The award-winning actress discusses her roles in her latest—and very different—projects: CBS’ comedy, Mom, and the Showtime drama series, Masters of Sex.
Actress Allison JanneyOriginally aired on June 10, 2014
Tavis: For any actor playing very different characters in one season, it must be both a challenge and a reward. Four-time Emmy winner, Allison Janney, who won all those awards for her role as C.J. Cregg in “The West Wing” is now doing just that.
She stars – get this – in the hit CBS comedy, “Mom”, as the rather freewheeling less than proper Bonny Plunkett – I’m being charitable and generous in that description – while at the same time, she stars in the acclaimed Showtime series, “Masters of Sex”. She does a 180 here now playing Margaret Scully, a rather staid and repressed wife and mother in the 1950s.
She is being considered, then, no surprise, as a frontrunner for Emmy nominations for both of those roles. So we start our conversation tonight with a scene from last season’s “Masters of Sex” which, by the way, returns to Showtime, thankfully, come July.
Tavis: All right, so I’ll start with a confession. When this thing, “Masters of Sex”, first came out, I didn’t think I was feeling it. I tried the first episode and, oh, it was okay. So I tuned in the next week and it got a little more interesting. And before I knew it, I was hooked. But I didn’t expect to be. I didn’t think I was going to be. But the writing on this thing…
Allison Janney: Yeah. It’s exquisite.
Tavis: It’s so good. I mean, I was just whispering to you while that clip was playing. Some of the issues that are being explored here in the 50s are just so titillating.
Janney: Yeah, and still relevant today. It’s shocking, but definitely the story line for me was Margaret Scully. They hadn’t written it when they asked me to come on board and Michelle Ashford and Sarah Timberland talked to me about where they wanted to go with this character.
I just thought it sounded like an amazing story line to get to work on and with Beau Bridges. Just heartbreaking to watch this woman realize, you know, the sex study comes out and her whole life unravels.
She realizes she’s not having any orgasms. She learns she’s never had an orgasm before. She’s not having sex and why doesn’t her husband love her? And for him, an amazing time to be a gay man. Not an amazing time. Not a very warmer and accepting environment to be gay.
It was just the whole story line has been – I think people are really connecting to it or have feeling for these characters, both sort of repressed for different reasons.
Tavis: If I heard you correctly, that sounds to me like a lot of trust that you put in these two women or a production team to sign on to something that hadn’t been fully developed. Particularly, at this stage of your career, you don’t have to do that.
Janney: I knew of Masters and Johnson and I knew of Michelle’s writing. I wasn’t worried about – I was more worried that I wouldn’t be allowed to with doing “Mom” on CBS, but, fortunately, there run by the same mother ship. So that was a lot to do with it [laugh].
Tavis: They own everything these days [laugh], yeah.
Janney: The thing I was most nervous about was the fact that they told me up front that I would have to do – you know, there would be some nudity involved, some sex scenes, and that was a little bit scary. But they were so – Michelle and Sarah on the phone were just lovely with me. They said nothing will be done that you’re not comfortable with.
And I trusted them. I loved the way they were talking with me and I certainly knew that any sex scenes would be completely part of the – integral to the story as all the sex scenes are on the show. There’s nothing gratuitous about the sex. I mean, even if it’s called “Masters of Sex”.
It was so funny. My mother, when I told her I was doing this way back before it came out, she couldn’t even – she was just mortified by the title. Her friends were saying, “What’s your daughter up to in there?” “Oh, she’s doing this lovely show for CBS called ‘Mom’ and then she’s doing this other show that’s called – well, it’s with Beau Bridges.” She could never -
Tavis: Couldn’t say the name of it, huh [laugh]?
Janney: She couldn’t say the name and now, of course, in her circle of friends…
Tavis: Let me probe a bit because I suspect – I’ve asked this question, I guess, a few times over the course of my career of different actors who are playing different sex scenes, but I never asked you this question.
So what’s your process? When you’re told that there are gonna be some sex scenes, you’ve been in this business for quite a while. How do you process that? Like what goes into your deciding whether or not…
Janney: Subtext, you’re 50 [laugh].
Tavis: No, that’s not where I was going, no. See, I wasn’t thinking about the age thing.
Janney: Oh, I was.
Tavis: I mean, you are a woman of a certain age and it’s better than being dead.
Janney: Yes, it is.
Tavis: I mean, my mom says all the time, “The only way you don’t live to grow old is you die young.”
Janney: Then you die, yeah.
Tavis: So okay. So that’s part of the subtext. I’ll cop to that. But the larger thing I was getting at is that you don’t have to do that at this point in your career. You’ve earned the right to say no to that. So when you decide you’re going to subject yourself to that, what’s your process for making that decision?
Janney: Well, first off, fortunately I had no idea I was going to get offered this when I had started changing my diet and not eating as much pasta and bread as I used to and I was working out and going to Pilates. So my body had changed and I felt probably better about my body than I did in my 20s or 30s. So I was like, okay, that can’t be the reason I’m going to say no.
And I trusted them. I knew that they would respect what I felt comfortable doing and I thought it was worth it for this story line. And as I got closer to it after reading the scripts, I just knew that it was a real integral part of Margaret Scully’s journey and I needed to do it and it was – and then, from there, it’s just a day in, day out, me and the director.
It’s terrifying. I’m not going to lie to you. I was not very comfortable, but the thing that made it comfortable was they are so respectful of everyone on that set. It’s always a closed set and the director is there with you and you go through it like paint by numbers. You’re like I’m going to put my hand here, then I’m going to go here, then…
Tavis: So it really ain’t sex.
Tavis: So it really ain’t sex [laugh].
Janney: No. There’s nothing about it that’s sexy.
Tavis: Yeah, there’s nothing sexy about it, huh?
Janney: And then the cameras roll and you feel free to play within the boundaries of what you’ve established. And then I just pray that the lighting designer – I look at the lighting designer before and I’m like you know I love you, right? Just make me look great, make this look, please.
Tavis: What, then, is – I can only assume that there obviously is an artistic value that I may never know that you feel when you get a chance to play a character like this.
But what’s the value to the audience of seeing you play a woman who is repressed and denied, etc., etc., etc.? What do you hope to take away for those of us like me who watch this every week?
Janney: Oh, God. You know, I love the way audiences have fallen in love with Margaret and her story ’cause I think there’s still even, I think, women today who aren’t – maybe haven’t been fulfilled sexually or feel inadequate in some way.
I think that Margaret feeling – taking it all on herself that her husband doesn’t want her because she’s not good in bed or she’s, you know, inadequate, it’s heartbreaking especially when you know what the real truth is.
She’s been living a lie her whole life or living a life that wasn’t what you thought it was and then still having to find a way to accept it and move on.
I mean, I feel like what woman doesn’t have to go through all of those issues whether or not she’s being pleased or not by her partner or whether her husband’s really gay or whether she could have been so many things?
I could have done this with my life, I could have – and Margaret just represents that in this show in a microcosm of, you know, one family’s home in the 1950s and that incredibly repressed time.
And I think that’s what it is. You root for her. You want to see her, you know, be fulfilled in her life.
Tavis: Let me do something I shouldn’t do on television as a host, which is answer the question I just asked.
Janney: Okay, ’cause I didn’t answer it, right?
Tavis: No, no, no. You answered beautifully, but you answered it as an actor. I want to answer it, you know, hutzpah though it may be, I want to answer it from the standpoint of just a viewer. I can’t speak for all of you. It’s for myself as a viewer.
What made me connect to her, your character – I mean, the sex thing, I can’t connect to that, obviously, what it feels like for a woman to not be pleased by her partner. But what I can connect to is this feeling of her very dignity and humanity being contested because she has been lied to, because she’s being deceived.
And that ain’t about sex. It’s not about gender and it’s not about race or anything else. None of us wants to live a life where we’re being lied to and deceived and, again, denied. So that’s the level at which I connected to. Does that make sense?
Janney: And then they also put that in there, but they also want there to be a real love between the two of them. It’s not that she finds out and secretly hated him, but never knew what to do. She truly loves this man and he truly loves her too.
But, yes, she has been – you know, she has great pride and I think she’s – yeah, her dignity is – what you said [laugh].
Tavis: Now I feel like I should have my audio guide, Jerry, or somebody make a squeaking sound like (squeal), a real screech ’cause now I want to go to the other character you play and there’s never any danger [laugh] of these two characters being conflicted or confused whatsoever.
But it speaks to your artistic genius as a thespian that you can play both these characters on television at the same time. This “Mom” thing is, I mean, a lot of people are getting a kick out of this.
Janney: I know. I’m thrilled that they are. Yeah, she’s quite a different character. I would say I’m more like Margaret Scully than I am like Bonnie. Maybe I’m more like Bonnie after a couple of margaritas or something [laugh]. I mean, she’s a little scary. I’m not afraid to play her because I like to be big and bold.
You know, the comedy is large and I’m not afraid of that. And I attribute that to my theater training and growing up doing, you know, fade out farces and doing noises off, all those sort of comedy of errors. Going back and forth from different style to different style.
First, because I was nervous about doing that, I was doing “Masters of Sex” and then had to go do the “Mom” pilot. I was like how am I gonna do this on Friday and then show up on Monday and be this character?
And then once I got on the set and with Anna and Chuck, it was just like, okay, I’m on a different – this is just different day and I’m in a different world and I can exist in this world too. It’s a lot of fun. And I especially love that Chuck has given us story lines that allow us to be pretty emotional in a half hour comedy with the issues we deal with.
And I’m grateful to him for that because, otherwise, it tends to be that format usually as, you know, exists on a very idle high and there’s not a lot of, you know, variance and deep lows. And I love that he’s letting us do that with the different, you know, issues we’re tackling.
Tavis: How do you do that? I mean, this might be a question I should ask of Chuck instead of you. But since Chuck ain’t here, I’ll ask you. How do you that in a comedy? How do you have a comedy that does allow you to deal with that sort of emotion and make it all work in that kind of sitcom?
Janney: I just treat it as if, for me, it’s just my character. I don’t think of myself as being in a comedy or being in a – I just try to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances.
And I think in the back of my head, my actor, had I known if it’s a comedy or, you know, drama, but I think they all include every emotion, that everything – how am I saying this? I’m not saying this right. I think of it as I don’t go for the laughs, in other words. And I don’t try to make people laugh ’cause that’s where I don’t make people laugh.
It’s very hard to be on the set when Chuck knows you’ll get a laugh here and I want to go, “How do you know I’m gonna get a laugh there?” And sure enough, I get a laugh there. I was like, hey, I can’t do that. If I do that, I feel like I jinxed myself and I won’t get the laugh. But I just try to be truthful and never try to make anybody laugh.
So when I have to do these deep – when Bonnie had to talk about where she came from, growing up in foster homes, and the deep pain that’s there that caused her to behave the way she did and become an addict and drink and, you know, expose her daughter to terrible things, it was a window into her life, what it was like for her growing up.
And I think people felt for Bonnie finally, like, my God, she went through all that? It’s not an excuse, but she’s a person who’s been wounded incredibly.
And doing that monologue, I remember, really feeling the sadness or what she had gone through and feeling the tears come up and then being able to make a joke about it in the next sentence. Well, I did steal the TV from him. Being able to – it was just very natural and real to do that. I don’t even know if I answered your question.
Tavis: No, you did. Not only did you answer it, but you gave me something that I’m going to have to masticate on, just kind of marinate on, beyond this conversation. Every time you come on, there’s always at least one or two lines that you just blurt out.
I’m like hold up, wait a minute. Let me go back and unpack that ’cause that was like – I used to go to a church and the preacher was kind of funny whenever he would say something that he thought was really deep and it usually was. He would say it and he’d back up and say, “I think I just said something.” [Laugh] I think I just said something.
Janney: Oh, my God [laugh].
Tavis: And you just said something a moment ago that I want to go back to. ‘Cause I’m going to have to write this down and, again, kind of marinate on it. But I love this phrase you use, living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. That’s a great line. Living truthfully…
Janney: Well, that was not mine.
Tavis: Well, they say the mediocre borrow, the great ones steal. So whoever you got it from, that’s a great line.
Janney: Sanford Meisner. I studied with him at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City…
Tavis: Living truthfully…
Janney: Their motto, or what do you call it, their mantra was “Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”.
Tavis: That’s a great line. Is that just for actors? Or is that applicable to those of us who are not thespians?
Janney: Well, I think some way it’s a good way to get over – if you pretend. If you’re afraid of public speaking, you imagine yourself, you know, whatever you need to do to make yourself comfortable.
And you could imagine yourself, you know, set up a situation where everyone in the audience is in their underwear, you know, whatever those tricks you do. But, yeah, no matter what the imaginary circumstances, you just try to be honest.
Tavis: See, that line makes perfect sense for me for actors because, if you can’t make the audience believe it, whatever those imaginary circumstances are, if we can’t truthfully buy that you are that character, then it doesn’t work. So for acting, it’s a perfect mantra.
Janney: So one of my acting teachers said, “If you have to hide behind a lamppost, you really have to do that and believe that you are hidden behind it” even though no one can hide except for maybe Audrey Hepburn.
Yeah, no matter how far, do it. And I like to go big or go home. Someone gives me a direction, I usually go too far. They have to rein me back in, but…
Tavis: I like that. There you go again. Go big or go home.
Janney: Go big or go home.
Tavis: I love it [laugh]. What does it mean – let me ask you to set your modesty aside for just a second. At this point in your career, what does it mean for you? How do you process, Allison, that you are playing two different characters on two different hit shows at the same time?
I mean, there’s some people – I mean, this is an actor’s dream to have, you know, and you’re living it. How do you process this moment?
Janney: I am so proud that I got to be a part of these. And I didn’t know it was going to turn out this way, that they’d both be on the air at the same time nor that either one of them would be. I feel incredibly lucky and I love that it looks like a great party trick I’m doing.
I always remember back in New York when Cynthia Nixon was doing – oh, was it “Hurlyburly” and some other show she was doing. She was doing two shows on Broadway at the same time and I was like I want to do that.
I remember hearing about that story and I was like I could do that. I want to do that. It was just something that stuck with me. So I’m doing my little version of Cynthia Nixon’s trick, but not having to race in a cab across town.
Tavis: Since you’ve done this for quite some time – we all still love you in “The West Wing” reruns. We’re not even counting your reruns. We’re just talking about first runs. You got two first-run shows at the same time, not counting, again, the reruns.
What’s your sense of television? Obviously, one of the things you’re on is pay cable. The other is network. But from your perspective, is TV getting better or getting worse? You been on TV for a while.
Janney: Well, it’s sad. Gosh, I feel like in some ways so much about television that I hate. I’m not a fan of the reality shows and I think, for me, that started with “West Wing” when our ratings started going down when we were opposite “The Bachelor”.
I was just incensed at how could people watch – how is that the same audience? I don’t understand that we’re losing…
Tavis: That offended you?
Janney: Yeah. I thought it was rubbernecking. I just was embarrassed that that was where we were going. I said, surely that part of the industry will saturate and pass and be gone.
Tavis: And you couldn’t have been more wrong.
Janney: I could not have been more wrong. And still I feel like – I mean, you know, there’s room for everyone, I suppose. But in some ways, I feel it takes away from the writers and actors.
But that being said, there’s also some great, wonderful shows on television. And the way we watch them now is so different. You know, I watched “Breaking Bad” in one weekend and watch “House of Cards” in one weekend. And I’m watching “Game of Thrones”.
I mean, I love television. There’s some great television, so I don’t know how to – I think that there’s been a great resurgence of new, wonderful shows, so I hope that we still keep growing. If we have to live with reality TV, we have to. I don’t know, but I really…[laugh].
Tavis: So how long do you think you can manage doing both of these?
Janney: I could – as long as they’ll have me, I’ll do it, yeah. It’s sort of where it works out…
Tavis: I’m just curious. This is one of those, again, another one of those inside the actor studio questions. But like who runs your lines with you? Like when you’re trying to learn your scripts for both shows, like how do you do that?
Janney: Whoever I can get. Anna, fortunately, she loves to run the lines. And in the half hour world, you can’t memorize them too quickly ’cause they change all the time. So usually we start on Monday and we pre-shoot Thursday and shoot live on Friday.
And Anna and I will just run them in each other’s dressing room. For “Masters”, I have whoever is my assistant who’s with me sometimes. I’ll have anybody. You know, I’ll have a friend come over and run them. It’s ’cause I always do much better if I get them off the page.
I have three dogs and they do not like it when I’ll sit in bed and I’ll be, you know, doing my lines. They go like this and then they like run off. They go into the other room ’cause they don’t want to be around. They hear me talking like Margaret Scully or Bonnie. It upsets them, so I can’t do that.
You know, worst possible case scenario, I get to the studio and get one of the PAs to come and sit with me. You know, I would make you run lines with me right now if I had any.
Tavis: You know, I would be honored to run lines with you [laugh]. I would be honored to run lines with you.
Janney: Has anyone ever asked you to do that?
Tavis: Nobody’s ever asked me run lines. If my mama’s watching – Mom, turn your volume down right quick ’cause I’m gonna tell Allison something you really don’t want to hear. I would run lines with you and I will play act with you in certain scenes.
Tavis: You read between those lines [laugh]. Yeah, you call me anytime. Matter of fact, there’s certain scenes I’d be happy to show up to, to rehearse with you. You got that?
Janney: I got it [laugh].
Tavis: There you go [laugh]. Anyway, okay. That was politically incorrect, but my mom had the volume turned down, so I’m okay. The rest of you, save your letters. Anyway, Allison Janney is in a couple of series right now. I made you blush. I like that.
Janney: Yeah, you did.
Tavis: Yeah, okay. Allison Janney’s in a couple of series right now. “Masters of Sex” coming back in July. I can’t wait for that. I’ll be running lines with her at her house in June. Get her ready for her return in July. And then, of course, “Mom” on CBS, all under one big umbrella.
They’re happy about it and we are happy about it as well. Allison, good to have you back on the program.
Janney: It’s nice to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: It’s always good to see you.
Janney: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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