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Allison Janney Says Winning an Oscar Was a Bit Depressing

Allison Janney

Allison Janney is a talker. “There’s no subject that I won’t dive into,” she declares at the beginning of her 30-plus-minute interview that includes her secret rock band with two fellow actresses, The West Wing reunion gossip and her role in Palm Royale, the Apple TV+ limited series that starts streaming March 20. But first: She goes to the dogs.

Janney has three of them—including her new addition, a mixed breed named Henry found under a parking meter in Los Angeles last year. The 1.7-pound black-and-white puppy was passed around as a foster until the day Palm Royale executive producer Jayme Lemons brought him to the set. “I said to Jayme, ‘If no one else can take him, I will,’” she recalls. “She literally handed him over to me and he’s been mine ever since. I’m so in love!”

<p>Photographer: Robert Ascroft; Hair: Jill Crosby; Make-up: Marie DelPrete</p>

Photographer: Robert Ascroft; Hair: Jill Crosby; Make-up: Marie DelPrete

The warm and fuzzy story is classic Janney. “She is just the greatest person ever,” Lemons says. “She’s a pro to her bones, she’s hilarious, she’s fun and she never complains about anything. She’s also clearly one of the finest actors working today.”

Towering at six feet tall, the theater-trained Ohio native with the husky voice and sharp timing has stood out in too many projects to list here. Remember Juno? The Help? Last year’s sci-fi drama The Creator? Those are just some of her most memorable movies. On the TV side, she co-starred in two modern greats courtesy of the 1999-06 drama The West Wing (for which she won four Emmy awards as White House press secretary C.J. Cregg) and the 2013-21 sitcom Mom (two more Emmys—this time for portraying a recovering alcoholic). Janney won another for her 2014 guest appearance on the drama Masters of Sex. And, of course, she took home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2018 for her biting performance as figure skater Tonya Harding’s embittered mother in I, Tonya.

Related: Allison Janney Reveals Where She Displays Her Awards

That talent shows big time in Palm Royale, a juicy drama set in the posh world of 1969 Palm Beach, Florida. Janney, 64, plays Evelyn Robbins, the intimidating “queen bee” of high society hellbent on stopping a social climber (Kristen Wiig) from joining the titular social club. Turns out both women are hiding many secrets.

“I never got typecast,” Janney says. “I think I had so much experience under my belt before I did The West Wing that people knew I could do more than one thing. The theater actress in me loves constantly taking on different roles.” (Not to mention different looks—she’s currently sporting amazing silver hair.)

Speaking on a Zoom call on a February afternoon in L.A., Janney covers all of the above and more in this week’s Parade cover story.

Mara Reinstein: This story will be published during Oscars weekend, so let’s talk about your win for I, Tonya. Were you nervous even though you were the frontrunner?

Allison Janney: I never take an award for granted. And there were many great women in that category like Laurie Metcalf and Lesley Manville, so I was very nervous. Mostly I didn’t want to let anybody down. Like, oh my god, my mother is watching. If I don’t win, everyone is going to be so disappointed. Then to hear my name was such a combination of fear and anxiety and joy and incredulity and so many things wrapped in one in that moment. It was such a wonderful night.

Did winning feel like the culmination of all your dreams?

So much so that I was like, what do I do now? It was weird. I went through a little bit of a depression afterward because the Oscar was what I was working toward. So there was a little bit of melancholy and rethinking what’s important now and what do I still want to do with my career. I think I felt I could be a little more selective and say no a little more.

A few years later, you said yes to Palm Royale. What do you love about it?

It’s just a glorious show to watch. All the production elements, from every hairdo down to my bra and shoes, are extraordinary. I was blown away by what they did to make the show look spectacular.

Do you have even a trace of Evelyn in you?

No one would tell you that I act like a queen bee. That’s definitely not me. I’m the worker bee.

Your co-stars include Kristen Wiig, Ricky Martin and Laura Dern. Who really surprised you?

They’re all beautiful actors. And, of course, Carol Burnett [who plays Wiig’s mother-in-law] is the reason I wanted to be an actor in the first place. My mom [Macy Brooks] used to be an actress, and they really inspired me. And my father [Jervis, a real-estate developer] definitely sat up straight when I told him. It’s like my whole career has been legitimized by working with her.

Per your IMDB page, you were discovered by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Is that true?

I’m OK with that! Yeah, I went to Kenyon College in Ohio. Paul Newman, who had attended Kenyon too, built this beautiful new theater on the campus and was asked to christen it by directing its first play. He and Joanne took me under their wing and Joanne was the first person who suggested that I go to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. And Paul said to me, “If you ever need a favor, I’m here for you. But make it very specific.”

Did you ever follow-up?

Never. I would come up with something but then think it wasn’t good enough. But knowing that I had that in my pocket made me feel so confident.

Do you think your height worked to your advantage?

I think maybe it was a disadvantage, at least in the beginning. Everyone said I would have to get older and grow into my parts, which actually turned out to be true. I moved to New York in 1982. I didn’t start making money as an actor until I was about 35. I didn’t get my first Broadway show until I was 38. I was about 40 when I got The West Wing.

You did pop in some interesting roles before The West Wing. Which ones immediately spring to mind?

Well, definitely [1997’s] Private Parts, which was the Howard Stern movie. That was fun. I actually start the whole movie. I’m the very first thing you see in it! I went to the cast and crew screening and, oh my god, I was not expecting that. Being in [1996’s] Big Night with Stanley Tucci was a huge thing. And getting [1999’s] American Beauty. Those were the big three.

How did you get your role on The West Wing?

Aaron [Sorkin] had seen me in the Mike Nichols film Primary Colors with John Travolta and Emma Thompson. I have to do a pratfall in that movie going up a staircase, and that pratfall got me a lot of attention. Aaron saw it—and in my very first scene as C.J., I fall off a treadmill. He used to let me do a lot of physical comedy and lean into my chops.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishment from your time on the show?

I’m so proud of what we put out into the world. A lot of teachers use it to teach about politics. And I love what it did for women because C.J. was thriving in a man’s world and really owned her power. I still get letters from women who changed their majors because C.J. inspired them to go into public service. And people in Washington were so grateful that Aaron created a show that lifted the curtain on public service and showed these workers as heroes.

It's an election year. Is there a reunion in the near future?

We’ll definitely do something for Joe Biden. Absolutely. We’re talking to the administration and trying to figure out what we can do to help the cause. We’ve stumped before and gone to different swing states to help. It’s definitely part of our lives together after The West Wing.

Do you miss the daily TV grind?

It was great for someone who likes to be at home. I do because I love my dogs and my friends. And when you do a sitcom like Mom, you work four or five hours a day. I would not say no to another job like that if it came around. I don’t like to travel as much as I used to.

Your credits list is insanely long. What’s the fan favorite?

Drop Dead Gorgeous [from 1999] is a cult film that people love. It’s wild. I don’t even know why—and it’s with younger people! And The West Wing and I, Tonya.

Obviously, you like to work. But do you make time for yourself?

I'm a workaholic because I love what I do. But the biggest break I’ve had in a long time was during this terribly long labor strike last year. That was unusual, and it was challenging for me. I marched on the picket lines but I also had to take care of myself in other ways, which was good for me.

So what’s your creative outlet outside acting?

I have a piano and a guitar. I’m in a band with Mary McCormack and Courteney Cox called The Broken Dolls. We haven’t played anywhere yet, but we’re trying to get some songs together and rehearse and go out on the road. It’s just hard to get the three of us in a room at the same time.

Wait, who’s the lead singer of your band?

Courteney plays the piano. I’m trying to play the guitar, but I sing. And Mary sings and plays the tambourine.

Do you think it’s a cliché that life gets better with age or do you believe it?

I think in some ways my relationship to myself gets better. I give myself a break and accept who I am and know who I am. That’s a wonderful thing that comes with age. I’m also just getting better at letting things go. Just forget it. That feels good.

And your career is thriving.

It took me so long to get work, but I feel like there are lots more roles for women my age now. I’m grateful for that because acting is fun and I don’t ever intend to retire. I start season two of [the Netflix drama] The Diplomat in March.

What do your parents make of your success?

They’re so funny. I remember when I got nominated for an Emmy, I called my parents and my mom said, “Honey, that’s lovely, but your father and I are dealing with a burst septic tank. We’ll talk to you later.” It really brought me back to life. But I know they’re really proud of me and very happy that I made it. At one point, I know my father told me, “You might want to think about another kind of job to tide you over.” I did have to spend a lot of time scooping ice cream, but I had to be patient. I knew it would happen sooner or later.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.