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'Liberal Arts' Star Allison Janney on Competing for Parts With James Gandolfini and Why She Wishes She Could Write

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire September 21, 2012 at 10:01AM

Despite an incredibly prolific career that has brought her four Golden Globe nominations, four SAG Awards and four Emmys for her stint on "The West Wing," Allison Janney is frustrated.
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IFC Films "Liberal Arts"

Despite an incredibly prolific career that has brought her four Golden Globe nominations, four SAG Awards and four Emmys for her stint on "The West Wing," Allison Janney is frustrated.

In a candid chat with Indiewire tied to her latest indie film to hit theaters, Josh Radnor's sophomore feature "Liberal Arts" (now playing and also available on VOD), the actress vented about the lack of good scripts that come her way, going up against titans such as Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler when those few scipts do come and seeing most of her scenes in "Liberal Arts" land on the cutting-room floor.

I gotta say, I watched the first half of "Liberal Arts" going, "When is Allison showing up?" But leave it to you to steal the entire show with what amounts to no more than 20 minutes of screen time as a horned up and depressed Romantics professor who seduces Josh's character.

They cut most of my scenes! The reason I did this -- I didn't know Josh before, but I knew Richard Jenkins. I very much wanted to act with him. Of course they had to cut out our scenes together, so that was a little disappointing for me. But I truly fell in love with Josh. Of course, we both went to Kenyon College, where we filmed the movie. That was strange for me to go back to the campus where I spent four really important years of my life.

Despite your scenes with Richard getting cut, I have to say your post-coital scene with Josh is hands down the highlight of "Liberal Arts."

[Laughs] It's pretty out there. I was very excited to get to do that with Josh. She's a very angry woman. But those are always fun to play.

Fox Searchlight "Juno"

I'd argue that Josh gave you your best zingers post-"Juno."

I don't have the script in front of me, but I do remember saying, "Why don't you get some armor around that gooey little heart of yours." She really chews him up and spits him out.

You seem attracted to indies, many of them led by untested filmmakers, like the director of "Struck By Lightning," or Josh, who had only done one film prior to this. How do indie filmmakers get someone of your caliber into their films?

For me it always comes down to the writing, and most of the time I get the opportunity to play these more interesting characters in indie films. I like to do these indie films. They're not financially rewarding for me, and I do have to try to find projects that will pay the rent. But creatively, I have more opportunities in indie films to play the kinds of characters that maybe other actresses would pass on. I wish I had talent to write, because I'm just starved for reading good scripts. I want something that I can chew up and have a good time doing.

Over the years, you've become known as a 'character actor,' having put your stamp on so many great supporting roles in a slew of films. Are you cool with that, or are you dying to snag a lead role?

I don't know. I sort of started late. My career didn't really take off 'til my late 30s. I think they'll come, but again, it's about the business side of it that I hate. That's probably why I'm always in supporting areas, because of business reasons. I lose parts that go to Barbra Streisand, James Gandolfini, Bette Midler. It's just hysterical who I lose parts to! There's just a wide net of actors they could go with for 

"I did a whole slew of indies this summer, but I would like to pay some bills. I have a lot of them right now."

a lot of the parts I'm up for. And unfortunately, a lot of it comes down to star power.

James Gandolfini? For what film?

Yes! God, you know what? If I could remember... It was about a train, I think it was the remake of "Pelham 123." Didn't he play the mayor or something?

Yeah, he did.

I think they were going to have a woman in that part, and I was being considered for it, but they ended up giving it to him. It's interesting what I have to go through to get parts, and it can be incredibly frustrating right now. I did a whole slew of indies this summer, but I would like to pay some bills. I have a lot of them right now, and I'm trying to find a really good TV show to land myself on. But again, if you're not a writer, and you're not able to write your own material, you're kind of just out there looking and hoping that the right script finds you. The position I find myself in right now is hoping that someone will write me something that I'm perfect for.

This is crazy to hear, because in my mind you're one of best actresses working today.

Oh, I love you, thank you for saying that. I've been lucky, and I've had a lot of great opportunities, but right now I'm in one of those places where I'm looking for the next one and hoping it'll find its way to me. I'm feeling frustrated because I wish I was more talented in other ways, because you just start feeling like an actress for hire and you feel kind of powerless. I don't know, I'm just gonna pray that the right thing finds its way to me. Just gotta keep putting it out there.


On the good side of things, carving out this career of playing so many great supporting roles has afforded you the opportunity to do more projects than if you were always playing the lead.

"I'm hoping I haven't done my best work yet."

Well, that's true, too. I like to mix it a little more. I'm hoping I haven't done my best work yet. I hope some gem is gonna find its way to me, and I'll take it and run. I'm ready -- Lord knows I've had years of preparation.

What can you tell me about your reunion with your daughter Juno, Ellen Page, in Lynn Shelton's next film, "Touchy Feely?"

She's lovely, but unfortunately Ellen and I did not get to do one scene together. We exchanged emails and said how excited we were that we were gonna get to see each other again. Lynn is so lovely to work with. She's very improvisational -- just sort of knowing what the scene's about and just, let it go. It was challenging for me because I don't think of myself as a great improvisational actor. I like to go with whatever happens in the moment, and I can play around, but there were some moments that I couldn't [laughs]. I was playing a massage therapist, and I was giving Rosemarie [DeWitt]  these oils, and I said, "Take this. This is my own mixture." And she says, "What's in it?" And I say, "Never mind what's in it. It's my special secret recipe, so just take it!" [Laughs] Don't freaking ask me what's in it. I can't make that up on the spot, I'm not a writer. In the film, I play a Reiki therapist. I actually had to learn how to do that, and I always hated Reiki therapy, which Lynn thought was hysterical, because I had to play a Reiki therapist and I just don't buy into it. It's the most frustrating experience, to have someone not really lay their hands on you, or just sort of hover above you. I'm like, are you kidding me? This is a joke. Put your hands on me, you gotta get your hands in there, dig in there. So that was kind of fun for me to get to play. I had a couple of sessions to learn how to do it and what it was.

Fox Searchlight "Margaret"

I have to ask you about "Margaret."

Oh my God!

Which you probably shot, like, 10 years ago or something.

I think it was! I think it was like 2002 or 3 or 4.


Have you seen both cuts?

No, I have not. I saw one cut. I saw it on an airplane, believe it or not. I was sitting there, and I was like, "Oh, my God." I watched it, and I was just blown away by it. I did get the long cut in the mail. It was actually a funny moment I had with Kenny Lonergan when he called me to do it -- he's just one of the most talented writers, I adore him. I was debating whether or not I really wanted to fly to New York and get in a pool of blood on Broadway for an hour, and I just said, "All right, at least I know I won't get cut out of this movie." So I went, and I literally laid on Broadway and 75th Street in a pool of blood, and I couldn't get up. I mean, what was I gonna do? Go to craft services covered in blood? Anna [Paquin] stayed with me. It was kind of really intense to do. It was kind of crazy with all the people lining the streets and photographers. But I think the movie is a masterpiece. I'm sorry it was so mired with legal problems. I don't even know everything that happened. It kind of got pushed under the rug for all the reasons that have nothing to do with all our creativity, but business as usual.

You've played types from all walks of life. What are you still dying to give a go?

I want to play a superhero. I want to play an action hero. I want to play a fucking kick-ass woman who saves the world. I want to learn some martial arts thing and kick some ass, that's what I want to do.

This article is related to: Allison Janney, Interviews, Liberal Arts