November 2011: Allison Janney '77
Allison Brooks Janney ’77 is an award-winning actress who has demonstrated amazing versatility on the stage, on television, and on the big screen throughout her extraordinary career.
Janney is perhaps best known for her starring role as C.J. Cregg in the hugely popular NBC series The West Wing, for which she received four Emmy and four SAG awards. But with the August release of the blockbuster movie The Help, she will likely be long remembered as Charlotte Phelan, mother of the film’s main character, Skeeter. The film, based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling book, takes place in Mississippi in the 1960s, when bigotry and racism were at a peak. Janney believes there are a number of reasons why the book and the movie have become such sensations. “Kathryn created an exceptional cast of characters. These maids, on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, struggled through oppression in particularly difficult times and banded together to do something incredible. They were brave, inspiring women who applied their voices during a shameful time in our history.”
In The Help, which was filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi, deep in the sultry South, Janney enjoyed playing a southern belle, even while wearing wigs and girdles in the summer heat. “Playing Charlotte was probably my most challenging and demanding role yet. But it was one of the best roles I’ve had. We are all afraid of change, as was Charlotte, and she was a product of the times. She kept a secret that caused her a lot of inner turmoil and guilt, and this ultimately made her sick. But she learned to embrace her daughter for the person she was. C.J.’s character was challenging in a different way – I am not terribly comfortable talking about politics, and in The West Wing, I had to sound convincing!”
Janney loved the camaraderie that developed on the set of The Help. “Many of the people involved with the filming were already close friends of mine, including Katherine Stockett, Octavia Spencer, and our director, Tate Taylor. We had a ball, both on and off the set. Tate would take us on four-wheeling adventures – we’d all climb into the back of a pickup truck and off we’d go! But the additional bond that developed was due in part to the subject matter. Some of the scenes were very emotional.”
When choosing a role, Janney says that she most often responds to the writing. “Well, that and the chance to play a wonderful character!” She adds, “I would love to find a new book that can be turned into a movie. I like to work. Sometimes I suffer from ‘the grass is always greener syndrome,’ so while doing a play, I think about doing a movie, and vice versa. Though a series can be all-consuming in a way, it would be great to do another one. I like the continuity of that, and I like being able to go home at the end of the day. A series affords you the time off to relax but also enough flexibility to do a play or movie at the same time.”
As a member of one of the first classes to include females at Hotchkiss, Janney considers herself a bit of a pioneer. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time on campus, and my acting career really began in Lakeville, where I was in several full scale Hotchkiss Dramatic Association productions.” After Hotchkiss, she studied acting at Kenyon College in Ohio. In what would become a pivotal moment, she answered a casting call for a play directed by Kenyon alumnus, Paul Newman. “I got the part. He took me under his wing and believed in my talents, and this gave me the confidence I needed.” With her degree in drama in hand, Janney took the suggestion of Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, and went to New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse to study. She also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
Throughout her extensive career as an actress, Janney has become known for her adaptability. Her feature films include: Life During Wartime, Juno, Hairspray, Nurse Betty, Drop Dead Gorgeous, 10 Things I Hate About You, Six Days Seven Nights, and The Object of My Affection. Janney received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her work in Our Very Own and a Screen Actors Guild Award for American Beauty. In a fun coincidence, Janney played the librarian in the fictional movie about the Clinton presidential campaign, Primary Colors, where the principal character, Henry Burton, was said to have been educated at Hotchkiss. She was the voice of “Peach” in the animated feature Finding Nemo, and has made television appearances on Lost, Family Guy, Two and a Half Men, and Frasier, to name a few. Janney’s many stage productions include Taming of the Shrew, A View from the Bridge (Tony Award nomination, Drama League Award), 9 to 5 (Tony Award nomination), and Present Laughter (Outer Critics Circle Award, Actors’ Equity Award).
Janney has worked with some of the finest actors and actresses of all time. One of her favorites is her close friend and former Hotchkiss parent Meryl Streep, whom she starred opposite in The Hours. She also greatly admires actor Richard Jenkins. “Richard and I worked together in the Stanley Tucci movie The Imposters and were recently reunited in Josh Radnor’s upcoming film, Liberal Arts. Josh is a Kenyon College graduate as well, and some of the campus scenes were filmed at our alma mater.” Though much of Janney’s late summer and early fall were consumed by press events for The Help, she has managed to work on several additional projects. She stars in the comedy The Oranges and with Glee star Chris Colfer in Struck by Lightning.
As for advice for aspiring HDA actors, Janney says emphatically, “Go to New York to train with the best acting teachers, or enroll in an acting school such as the Neighborhood Playhouse. Study the craft of acting. Get involved in an acting company and do plays, lots of them! Knock on doors. Call people whom your parents or friends know who can open doors for you. Be creative about it!”