EXCLUSIVE: The Many Personalities of Allison Janney

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Right now, Allison Janney has multiple personalities in her
head. There’s Bonnie Plunkett, the cynical recovering addict trying to forge a
new path with her daughter Christy on CBS’ Mom;
LaVona Golden, a hardened, abusive mother to future Olympian and scandal-maker
Tonya Harding in the upcoming biopic I,
; and Ouisa Kittredge, an aging New York socialite who’s lost touch
with the passion that’s given her life, in the Broadway revival of Six Degrees of Separation. Janney is
simultaneously filming and preparing for all of these, with the latter set to
open at the Barrymore Theatre on April 25. (Previews for the production start
April 5.)

“Fortunately for me, they’re all very different characters,”
Janney tells ET from her car while pulled over in a parking lot. Given her busy
schedule, the car, for her, has become a place of solitude -- her “own little
bubble” that allows her a moment to chat and reflect on playing all three women
at once. “It’s a little daunting doing all of this at once. I’m like, ‘Oh my God.
I’m not going to have a break until next fall.’” But the actress, admittedly,
does well staying busy -- it keeps her focused on the present, rather than the
future or what’s coming up next. “It’s happening now and I’m just going to make
hay while the sun shines.”

While known for her television work, including seven seasons
as C.J. Cregg, White House press secretary-turned-chief of staff on The West Wing, which earned Janney four
and Mom, the CBS comedy now in
its fourth season that, along with a recurring role on Masters of Sex, has helped propel the actress to a total of seven
Emmy wins, the actress is very much a theater girl at heart.

MORE: 2017 Spring Theater Preview

Janney got her start onstage, honing her craft in the New
York theater scene in Off-Broadway productions like the 1996 Manhattan Theater
Club revival of Blue Window opposite
current Six Degrees co-star John
Benjamin Hickey
and later, making her Broadway debut in Present Laughter and earning a Tony nomination for Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge in 1998. It
wasn’t until a decade later, after The
West Wing
, that she was able to make her return to Broadway in the
musical adaptation of 9 to 5. While
the short-lived production earned her a second Tony nomination, Janney admits
that the show was way out of her wheelhouse.

“That’s a different beast altogether,” Janney says, adding
that the experience was physically draining, which is why she was even more
excited to get to do a straight play that runs 90 minutes with no plans for
intermission. Though, at her age (57), she does have some reservations. “I’m
interested to see, when I do this play with Hickey, if it’s going to hit me
differently, too.”

Despite whatever physical hurdles there may be, Six Degrees is a welcome opportunity for
Janney, who is not only insanely busy (“most people don’t want to work around
my schedule right now”) and eager to return to the stage (“for those of us who
know it and love it, [we] miss it if we’re away from it too long”), but excited
to take on a play that hasn’t been on Broadway since its original 1990

“Hopefully people are going to find new ways to fall in love
with this play again,” Janney says of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama about
Flan and Ouisa Kitteridge, an affluent New York couple who are conned into
taking in Paul, a man pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son. Later, Paul’s
exploits are revealed to the shock of couple, whose story is shared by many on
the Upper East Side, thereby linking them through a shared connection to the
man. “One of the lines that Ouisa says -- ‘We have to have truth’ -- is such an
interesting line in this time and this day, when truth seems to be something
that’s malleable. There are alternative truths and alternative [facts].”


Truth is something not lost on the actress who spent several
years inside the fictional mind of a White House employee and looks at the likes
of President Donald Trump and, particularly, press secretary Sean Spicer with
dismay about the attitude and actions of their first weekend in office. “I
thought about tweeting something that C.J. would say,” Janney says, but she
held off, preferring not to enter the political fray while admitting that Trump’s
would not be a White House C.J would work for. “I don’t understand him saying
they disagree with the facts. It’s just absurd to me. They way they’re running
[things], he’s going to have a difficult job. I predict there’ll be a lot of
press secretaries.”

How the play resonates with audiences is less daunting than
the fact that she’ll be stepping into a role made famous by former West Wing co-star Stockard Channing, who
originated the part on Broadway and later earned an Oscar nomination for the
1993 film adaptation. While knowing that she’ll need to bring her own spin to
Ouisa, part of Janney does wish to call Channing -- whom she also hopes will
comes see her in the play -- and ask, “What’s the trick? Give me the secrets
because I don’t have a lot of time here.”

While Janney’s busy filming I, Tonya, which she’ll wrap by Feb. 10, she and Hickey have been
practicing lines over Skype so that they can hit the short rehearsal period running.
But it won’t be until she’s physically in the role that it’ll all come
together. “I always joke in rehearsal, ‘When I get the costume and the wig on
and [get] in the lighting, it’ll all make sense,’” she says of appreciating the
subtleties of discovering the way a character, Ouisa in this case, might hold a
drink or walk around a room. It’s the same way she’s been able to embody Harding’s
abusive mother opposite Margot Robbie.

MORE: Allison Janney Returns to White House as CJ Cregg and Takes Over a Press Briefing

Both of them have undergone dramatic physical
transformations -- with Robbie nearly unrecognizable as Harding -- that have caught
the attention of the paparazzi. “It has helped me find out who she is,” Janney
says of playing this unapologetic character, “because I go, ‘I don’t know who
this woman. How can she do this?’ So, it’s really helpful to have all the
pieces together.” As for what she thought of Robbie when she first saw her in
costume? “I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ That girl is very beautiful and the
transformation is shocking,” Janney says, adding that Robbie also embodies the
ice-skater as a teenager. “She has to do a lot of aging.”

But soon, Janney will put LaVona -- and to some degree,
Bonnie -- behind her as she focuses more solely on Ouisa when she returns to New
York. While she enjoys doing Mom and
movies like I, Tonya, there’s a
fluidity to theater that she misses. “When you’re on stage and you go through
the whole thing, it’s yours for that hour and a half,” Janney says with
admiration for getting to be fully present for those 90 minutes of Six Degrees of Separation. “You don’t
have to stop and go back because of a lighting mess-up or a sound that
happened. Whatever happens happens. It’s such a great experience.”