The heralded actress discusses her latest film, I, Tonya in theaters now.
Actress Allison Janney
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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Pleased to welcome seven time — that’s right — seven time Emmy winner, Allison Janney — you go, girl — back to this program. She is, of course, known for her television work in such series as “The West Wing”, “Masters of Sex” and “Mom”, currently in it’s fifth season on CBS and about to celebrate your…
Allison Janney: 100th.
Tavis: 100th episode coming up pretty soon. But it is her portrayal as the mother of infamous figure skater, Tanya Harding, in a film, “I, Tonya”, that has everybody in this town talking. Before our conversation, here now a scene from “I, Tonya”.
Tavis: How do you find the empathy, the humanity, in a character like that?
Janney: That’s an excellent question and one that I definitely — that was the challenge in taking on this role and that’s the first thing I do whenever I take on any part is, no matter what the character does, I can’t judge them because I’m going to be playing them. So I look to find their wounds. Where were they hurt? here’s their humanity, as you said?
I decided, not having been able to ever meet the real LaVona Harding — the writer, Steven Rogers, tried to find her, but couldn’t find her anywhere. Tonya didn’t know where she was nor did she care. So I sort of made up my own back story, but I had to believe that she had to have come from an abusive family herself.
She had to have been abused. She’s someone, to me, that seemed really angry at the world, that she had been dealt a raw, you know, a bad hand. She was angry and resentful and she saw this opportunity to give her daughter a better life and give herself a better life.
She took it and she’s someone who, I think, doesn’t know how to love or be loved and that’s her version of loving, is being tough on someone. That’s all she knows, so those are the little things I look for and, also, there was this film — I wish I could remember her name right now — but she did a documentary.
A Yale college student did a documentary about Tonya Harding when she was 15 years old. And there was all this great footage of LaVona Harding. And when you see at the end of the movie, you see the credits, you see her in that fur coat and the bird.
That wasn’t something that we made up. That was her unique look, which I absolutely loved, that I got to look like that. But, you know, in one of the scenes, she talks about how Tonya’s this incredible skater and she’s trying to fit into this world of figure skating and they didn’t want her because she didn’t fit in.
You know, she didn’t have the class or she was seen as being on the wrong side of the tracks. And it one point, there’s this scene where she talks about her fur coat. Like why does she need a fur coat? She’s a skater. She can do a triple, you know? I say some other colorful things about the coat…
Tavis: Yeah. You say a lot of colorful things in this film [laugh].
Janney: There’s a lot of colorful things. But that fur coat, what broke my heart is in that documentary, you see LaVona Harding in a fur coat. I thought she wanted to be seen as someone who had a fur coat. It just spoke volumes to me about her pain.
Tavis: What did you make of Tonya not knowing where her mother was — I saw your eyes kind of roll — and not caring where here mother was. What did that say to you as a person inhabiting this character about their relationship, that she didn’t know where her mama was, didn’t care where her mama was?
Janney: Yeah. It says to me that she had a terrible relationship with her mother. You know, Steven Rogers, who interviewed extensively Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly for this movie, he said, “The only thing those two agreed about was who LaVona was and how awful she was.”
That was the only area where they were both in agreement. Everything else was completely two different sides to the story, to the incident. So I knew that she wasn’t loved. She wasn’t a good mother.
Tavis: You also mentioned the parakeet [laugh]. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 1,000 times. Do not act with an animal because you might get upstaged [laugh].
Janney: I held my own with that bird!
Tavis: No, I’m saying you did, though [laugh]. You held your own with the parakeet. But did that freak you out? Did it? Yeah?
Janney: Yes, I’m a dog person. I’m not a bird person.
Tavis: Yeah, but I’m also cracking up. There’s a moment — again, I don’t want to give it away. Maybe they’ll play, I don’t know — but there’s a moment where you’re like, “Stop doing that.” Obviously, the bird didn’t know his part, so that line wasn’t written. So you just kind of played…
Janney: No, no, no. Oh, yeah. I played off that bird. I got to audition three birds for that part…
Tavis: Oh, there it is. That’s the picture, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Janney: Oh, yeah. Look at that. I love that bird now. I totally fell in love with him. His name is Little Man. He lives in southern Georgia somewhere and I totally fell in love with him. But I was a little intimidated because birds are unpredictable to me.
I don’t know how they behave. They kind of freak me out. I thought, “Geez, I gotta do a scene with this bird.” And all the other birds I didn’t pick because on the audition, they kept crawling over in my hair and I’m gonna be wearing a wig.
And Little Man, this little guy, just hung out on my shoulder. I was like, “Okay, this guy gets it.” And then cut to the scene and I’ve got the fur coat and the breathing apparatus in, and he’s fascinated with that and just starts going to town on my ear. It kind of was great. It fueled me. I used it.
It fueled LaVona as she’s telling her side of the story to the camera and this bird is there. I’m determined not to let him stop me from saying my story and knowing that, also, we didn’t have a lot of time to film it. I was like this bird is not gonna screw up my take. I’m gonna keep going, no matter what he does.
And I had decided early on that a long time ago when I was trying to learn how to be cool smoking cigarettes — oh, my God, that’s how old I am — but someone said, “Don’t ever look at the cigarette. That’s how you look cool is never looking at something.” So I thought, okay, that’s what I’ll do with this bird. I’ll just never look at it and it’ll look like I’m a cool. I’m a cool bird owner.
Tavis: It’s amazing to hear actors tell the stories of the things they bring to the characters they play and how they figure certain things out, and it works, it works.
Janney: I thought it worked too.
Tavis: You were a skater, were you not?
Janney: Yeah, I was. That was my first dream as a child. I wanted to be an Olympic figure skater. I was lucky enough in Ohio, my father was in commercial real estate and he owned a building that housed an ice skating rink, so I had access to free ice all the time.
And I would go — I mean, I was very committed. I would get up — my parents very wisely made me get up and then wake them up. So they would take me to the ice skating rink at 5:30 in the morning and I would meet my coach and work on my compulsory figures.
And then I’d go to school and then I’d come back after school and work. I loved it. I loved it so much, but ultimately, it’s an acrobatic sport. Maybe ice dancing I could have done. I was very graceful, but I could do two double jumps, but I couldn’t…
Tavis: But no triple axel [laugh]?
Janney: No way could I do that. So I was fascinated when this movie came around. A very dear friend of mine wrote it. We had gone to the Neighborhood Playhouse together. Steven Rogers and I, we started off as actors together in New York and went through this.
I remember when the Tonya Harding incident happened and it was very much on my radar, having been a figure skater and I knew the players involved.
Tavis: The film is about family or about dysfunctional family, but the parallel to that is that, as you just mentioned, the writer of this. You all are like family and that you go so far back. You started out together.
For me, I just love celebrating seeing friends do well and there’s something sweet about walking a journey with someone and then they write something years later and the two of you come together. He writes it and you star in it and…
Janney: And, Tavis, also the thing that’s been so unique and special about “I, Tonya” for Steven and I is that he’s written lots of other movies and roles specifically for me, but have always been played by another actress. It’s been our joke. The part written for Allison Janney will be played by…Tavis Smiley or, you know, whatever.
There’s always somebody else who gets cast in them and this time he wrote “I, Tonya” as a spec script, so he didn’t get paid for it. So when he was shopping it around, he had the power to say, “Yeah, you can’t do this movie unless Allison Janney…” He attached me to it before he even told me he had done that because that’s how close we are.
Tavis: That’s what friends are for [laugh].
Janney: Exactly [laugh].
Tavis: And now fast forward. If I’m right about this, and I think I am, there’s gonna be a bunch of nominations for you because of that relationship. Before my time runs out, it’s hard to imagine because you’ve been here before, a number of times, of course, hard to imagine you’re in your fifth season now.
Janney: I know. I just got this lovely watch for our — we, of course, are filming our 100th episode.
Tavis: That is a lovely watch, a very lovely watch.
Janney: I know. CBS gave this to all the girls on the show. We are filming it right now. Of course, it won’t air until in January or something, but we are currently filming our 100th episode. It’s an amazing mile marker.
Tavis: I want to get me a show at CBS for five years. Get me a watch like that.
Janney: I know. It’s very pretty, isn’t it?
Tavis: No, it’s more than pretty [laugh]. It’s awfully nice. Every time I think about you, I think about how fortunate you have been — I would say blessed, that’s my own word — how fortunate you’ve been, though, to be a part of these series that have run. It’s every actor’s dream in this town.
Janney: Yes, it is.
Tavis: To be a part of something that runs multiple seasons…
Janney: Talk about an actor having a day job, a regular job. It’s so rare that you land one of these and I feel incredibly fortunate, blessed, lucky, everything to have landed on these, landed in a pot of jam. It’s a great job and it affords me — I can do — I mean, thank God, they let me do “I, Tonya”, you know.
This was crazy at the beginning of 2017. I was shooting “Mom”, I was starting rehearsals for “Six Degrees of Separation” that I did on Broadway, and going to Atlanta to do “I, Tonya”. So a lot of people had to work to get the schedule to fit for me to do this movie.
Tavis: To all the folk who made it possible for Allison Janney to do “I, Tonya”, thank you. She did a wonderful job on it. You are going to love this film. Allison kills in this role. Honored to have you back on the program.
Janney: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Come back any time. Good to see you.
Janney: I’d love to. Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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