution rights), Janney plays Betty, the alcoholic neighbor at a beach-side town who lives adjacent to the film’s protagonist Duncan (Liam James), a sullen and introspective 14-year old there on vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and her emotionally abusive boyfriend (Steve Carrell). A motormouth oversharer with a martini always in hand and tan that skews more orange than brown, Betty is the complete antithesis to the drab Duncan, injecting some real fire into the coming-of-age proceedings dreamed up by “The Descendants” Oscar-winning co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
I sat down with a wry and loose Janney in New York to discuss the challenge of playing such a spitfire, her upcoming CBS sitcom “Mom ” co-starring Anna Faris, and her time spent on “The West Wing.”
I saw this movie at Sundance and I have to say, you were a riot.
I wanted the whole film to be about you. How freeing was it to play a character like that who just says whatever the fuck is on her mind?
I know, it was incredibly — when I first read that scene, and I don’t know if it’s my theater training or what, I was like, “I cannot wait to own that scene.” Just to take it and run with it, and everyone has to listen to me, it was just so much fun. It was also exhausting. We took one whole day to film that scene.
You mean the first scene?
Yeah, my first appearance of coming off the courts and then going into the kitchen and all that. I thought I was going to die at the end of that day, it was the most exhausting day of acting I’ve ever done. Because Betty idles at a very high speed and she’s pretty exhausting to play. But I loved how she just vomited out of her mouth. Everything just came out. And what I loved most about it was what she was trying to cover up underneath — the enormous pain and sadness of her husband leaving her for not another woman, for a man, which is just…she’s got to feel pretty bad at the start of the summer. I loved it.
And despite the role being a challenge for you, you seem so at ease with a character like that. Did you base her on anybody you know, or is there an element of you in the way she communicates?
There’s always an element of me in everything I do. I think this would be me if I went the wrong direction, if I really started to drink too much and stopped being aware of myself and my audience. It would be a tragic me. And I’ve had different Betty’s in my life, those people that are in your life because either of their proximity to you or whatever, and you just have to deal with them. I am always usually the person talking to the Betty at a party. I am always the person who, you know — someone will drop me and I’ll be there forever. I’m too polite, I don’t want to be rude to anybody. So she’s probably an amalgam of a lot of different people, but I definitely know her. Everybody just has somebody like that that they know. I think everybody will recognize her.
How did you develop the look for the character? Her tacky ensembles no doubt must have helped you embody her.
Oh my god. Well, Ann Roth. When I heard Ann Roth was doing the costumes for this I got so excited. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with her for many projects, not the least of which was my Broadway debut in “Present Laughter,” a Noel Coward play that she did the costumes for. And then I went on and did “The Hours” with her, and then I did “Primary Colors,” and there was another one before “The Way Way Back.” She’s a genius in creating character, and I kind of look to her to tell me who I am a little bit. I love to have other people see who they think Betty is, and I will steal from them and take what works and what doesn’t. And we definitely had great costume fittings where it was like, ‘No, this is not it, this is not it.’ And we would just trust her judgement as well, even though I’m thinking those white pants were a huge mistake [laughs].
Oh no, they were great.
With the cowboy rodeo guy on them. I mean, she’s a genius. And then of course the script itself, which Nat [Faxon] wrote, they got the idea for Betty from — they tell this story about their family getting Christmas cards from people, and one of them has a xeroxed piece of paper inside that says what’s been going on with their family for the entire year, and sometimes they share too much information. It’s like, why are you telling me about Aunt Sissy’s hemorrhoid surgery? They’re just sharing too much information. So they thought Betty, every time she opens her mouth, she just tells you too much. Like, nobody asked you how your aunt’s doing or how your dog whatever. So that was kind of a fun idea I had in my head when I started playing her. And then every time I would do it they would give me directions, “Try it this way, try it that way,” you know. They worked my ass off [laughs].
Next: How to avoid going too broad.
I’m sure that when playing a character like this you run a fine line, especially in any comedy, of going too broad. How did you gauge that with the directors?
Jeez, I just had to trust them. If they saw a take and they liked it, or if I did something else, I think Jim [Rash] and Nat would come in and go “Hey, half as much” or whatever. Because I tend to be — I go all the way, I go big, big, big, and then they pull it in and temper it a little with some fabulous direction. So I really rely on the directors, because I’m not a good judge of what I do, I just say it. And I trust them implicitly, they’re such great comics. I put my faith in them.
We talked briefly in our first interview about how your “Drop Dead Gorgeous” co-star Ellen Barkin was doing so well on “The New Normal” at the time. You expressed a concern or a desire to get on the small screen, to get more work, right?
Yeah, or just in general. I don’t know if I caught you in a vulnerable moment.
You must have, I have a lot of those.
Yeah. But I mean, since we spoke you’re now on this show “Mom.” How’s that going?
I’m really excited. I’ve had a really fat year so far. It’s been great. I got to go work with Melissa McCarthy in her movie “Tammy” in North Carolina with Susan Sarandon, and I just had a ball doing that. And I got to work with one of my comic heroes, Hugh Grant. I just adore him, and I got to do a film with him, a Marc Lawrence film that’s untitled. And it was nice to see he’s as self-deprecating as I am and can be, and when he films and messes up he’s so hard on himself, it’s heartbreaking. With “Mom,” I’ve always been looking for the perfect half hour multicam, because I think that — what’s the word — that area, that kind of work, I feel like I would take well to it, coming from theater and performing in front of a live audience. And also when we filmed the pilot, the writers would come over after one take, and go, “OK, say this now,” and they would give you big chunks of things to say differently. And I would be like, “Really? They’re going to do this in front of people?” It was very exciting and thrilling to do.
I hope that people like it and watch it, because I could get used to that schedule, which is very civilized for an actor not to have to work 18 hour days. I have worked some 18 hour days in my life on “The West Wing” and in movies, and it’s just so exhausting. I would like to be able to have a life outside of my work, to have a life at the same time as my work, you know? It would be a dream, so I hope “Mom” is a big [knocks on wood] hit.
I’m sure you’ve been offered many a pilot before. What appealed to you about this one?
The script, first of all, is everything that I get excited about. I read the script, and if I respond to it or not, that’s where it starts. And this one I really responded to, and then I heard that Anna Faris was set to play the lead character, and I adore her. I think she’s really talented, and I hadn’t met her before, but from watching her — I think I can kind of tell what kind of person someone is, and I wasn’t wrong about her. She’s very kind and generous and lovely. And I just do better when I work with people who are nice. I mean, everybody does, but in this business sometimes you never know what you’re gonna get, or whose ego…it’s a world of low self-esteems and huge egos. [Laughs] Sometimes it’s not a good combo. But she’s wonderfully adjusted and I can’t wait to really get to know her.
Well, I can’t wait to see you two spar. Moving back to the film at hand, did you feel like a Sundance darling at all this year given the fact that you had two films playing there — this one and “Touchy Feely”?
I did, it was fun to have two films there. I like that feeling. I’d like to have more of that. I like going there and having a couple things to do. I like Sundance. It was only my second time there. I’ve had other films there, but I was working on “The West Wing,” so I could never do anything. But I like being there, it’s a great event, and I think it’s very prestigious and it’s exciting to have films accepted there, you feel like you’ve been accepted by the indie world, which is a cool world to be accepted by.
Were you there for “Liberal Arts”?
I was not. I don’t know if we did get into Sundance, did we?
Yeah, it premiered there the year before.
Where was I? Where the heck was I? No, was I there? I was there!
You were there!
I was there! Oh my god, I’m drunk. Why don’t I — there are so many things I do in my life, I don’t remember things. That was my first time at Sundance, with “Liberal Arts.” Yes.
You waited a long time to go.
I know! I know, I’m a late bloomer in everything.
So let’s talk a bit about Aaron Sorkin. Do you watch “The Newsroom”?
I have it on TiVo, and I haven’t. I’ve been into the binge watching lately, and I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but I have it on my TiVo waiting to dive into, and I haven’t done it. I think part of me is like — I feel like, you know, my father jumped to another family. It’s that feeling of “I’m not in that, I’m not going to watch it.” Don’t say it just like that alone, otherwise it will sound awful.
I’m going to lead with that.
[Laughs] I love Aaron, he’s amazing, but I have not watched the whole thing.
But you’ve seen episodes?
I have seen episodes and I love it, and I recognize Aaron’s writing and how he’s so masterful at characters and stories and drawing people in, and riding that fine line between something being too emotional or, what’s the word…oh god, my mind. He’s just a brilliant writer, that’s all I can say.
You said you binge watch shows. What do you binge watch? Tell me “Scandal.”
Oh, “Scandal.” Love “Scandal.”
I just watched “House of Cards.” Brilliant. “Game of Thrones” I love and hate and can’t believe the things that happen in that show. I swear, after every episode, “I’m never going to watch this again! I can’t believe they killed that person! How can they do that?” Nobody’s sacred, it makes me mad. And then a couple days go by and I go, “I wonder what’s going to happen next week.”
I don’t think I could read the books, I think I would not be able to. It would take me years to read one of those books, I think. I love that show. What else am I watching? I love “Veep.” Adore it. I got to be on it with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who’s just a genius. All of the actors on that show are just brilliant.
I’m sensing from everything that you’re saying that you’re drawn to political fare. I mean, even “Game of Thrones” has political intrigue.
It does, but I am so not a political person. I mean, I vote and I care about things–
“The West Wing” didn’t make you that way?
No, and it’s infuriating because everyone thinks I’m as smart as C.J. about things, and I’m just not. So when I hear that someone is really excited to meet me because they’re big “West Wing” fans and they’re really political people, I’m like, “No, I’m not going to meet them,” because I will be a disappointment. Because I’m not comfortable talking about politics. I was raised in a family where we didn’t really talk about politics around the dinner table. We didn’t have heated conversations about what was going on in the world. We didn’t talk about it. I do care, and I do things that are good, and I vote, and I believe in certain things, but I’m just not that comfortable being a spokesperson for them.