Allison Janney has played so many strong, capable women — most notably as "The West Wing" Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, for which she won four Emmys — that it's hard to believe she's hard to hear when she speaks. "I tend to be a soft talker," she says as she settles into a seat at a Studio City cafe. "I don't like the sound of my own voice."
She's clearly the only one. From last year's big-screen "The Way Way Back" and going way back to 1999's "American Beauty," her performances run the gamut from hilarious to haunting.
That range has been on full display lately on television. As Bonnie in CBS' multi-camera sitcom "Mom," she's a reluctantly recovering alcoholic who reunites with her daughter, played by Anna Faris. Over on Showtime's "Masters of Sex," she's Margaret Scully, wife of college provost and closeted homosexual Barton (Beau Bridges). They're both trapped in the repressed heart of the 1950s.
Janney loves Bonnie's freedom but relates to Margaret's nature. "I feel like I'm closer to Margaret Scully than I am to any character that I've ever played."
In what way?
Shy, not talking a lot. I truly feel in those mahjong scenes, sitting at a table with three of her friends, and just listening and absorbing and figuring out how it relates to her and her life — that's just me.
Which couldn't be further from Bonnie.
One of my first speeches in an AA meeting room as Bonnie, I got this note from [executive producer Chuck Lorre], "Pretend you're doing stand-up." And then it took off for me, because people in these rooms have an amazing sense of humor and sort of wear their experiences of when they were using as badges of honor. I love that this show lets us go to the dark, real places. It makes the humor more complicated and relatable.
You're practically juggling the comedy and tragedy masks these days.
It's thrilling that they both happened in the same season because it did look kind of magical that I was on TV on Sunday night in "Masters of Sex" and there I am on Monday night as "Mom." It's like a great party trick.
How did you research the roles?
I don't do a lot of research. For Bonnie, I knew the world of recovery and addiction through Al-Anon meetings, and I had gone to a lot of open AA meetings. The subject matter is very close to my heart.
For Margaret, I look at the scene and the circumstances, and break it down and figure out what I need to make this come to life and make it believable. I want people who watch it to not see her as a victim but to see her as a really smart woman who's a product of her times.
It sounds like you're worried about her.
I am! I love playing characters that people want to root for, whom life has been kind of unfair to. You just want to see them rise above it and go on and be brave and beautiful. I don't know what I want for her, but I definitely want her to be in a relationship with a man who adores her and worships her and gives her orgasms every night.
Now that sounds like Bonnie. What's your favorite aspect of each character?
Bonnie is someone who doesn't give a … about what people think about her. She doesn't have boundaries. She's not incredibly sensitive. It's delicious to play someone like that when you are a person who is a little too concerned about what other people think of you. It's liberating to play Bonnie, and I love that part of her.
What I love most about Margaret is her quiet pain and agony. That breaks my heart. And I love playing scenes where I don't have to talk. I really do. I think I do some of my best acting when I don't have to talk, I just react.