Film and TV

Allison Janney Talks Tallulah, Mom and Motherhood

Allison Janney is deflecting questions about herself to proclaim the talent and intelligence of her Tallulah co-star Ellen Page, whom she already step-mothered onscreen in 2007’s Juno, when she suddenly interrupts herself.

“Oh my god,” she says. “I’ve been talking since six this morning. I’m bleary-eyed from all the conversations I’ve had, and it’s like when I’m listening to voicemails from my mother that go on and on so long that I start talking to her like she’s actually there, because I forget it’s a voice message … I’m turning into my mother.”

But that’s not such a bad thing, even though in one of her “brain freezes,” she totally spaces on her mother’s first name for half a second. “Oh my god,” she says. “I can’t believe I have to go down to the red carpet tonight and keep talking to people.”

She paces her New York hotel room, reminiscing about what it was like to live there as a struggling actor (“Great memories, but it was hard”), then leave (“I’m not built for apartment living”) and come back to shoot movies (“They don’t make it easy for you here”), most recently Tallulah.

Written and directed by Sian Heder (Orange Is the New Black), the film features a middle-aged woman (Janney) slowly remembering herself and her sexuality by befriending a carefree (and baby-stealing) young woman named Tallulah (Page). The role was a big draw for Janney, even though she knew it meant enduring the schedule of a low-budget indie in New York (“It’s not a walk in the park”) and hanging out with four 15-month-old babies in a hot apartment without AC.

“We still had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs,” she says, “but it was hot. And those babies don’t like to be taken away from their mommies, and we didn’t have the money for baby wranglers to ease them into our arms or anything. It was challenging, and Ellen was amazing with them, developing a bond that could register onscreen. A lot of the time my character is upset, and my energy in those moments is upsetting to the baby. I kept thinking, ‘The babies hate me!’ But, you know, I can’t take that personally.”

Janney’s a self-proclaimed rambler, thoughts jumping everywhere — from remarking that she feels like she “stepped into a crack in the time continuum” and wondering if she wants to be back onstage in New York to immediately worrying what she would do with her three dogs if she temporarily left L.A. and how she would feel without her yard. She say she's a nervous backseat driver (“I got that from my mother”) who has to meditate to get through a car ride (“I’ve got apps for that”), but she’s never tried transcendental meditation, though she thinks it could change her life and help her handle all the projects she says “yes” to even though her schedule is packed, like Tallulah, which she says she took on because it was so good she didn’t want anyone else to do it. And … a deep breath.

In her work on The West Wing, Masters of Sex and The Help, or in low-budget indie greats like Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime and the multi-cam sitcom Mom, Janney taps those jumbled, effusive thoughts to create complex characters with a brimming lava core of emotion. It just so happens that many of these characters are mothers.

“It’s not like I set out to play only mothers,” she chides, a little annoyed when I bring it up. “But, look, playing a mother is basically just playing a woman. There are so many different kinds of mothers. It doesn’t limit you just because your character has children. Bonnie Plunkett [on Mom] and Margo [in Tallulah] couldn’t be more different.”

Janney chose not to have children herself. She says she knew from the beginning it wasn’t her path, and gives a resounding “Yes!” to Jennifer Aniston’s recent scathing letter to the tabloid press that hounds her about baby bumps. Janney quickly ties the controversy over Aniston and babies to what she feels is one of the big messages in Tallulah: Maternal feelings aren’t always automatic.

“It’s possible people can become mothers for the wrong reasons sometimes,” she says. “I think some women feel like they have to have a kid for someone else or to satisfy something else, and as someone who doesn’t have children and made that choice for herself, it’s nice to be able to talk about it openly. I don’t really ever have to explain it to anybody, though. Nobody usually asks.”

But she also thought nobody would ask her to do a cable-TV sex scene until Masters of Sex. Her first one — for Solondz — was played for laughs and wasn’t particularly sexy, but the Masters scene was so steamy, it was all anyone would ask her about in interviews for months.

“That was a surprise to both me and to my mom and dad,” she says and then recalls a totally awkward kissing scene in Tallulah, which makes her cringe — she can’t shake the uneasy sexual tension of it. Her voice changes like an idea bulb popped up over her head: “I do think it’d be great if I got one of those roles where I’m going out with inappropriately young men, though.”

Janney’s gotten pretty much everything she’s ever wanted out of a career — even another upcoming blockbuster with the film adaptation of The Girl on the Train. She says she just has to take a step back and remind herself of this. And even though she asked for her current sitcom Mom (co-starring Anna Faris), and loves it, by the end of our conversation, she’s now firmly planted in the desire to do theater as well.

“There’s a live audience for Mom, but it’s not quite the same, because the audience is seeing every messed-up take. When you forget the line, that’s what’s exciting for the live TV audiences, not the good take.”

She trails off for a moment, thinking, then says, “It terrifies me, doing a play.” But there’s a thrill in her voice. Theater is where she got her start, and Janney — who is admittedly competitive — seems as though she needs that test of will to prove herself, even if nobody’s watching.

“The moments you have as an actor where you’re saying, ‘Why did I ever think this was a good idea? Walk out the stage door and keep walking?’ That’s when you gotta go through with it. You’ve gotta really care about what you’re doing. There isn’t any actor who doesn’t get nervous,” she says. “It means you care. And when you cry, well, that means you love.”
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