questions with conscientiousness. You can sense her strong realization, maybe only recently achieved, that an actor's career at midlife has definite pluses and minuses—things to be thankful for, things to let go of.
Janney first muses over The Autumn Garden—her first stage role in eight years, since playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park in 1999. During the West Wing years, "hiatuses were maybe five, six weeks, which was barely time to catch your breath," she explains. "I was sometimes so exhausted from the schedule, I didn't want to do theatre. I wanted to sit on a couch and stare at a wall." But, she adds, "I was a non-Equity member of Williamstown back in '85 and '86, and I knew I wanted to come back. It's been a nice way to say, 'Right—that's how you do things.' "
Revisiting the stage has "been like riding a bike," she notes, perhaps because the process is what gives her gratification. "It's such a luxury to get to rehearse. You don't get to do that in films and TV. Some people say they rehearse in film, but it's never like this. It's a luxury to have the time to really talk about the scene with your director and the actors and work on it…. Rehearsal is my favorite thing now, I think. It's a process where you feel you get so close to your cast and the play…. And it's always scary when you give it to people to judge. People either get it or they don't. That's the saddest thing about doing a play: You have to have it in front of an audience. I always want it in that innocent stage where nobody can pull it apart."
In The Autumn Garden, Janney plays Constance, a woman who re-encounters a man she was once engaged to, now wed to someone else. Each character—especially Constance—is at a personal crossroads, and a little more than a year since The West Wing ended, Janney alludes to a crossroads of her own when discussing the play. "I just love the breadth of the characters, who are all sort of going through midlife crises, questioning all the things they held to be true. They're left in that place where you either go into your third act [of life] in a state of depression, or you carry on and hold your head up. All are going through some monumental thing that people in their 40s can relate to."
When she read the play, Janney says, she had a "strong initial feeling" about Constance "because I felt like we were in similar places in our lives, though she's completely from a different background, era, with different morals. It spoke to me as I feel it'll speak to many people going through somewhat of a midlife crisis or going through that time when you reassess everything that you built your life on—or the things you felt were important, when all of a sudden the rug gets ripped out from under you and you think life isn't what it's supposed to be, and how heartbreaking and painful that is."
Janney has demonstrated repeatedly that she is a multidimensional talent—from her comically understated, scene-stealing cameo as Prudy Pingleton in the new film Hairspray, to Barbara Fitts, Chris Cooper's frumpy wife in American Beauty, to Sally Lester, Meryl Streep's bemused lover in The Hours. She won her Emmys—outstanding supporting actress in a drama in 2000 and 2001 and outstanding lead actress in a drama in 2002 and 2004—for her work as C.J., who began as the dry press secretary to Martin Sheen's President Josiah Bartlet and then became his sharp-witted chief of staff. Janney, however, has never been pegged to C.J.-esque roles; look at her work in Nurse Betty or even her voicing of the starfish in Finding Nemo and what you'll find is versatility triumphing over the industry tendency to stereotype. Janney attributes her ability to absorb and project myriad character traits to her training and the many years she spent doing a spectrum of roles on the New York stage.
"For years I was in New York doing so many parts," she says. "Some know those roles. Those who don't, I'm not offended by it. It's hard to take offense to people appreciating you, no matter what they know about you." What she dislikes "is the one thing most actors don't want to hear: 'How do you memorize all those lines?' There's a good answer to that, you know. Once someone told me, 'Memorizing lines is to an actor as putting running shoes on is to a runner.' It's just something you do. You can't do it without that. It's not what acting is about."
What it's about is alchemy: having enough technique to do the job and enough self-assurance to prevent external factors from throwing you off your game. Janney notes, for example, that for the first four seasons of The West Wing, she thrived on creator-writer Aaron Sorkin's infamously slow writing process. "Sometimes Aaron hadn't finished, so we couldn't work three scripts ahead or whatever," she recalls. "We were always focused on one episode, and I loved that focus. I loved pages coming out at the last minute, looking at them, getting them, and running it. I know I sound like I'm contradicting myself, because I've been saying how much I love rehearsing, but it's a different medium. Some actors hated that; I can understand why. But I loved that crazy 'The show's got to go on—gimme the pages—memorize the lines!' "
What actors must do, Janney suggests, is trust writers—which is why she never questioned C.J.'s arc. "This was Aaron's character, and I totally trusted him. When he left and others started writing, sometimes I'd say, 'Huh?' But I'm not a writer—I'm not very good at telling writers what to write…. I also think Aaron had fun writing for me, like that episode with Dulé Hill's character where we did practical jokes or where we worked with the turkeys. I prided myself on C.J. being very human, loving, and caring. She was a passionate woman. She could get mean and tough, but with a sense of love."
Janney trained in the early 1980s at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. "I loved [it] there, and I think it's a wonderful school," she says. "But it makes you a little emotion-conscious when you come out of there, because they teach you all this emotional preparation stuff, and you tend to get all nervous about having it. And once you let that go, that's when you can really start to act, I feel. It's just a pain in the ass to think, I've got to cry; I've got to do whatever. I don't have to do anything anymore, and I don't care."
She particularly emphasizes that last sentence; it's like a declaration of liberation. And it may be due to Janney's feeling that she finally understands fully what her Neighborhood Playhouse teachers were imparting. "Our teachers used to say, 'Twenty years from now, you'll get everything,' and I think it's true—not that it takes that long to figure out what they're trying to tell you," she says. "I think life happens to you. You realize what's important and what's not. Maybe what you thought your career was going to be isn't the way it is, so you think, I'm going to rethink things. Life is a process of letting go, paring down, and maybe I've gotten to a place where I don't care. I do care, but there's something age gives you. I can't articulate it. You lose people you love. Friends die. I'm very self-critical, very hard on myself. But I'm less self-critical than I used to be."
Technique and a life philosophy are what Janney finds especially valuable on those rare days when she isn't feeling whatever character she's playing. "It's the trickiest, hardest thing about acting, because if I don't feel I have something to give, I don't like to fake it," she says. "But I try not to stress out about it, because if you worry about it, it's not going to happen. You have to be open to something hitting you. The strangest things have given me performances. Going to the theatre riding the bus, looking out the window and seeing someone standing out in front of the drugstore holding a bag after a sale on Ivory soap—that person might bring up something for me. I'm always looking for the thing that'll give me what I need."
Before performing, Janney "checks in, where you just get quiet and start thinking about where you are in the moment, suggesting things to yourself." Before rehearsing, however, she does very little: "I drink a couple of beers" is her typically mischievous response. Then she adds, "Once we get into performing, I'll do a vocal warm-up and get to the theatre early, because I like to be there, relax, go onstage, stretch, look around, and talk to the empty seats." Do they reply? "I'm not telling you!" she cries. Then, eyes gleaming, she says, "No, they don't answer back." Or maybe they do.
As the day's rehearsal ends, Janney is in an expansive mood. Some of the other actors—Tony winners Elizabeth Franz and Maryann Plunkett and New York stage vets John Benjamin Hickey, Mamie Gummer, Brian Kerwin, and Jessica Hecht—are milling in the lounge; you feel their camaraderie. "We all have to be in the same play," Janney observes. "It's about actors coming together, filling in the play's nooks and crannies," which is why, she says, actors should remember that "everyone's process affects everyone else. You have to be very generous and patient, because everyone has a different way of working. My age has given me some patience that I really love having, especially in a rehearsal room. I don't have a lot of patience in a lot of other areas of my life, but this I have. I use every minute for something positive. I think it's getting older and letting go of the anxiety, and especially for this play I decided I'm going to have fun—I'm not going to get all worked up and think this is a life-or-death situation and that I'd better be good. I want to do the best I can."
Later, Janney makes a point of saying that's not the real advice she wants to give to actors. Instead she asks me to dig up a Martha Graham quotation from Agnes de Mille's book Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. "Every actor should have it on their mirror or in their house," she says. "I really want it in this article. I want you to write, 'This is the quote Allison Janney wants to make sure every actor has.' " Here it is:
"There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open…. No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."