"I never thought in a million years I would be an actress," says Allison Janney, one of the most respected stage and screen actors of her generation, as we sit down at New York's iconic Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The tall, husky-voiced 57-year-old, who recently wrapped the fourth season of the critically-acclaimed CBS sitcom Mom and is currently starring in a Broadway revival of Six Degrees of Separation, has accumulated 12 Emmy noms and seven wins, five SAG noms and two wins, five Critics’ Choice noms and three wins, five Golden Globe noms and two Tony noms over the years. But had she not suffered a horrific freak accident at the age of 17 — "a crazy, life-changing moment" — none of it would have happened.
Janney, born in Boston but raised in Dayton, is the child of a businessman father and actress mother. By 17, she was a top-level skater and planned to continue to pursue the sport through college and perhaps professionally thereafter. But during a game at a high school graduation party, her brother accidentally stepped on her dress, pulling it down and exposing her chest, which prompted her to flee for cover — in the process of which she accidentally crashed through a glass door, all but severing her leg, draining 75 percent of the blood in her body, sending her to the hospital for eight weeks and forcing her not only to delay her enrollment in college by a year, but also to abandon her dreams of a future in athletics.
Before Janney got to Kenyon College, acting had been something she enjoyed doing in high school — where she "played men or 40-year-old women" due to her height, she notes with a chuckle — but after arriving, it quickly became the focal point of her life. Paul Newman, a Kenyon alum, had funded a new theater on the campus and came to direct its first production, accompanied by his wife, the actress Joanne Woodward. Janney auditioned, won a part and bonded with the couple, who encouraged her to stick with the craft. Upon graduating, Janney moved, at Woodward's urging, to New York, where she enrolled in Sanford Meisner's famous two-year program at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and then joined Woodward's theater company. For years she struggled to find other professional work, she acknowledges, "But I just kept putting myself out there."
Janney enjoyed a string of breaks in the mid-'90s, by which point she already was in her mid-30s. She made her Broadway debut in a 1996 revival of Present Laughter opposite Frank Langella, and then returned to the Great White Way the following year in a revival of A View from the Bridge, garnering her first Tony nom. She also began appearing in small parts in top flight films like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) and Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999), the latter of which was awarded the best picture Oscar. In between, she landed a small comedic part in Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (1998), performing a pratfall that caught the attention of Aaron Sorkin, who promptly reached out to her to audition for a part in his upcoming White House-set NBC drama series The West Wing.
In 145 episodes spanning from 1999 through 2006, Janney made her name — and won four Emmys for her work — as C.J. Cregg, the White House press secretary under President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen). Nobody expected the show's success less than Janney, who says, "I never thought in a million years that people would want to watch a show about politics, maybe because I wouldn't want to watch a show about politics." But she calls the character an "incredibly capable woman in a traditionally male arena" and "the smartest woman in the room, and yet she maintains her femininity and her emotional sensitivity," and, despite the challenges of playing her ("With Aaron, you have to have every word, every letter correct, you can't mess up once"), emphasizes, "It was one of the best things I've ever gotten to do. Truly, one of my favorite jobs and one of my favorite characters."
After The West Wing, Janney signed a development deal with sitcom master Chuck Lorre, but it bore no fruit. Instead, she returned to Broadway, for the first time in a musical (2009's 9 to 5), garnering another Tony nom, and played key supporting parts in a host of top-caliber movies, including 2007's Juno, 2011's The Help and 2011's Margaret. In 2012, she made a major return to TV in two very different projects that briefly overlapped. The first was Showtime's Masters of Sex, in which she had a guest arc as a quiet woman in 1950s America who experiences a sexual awakening ("She felt, in some ways, more like me than any other character," Janney says), winning yet another Emmy. And the second was as the co-lead, with Anna Faris, in Mom, a sitcom for Lorre, who by then was best known for The Big Bang Theory, but who wanted to create another show about a long-estranged mother (Janney) and daughter (Faris) who reunite, both while battling addiction.
"The one format I'd never done before was the multicam," Janney notes, so, despite her hefty resume, she agreed to audition for the part, and landed it. "And I liked that it was dealing with people in recovery — that was an issue that was very close to me," she adds in reference to her brother, who battled addiction and ultimately took his own life. "We are telling these women's stories and not shying away from the tragedies that happen in life and the real issues that come up that people deal with," she continues passionately, "and we're able to deal with and look at them in an honest way — but also have these crazy laughs."