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, Tonya; 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 Emmys 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.
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 ended, 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 production.
“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.
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.”