Allison Janney is one of those actresses who seems able to do just about anything. Her roles range from voicing characters in animated movies like Finding Nemo and Over the Hedge to playing unforgettable dramatic roles in acclaimed films like America Beauty, The Hours and The Ice Storm. Not to mention her iconic, fiercely funny and intelligent seven-year stint as CJ Cregg on The West Wing.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, she was discovered by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who encouraged her to study acting in New York and London. She's been nominated for Tony and Spirit awards, and has won four Emmys, five SAG awards and prizes from the Outer Critics and Drama Desk.
When I met her, she was in London with her latest film Juno, which has gone on to win awards all over the place, including four major Oscar nominations. In person, she's tall and elegant even though her foot was wrapped in a cast ("A trampoline accident," she says with a mischievous pause). She's also wonderfully bright and engaging, and happy to chat about anything...
Did you consciously decide to follow The West Wing with such offbeat roles in Hairspray and Juno?
I know! I always get offered roles of strong capable women, so I just wanted to try something a little different. I didn't want to keep doing those kind of roles because CJ had been so perfect. The composers on Hairspray are friends of mine and they asked me to come do it. I didn't even know what I was agreeing to but I knew it would be completely silly! I read it and thought, 'Oh my God!', and it ended up being the perfect thing for me to jump in to. I love playing off-the-wall characters like that Ð completely crazy, yet they don't think they are. I have a big heart for characters like that, because to my mind my character in Hairspray was just a woman who was afraid of everything outside of her house. My character in Juno is also kind of unconventional Ð that scene where Juno announces she's pregnant, was such a surprising one. Once they're sure she's going ahead with having the baby, my character Bren says, 'Right let's get you some pre-natal vitamins!'' I loved her for that.
How did you find working with Ellen Page?
Ellen is remarkable. She looks like she's 10 years old but she's wise beyond her years. She's incredibly self-possessed, like Juno; she just does her work and isn't neurotic like a lot of these young actors are. When we were shooting we'd go to the bar after work for a drink and the waitress would come over and give me a look because she thought I was taking my underage daughter into a bar. Then she'd ask Ellen for her ID card and Ellen would pretend she couldn't find it Ð she was really funny. I liked her a lot, she's really cool.
Were any of the scenes improvised?
Yes, Jason [Reitman, the director] was open to that, and Diablo [Cody, the writer] was on the set a lot, which is unusual because writers can get precious with their work, but she wasn't like that at all. She was so appreciative and so excited to be there. Most of the time we didn't want to improvise because we just loved saying Diablo's words. I knew I couldn't think of anything better.
All three of them - the writer, director and star - are quite young.
Yeah they are all very young, but I was just thinking about their talent and I love to work with talented people, whatever age they are. I enjoyed the experience so much. I want Diablo to write more so I can be part of her acting troupe. I wish we could all be part of a troupe with Jason directing Ð I wish they still did that these days.
How did this compare to working with Woody Allen in Celebrity?
I was terrified of Woody Allen. He's an icon. I worked with him but had literally two lines. I remember I had to say the work 'triplex' as I was playing a real estate person, and Woody Allen walked over to me just as we were about to shoot and said, 'Is that try-plex or trip-lex?' I said, 'I don't know, I've always said try-plex.' And he said, 'Well, you'd better find out!' Inside I was saying to myself, 'Oh my God, how am I going to find out?' We were doing a restaurant scene and there was a table full of extras who were all watching, and I looked past them and saw Donald Trump who was doing a cameo. So I got up and went over to him and asked him! Donald said he liked trip-lex, so I came back and said that. That was the only conversation I had with Woody Allen.
What's your best memory from Juno?
One of my favourite scenes was the one where Bren is cutting out the dog picturess and putting them in the dream book when Juno comes in. I love that scene between the two of them. There's a lot going on in that scene Ð Bren could have done it all very differently but she decided to suggest to her daughter that maybe it wasn't a good idea to hang out with Mark by herself. She didn't say it in a way that was accusing at all. I loved the idea of cutting out the dogs too Ð she can't have the dogs because Juno's allergic so the next best thing is to make a dream book full of dogs!
You're a well-known dog-lover, so you don't need a book.
Nah, I've got my own dog Ð an Australian cattle dog called Addie. Yes, I love dogs!
Is it true that finding a woman's role gets harder as you get older?
I don't think it's true anymore. Lately there have been lots of great female roles for older women Ð Helen Mirren certainly has a fabulous career, Patty Clarkson has had a lot of great roles. There can always be more though and I hope Diablo continues to write more of the female roles she's so good at Ð maybe she'll write something for me. I want somebody complicated and interesting. I love playing crazy people. I wish I could write myself what I want to play.
What's the craziest thing you've ever done?
In film or in real life? I once drove naked in a Corvette through a Canyon in L.A. That was pretty gutsy, it was a dare! It was a few years ago and it was with a boyfriend. That's the most daring thing I've ever done. On film, the cameo role I played in the movie Margaret is the most extraordinary thing I've done on film Ð you'll have to see it!
Do people think you're really like CJ from The West Wing?
I have a lot of fans who are lovely, but not anyone who thinks I'm her. Martin Sheen used to think he was the president! If I travelled with him, he'd be in the airport and he'd introduce me as CJ.
Did you always understand CJ's dialog?
I never knew what I was saying! I'd have to ask, 'What the heck am I saying here?' But I certainly know how to make you think I know what I'm talking about Ð that's why I'm an actress!
DORCHESTER, LONDON, OCT.07
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