An Interview with Allison Janney

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Chad Perman

Allison Janney only has one scene in Margaret, appearing on screen for less than five minutes near the beginning of the movie. But that single scene—anchored by her haunting performance as Monica, a woman hit by a distracted bus driver while crossing the street—stays with you for every bit of the film’s remaining three hours. And, according to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, it has to: as the inciting event that sets the narrative course for the rest of the story, if Janney’s scene didn’t work, the entire film wouldn’t work either. “I knew that if that accident wasn't extremely awful—as awful as humanly possible—then there'd be no movie,” he told Terry Gross back in 2012. “You don't see any flashbacks of it. It's got to stay in your mind the way it stays in the character's mind.”

Of course, as anyone who has seen Margaret knows, the scene is impossible to forget. Monica’s final moments—covered by ever widening pools of blood in the middle of a crowded city street, cradled in Lisa’s (Anna Paquin) arms while bystanders work frantically to save her life—are as raw, realistic, and traumatic as any ever committed to film. Struggling to make sense of what has just happened to her (“You've got to be kidding me. A bus?!”), she grows increasingly confused and, in the scene’s most haunting moment, asks Lisa if her eyes are open or closed, because she can’t see anything. Moments later, she’s gone.  

“She’s one of the greatest actors on the planet,” Tony Kushner told me recently. “I mean the way she dies, it’s terrifying. I don’t know how she does it, but it’s amazing.” Janney, who is deservedly something of a national treasure at this point in her career (seriously, try to find a single person you know who doesn’t think fondly of her) spoke with us last month about what it was like to shoot such a memorable scene.

*

Allison Janney: I’ve got to forewarn you, I’ve not seen Margaret since it came out—but I will say that I think Kenny Lonergan is one of the greatest writers we have in this country.

BW/DR: We heartily agree. And actually, we were mostly hoping you could be our conduit into the accident scene.

Well I can definitely speak to that scene, I can speak to everything about that. I was out doing West Wing and Kenny asked me to be part of the movie. At the time I was just kind of getting little parts in movies, and I read it, and of course it was a brilliant script and I thought “Well at least I won’t get cut out of it. This scene will pretty much have to stay in the movie.” (laughs) So I thought, what the fuck I’m gonna go do it. One scene, how bad can it be?

So, what was the actual shoot like?

We actually had a couple rehearsals for it, and then we filmed it on 74th and Broadway on the downtown side, on the west side. I remember we did the first part, where you see me getting hit, and it was filmed in a way where I wasn’t anywhere near the bus and I was like, how are we even going to do this? But I always find some way to make a fall work in a movie. I’ve actually done a lot of falls in things over the years—Primary Colors I did a fall, in the beginning of West Wing I did a fall. And so when Kenny was like, I don’t know how we’re gonna do this, I just said, well what if I trip and that’s how it happens? He said “Oh my god, that’s perfect!” So I did a trip, and that’s how my character ends up getting hit by the bus.

Then the whole rest of that day I was just covered in blood, lying on the street. And it was very hard. They were like “Uh, we’re gonna take a while to change the setup here if you wanna go to craft services or whatever?” And I was like “I really kind of...don’t. I think I’m just gonna give into this part and this moment and lie here all day.” Which is what I did, I didn’t move. I lay on that spot all day long, covered in blood.

I remember people going by, everybody walking by and looking over to see who it was—you know, West Wing was out and people knew who I was, so it was kind of this odd thing—but I felt safer just staying on the ground. And with Kenny everything I did, I didn’t fully understand. He would say “I just want you to be angry right now. I want you to be mad for no reason.” He gave me these directions that didn’t make sense to me, but I think they came out beautifully—because this is a woman who, she’s fucking just been hit by a bus and she’s dying and she doesn’t really make any sense and she’s lashing out. He knew what he wanted and I just tried to give it to him and not disappoint him, frankly. I didn’t want to disappoint him because I knew it was such an important scene in the film. And Anna, she was very sweet with me too.

He’s said over the years that he really needed to have your scene be as intense as possible, so that it would stick with the audience over the course of the next three hours. Is that something he mentioned to you in advance?

No, I mean I kind of knew it was important but thankfully he didn’t tell me “Hey if you screw this up you’re going to ruin the movie.” I’m so glad he didn’t say that! (laughs) But I definitely knew it was important—though of course, like everything I do, I felt I could have done it better, like I do with everything. Most actors do, I think. God I could have been this, I should have done this... But that’s just the nature of what we do.

Well, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s hard to say it’s one of my “favorite” scenes, because it’s such a tough scene to watch, but I think it’s one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen in a film.

Now I want to go watch it again. But I mean I don’t know what’s worse, watching me die or watching me have sex on camera in something like Masters of Sex. (laughs) But you know, I trusted Kenny. I felt like I was in good hands with him—anyone would be, really. He’s a very smart man who knows people and knows what he’s doing. I felt as comfortable as I could be, lying there on Broadway covered in blood.

I know you’ve done several plays, did you know him from that world? Is that why he offered you the part?

Yeah, I actually knew his wife J. Smith Cameron, who is a brilliant actress. She and I met doing Craig Lucas’s play Blue Window in New York. I was friends with J before she met Kenny and started dating him. And then they got married, and I met him, and I saw This is Our Youth and his other plays—and I just think he’s a really talented writer. I actually just met their daughter last winter at Sundance where they were for Manchester by the Sea, which I can’t wait to see. I’ve heard it’s brilliant. I hope to get to be in another one of his movies, closer to where I live.

You’re in LA now, right?

Yeah, Mom shoots in Burbank so I pretty much live out here now.

So, as an actor, what is it that makes a Lonergan script so good? Is it the specificity? The realism? Something else?

It’s smart. The characters are always very smart. They’re deeply rooted in some kind of truth or reality. He is a really smart man, and he just seems to understand what characters are, and what story is. He gets the humanity.

And that comes through right from the script?

Yeah, absolutely. The writing is always the thing, as an actress, that excites me most. He’s definitely one of those writers where you read his script and you’re like “Please let me be in this.” You want to be a part of what he has to say.

So you were immediately in?

Pretty much. I mean, I was doing West Wing and the hours on West Wing were ridiculously hard. You don’t really get a break. So for me to say yes to something, I had to really want to do it. And I wanted to be a part of Kenny’s story. It was kind of like the first great post-9/11 movie.

How do you even prepare for a scene like that? A scene where you’re going to die, and it’s the only scene you’re in in the entire movie, do you prepare for something like that differently than a typical role?

Yeah, I’ve never really had to do anything like that before. But I just tried to leave myself open to being there, just physically, and being covered in blood and looking around. I just sort of used everything I was feeling in the moment and that way it wasn’t hard to connect to whatever emotion he wanted me to connect to, because I felt so vulnerable being there and just being so exposed and being so open and everybody looking at me. I mean just that alone makes me want to start crying, all these people are looking at me and I feel like “Don’t look at me, don’t look at me.” Being an extremely tall person, and also being shy, I walk into a room and I don’t want people to look at me, I sometimes just want to hide. While I’m an actress I like attention, being someone else. But as myself, I don’t like it so much.

And you’re out there all day long.

Yeah, I’m out there all day. And I was cold and all bloody. It was easy to get angry – because I was tired of it. Come on, let’s get this fucking scene done, come on. Whatever emotion he wanted me to do, fine I’m there I’ll do it, let’s do this, let’s just get this in the can.

What is it like to stay in the kind of headspace, as an actress, where you’re basically on dying all day long? How do you maintain that intensity—and how does doing that affect the rest of your day after you go home?

Well, I trained with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and they teach you how to emotionally prepare for something—whether you fantasize about something or think about something you don’t want to happen, or you just let your mind take you away somewhere. I’ve gotten better at letting it go, but something like that scene sort of stays with you for a bit. It’s hard to shake that off after the work is done. It definitely involved a really long hot shower and maybe a bath and a martini or something. And you just think “Wow, that was unbelievable.” But it’s what I do, and I’m glad I can do it. I mean I definitely have a lot of emotions in me that tend to get in the way of me leading my normal life, so it’s great to get to use them in my acting, to have an outlet for them.

Ah, now we’re getting into the therapy part of the interview.

Yeah, exactly. (laughs) I mean acting is really healthy for me; it’s the only time I feel really connected. Well, this is probably too much, this is too therapy-y. I guess it’s just what I do. I think in the beginning learning how to do these emotional preparations probably I couldn’t let go of them too much and they would affect my day. But now I’m older and I sort of get it; I can let it come in and out more easily. But doing that scene, I think I was happy to let it go once it was over – like, God I couldn’t wait to get into the bath and just let it go.

I mean you have to, right? You can’t walk around in that emotional space for too long.

Exactly. It’s too much.