A monstrous stage mom who gets to vamp directly to camera and somehow win a horrified audience to her side? This is the part that Allison Janney was probably born to play. Few actresses are better at delivering verbal daggers than Janney, and she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar on Tuesday morning for her spitfire LaVona Golden, the somewhat estranged mother of Margot Robbie's Tonya Harding in Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya. The film, which is shot like a mockumentary and features on-camera "interviews" with all the players, is overcrowded with big, colorful performances, but Janney cuts the most memorable image of all as LaVona, with her bowl cut, saucer glasses, fur coat, chain-smoking, oxygen tank, and utter contempt for everyone—and most unforgettable of all, her pet tropical bird on her shoulder, interrupting constantly. Here, in a new interview with W editor at large Lynn Hirschberg, Janney reveals her devotion to her new fowl costar, how I, Tonya's screenwriter fought for her to get the part, and how she can make any role, no matter how monstrous, empathetic to an audience—even if the actress, who was for years the beloved press secretary on The West Wing, were to play Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
What was the first professional job you auditioned for?
Well, the first job where I actually made money was on Guiding Light, the soap opera. And I played a maid. My name was Ginger, and I had a Brooklyn accent—a really bad one, if I remember correctly. But I was thrilled that I had gotten a job where I could pay my rent in New York City. It was the first time I made money as an actor, and I was really excited. And I always thought, “Well, now it’s going to start,” and in this career you find out quickly that just because you get one job doesn’t mean it’s going to keep, you know, climbing in a steady fashion. Then you drop off and you don’t get anything for years. It's such a rollercoaster ride.
And how did I, Tonya come to you?
Oh, in the best way! I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City back in the 80's, and one of my classmates was Steven Rogers. And Steven Rogers has written many movies with roles for me, but I never got to play them because they were always given to another actress. And we always used to joke that, “And the part written for Allison Janney will be played by...,” insert actor’s name.
And this one finally went to me because Steven said, “Allison Janney is attached to this movie,” so whoever was interested in producing it or directing it, he was like, “You have to be okay with Allison Janney.” Like, he was in my corner and long before I was ever in my corner, you know. He’s been there for me, so it makes it so much better going through all this positive attention knowing that this was a gift given to me by a dear friend. And, you know, it’s not like it’s a flattering role...
Yeah, I was going to say, it’s interesting that your friend thought no one but you could play this woman who’s—
A horrible, nasty woman!
My friend wrote the worst, most horrible, atrocious mother on the planet and then thought of me to play her. But I think he knew that I would have fun—not that she’s fun, but that I would be able to embrace her and give her some humanity, because she’s really a monster. That was the challenge for me playing this part is seeing these scenes and going, “Who does this?" And then Stephen would say, well, he had interviewed Tonya Harding, and this is how she described her mother. She stands by [her claim that] her mother threw a knife at her. Her mother, you know, abused her physically and verbally, and these are stories that she gave us, and we didn’t have the luxury of talking to LaVona Harding, because we couldn’t find her anywhere.
Yeah, Steven looked everywhere, and Tonya didn’t know. Well, as far as she knew, her mother was living in a trailer behind a porn shop is what I think she said, and we couldn’t find her. And in some ways that was freeing for me. I have two schools of thought on it, because it would have been nice to meet her and actually ask her, you know, her side of the story. And there’s a little bit of existing interview with her in a documentary about Tonya Harding’s life. So I did have those snippets of interview to go on when I created her. But to be able to have talked to her in person I think it would have helped me. But since I didn’t, I let go. I was like, “Well, this is the character that is part Tonya Harding’s version of other mother, part Steven Rogers’s artistic license, and part me jumping in and giving her what I wanted to give her." And so I felt a little freedom there. But she did exist, and now she’s actually surfaced, funnily enough.
Of course. Tell me a little about the bird on your shoulder as LaVona. How did you meet the bird?
Little Man! My little bird, Little Man.
Yeah, she calls him her little man.
Little Man, my fifth and final husband, I think I referred to him as. I met this little bird the day before I shot; there were three other birds I got to choose from, and I picked this one because he seemed the most comfortable on my shoulder. When I put him there, he just sat there, and the other ones were crawling all over my head and getting in my hair, and I was like, “Oh, no, no, no! I like this little guy here.” And so then cut to the next day, and, you know, my character smokes like a chimney in this, and the bird handler said, “You can’t smoke around the bird.”
And I went, “Uh-oh! What are we going to do?” Craig [Gillespie, the director] was like, “Well, yeah, we got to figure out something.” I looked at the prop guy, and I said, “Do you have one of those oxygen tank things?” Because, you know, I’ve known people who have emphysema have to. And he did! And like two minutes later, we put that thing in my nose and the oxygen tank and put the bird there, and we shot that scene. So it was kind of a wonderful, last-minute thing. This is the way this movie had to happen because we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot 170 scenes or something in 30 days. It was crazy!
But you work in television.
Yeah, but this is faster than anything I’ve ever done before.
Oh yeah, yeah. This was unbelievable. Craig was the only man for the job, too. He just kept things moving at such great energy, and everyone was just ready to come in, you know. “Put me in, coach! Put me in!” And everyone just did their job, and once I started talking, I decided that I would never look at the bird, because that’s how I’ll make it look like I’d been with him forever. He’s my friend, and I never look at him.
And it was as if he knew that I said that, like, “Yeah, you try not to look at me, Janney." He sat there and poked at the oxygen thing in my nose. He poked in my ear. He crawled down my fur coat and jumped on the rim of my glass to drink out of it. He did everything he could, and it was my game and my goal to never look at him. No matter what he did, I would take him and throw him back up on my shoulder. Occasionally, I’d say, “Stop it! Stop it!” and look at him.
I love when you say, “Stop it,” actually. Because it does sound the way your character talks to people in your life.
Exactly. I love that they use it [in the finished film] because it’s kind of an outtake, but it was perfect.
And you never lost focus. You’re doing your whole speech, you’re mid-diatribe: “Stop it!”
It was a lot of fun to do that section of it for me: the monologue to the camera, direct address, I enjoyed it because I felt like I was testifying for LaVona and telling her side of the story. I really wanted to get my point across. It was really important. I kept feeling like it was Judgment Day, and I was talking to god or somebody, like saying, you know, “You got to understand that everything I did was for that girl, and she didn’t appreciate it.” I loved doing that part of it with the bird, the whole thing. I don’t think I’ll ever act without a bird again. I’ll just kind of take him with me everywhere. I’m in love with that bird.
This is an age-old question, but did you end up liking the character you were playing? Or do you have to like her?
When you play a character as awful as LaVona, I always have to find something about her that I relate to or that I can empathize with. I think it was that she actually was trying to give her daughter a better life. I also had empathy for her because I feel quite certain that she came from an abusive family, and I know she was abused. In my mind, I thought, “This woman had to have had a hard life.” She’s had four husbands. I think she kept trying to find the one that was going to, you know, get her and her daughter out of their life, their circumstances, and take them someplace better. And everyone failed. She just cannot catch a break. So I kind of tried to relate to her that way. And I think the monologue Steven gives her in the diner at the end is important and empowers her and shows her underbelly.
__Okay, now some fun questions for you. What was your favorite birthday ever?
Oh, my gosh. Birthdays are getting harder as I get older. But I think a birthday that I remember that I really loved was my 21st birthday, because one of my best friends growing up with was this guy, Rob Kerr, who’s still around; he lives in Charleston, South Carolina. And we threw a joint 21st birthday party, and we got dressed up in black tie. I just remember it being a really, really beautiful evening with everyone dressed up. And it was before I had to do it a lot doing this business. Now I get dressed up. but then it was so special! I bought this special black, you know, poofy skirt with a white silk blouse, and I felt so glamorous, I felt like an adult. I loved it. I loved that birthday.
How old were you when you moved to L.A.?
When I started doing The West Wing, which was 1999. I actually didn’t move here until it got picked up, so it was 2000. Oh god, am I really going to have to do the math here?
No, no. Since you were the best Press Secretary ever, do you feel any kind of empathy for Sarah Huckabee Sanders?
I don’t. I just have a hard time with this administration, and if I had to play her, I would find something to empathize, you know, about her. But right now, I don’t. I don’t enjoy—I can’t watch those press briefings. They fill me with rage. They despise the media so much there’s nothing veiled about it, and I just find her very unpleasant. And yet, if I ever get to play her, I will make you like her.
That’s a great answer. What was your favorite Halloween costume?
There are many of them, but one in particular... we’ve stopped doing it, but there are like a group of friends of mine, like six or seven of us depending on who’s in town, and we do a group costume. The last time that I was thrilled with what we did—and I can’t believe I had so much time on my hands—we went as the Partridge Family, and I spent I think a whole weekend making the Partridge Family bus that we all would get in, so each of us would have our own window. I made the Partridge Family bus, and we walked into that party, and we ruled that party. It was pretty great.
Which Partridge were you?
I was Laurie Partridge.
Oh, that’s the good one.
And I wanted to be Mrs. Partridge, but my friend Cam wanted to be her in drag. So he did that. But when I, Tonya had its screening in Toronto, I said on stage, “If nothing else, you know, LaVona is going to be a great Halloween costume.” And sure enough, there were people who dressed up as LaVona for Halloween. I mean, it’s a great: the fur coat, the bird, the glasses, the haircut—and people tweeted it. I was very flattered that a character that I played might be a Halloween costume.
Do you have a secret skill we would be surprised to know that you have? Margot Robbie, just so you know, she can open a bottle with another bottle.
Well, she never shared that with me. My secret hidden talents are... well, I can do a little bit of everything. I can sit down at the piano and make you think I know how to play the piano, because I know, like, the beginnings of four songs. So I can start and then go, “Oh, and then there’s this one,” and then, “Oh, let’s go do something else.” And I can knit. I’ve never finished anything, but I know how to knit. I started making a stained glass window and breaking and cutting glass, but I never finished that. I can make a Partridge Family bus out of cardboard. I love arts and crafts. It is my dream someday to have a creativity barn, and in that barn would be pottery wheels and every kind of paint you could possibly want, and every kind of instrument, so you could go in there and just create, make music, make cards. I just think that would be amazing to have something like that to go just create something.
So I think you’re the second-most Emmys of any person ever?
I have seven Emmy’s.
And I have to say even before I loved you as an actress, I loved your speeches. What do you think the key is to a great acceptance speech, because I think you’re going to have to make a few more in the near future?
I wish I knew. Everyone who knows me knows how much stress I go through when I have to think about the possibility of saying a speech.
But you’ve had a lot of practice.
I know. I’ve had some interesting ones that didn’t go so well. I’ve had all different kinds, but I think that the one key to all of them is I’ve never been able to write out something beforehand. I usually have a general idea of what I want to say, and then I just let it happen—whatever comes out happens, and be open to going in the moment.
I remember one time I knew I had a list of names to say, and I was afraid it was getting boring, and they were saying, “Wrap it up,” so I decided just to start singing people’s names. I just started singing to make people, you know, laugh at least. If I was going to be boring with a list of names –
I remember that one. That was a good one.
That was kind of fun. It’s risky to get up there and not know exactly what you’re going to say.
All right, so these are some “first” questions: What was your first job?
Uh, a bus girl at the Holland House Restaurant in Dayton, Ohio.
That sounds glamorous.
Oh, I did not like that job. But it was my first job.
Where did you go on your first date?
I never dated. I never dated because I went to a school that was like first through 12th grades, under 300 kids, and everyone just sort of hung out in groups. We didn’t date. So I’ve never really went out on a date.
What was your first album?
I think probably the Monkees. I loved the Monkees.
Monkees and the Partridge Family. I detect a theme here. What’s the first red carpet outfit you ever wore?
I think it was this Pamela Dennis gold sequined dress when I won an Emmy for West Wing. It was the first Emmy that I won, and it was the most beautiful dress with the gold sequins. I still feel the pain of them digging into my flesh under my arms. It was painful, but it was gorgeous. I would rather do a bird on my shoulder than sequins under my arm.
What was your first pet’s name?
My first dog’s name was Duffy, and he was a golden retriever, and I loved him. One of my favorite pictures ever taken of me was by my uncle, who’s a photographer, and he took a picture of me kissing Duffy’s head, and I’m in diapers. It’s one of my favorite pictures that’s ever been taken of me, hands down.
Where was your first kiss?
At a dinner party with a bunch of those friends that I used to hang out with. Someone decided that everyone should kiss each other by passing an ice cube from one mouth to the other. So it wasn’t even with somebody that I was dating. It was just the guy sitting next to me.
Were you nervous?
I was excited. It was pretty cool. I called them “ice cube kisses,” and now I still kind of like it.
What was your first favorite film when you were young?
I remember Bambi was the first movie I saw, and that was pretty devastating. And then I think The Wizard of Oz was definitely one of my favorites. That was a yearly event in our family when that would come on.
What was your first “I’ve made it” moment as an actor?
There are a few moments, but one special one that started a relationship with someone that I wish had gone further than it did, not for lack of trying. I did this play called Fat Men in Skirts in New York back in the 80's, and it was with Stanley Tucci and Marisa Tomei and Matt McGrath, and Joe Mantello directed it. And there was one night in the audience was Jackie O, John Kennedy, Mike Nichols, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, a handful of other. It was an amazing night, and afterwards I got the most beautiful letter from Mike Nichols, who then put me in his movie, Wolf, and then in Primary Colors, which got me in West Wing. I’m sure of it because Aaron Sorkin loved Mike Nichols and loved that movie. And Mike just was a champion of mine, and I have some other letters of his that I’ve framed in my office at home. I just loved him so much; he was just a good friend to me and believed in me, and that made me feel pretty special.