Allison Janney On Sex, Sorkin And Being The Tallest Woman In The Room

Aug 25, 2014

Allison Janney has been nominated for Emmys for her roles on Masters of Sex and Mom. She says her relationships with her family members helped inform her characters.

Originally broadcast Aug. 4.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The Emmy award ceremony is tonight, but some Emmys were already awarded earlier this month. At that ceremony, Allison Janney won the Emmy for outstanding guest actress in a drama series for her performance in Showtime's "Masters Of Sex." Tonight, she's up for another Emmy - outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series - for the CBS sitcom "Mom." She won four Emmys for "The West Wing," playing White House press secretary C.J. Craig. Janney's been in many movies, including "Primary Colors," "American Beauty," "Juno" and "The Help."

We spoke earlier this month and started with a scene from "Masters Of Sex," which is based on William Masters and Virginia Johnson and the research they conducted into human sexuality, starting in the late 1950s. Janney plays Margaret Scully, who's married to Barton Scully, the provost at Washington University Hospital, where, in season one, he supervised Masters' research.

Margaret was frustrated that her husband showed no sexual interest in her. In this scene, she's just learned that he's been seeing prostitutes. But she hasn't figured out that those prostitutes are men, and her husband is deep in the closet. Here they are at a drive-in movie. Her husband is played by Beau Bridges.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")

BEAU BRIDGES: (As Barton Scully) We didn't have drive-ins in our day.

ALLISON JANNEY: (As Margaret Scully) We didn't need them. We were married when we first slept together.

BRIDGES: (As Barton Scully) We were of our time.

JANNEY: (As Margaret Scully) That's not why we waited.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVE-IN MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) I've come back to you. I couldn't stay away any longer.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Oh, (unintelligible).

JANNEY: Barton, I have spent the day racking my brains, pacing, wondering - maybe I should light his clothes on fire. Maybe I should drive his car into the pool. Maybe I should tell them all about the man I've been seeing, who, by the way, wanted me in his bed...

BRIDGES: (As Barton Scully) Marg - Margaret...

JANNEY: (As Margaret Scully) ...Though he didn't love me. I don't say this to punish you, although God knows you deserve to be punished. I mean, prostitutes - that is so insulting to me and so far beneath you.

BRIDGES: (As Barton Scully) I will - I will never do it again - ever. I swear to you.

JANNEY: (As Margaret Scully) Even if you never laid a hand on a hooker again, that wouldn't change what is so impossible to understand. This morning, when you came into my room, I was practically naked, and you didn't look at my body once - not once. And yet, your face was filled with such love.

BRIDGES: (As Barton Scully) Because I love you. You know that.

JANNEY: (As Margaret Scully) We didn't sleep together before we were married because you weren't interested in sleeping with me. And I excused it away by saying, passion is for teenagers and nymphomaniacs. Passion is not what makes a good marriage. This is a perfect, beautiful man who loves me, who doesn't care that I'm tall and athletic, who doesn't - doesn't want me to act stupider than I am. This is a man who understands me.

BRIDGES: (As Barton Scully) And 30 years later, we're still the best of friends. How many people can say that?

JANNEY: (As Margaret Scully) That's not enough.

GROSS: Allison Janney, welcome to FRESH AIR. I feel so bad for your character and her marriage, which is unfulfilled because her husband is so deep in the closet. They're both victims of the repression of homosexuality. You must find this character so interesting.

JANNEY: She was incredibly fascinating to play. The closer she gets to the truth, more lies are flung at her, until she, you know, finally is faced with the real truth of why her marriage isn't working.

GROSS: She wants to participate in one of the Masters and Johnson's sex research studies. And then they're asking her all these questions about orgasm and what she experiences during sex, and what she experiences is pure tension, not, like, the release of...

(LAUGHTER)

JANNEY: No. (Laughing).

GROSS: The orgasmic release of tension, and...

JANNEY: (Laughing) She (laughing) - she gets asked - she just...

GROSS: She seems so clueless about it. Yeah.

JANNEY: I know. She gets asked, was - is there any release? And she said, oh, tremendous relief. You know, she miss - she mishears the words. She's so glad when it's over. She doesn't understand. You know, she can't understand what they're getting at. And she wants to say the right answers, of course, because she wants to be in the study. And then to realize in that moment, in front of her husband's, you know, coworker that she's - has never even had an orgasm before.

GROSS: Since there is so much frank sexual talk on the show itself, do people end up making sexual confessions to each other on the set...

JANNEY: (Laughing).

GROSS: ...While killing time before the next scene is shot, just to kind of get in the spirit?

JANNEY: Yeah, it does kind of make for - the situation is so awkward that you do have to become fast friends. Or you look for anything to be comfortable with - your scene partner. And maybe that's sharing some silly thing that happened with you in bed your first time or whatever - just anything to break the ice. And I was not afraid to ask for - I had to ask for just a - just a little shot of courage before I had my first sex scene with Teddy Sears, who's just the most gorgeous, wonderful, handsome specimen of man.

GROSS: This is - this is the younger man who you have an affair with...

JANNEY: The young man who I - yes.

GROSS: ...Because you're not getting anywhere with your husband? (Laughing).

JANNEY: I'm not anywhere with my husband, and I decide I'm going to - you know. And he falls into my lap, so to speak, and I sort of go there. And it's wonderful for the audience to see Margaret Scully have her first orgasm on, you know - not so much for my mother (laughing) - on television. But - oh, my God...

GROSS: So it did you need a shot of courage for the scene or a shot of liquor?

JANNEY: Well, that's what I mean when I say courage. (Laughing).

GROSS: OK - just checking.

JANNEY: When I say courage...

GROSS: (Laughing).

JANNEY: Just a little shot of bourbon or something. I don't even know what they had. I just asked, you know, for something, and...

GROSS: Whatever. (Laughing)

JANNEY: And I just wanted something to just take the edge off because I was beyond nervous. Who gets to do a sex scene when you're, you know, 50 - whatever? No one really gets to - not too many women get to do that.

So the worst part is, I think, doing the run-through for the crew when they come in, and you have a private rehearsal. And they're very great on "Masters Of Sex" to keep the set very private and respect everyone. And you sort of go through the numbers with the director. And then they invite the crew in 'cause they have to see it in order to, you know, boom it and light it and do everything. And that's the part that just feels so weird, you know.

I was like, can we just go by the numbers here, to show - and the directors like, no, you've got to show them what the action is so they know what, you know, it is. And I'm like, OK. All right, here we go. You know, you try to make fun of it and just dive in.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting that as you're doing "Masters Of Sex," which is based on the real work that Masters and Johnson did in sex research - and that's a drama. And you're also in a sitcom called "Mom," which deals a lot with sexuality, too, but it's a much more sitcom-ish approach.

JANNEY: Yes.

GROSS: And it must be so hard to transfer from, like, one mindset to the other.

JANNEY: I was kind of grateful that they were so different from each other - the characters. Bonnie Plunkett is the exact opposite of Margaret Scully in every way. And so I think if they had been closer in character, it might've been a little trickier. But this - I was so grateful for it.

GROSS: Why don't we hear seen from "Mom." And this is the episode that earned you the Emmy nomination. It's a CBS series, produced by the team who did "Two And A Half Men." And you play Bonnie, the single mother of a now adult daughter, who's played by Anna Faris.

And you've done a lot of drinking and partying and sleeping around over the years. But you very recently got sober, and you're trying to improve your relationship with your daughter. Now, your daughter has also had alcohol and drug problems, and she only recently got sober. She is the mother of two children - both out of wedlock - and she gave birth to her oldest when she was a teenager. Now that daughter is pregnant herself. But in this scene...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...You call your daughter in the middle of the night with some upsetting news.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOM")

ANNA FARIS: (As Christy Plunkett) Hello.

JANNEY: (As Bonnie Plunkett) Are you awake?

(LAUGHTER)

FARIS: (As Christy Plunkett) At 2:30 in the morning? You betcha.

JANNEY: (As Bonnie Plunkett) I think I'm pregnant.

(LAUGHTER)

FARIS: (As Christy Plunkett) Oh, God. Can I not be awake?

(LAUGHTER)

FARIS: (As Christy Plunkett) How is that even possible?

JANNEY: (As Bonnie Plunkett) What kind of question is that? I happen to be in the bloom of my life.

(LAUGHTER)

FARIS: (As Christy Plunkett) Half the men in Napa Valley have been in the bloom of your life.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So as we heard in that clip, there's a lot of laughter in this series. And in the scene that we heard, there was, like, laughter after every single line. (Laughing)

JANNEY: I know.

GROSS: And is that - is that all laughter from the audience? Is there a laugh track to you? Is the laughter sweetened?

JANNEY: Well, I know. Some people - it's amazing, but they're really - the live audience is there, and they were - they are laughing after every single line. And it's - and you have to hold like you do on the stage in live theater. You have to hold for the laugh. And when we don't get a laugh on a line, usually after the take, there'll be a big pause. And the writers will be furiously thinking up new lines, and they come up with floor pitches - is what they call them. And then they come in with notepads and tell us, now, say this this time. Now, say this this time. And then they do the take again, and if the audience laughs, we move on. If they don't, they keep writing. And it's kind of a crazy, crazy night - the tape night - with the audience there. But those are all real laughs. And as to whether or not they use - mix the laughs with other laugh tracks, I don't really know. But I know that I'm there, and I hear the audience laughing with us, so...

GROSS: What happens if you have to do a second take, and the audience has already heard the joke? Are they going to laugh again?

JANNEY: Well, that's kind of interesting. They do have a stand-up comedian who's in the audience, keeping them - the audience warmed up. But he always says, now, remember - this is the first time we're seeing the scenes, so, you know, forget what you saw before and pretend this is - so he's always sort of coaching them on how to be a good audience.

GROSS: My guest is Allison Janney. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Allison Janney. She won an Emmy earlier this month for "Masters Of Sex" and is up for another tonight for the sitcom "Mom." She won four Emmys for "The West Wing."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: I think a lot of people first got to know you as C.J., the...

JANNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Press secretary on "The West Wing."

JANNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Let's hear a scene from that. And this is a scene - President Bartlet had MS, but he was not telling people about it.

JANNEY: Right.

GROSS: In this scene, Oliver Platt, who plays the White House counsel, has learned that the president has MS and has been keeping it from the public. And he's trying to figure out who on the White House staff knew and has been helping in the cover-up and who didn't. So here he is questioning you about whether you participated in covering up that information.

JANNEY: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WEST WING")

OLIVER PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Have you ever lied about the president's health?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Should I have my lawyer here?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I'm your lawyer.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) You're the president's lawyer.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I'm the White House counsel, C.J. Have you ever lied about the president's health?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) When did he tell you?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I'm sorry?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) When did the president tell you?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Six days ago.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) And Josh?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Two days after that.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Toby?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Two days before he told me. C.J., have you ever lied about the president's health?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) And Leo he told more than a year ago?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Yeah.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) And I've had this for six hours now. So maybe giving me some room wouldn't be totally out of line. You know what I'm saying, Oliver?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) C.J., I'm going to have to ask you some questions. The less you can be pissed at the world for no particular reason, the better, I think.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) I don't know you.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I'm sorry?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) I was told to report to you. I don't know you. You've been here what...

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Three months.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Three months.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Yeah.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) So why should I trust you?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Well, I don't care if you trust me or not.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Imagine my shock.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) I got better things to do with my imagination.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) I think this is going really well so far, Oliver. It's almost hard to believe that four different women have sued you for divorce.

(DOOR OPENING)

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Well, you can do that if you want, C.J. I've been through it a couple of times with Josh and Toby. But sooner or later, you're going to have to answer questions.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Either to you or...

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) A grand jury.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Compelled by...

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) A Justice Department subpoena.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Well, I have to tell you, it'll be the first time I've been asked out in quite a while. So...

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) It's entirely possible that the president has committed multiple counts of a federal crime, to which you were an accomplice.

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) That much has sunk in in the last six hours.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Has it?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Yes.

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) So why don't you knock off the cutie-pie crap and answer the damn question?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) What was the question?

PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Have you ever lied about the president's health? What is your answer?

JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Many, many times.

>>JANNEY Oh, C.J.'s in trouble.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's my guest, Allison Janney with Oliver Platt in a scene from "The West Wing." So I always wonder when you do that kind of snappy retort type of Aaron Sorkin dialogue, does it improve your ability to have witty retorts in real life and to have razor-sharp dialogue when you're speaking extemporaneously?

JANNEY: Oh Terry, Terry, would that that were true.

(LAUGHTER)

JANNEY: But no, I can't - I don't have that. I don't have that razor wit that C.J. had. Politics scared the crap out of me because I did not grow up in a family where we talked about anything really but, you know, pass the peas and do this. And, you know, we didn't really have political discussions at the dinner table. I didn't learn how to watch or, you know, listen to politics. I mean, and then have to step into this world and really be playing someone that had - I had no idea what I was talking about half the time. And I had to, you know, study my lines and read and I'm going - what the hell am I talking about? I learned a great deal doing that show and I loved it. But I felt just really a fish out of water when we'd go to Washington and be, you know, go out to dinner, I'd meet, you know, all the former press secretaries. And sitting around with Dee Dee Myers and Joe Lockhart and talking I would just get so nervous. I wouldn't know what to ask them. So I felt a real pretender to the throne.

GROSS: Allison Janney, recorded earlier this month. She's up for an Emmy tonight for her role on the sitcom "Mom." She already won an Emmy at a ceremony August 16th for her performance in "Masters Of Sex." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.