It’s a wonder Allison Janney is still standing, given the whirlwind month she’s had. Three weeks ago she got hit with the stomach flu during 9 to 5’s vigorous preview schedule, taking the stage between sips of Pedialyte. Flash forward two weeks and one starry opening night, and suddenly the self-proclaimed “non-singer” is repping her show with a Best Leading Actress in a Musical Tony nod. It’s all part of the showbiz gamut for the busy actress, who made her Broadway debut 13 years ago opposite Frank Langella after a rocky path cut through NYC’s famed Neighborhood Playhouse en route to becoming a three-time Emmy winner for The West Wing and supporting player in films ranging from American Beauty to Juno. We got on the line with a now happy, healthy and overjoyed Janney to discuss everything from her failed attempt at the stoner lifestyle to living out her bedazzled musical fantasies for all of Broadway to see—and how she feels about landing that Tony nomination in the process.
Were the Tony nominations even on your radar?
Oh God, I was such a wreck [the night before] that I couldn’t sleep! I went out to walk my dog in Riverside Park [the morning of nominations]. I decided that when I found out whatever had happened, I wanted to be with my dog in the rain. I had crazy dreams about it. Of course, it’s very bittersweet because I feel the whole show really deserves to be nominated. I wish that the three girls could be nominated the same way the Billy Elliot boys were! We’re such a team, you know, the three of us, so I feel I definitely share this with [co-stars] Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty. I just adore them. It’s thrilling to get a Tony nomination, it’s a wonderful thing to happen for anybody, especially in musical theater. I’ve never done it before, so to be recognized for it is a great accomplishment.
You were doing previews the week before opening with the stomach flu, right?
That was hard, let me tell you. I thought, “Hey, if I can just not throw up any more today I can do the show tonight,” because they weren’t even ready at that point for my understudy to go on—no costumes for her yet. I’m an old workhorse: the show must go on! I had my dresser following me around with a bottle of Pedialyte all night. I’d go out, do a number, run backstage, drink Pedialyte, and run back on. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
Were you a fan of the original Nine to Five film?
Oh, yeah, it came out when I was in college. That was a time when feminism and women were coming into their own. And it was a great revenge-themed movie. I remember identifying with Violet even then and wishing I could be more like her. It was the precursor to Sex and the City. You know, it wasn’t, “Are you a Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte?” It was: “Violet, Judy or Doralee?”
You worked with Violet-originator Lily Tomlin on The West Wing. Did she give you any advice?
We’d be in the makeup trailer, and she used to say that we should do something with Nine to Five, and that I should play her daughter; I was so flattered! So when [director] Joe Mantello called to ask me to do the workshop, I felt like I’d gotten her direct blessing. Since then, of course, she’s seen the show and we’ve had dinner, and she’s very supportive of the whole project. It’s great how she, Jane Fonda and Dolly [Parton] are still buds all these years later—they go to each other’s Broadway openings. Lily’s got her one-woman show, I don’t see why she shouldn’t head back this season too. Let’s get them all on Broadway at once!
Have you ever worked an office job?
Mostly I was a busgirl or a department store girl in Ohio. But I did work at a talent agency answering phones when I got to New York. That was a scary job. I had to man all the phones—it was terrifying, actually.
Of all the survival jobs you’ve had, what’s been the worst?
I’m thinking it was this time in my life when I was scooping ice cream at a café in Soho. I didn’t like the people I was working with, getting yelled at by customers, any of it. I’m a very thinned-skinned woman hiding in the body of a much tougher looking person. So I would cry every day because someone would hurt my feelings. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Who was your worst boss ever?
I think it was at the talent agency—I will not say the name, for obvious reasons. But the owner of the company, when they would call in, would scream at me if I didn’t recognize their voice on the phone. “Don’t you know who I am?” She was terrible—oh, lord. She. See? Now I’ve said too much!
One of the most iconic moments from 9 to 5 is the joint smoking scene. What is that like to be doing nightly on Broadway?
It. Is. So. Much. Fun. Oh, especially when we get a good giggle going ahead of time. It feels like I’m a little stoned doing it. We can drop that facade for a minute and go at a different speed. And it’s such an important theme for those three characters—it’s the night they bond. We get to let loose every night once the joint comes out.
You were also a guest on another modern stoner classic, Weeds.
And they cut out my best scene! I took a huge bong hit and they edited it out. I was so pissed. I’ve got pictures of it, too. Ha, I hadn’t even thought of the connection [between the two shows]. I’m going to start having to smoke pot in every show I do!
Were you a stoner yourself at any point?
No, I was too much of a goody-two-shoes for that. I had a short period where I did [smoke], but I realized I don’t like to be out of control that much—I get paranoid too easily. But I certainly draw on it when I’m smokin’ that doob onstage, ha!
You made your stage debut under the direction of Paul Newman, correct?
He directed me in my first show back in college. They had built a beautiful new theater at Kenyon College, where I was a student, and I heard he’d be coming in to direct. I just set my mind to it and decided, “I’m going to be in his play.” He was a lovely man, and I loved the way he directed—very private. He’d sort of put his arm around you and pull you aside and talk to you quietly, which I prefer. No one else has ever really done that. Sometimes you don’t want to hear what the director is saying to the other actors, because it makes it more fun to not know what they’re doing. And also it was just nice to have his arm around you. Joanne, his wife, got me to study acting and told me to come to New York to the Neighborhood Playhouse at [the beginning of my career], so I felt they gave me the kick start.
Did you see yourself as a comedienne?
I grew up watching Carol Burnett, and as far as I was concerned she and Mary Tyler Moore were my absolute favorites. Those were the women I wanted to emulate. [Violet] feels the closest to Carol Burnett I’ve ever gotten to be. Funny story is Carol called me at my home in Los Angeles a little while back, and I just freaked out—I’ve always dreamed of having my own Carol Burnett Show. And she called me, asking me to use her dresser for the Broadway run of 9 to 5! Of course I hoped she was calling to say, “I think we should do a variety show together,” but now her dresser is dressing me on Broadway. So I guess that’s a start.
You’re the starring comedienne now, but there’s an anecdote where a casting director early on said you’d only play “lesbians and aliens.”
Yes, that was a long time ago. I was trying to get an agent and for the life of me just couldn’t. This woman sat there and said to me, “To be honest, I only see you playing lesbians and aliens.” I just thought, “Wow. OK, I guess I won’t be represented by you.”
How long before you proved her wrong?
It took me a while. I did off-off-Broadway for a while and was happy as a clam, but I suppose the big one was [Broadway’s] Present Laughter [with Frank Langella]. As far as I was concerned I was proving her wrong just by working at all. When West Wing and all that followed happened, people want to know about your past, so of course that story comes up, but she wasn’t the only one—people said I didn’t have enough “edge.” It really just comes down to whether you want it or not and whether you can persevere through all that.
You say you’re thin-skinned—how did you persevere?
I had many tearful trips on the subway. I didn’t understand why, why people said I was good but I couldn’t get any work. “Is it because I’m tall? Because I’m not this?” But every time I got to my lowest point and wanted to quit, something would happen and make me stay. The lows were low, though, let me tell you. I suggest anyone who chooses acting get a really good friend who’s a therapist!
Comic roles morphed into mainstream dramatic roles like American Beauty, until you were better known for those. How did that happen?
I had done Alan Ball’s play Five Women Wearing the Same Dress and he told [American Beauty director Sam Mendes] I should do the film. They gave me that part; I didn’t even really have to audition, which was a little miracle. Going from playing a very obnoxious, Southern lesbian woman, you wouldn’t have thought I could do anything like American Beauty, so I’ll always appreciate Alan’s faith in me. And I got West Wing because [creator] Aaron Sorkin saw me fall down the stairs in Primary Colors, so he gets thanks as well.
Smart television like The West Wing has been on the decline. Has TV changed since you were on it?
We were killed by reality shows. Our ratings were going up, up, up, and then The Bachelor came out and that was the end of it. I was like, “Really?” So I’ve always had a secret hatred for reality television! I will not watch it. The only thing I watch is American Idol, because there’s people with real talent there. I thought there’d be a saturation point, but it hasn’t come yet. I’m still going, “Really?” It kills the actors and writers, so I’ve got a grudge!
So 9 to 5 is a film to stage. You did Hairspray, which was a film to stage to film. What movies of yours should be a musical next?
Drop Dead Gorgeous!
I begged you to do that a few months ago.
That was you! I thought, “Oh, that would be fun.” It would be hysterical. Drop Dead Gorgeous: The Musical? It sounds perfect.
That movie has a devoted cult following.
I know, and I fought hard for that one, I’ll tell you. The writer and director wanted me, but the producer wanted someone else. I finally got it at the cost of credit and some other items [normally in a contract], but it was my choice because I loved the writing and thought it was just so fun. They literally weren’t going to accommodate me during filming. Luckily my brother lived in St. Paul, so they happily put me up out there. I spent a lot of time at the Mall of America getting that accent down! I loved every minute of it.
You did the 9 to 5 workshop, the L.A. run, you’re doing the show now and you’ve got multiple films in post-production. Exhausted?
Right now is actually the busiest I’ve ever been. I’ve had to live like a monk these days. I can’t really do anything—I just go to the theater, come home, sleep, get up, walk the dog, repeat. I happen to be single right now, which I guess is a good thing because anyone living with me now would probably divorce me. So I’m kind of on my own. But it’s good for me.
This is your first musical. Is that jump scary?
Oh, the singing is daunting! [Director] Joe Mantello kept going, “Um, Allison? You don’t have to turn out every time the music starts.” I just had this silly idea of what being in a musical meant—the music would start and I’d hear a vamp and my leg would go out, and strike this ridiculous pose. I provided a lot of laughter for people in rehearsal. “I’m supposed to sing now, right?” I have a new respect for everyone who does musical theater. These kids get new dance steps everyday, new changes to the script, but the cast members make it look easy.
But you’re up there in a white suit with chorus boys, living your Carol Burnett musical fantasy.
That’s the best! I can’t wait to do that number every night. It really is the closest I’ve come to my fantasy, and I kind of love it. And I kind of can’t wait to do another one.
See Allison Janney in 9 to 5 at the Marquis Theatre.