It would be a feat of mammoth proportions to be the coolest person to ever come out of Ohio, what with all the Bootsies, Sugars, Dwights, Halles, O’Jays, Presidents, Csonkas, Flying brothers, Thurbers, Retail moguls, Woodies, Spielbergs, Golden Bears, Roy Rogerses, Sheens, Doris Days, Jamie Farrs (O.K. maybe not so much), freakin’ astronauts (for cryin’ out loud), Mancinis and Paul Newman. However, since the coolness sciences remain purely theoretical, any such ranking need be purely qualitative, and must, of course, assume Mr. Newman to be cool well beyond any measurability current technology can offer, hence eliminating him from the sample group, lest he skew the results beyond any validity. With that caveat in mind, we at C have no problem proclaiming publicly that Allison Janney is one of the coolest people to ever come from Ohio.
Just the story of how Janney was discovered is enough to bump her into the ninety-fifth percentile, but her manifold accomplishments since then easily propel her into that ambiguous area obfuscated by that pesky margin of error. Hence, our rather bold assertion: Allison Janney is easily one of the coolest people to ever come out of Dayton, or the whole state of Ohio.
While a freshman at Kenyon College, Janney auditioned for Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward. She got the part, she says, “…because I lied. I knew he was a racecar driver, and I said that the drive from Dayton to Kenyon College is two and a half hours, but I make it in an hour and a half.”
Lie or not, she performed so well for the Woodward-Newmans that they recommended she study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, which then led to a Tony nomination, an Outer Critics’ Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Then, after a little Shakespeare in the Park, some guy drinking Drambuie out of her high heel, too many television appearances to list, some Big Night, Celebrity, Ice Storm, Primary Colors, Finding Nemo, American Beauty,… okay, ditto with the movies, Golden Globe nominations, Emmy and SAG awards, and six years as CJ, the president’s press secretary cum chief of staff on The West Wing, she thought she’d do something REALLY cool and talk to C Magazine.
Playing With Politics
Six years acting like a press secretary and chief of staff taught Janney a thing or two about the monster we call politics. She admits to being a little politically ignorant when she began her work on The West Wing, but as she learned more about politics, she began to see it as a loathsome entity full of wonderful people.
What is the biggest difference between The West Wing’s interaction with the Clinton administration and their interaction with the Bush administration?
The Clinton administration really embraced us and took it as a compliment that our show was on the air and doing so well. It was just so cool to be part of their dialog in the White House - their vocabulary. It was a whole new world for me, because I was never that politically involved or savvy at all… I don’t know that anyone has been invited back to the White House since Bush came to office. Of course, Martin [Sheen] has said some pretty incendiary things about Mr. Bush, and I don’t think that we’d be invited anywhere near… But, then, who would want to go?!? There are some people who work there that Richard Schiff said were just as nice, but a little more officious. The main difference is that they embraced us during Clinton, but Bush doesn’t want anything to do with us.
What is the most important or poignant thing you have learned about politics since you have had to become savvier?
I felt that by being on the show and getting to meet people in public service, I’ve met people who are trying to do their best. I still don’t like politics, because it becomes about things that don’t mean anything or shouldn’t mean anything, like whether you’ve smoked a joint or had therapy. I don’t care. I don’t care if someone smoked a joint in high school. I would like them to be someone who has lived life and knows life and is just an enlightened person, and I don’t give a shit what their background is. I just want someone enlightened and forward thinking - some visionary.
What was the biggest surprise about the way politics works in the United States?
It was interesting to find out that relationships weren’t necessarily formed because of your job description. Just because you were press secretary, didn’t mean you had to be in the inner circle. It is all relationship driven. If you got along with the chief of staff, then you would be included in more things. If you didn’t, if it was more of a personal thing, then it was sorta like kindergarten.
The Politics of Hollywood
Sometimes the lines between reality and entertainment are blurred, especially when the entertainment in question is based on actual situations. Allison knows very well how blurry those lines can be, but she also adds, “It’s been fun putting a good face on politics, doing this show and putting a human face on the people who work in the White House.”
How do you think John Travolta’s president in Primary Colors was similar to Bill Clinton?
Boy he tried a lot to be like him, didn’t he. So funny. He got that accent down. I don’t know Clinton that well, y’know, but I love that movie. Doing that part in that movie is how I got West Wing. He had it down to a T, but I don’t think Clinton would like to say that that was him. Who knows if he’s that much of a ladies’ man, but why not? I bet there were so many presidents that had their affairs, but they weren’t publicized that much. I think Clinton truly a great man – just brilliant. When he came to our set, he sat there and talked to us about Osama Bin Laden. It was just after 9-11. I just felt “God, I wish he were still in the White House.” He’s so smart and charismatic.
Do you think you put a lot of De De Myers into CJ?
No, no. I love talking to her and hearing her stories. I’ve met a lot of different press secretaries, and I’ve found that the one thing they have in common is a sense of humor, and they are really smart people. You have to be to go out in front of the press like that and be able to hold your own. I can’t imagine a job I’d be less suited for. De De was really great to talk to – a really smart, fun woman.
How much of you is CJ?
The parts of CJ who are me are the emotions and the sense of humor, the vocal patterns, the voice inflections, the way she looks and what she’s wearing. When she falls and messes up, that’s more me than anything else. I’m a smart girl, too, but let’s put it this way, if I had to ad lib… I can’t ad lib. We did do one episode called Access, about a day in the life of CJ as press secretary. That was hysterical, because I had to do a lot of ad libbing, and I thought, “Are you kidding me?” I can’t ad lib politics: “Yes, make sure the people from… that country are taken care of and give them… something.” I couldn’t even begin to ad lib as press secretary. I like to listen more than I like to talk.
Are there term limits on TV?
Absolutely. They have sort of shortened our term by making the election this year. We really have a whole other year before an election. They could carry on the show with the next president and have a whole new administration. That could be pretty exciting, if it did well. It will be interesting to see how the Commander in Chief does, because that is a show very much modeled after West Wing – an idealistic look at politics…
What is more corrupt: politics or the entertainment industry?
I think politics are more corrupt. I think entertainment’s corruption is right out there. Everyone knows that people are selling sex or selling whatever. It’s just so obvious what entertainment is. With politics, the corruption is a little more hidden. I don’t think people can tell what’s going on. Hollywood is just out there. You know what it is. It’s right there. It sucks the way it works. I have a feeling that it is more corrupt in politics. It’s more insidious.
The Big Screen Campaign
Allison Janney has a few movies slated to be released in the next year (Strangers with Candy, based on Amy Sedaris’ underground hit show) and one already in the theaters - The Chumscrubber. She knows a lot about what it’s like to get to work with supremely talented and funny people.
So what is a Chum and why does it need so much scrubbing?
Chumscrubber is a fictional character, sort of an anti hero. He’s a cartoon character in the post-apocalyptic world and he carries his own head around in his hand and walks around and I think he makes things all right somehow. He lives in the underworld and he’s a hero. I’m not sure how he scrubs the world clean.
How good is the Strangers With Candy movie going to be?
I love Amy Sedaris. She’s one of the funniest women, and I just cant’ get enough of her. And that show is just supremely funny and everyone who works on it is so bright. They asked me to come and do this quick little thing, with Phillip Seymore Hoffman as my partner, and we had a great time. Of course, I was very interested in working with him, because he is one of my favorite actors. It was just a couple days work and I haven’t seen any of it. I can’t wait for it to come out.
What would be your dream role?
I like playing women who are dark, twisted characters. I love playing women with great humanity who are struggling, but who have a sense of humor. I would love to play a character like Holly Hunter’s character in The Incredibles: the mom or the kind of ordinary woman who is also a superhero. I never got to play an action hero, but I’d love to do that – or some kind of Robin Hood character.
Who would be your dream co-star?
I’ve gotten to work with Meryl Streep who is, and still remains to be one of my dream co-stars. I want to do something with Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn. I’ll tell you what else I wanna do… I love Oliver Platt so much. I wanna do a detective thing where we are insane detectives…. I like to work with people who are generous and not so into their celebrity stardom or whatever. I love to work with actors who have fun acting and know when it is someone else’s moment and can hand it to them on a silver platter. I like to work with generous actors. I’ve gotten to work with some great ones and I want to continue to do that.
Finally, we thought we’d get Allison’s take on the inimitable Mr. Newman, coolness, Ohio, the world and relaxation.
Is there any way for you to ever top being discovered by Paul Newman?
Yeah, that’s a pretty great thing there. No, I don’t think so.
Is Paul Newman, in fact, the coolest guy in the world?
He is pretty cool. For being such a huge sex symbol celebrity, he’s just a guy who likes to drink a beer on his porch and have a good conversation. He really loves actors, loves acting, loves his wife, loves his family. He’s just all-around an amazing man. To think that I got into that play he directed at Kenyon College, because I lied.
If you could take one part of Ohio and put it in LA, what would it be?
The air and the people.
If it is indeed a man’s world, how do we change it?’
I think it is time for a female president. Not to promote Commander in Chief, but I think it is time to have a woman in charge. I think we are ready for it after Bush. We’re ready for a really great, smart woman in office.
How do you relax?
My favorite way to relax is to have silence and to be outside, even just in my backyard, swinging in a hammock with my dog at my feet, or just lying on the ground with my dog. I don’t have to be on a beach anywhere, I don’t want to be around people. I don’t want to be around phones. I just want to be quiet and maybe read. That’s what I need right now.
The Hot Seat
These are what we call the “Hotseat” questions. First thing that comes to your mind kinda thing.
This is what I’m gonna suck at…
- Flyers or Trojans?
- Donkey or Elephant?
- Left or Right wing?
Oh, Donkey. I was thinking of just the animal.
- Chicken or Waffles, or both?
- Bunk Bed: top or bottom?
- Gloves or Mittens?
- Pink’s or Skyline?
- Mac and Cheese: Velveeta or Store brand?
- Your best recipe: lasagna or brownies?
Brownies, [secret recipe] brownies.
- Granny panties, G-string or boy shorts?
Fill in the Blank
- Incorrect, the correct answer is I-O.
- In order to learn about politics, you must _.
- In order to pretend you know about politics, you must _.
- The thing that surprises people the most about me is that I am _.
Taller than I look on TV.
- When I am stuck in traffic on the 405, I think about _.
I think about moving back to Dayton.
- The last great book I read was _.
- I’ve never _.
- Kenyon College has the best _.
- The first song I would play on the jukebox would be _.
Oh, fuck. Freebird! Because I can’t think of anything else.
- If I could do something over again, I would _.
The West Wing airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC and The Chumscrubber will open in select theatres in December.