Allison Janney is one of those actors who is seemingly everywhere, at any given point in time. Turn on your television (for those who still own such things) and there she is as Bonnie Plunkett, one half of a recovering alcoholic mother-daughter duo in Chuck Lorre’s CBS sitcom Mom, recently picked up for a fifth season. Tune to Samantha Bee‘s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and there she is reprising her role as iconic press secretary C.J. Cregg in The West Wing, an early Aughts show that many turn to now for some consolation away from our current political mess. And these days, Janney is treading the floorboards of the Ethel Barrymore Theater as the upwardly mobile matriarch Ouisa Kittredge in the current Tony-nominated revival of John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation.
Yes, Janney, a seven-time Emmy award-winner, has embodied her share of celluloid maternal figures, often to winningly deadpan effect. In Six Degrees, those particular instincts are on display in unexpected ways. As Ouisa, the polished Fifth Avenue wife of an art dealer husband (John Benjamin Hickey) whose life is thrown into high-relief by the appearance of Paul (Corey Hawkins), a young man claiming to be the son of Sydney Poitier and classmate of the couple’s Harvard and Groton-based offspring, Janney inhabits both the icy peaks of high society and thawed landscape of spiritual awakening with equal aplomb.
Here, the actress discusses self-help books, good and bad mothers and her upcoming role in the movie I, Tonya about the infamous Tonya Harding.
Congratulations on the play!
Thank you. It’s more exhausting than I thought it would be! There’s a huge journey to go through and it seems like three different styles of acting, going from a Noel Coward comedy to a farce to a realist drama. It’s a lot of fun and really one of the most challenging things I think I’ve ever done for all the parts of me it requires.
When you were approaching Ouisa, did you have any particular women in mind that you drew on?
Yes. I grew up with a very WASPy upbringing, those cocktail party ladies who were on the boards of things. And rich women, not that I was…I certainly didn’t have to worry where my next meal was coming from, but there was a different level of women that I had access to through relatives, friends of my mother’s. And they always fascinated me and I had a great love for them. My grandmother would take me to the beach club and I would see these fancy ladies with all of their Cartier bracelets and their martini shakers. And that world of those women fascinates me—I love them. And I’ve relished getting to play a woman like that. But in this play, also having her realize that all of that doesn’t mean anything when you don’t have any meaning in your life, that it’s just all the sparkly things, money and having a Kelly bag and having this if you don’t have any connection or any meaning it sort of makes your life not feel like it’s mounted to anything. What does it mean? There are so many scenes in this play that are so profound. That phone call with Corey [Hawkins] at the end is the only place that Ouisa is connected. It’s such a comforting place to be on the stage even though we’re naked [emotionally], it’s just the two of us. It’s the first real conversation anyone has in that section. On Broadway, you’re acting without a safety net and you have to just go and battle your inner demons. If you mess something up, you can’t stop it. You can stop beating yourself up about it, but you have to just keep going no matter what.
It sounds like an exercise in self-forgiveness.
It is! You immediately have to forgive yourself and be in the moment and let it go, let it go and be in the moment. I’m not going to say [it’s] meditative, because it’s much more terrifying than meditation, but it does require you to listen. The listening and answering part of acting is always my bedrock and that always land me back in the moment if I concentrate on that.
It’s interesting because Ouisa is at one point very much a truth seeker, intent on uncovering who Paul is and how he had access to her life, but in the end she has the most empathy and sympathy for him, particularly in that phone call at the end.
She’s talking about the things that matter to her. I think the ease with which they talk to each other—I know it’s crazy, but she can’t talk that way with her daughter, her son, the family unit is so dysfunctional. It doesn’t work on any level that’s fulfilling her soul, her heart. I like to think at the end as much as [John Guare] set this up for the audience to be voyeurs in that world, Ouisa and Flan let you in to see this is how we’re going to do it, but they don’t show you everything. You’re given access to their lives but only to a certain point. And then you have opinions about Ouisa saying “I love you” to a stranger and she can’t even say it to her daughter, her son, her husband. And then at the end, what I want is for people to feel more about Ouisa and more humanity and feel how awful [it is that] this boy is tragically lost in the system and to feel sad for him and feel bad for the potential he had. Because he was a brilliant—at least in my version and John Guare’s version—I don’t know the real man, it was much more complicated, but in the world of the play, he had so many qualities, so much brilliance that he wasn’t able to see because of whatever he grew up in, however he wasn’t accepted or made to feel loved in his family. I didn’t see the first production. Stockard Channing [who won a Tony for originating the role] came the other night and I was so glad I didn’t know she was out there—I really would have had a hard time on stage. And she sent us all handwritten, beautiful notes. I think it must have been really interesting for her because she’s never seen the play herself, she’s only been in it. For me, I went to see Present Laughter—my Broadway debut was in Present Laughter—and that was really fun. I didn’t remember a lot of the play. But it must have freaked [Channing] out though. Sometime I’ll talk to her about it.
You spoke about Ouisa’s relationship with her children. I’m hardly going to be the first person to point out that you’ve played some wonderful and iconic mothers over the years, from your current show Mom to Juno and the upcoming biopic of Tonya Harding I, Tonya. Did you ever think that you would end up with such a panoply of maternal roles?
No, but there are as many different mothers as there are snowflakes. The term mother doesn’t typecast you into anything other than my age. There are so many different kinds and bring them on, I will be happy to play them forever. Wait until you see the Tonya Harding mom. I’m so excited about this movie. My dear friend Steven Rogers wrote it and I finally got to play a part he wrote for me. It’s sort of a joke between us because he kept writing me parts in his movies and I would never get cast in them. And finally I get to do a role he wrote for me and we had so much fun doing it. I hope it all comes together because on the spectrum of mothers I’ve played, she’s on the very far end, the cruel end. I didn’t really think about it, but it has added up to quite a lot of mothers, all very different, some better role models than others, some better mothers than others, but all mothers.
With I, Tonya, is it the first instance where your maternal role is based on a real life person?
Yeah, that was kind of scary for me because we couldn’t find her. And my friend Steven had a great many conversations with Tonya. Tonya wasn’t quite sure where her mother was. And Stephen took a lot of artistic license with who LaVona Harding was. There was some documentary a student had made that we looked at and used parts of that, but this is very much an exaggerated version of Tonya’s description of her mother. You hear a lot about her through Tonya. And there are some other people, eyewitnesses who saw the violence between the two of them. We never got to find LaVona to speak to her. So I was playing a real character, but not one I had a lot of access to so I had a great freedom to create and just go with Steven with what he wrote. It was a lot of fun.
You said she’s on the spectrum of the cruel end…
She’s going to make you laugh. It’s a very dark comedy, it’s going to make you say, ‘I felt bad laughing at that but it was pretty funny.’ It’s very much in that vein of comedy. No actors were harmed in the making of this movie. This part is darker for me [than] the places I have to go to as Ouisa. Emotionally. And for Tonya’s mom, I just had to get in touch with being bitter and angry and resentful and unhappy.
How do you turn that off?
Oh, it’s so easy. That is easier. Because it makes people laugh. I’ve got all that in me as most people do. I can get in touch with my resentment, I can use whatever. One of the PA’s called me to the set in a way I thought was rude? I’ll take that and use it. I use whatever is right around me. Because I’m pretty thin-skinned and that comes in handy when I’m on camera.
That sounds like a very healthy outlet for those feelings.
Yeah, and as long as I get the scene right and make myself and the director happy, it’s easy then. If I don’t get it right I’ll hang onto it and beat myself up.
On that topic, I’ve read you have a predilection for self-help books.
Oh yeah, I’m always looking for salves for my soul, whatever I’m going through. I’m reading this book that my friend Tate Taylor gave me called You’re a Badass [by Jen Sincero] and that’s been kind of fun to pick up and read a chapter here and there.
I assume that’s a bolstering book?
Basically it’s about how our subconscious keeps us in patterns doing things that don’t allow us to be our better selves. And doing things outside your comfort zone is where change and greatness will happen. It’s kind of a great book. It’s mostly about telling a different story to yourself than the one you have been telling yourself, that you look in your mirror and you see wrinkles and think you’re getting old. Why not look in the mirror and say ‘Hello gorgeous.’ Whatever, simple things like that that are helpful to do, affirmations and training your brain not to beat yourself up too much.
Is it making you feel like a badass?
Well, there are moments where I feel like a badass and there are times when I don’t so it’s always good to keep working on changing the things we tell ourselves. Because it’s constant. It doesn’t happen in one day. It’s a constant exercise you have to do every day. Just stop your brain from going to places that hold you back.
You were recently on the Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” taping as C.J. leading a press conference. How was that experience?
I’d been to the White House Correspondents’ dinner before and I knew that Trump was not going to show up to this one which surprise, surprise. So Samantha Bee, who I’d never met but I like her show and I like her comedy, had this idea of me starting the Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as C.J. giving a press briefing. I think it turned out great and I love that she asked me to be a part of that. It’s nice to have C.J.… [of] all the characters I played I’m least like her, intellectually least able to espouse profound things on the current political scene. I’m not a fan of this administration and it’s been quite a scary time, feeling very unmoored and scared and angry and confused as to how… I don’t want to go off on it because I will sound like an idiot. Let’s just say I would prefer it if this is another Watergate situation. That would be fantastic.
Thank You to the 20 Best Moms on TV
Frankie Shaw as Bridgette Bird and Rosie O’Donnell as Tutu, SMILF As one of the scrappiest single moms in Boston, Bridgette Bird—mother of Larry, daughter of Tutu—is the driving force behind SMILF, a subversively feminist love letter to motherhood. And while Tutu may be struggling with her own unresolved trauma, that doesn’t mean she is overwhelmed with a very deep love for her daughter and grandson.
Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel She’s a mother, a fiery comedienne, and a socialite about town. Is there anything the eponymous Mrs. Maisel can’t do?
Elisabeth Moss as June Osborne, aka Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale Even while she’s forced to deal with, you know, adjusting to her new life as an enslaved concubine, June’s No. 1 concern remains the wellbeing of her daughter, Hannah, who was taken away from her when things really started getting dystopian.
Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay, Westworld Does an artificially intelligent robot still count as a mother? We think so—Maeve’s maternal instincts are programmed so deep that not even an army of humans could stop her from protecting her child.
Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow Johnson, Black-ish A mother of five, Rainbow is the backbone of the Johnson family, with a liberal heart of gold—and a killer wardrobe to boot.
Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanueva, Jane the Virgin It wasn’t by immaculate conception, but Jane Villanueva is mother to baby Matelio thanks to a slight medical mishap that left her the blessing of a lifetime, and us a wonderful TV mother.
The sheer force of five Monterey moms dressed head-to-toe as different incarnations of Audrey Hepburn at a PTA-sponsored trivia night—wow. These well-heeled power moms might be accused of murder, but they could not be accused of bad mothering.
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister, Game Of Thrones A mother’s love is not to be tested—and if you don’t believe that, just ask Cersei Lannister, Westeros’s merciless mother of three.
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans If you think your mom is good at snooping, you haven’t met Elizabeth Jennings, the KGB spy with a soul of gold who’s raising two kids undercover in the American suburbs during the Cold War.
Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Fresh Off The Boat With pragmatic zingers for her kids, husband, and just about everyone else who crosses her path, Eddie Huang’s mother, Jessica, is the No. 1 mom keeping it real on TV.
Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox, Better Things A single, working, actress-mom juggling three girls—all of them incredibly different, and incredibly frustrating in different ways—plus a mother-in-law who lives next door, Sam’s life (which is based on star and creator Pamela Adlon’s own) is all about the small victories, which, when they come, feel like the gushiest waterfalls of joy and love. Worth it.
Sutton Foster as Liza Miller, Younger Even though she’s living a double life as a hip 26-year-old literary agent’s assistant, Liza still finds time to be the actual 40-year-old mother her college-aged daughter knows, needs, and loves.
Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets, Baskets A large male comedian playing the mother of two hapless adult sons both played by Zach Galifianakis could’ve felt broad or easy, but the warmth, humor, and care Anderson put into his performance as Christine Baskets won him an Emmy in one of the most underappreciated shows on TV.
Justina Machado as Penelope Alvarez and Rita Moreno as Lydia Riera, One Day At A Time This Army vet is joined by her own mother (played by Rita Moreno) in raising her two kids as they deal with the day-to-day ups and downs of life together.
Jane Fonda as Grace Hanson and Lily Tomlin as Frankie Bergstein, Grace and Frankie Equal parts bitter (Grace) and sweet (Frankie), these two moms (and business partners) are the odd couple pair of moms everyone wishes they had. They’re also grandmas, which means they’re each twice as cool.
Watch: Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, Former Daily Show Correspondents and Real-Life Couple, Discuss Falling in Love