After earning four Emmys for playing White House press secretary C.J. Cregg in The West Wing, Allison Janney snagged two more statuettes last year for her wildly disparate performances in the CBS sitcom Mom and the Showtime period drama Masters of Sex. Now starring as a no-nonsense CIA director in Paul Feig’s Spy, in theaters June 5, the 55-year-old actress reveals how much her art imitates her life, particularly when it comes to cursing and closeted gay men.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: How do you explain your loyal gay following?
Allison Janney: Because I’m six feet tall and still love to wear high heels. [Laughs] I’m not afraid to go big and take chances with out-there roles, and I think people respond to that. I feel honored to be embraced by the gay community. Truly, it’s a huge validation of my work. I don’t want to say that gay people are smarter than other people, but…yeah.
You often play characters at both ends of the spectrum: sexually repressed conservatives and boozy trailer trash. In other words, there’s a Prudy in Hairspray for every Loretta in Drop Dead Gorgeous on your IMDb page. Do you identify with those extremes?
Oh, yeah. I have an affinity for both kinds of women. That insecure, sexually repressed woman is definitely inside me, but I also have some great relatives who inspired me to be bold and funny. My fabulous grandmother would wear kooky shirts, bright green silk cigarette pants, red nail polish, and she’d smoke Marlboros and drink martinis. Growing up, I idolized her.
You grew up in Ohio in the ’60s and ’70s. What was your introduction to gay culture?
That’s an interesting question. Maybe from watching Laugh-In? Well, I did theater in college, but I never openly talked about it with anyone until I moved to New York in the early ’80s. I started hanging out with a lot of gay men at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where I studied acting. It wasn’t until then that I discovered there was this whole gay world out there.
Were you raised in an environment that was open and accepting of peoples’ differences?
Oh, my parents didn’t talk about sex, politics—nothing. I love my family, but there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation at the dinner table. It was very “pass the peas.” I don’t know why we didn’t talk about anything. I wish we had, because I would’ve been more prepared for life.
Why did you click with gay men in New York?
I liked to have a good time and be silly. I also felt awkward and impossibly tall, and when you connect with gay men, you don’t have to worry, Does he like me? Does he want to kiss me? It’s just about friendship. The lack of sexual tension made it really easy to hang out. There’s a reason why so many women have gay best friends, and there’s a reason why so many women fall in love with gay men. There are gay men in my life today that I’m totally in love with. They’re more sensitive, understanding, and they appreciate things about women that straight men run from.
Like height and heels.
Exactly. My friend Dan likes to put my high heels at the top of his Christmas tree, just for fun, because I have the biggest feet on the planet. I have a lot of gay friends who borrow my clothes, actually.
In Masters of Sex, which is set in the ’50s and ’60s, you play Margaret, who discovers that her sexually distant husband is gay and suicidal. What are your hopes for her?
I’m coming back to shoot four more episodes for the third season, but I have no idea what will happen. I think Margaret’s pretty sure that, although she loves her husband, she’s not going to live the rest of her life with him. But I could also see her continuing to support him while she has affairs. Maybe she’ll become one of those sex therapists who helps people have orgasms.
What was it like to be part of such an important and powerful storyline?
When I signed on, I had no idea how beautifully it would be written and told. I certainly didn’t think, Oh, I’m going to win an Emmy for this. I didn’t know how much impact it was going to have, but I know it resonated with a lot of people. Just myself, I’ve known many marriages that ended because the man came out as gay. Margaret was a wonderful character: She wasn’t a victim, but it was so heartbreaking to see someone thinking she was inadequate, that there must be something wrong with her, feeling so unsatisfied, yet knowing she was loved. It was so confusing for her. It’s probably my favorite role I’ve ever gotten to play. While filming, I was also going through a strange time with some sad things that were sort of paralleling her journey. It can be hard to get emotional on cue, but there was something about what was going on in my life at the time that made the work very easy. I felt very connected to her.
Barbara, your character in American Beauty, also had a closeted husband. Did she know he was gay?
No, she was too out of it. She was deeply unhappy, and I decided she was overmedicated on early antidepressants. She blamed herself for everything, so she thought it was her fault that he didn’t want her.
Was there any hope for poor Barbara?
It’s the perfect movie, but there was one scene that got cut, unfortunately, where she finds a bloody T-shirt and realizes it was her husband who killed Kevin Spacey’s character. She was agoraphobic, and there’s a wonderful moment where she decides to put it in an envelope and mail it to the police, and you see her walking out of the house to the mailbox. It was so much fun to act—this woman torn between protecting her husband and turning him in. And you see in that moment that she might actually change and survive. It was really powerful.
Have you ever dated a gay man?
I have been madly in love with a few men who were not out at the time. We made out a lot, but I had no idea they were gay. You know, there are some other guys I’d like to look up on Facebook to see who they’re dating now. [Laughs] I have gay friends that I would marry in a heartbeat and be perfectly happy. That might be my next step. I’d have a partner to share my life with, but I’d go have affairs. Maybe I’d get on Tinder?
When you spoke to The Advocate in 2001, you said that people think you’re a lesbian because you’re tall and unmarried. Is that still popular opinion?
Maybe. If people think I’m gay, I’m fine with it. I’ll probably never get married, and I don’t think I really want to be. I’ve never had a lesbian experience, but I’m beginning to wish I were gay. I think I’d be a lot happier!
How did you approach Sally, the girlfriend of Meryl Streep’s character, in The Hours?
I never wanted to do a caricature of a lesbian. It’s nice to know she’s gay, but it didn’t inform my acting. Really, I just had to love Meryl Streep, and I obviously had no problem portraying that. I’d done an Alan Ball play in New York called Five Women Wearing the Same Dress where I played a lesbian, and I also played a lesbian in an Eve Ensler play, Ladies. I remember people appreciating that I just played them as women.
How does your kiss with Meryl rank among your other onscreen kisses?
I was pretty epic. I mean, how many actresses can say they kissed Meryl Streep in a movie?
Speaking of smooches, last year on Conan you said that you’ll only make out for fun with gay men and straight women. You broke a lot of lesbian hearts that day.
[Laughs] Only because I don’t want to get anyone into trouble! I didn’t mean to hurt any feelings. In my crazy way, that was me saying that I don’t want to cause problems in any relationships. You know, I’ve never really, truly made out with a woman before. I’d like to do that before I die.
Do you anticipate any LGBT storylines on the upcoming third season of Mom?
Oh, I’ll definitely put a bug in [series creator] Chuck Lorre’s ear and mention it to the writers. My character, Bonnie, needs a gay best friend. She actually needs to fall in love with a gay man and then marry him anyway for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned.
You played a religious conservative nut in Funny or Die’s Prop. 8–The Musical. What do you recall about that experience?
I was so happy and flattered that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman called and asked me to do that. Oftentimes I feel like I don’t do enough to help the LGBT community and other important causes that I believe in, but that’s the way I feel most comfortable showing my support: by being a part of a performance or project that makes a powerful statement. It was an exciting, amazing day to share with all those incredible people.
You also participated in Broadway Bares, the annual Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS burlesque benefit, while starring in the Broadway musical 9 to 5. If the photos are any indication, no one had more fun that night than you did. You clearly appreciate a muscular chorus boy.
That I do. [Laughs] Yeah, I did have a good time. I must’ve had a cocktail or two. I’d never heard of Broadway Bares before that, but I said, “Count me in!” That was a crazy night.
You earned a Tony nomination for playing Violet Newstead, Lily Tomlin’s role, in 9 to 5. Would you like to do another Broadway musical?
Never say never, but I felt like I did that and can check that off the list. I don’t feel so confident about my singing voice. It would have to be a part that didn’t require a really great voice. I could maybe see myself doing Wonderful Town, and I’d love to think of myself as someone who could play Lauren Bacall’s role in Woman of the Year. That would be fun. But I’d want to know I was doing that years in advance, so I could start working on the material and getting comfortable with it. It’s really terrifying. I don’t like feeling like I’m the least talented one on the stage.
You tackle another tough cookie in Spy. Tell me about CIA head Elaine Crocker.
She’s the smartest woman in the room, and she has nice hair. She and her husband aren’t having sex either, so she basically just needs to get fucked. She also has the mouth of a truck driver.
At one point she uses the word thundercunt. It rolled off your tongue so naturally.
Oh, my God! [Laughs] Our director, Paul Feig, is famous for throwing things at you while the camera’s rolling, like, “OK, say this! Now say this!” After thundercunt, I was like, “Wait, what did I just say?!” I’ve never used that word before, but I do curse a lot. I love to swear.
What’s your go-to expletive?
You fat fuck! I like the alliteration.
The Advocate, June/July 2015 issue; extended online version.