Allison Janney On Sex, Sorkin And Being The Tallest Woman In The Room
Playing a woman discovering sexuality in the '50s makes actor Allison Janney think of — of all people — her mother. Janney's mother and father got married in their early 20s, and she doesn't believe her mother had sex with anyone else.
"I remember my mother talking to me about the birds and the bees," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Of course, I had already known [about them], probably years before she came to me. But remembering the way she talked to me about it — it's just everything about her reminds me of Margaret Scully."
Margaret Scully is the character Janney plays in Showtime's Masters of Sex, based on the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and the research they conducted into human sexuality starting in the late 1950s. Scully is married to Barton Scully (played by Beau Bridges), the provost at the hospital at Washington University, where he supervises Masters' research. Barton is closeted and the two are stuck in a sexless marriage. When Barton betrays Margaret by hiring prostitutes, Margaret finds herself in the throes of passion with another man.
In another role, Janney also learned from a relationship within her family. In 2011, after a long struggle with addiction, Janney's brother committed suicide. Two years later, she was cast as Bonnie Plunkett in the show Mom, about a newly sober single mom. Though the show is comedic, Janney felt it was important to illustrate what so many families face.
"I thought it was time to show a family struggling with this, because it seems like these days everybody is struggling with recovering from something," she says. "I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to show what that's like."
Janney, who is best known for her role as White House press secretary C.J. Cregg on The West Wing, has been nominated for two upcoming Emmy Awards: one for outstanding guest actress in a drama series for her performance in Masters of Sex, and another for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for her role in CBS's Mom. The Emmys air Aug. 25.
On feeling awkward filming sex scenes
The situation is so awkward that you do have to become fast friends [with the other actors], or you look for anything to be comfortable with your scene partner. Maybe that's sharing some silly thing that happened with you in bed your first time or whatever — anything to break the ice.
I had to ask for just a little shot of courage before I had my first sex scene with Teddy Sears [on Masters of Sex] who is just the most gorgeous, wonderful, handsome specimen. ... When I say courage, just a little shot of bourbon ... I just wanted something to take the edge off because I was beyond nervous. Who gets to do a sex scene when you're 50? ...
The worst part is, I think, doing the run-through for the crew when they come in. You have a private rehearsal. And they're very great on Masters of Sex to keep the set very private, and [they] respect everyone. You go through [the motions] with the director, and then they invite the crew in because they have to see it in order to boom it and light it — and that's the part that just feels so weird.
On her brother's death informing her role on Mom
The loss of my brother was a huge moment, a life-changer for me. I spent a long time trying to help him get sober. I sent him to countless rehabs — I tried to be there to help him. And when I lost him, this show Mom came along two years after.
I thought, "This is good. I feel like I'm qualified to be in this world." I've gone to many Al-Anon meetings, many open AA meetings; I've been to rehab places with my brother. I just know that world. I had to go through it a lot. ... I didn't feel that there was anything anyone was making fun of [in] this process at all.
I thought it was time to show a family struggling with this, because it seems like these days everybody is struggling with recovering from something. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to show what that's like.
On playing press secretary C.J. Cregg on The West Wing, and whether Aaron Sorkin's snappy dialogue translated into real life
Unfortunately that was the biggest disappointment, that that didn't just seep into my skin and my brain and I was able to just speak like Aaron Sorkin writes the minute I left that show. But no, I don't have that razor wit that C.J. had.
Politics scared the crap out of me because I didn't grow up in a family where we talked about anything, really, except, "Pass the peas, and do this." ... We didn't really have political discussions at the dinner table. I didn't learn how to watch or listen to politics.
And then to have to step into this world and really be an actress ... I had no idea what I was talking about half the time. And I'd study my lines going, "What the hell am I talking about?" I learned a great deal doing that show and I loved it, but I felt really just a fish out of water when we'd go to Washington and go out to dinner and I'd meet all the former press secretaries and be sitting around with [former President Clinton's press secretaries] Dee Dee Myers and Joe Lockhart. I'd just get so nervous — I didn't know what to ask them.
On getting roles as a tall actor
I say I'm 5 feet 12 inches. I'm definitely 6 feet. In my heels I'm 6 feet 3 inches. ... [As a kid], I was always sort of a late bloomer in a lot of things. I always felt that way. I felt like my career started late and I think it was because of my height — and maybe some of my confidence issues.
I was playing 40-year-old women when I was 20. I didn't get considered for ingenue roles. Maybe I just wasn't ready, but things started happening when I turned 38. ... I think my height probably did have something to do with it — but [my height] also helped me in certain parts. It's made me definitely more of a character actress in terms of my love of doing comedy. I get cast as either the smartest woman in the room or the drunkest woman in the room, and a lot of stuff in between. But I do well getting those kinds of parts — authoritative or completely crazy, which I love. I love both of those kinds of roles.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Emmy Award ceremony is coming up soon - August 25. My guest Allison Janney is nominated for two Emmys - Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her performance in Showtime's "Masters Of Sex" and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a comedy series for her role in CBS's "Mom." She won four Emmys for her performance on the West Wing as White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg. Janney's been in many movies, including "Primary Colors," "American Beauty," "Juno" and "The Help." Let's start with a scene from "Masters Of Sex," which is based on the story of 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 he supervises Master's research. Margaret is frustrated that her husband shows no sexual interest in her. 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. Barton, I have spent the day wracking 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 him all about the man I've been seeing, who, by the way, wanted me in his bed.
BRIDGES: (As Barton Scully) Margaret, Margaret.
JANNEY: (As Margaret Scully) 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 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 in 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) It's not enough.
GROSS: Allison Janney, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on your two Emmy nominations.
JANNEY: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: I feel so bad for your character in 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. One of my favorite in my career so far because of the different layers that are at work in every scene and how long it takes for her to really - she keeps getting fed lies more - you know, the closer she gets to the truth. More lies are flung at her, until she 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...
JANNEY: (Laughing) No, I don't.
GROSS: The orgasmic relief of tension and...
JANNEY: (Laughing) She - she gets asked - she just...
GROSS: She seems so clueless about it, yeah.
JANNEY: I know. She gets asked was there any release? And she said, oh, tremendous relief. You know, she mishears the words.
JANNEY: She's so glad when it's over. She doesn't - you know, she can't understand what they're getting at. 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 never even had an orgasm before.
GROSS: So what did you do to put yourself in the mindset of somebody who came of age sexually in an earlier time - didn't really understand her own capacity for sexual feeling, didn't understand what she was missing, didn't understand all the clues that her husband was a deeply-closeted, gay man? So like, we're dealing, in terms of sexual orientation and sex itself, in another era. How did you go there?
JANNEY: I thought about my mother a lot and how she and my father got married at a really early age - early twenties. And I don't think they probably had slept with other people before, you know, getting married and just knowing my mother so well and how she is such a graceful woman, who's very concerned with manners. And, of course, I grew up, you know, Episcopalian and very - you know, we don't really talk about personal things. I remember my mother talking to me about the birds and the bees - of course, I had already known, you know, probably years before she came to me, but the way - watching her - remembering the way she talked to me about it. It's just everything about her reminds me of Margaret Scully.
GROSS: How did she bring it up with you?
JANNEY: You know, she just started in this very slow, laborious kind of - just, I could tell how uncomfortable it was for her. And I was just as uncomfortable hearing my mother start to tell me about it, when I already know. And I think I even said, Mom, it's OK, I know, I know. I've seen - you know, I've seen dirty magazines or I've seen whatever.
GROSS: Was she relieved or appalled?
JANNEY: (Laughing) I think she was a little appalled and a little like, oh, my goodness. You know, she just - she was a little alarmed with me as I've continued to alarm her. Even when I told her I was doing a show called "Masters Of Sex," before she knew what it was, she had a very hard time telling her friends in Dayton, Ohio, you know, what's your daughter up to? (Laughing) My mom would be like, well, she's doing a show called "Mom." And then there's another show, that's - well, it's - Beau Bridges is in it with her. And I'm not sure what it is called but, you know. And now, of course, she's very proud of the show, once she knew, you know, it was actually a very real show and a very respected show.
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 while killing time before the next seen is shot?
GROSS: 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 become comfortable with your scene partner. And maybe that's, you know, sharing some silly thing that happened with you in bed, you know, 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 little shot of courage before I had my first sex scene with Teddy Sears, who is just the most gorgeous, wonderful, handsome specimen.
GROSS: This is the younger man who you have an affair with?
JANNEY: The young man who - yes.
GROSS: Because you're not getting anything with your husband.
JANNEY: I'm not getting 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 - (Laughing) not so much for my mother - on television, but oh, my God.
GROSS: So 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) When I say courage - just a little shot of bourbon or - I didn't know what they had. I just asked, you know, for something.
GROSS: You know, whatever. (Laughing).
JANNEY: I just wanted something to just take the edge off. I was beyond nervous - who gets to do a sex scene when you're, you know, fifty, whatever? You know, nobody 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, because they had to see it in order to, you know, boom it and light it. And that's the part that just feels so weird, you know. I was like can we just go by the numbers here and show them? The director was like, no, you've got to show them what the action is so they know what, you know, what is - I'm like OK, all right, here we go. You know, you try to make fun of it and just dive in.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Janney. She's nominated for two Emmys - one for her performance in the Showtime series, "Masters Of Sex," the other for her performance in the CBS sitcom, "Mom." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Janney. She is nominated for two Emmys - one for her performance in the Showtime series "Masters of Sex" - the other for her performance in the CBS sitcom "Mom." 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.
GROSS: 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.
GROSS: It must be so hard to transfer from, like, one mindset to the other.
JANNEY: I thought it would be, Terry, because I actually - I got cast in "Mom," and I knew I was going to be doing that pilot in March of last year or somewhere in there, and then I was asked to be part of "Masters of Sex" and started filming that in February. So I did a couple of episodes of "Masters of Sex" before I went to film the pilot of "Mom," and I was like, gee, this is going to be interesting. But once I got on the set of "Mom" and got in on those sets and had the scripts in my hand and started working on the material, it just - 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. So I think if they had been closer in character, it might have been a little trickier, but this was - I was so grateful for it.
GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene 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, a single mother of a now adult daughter who is 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, you call your daughter in the middle of the night with some upsetting news.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOM")
ANNA FARIS: (As Christy) Hello?
JANNEY: (As Bonnie) Are you awake?
FARIS: (As Christy) At 2:30 in the morning? - you bet.
JANNEY: (As Bonnie) I think I'm pregnant.
FARIS: (As Christy) Oh, God. Can I not be awake? How is that even possible?
JANNEY: (As Bonnie) What kind of question is that? I happen to be in the bloom of my life.
FARIS: (As Christy) Half the men in Napa Valley have been in the bloom of your life.
JANNEY: (As Bonnie) What?
FARIS: (As Christy) Nothing - Did you take a test?
JANNEY: (As Bonnie) I don't need to. I've got all the signs. I missed my period. I'm moody. My nipples are incredibly angry. Trust me, there's fruit in these loins.
GROSS: So as we heard in that clip, there's a lot of laughter in the series. And in the scene that we heard, there was, like, laughter after every single line.
JANNEY: I know.
GROSS: And is that all laughter from the audience. Is there a laugh track, too? Is the laughter sweetened?
JANNEY: Well, I know some people - it's amazing, but they're really - the live audience is there, and they are laughing after every single line. And it's - you have to hold like you do on the stage in live theater. You have told for the laugh. And then when we don't get a laugh on a line that - usually after the take, it'll be a big pause and the writers will be furiously thinking of 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 they do the take again. If the audience laughs, we move on. If they don't, they keep writing. It's kind of a crazy night - tape night with the audience there. But those are all real laughs. And as to whether or not they use a mix of laughs with other laughter, I don't really know. But I know that I'm there and hear the audience laughing with us so.
GROSS: What happens if you have to do a second taken and the audience has already heard the joke? Are they going to laugh again?
JANNEY: Well, that's kind of interesting. They do - they do have a standup comedian who's in the audience, keeping the audience warmed up and keeping them interested in between takes when the writers are off writing and there's, like, a lot of waiting around. He'll, you know, do magic tricks and ask the audience to, you know, sing and do karaoke. They do - there's so many crazy things that the standup does with the audience and they always have a great time, but he always says, now remember this is the first time you're seeing this scene. 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. So yeah - so they're instructed on pretending like they haven't seen it before, and then a lot of times with the new lines, it's like they haven't seen it before. So it's always just in-the-moment-laughter.
GROSS: In the series "Mom," your character goes to twelve-step meetings because she's a recovering alcoholic and is only recently sober. I know that your younger brother committed suicide and I believe he had been - that he had had a drinking problem, and so I'm wondering what it's like for you to treat alcoholism in the kind of lighthearted way that the series does after seeing, you know, how deadly it can actually be.
JANNEY: Yeah, definitely was - the loss of my brother was a huge moment - life-changer for me. And I spent a long time trying to help him get sober. I sent him to countless rehabs. I tried to be there to help him, and when I lost him, you know, - this show came - "Mom" came along two years after, and I just - I thought this is good. I want to do - I feel like I am qualified to be in this world. I have gone to many Al-Anon meetings. I have gone to many open AA meetings. I've been to rehab places with my brother. I just know that world. I've had to go through it a lot. And I felt like I wanted to be a part, and I didn't feel that there was anything - that anyone was making fun of this process at all. I thought it was time to show a family struggling with this because it just seems like, these days, everybody is struggling with recovering from something. And I wanted to be part of that. I want to show what that's like.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Janney. So I think a lot of people first got to know you as C.J., the press secretary, on "the West Wing."
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.
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 new 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.
(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 about six hours now. So maybe giving me some room wouldn't totally be 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've 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.
PLATT: (As Oliver Babish) Well, you can do that if you want, C.J. I've been through it a couple 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) Held 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) Yeah.
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.
GROSS: Oh, C.J.'s in trouble. 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, what if at that were true. Unfortunately, that was the biggest disappointment that that just didn't just seep into my skin and my brain and I was able to just speak like Aaron Sorkin writes the minute I left that show. 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, you know, watch or, you know, listen to politics and then to have to step into this world and really be an actress and really be playing someone that I - I had no idea what I was talking about half the time. And I have to - you know, I would study my lines and read and I would go, 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 of the former press secretaries and, you know - to be sitting around with Dee Dee Myers and Joe Lockhart and talking. I just would - I would get so nervous. I wouldn't know what to ask them. So I felt a real pretender to the throne.
GROSS: Allison Janney will be back in the second half of the show. She's nominated for two Emmys - one for her performance in "Masters of Sex" - the other for the sitcom "Mom." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Allison Janney. She's nominated for two Emmys - Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her performance in Showtime's "Masters of Sex" and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her performance in CBS's "Mom." The Emmy ceremony is August 25. Janney won four Emmys for her role in "the West Wing" as White House Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg. She's also been in a lot of movies, including "Primary Colors," "American Beauty," "Juno" and "The Help." I want to play what was a very small part in an independent film called, "Margaret," which was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. And your performance in this is really incredible, even though it's - it's so short. And so here's the scene. The main character in this is played by Anna Paquin. She's a teenager who - September 11 has just happened and she really is very confused. She's kind of experimenting with her own sexual kind of power. And she's been flirting with a bus driver as a bus drives by. And because he's distracted by her, he ends up going through a light and hitting you. You're a pedestrian. And the Anna Paquin character is so upset at what's happened. She runs over and finds you lying on the ground. One of your legs is actually under the bus - like kind of amputated under the bus. And she's trying to help you and here is the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGARET")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1: (As character) Call an ambulance. Everybody just step back.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 2: (As character) I'm calling one right now.
ANNA PAQUIN: (As Lisa Cohen) Can you hear me? Ma'am, can you hear me? Can you hear me?
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) I don't know. Where am I?
PAQUIN: (As Lisa Cohen) Broadway and 75th Street.
ACTOR 2: (As character) Broadway - between 75th and 74th Street.
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson)Who are you?
PAQUIN: (As Lisa Cohen) My name is Lisa.
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) What do you mean? Am I dead?
PAQUIN: (As Lisa Cohen) No, you're not dead. You were in a traffic accident, but you're going to be OK.
ACTOR 2: (As character) I don't have a direct address. She's out in the street.
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) What do you mean? What happened?
PAQUIN: (As Lisa Cohen) You were run over by a bus.
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) You've got to be kidding me - a bus?
PAQUIN: (As Lisa Cohen) Yeah.
ACTOR 1: (As character) Is there a doctor? Can we get a doctor?
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) So where am I now?
ACTOR 2: (As character) An ambulance is on its way.
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) Is it still happening?
PAQUIN: (As Lisa Cohen) No, I mean, the accident's over. I think you're a little confused.
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) I'll say I'm confused.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 3: (As character) Here, let me see if I can...
JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) (Screaming) No, don't let go of me.
GROSS: That's such a riveting scene. And, you know, when I was growing up, there were a few blocks that didn't have stop lights or traffic lights and that had a lot of car accidents. And car accidents - the sound of those cars crashing, when I was young, is still in my mind and still just terrifying to me. I'm wondering if you kind of drew on stuff like that, in this role - just the kind of horror of like one of the most dreaded things as a pedestrian.
JANNEY: I didn't know how I was going to play that scene, and I really depended on Kenny Lonergan. He really gave me some good things to think about or to be - to play. Like, he would say, oh, be angry now or be - just, like, show the complete - what it must be like to be - having been hit by a bus and not feel like it but just be incredibly confused and not - all I knew was that I was covered in blood - you know, stage blood - out on 75th and Broadway in front of Citarella's. I was there on the street in blood for the whole day. I just sort of lived in the light of just being there in that blood. It was one of the weirdest scenes to film. And it wasn't like any other scene I've ever played because it wasn't like - I don't know. It was just - I was doing so many different things in it.
GROSS: You know, you said that Kenneth Lonergan kept feeding you, like, direction - like do it. Do it angry.
GROSS: And you could have done the same lines in just a kind of confused, questioning way, like, instead of...
GROSS: ... It being that kind of angry, controlling - like, what do you mean a bus?
JANNEY: Yeah, what do you mean a bus?
GROSS: It could have been like, what do you mean a bus? So, but - I felt that doing it that kind of, like, angry, controlling tough New Yorker way...
JANNEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...Told so much about your character even though...
GROSS: ...This was always see of you because you die in that scene.
JANNEY: Yeah, yeah, that's it. I knew - I mean, it was funny when Kenny asked me to do it - I was in LA, and he said I know this is - by the way, you know, we filmed that in, like - I felt like we filmed that in 2002 or 2003, and I don't think it came out until - I mean, it was a long time before it came out. It's just an amazing masterpiece that he did with that movie. I think it's - I'm so proud I'm a part of it. But I - when he asked me to be in it, and I read the scene, and I was like, well, at least I know I won't get caught. You know, I know it's going to be in the movie because it was, you know, what? - the whole movie moves forward because of that moment there so. But it was interesting, and I really am grateful for his help.
GROSS: So when you were young - when you were a teenager, I think, you didn't want to be an actor - you're thinking more about being a figure skater.
GROSS: But then you had a really bad accident and injured your leg.
GROSS: What happened?
JANNEY: I was 17, and I was at a party that my friends and my parents were throwing. It was an outdoor party and there were these sliding doors - some of them open - some of them closed right by the band. And I just hit one of the windows and it was - and sort of the lower part of my body - my right leg went through, and then the glass kind of guillotined my right leg. And I was so embarrassed that I'd hit the glass. I didn't know that it had happened. I turned to the band who had stopped playing, and I was like, play, just keep playing. Keep playing. Keep playing. Keep playing. I was so embarrassed. And then I turned around and looked at everyone just, like, staring at me and I was like, uh oh. It was like a Fellini movie with all of these people's faces popping in over my head and looking at me with, you know, cigarettes. And my older brother came in to, you know - someone was trying to put tourniquet around my leg, and he shoved them aside and put my - held my leg up over my heart to keep the, you know - so I could keep my leg. I mean, I may be going into too much detail.
GROSS: Was your leg almost - was it at risk of amputation?
JANNEY: Yeah, I mean, I lost - I lost, well, first of all, I lost like three-quarters of my blood. I lost an artery and cut tendon. And it was - I was in the hospital for like seven - seven, eight weeks. I missed my first year of college. You know, and after that, of course, I didn't really - I didn't skate for a very long time. It changed a lot of things about my life and sort of made me a little more fearful I think, unfortunately - just afraid of mortality and losing things, you know - things happening, you know?
GROSS: How did that figure, if it all, into your decision to act?
JANNEY: Well, it definitely took out the possibility of being a skater. And I wasn't that good anyway. I was graceful, but I'm too big. I couldn't - it was - that's such an athletic sport, and I was very graceful, and I could have been an ice dancer maybe. But that went away, you know, and then I had to take a year off because I did recover and had all these skin grafts and things I had to go through. And then I went to Kenyon College which is where I hooked up with, you know, my freshman year - Paul Newman who went to Kenyon and came to direct the brand-new theater they had built there. He came to christen it by directing the first play, and I managed to get in that, and that sort of started the acting ball rolling.
GROSS: How tall are you?
JANNEY: I am, you know - I say 5-12. I am - I'm definitely six - I'm definitely 6-feet. And in my heels, I'm 6-3. Yeah.
GROSS: Now, how did that affect you as a teenager? And how did it affect you as a young actress when you were getting started?
JANNEY: Well, it was - I was always - I went to a school with like - you know, first through twelfth grade - under three hundred kids - a school called Miami Valley School in Dayton, Ohio. And I was just, you know, so tall. It wasn't until I went to college - Kenyon college - that I started having my first date. So I was sort of a late bloomer in a lot of things, and I always felt that way. And I felt like my career started late, and I think it was because of my height, and maybe some of my confidence issues. But I was, you know, playing forty -year-old women when I was twenty - when I was, you know - and I just - I didn't get considered for ingenue roles. I just with - I don't know - maybe, I just wasn't ready or things started happening, I think, when I turned 38. I started to have a career. So, you know, I think my height probably did have something to do with it. But it's also helped me in certain parts. I think it's made me definitely more of a character actress in terms of my love of doing comedy or being - you know, I get cast as either the smartest woman in the room or the drunkest woman in the room.
JANNEY: Those are the two - a lot of stuff in between, but I do do well in getting those kind of parts - authoritative or completely crazy, which I love. I love doing - I love both of those kinds of roles.
GROSS: Well, now you're nominated for two Emmys, and that must be - must be pretty great - in one season to have that, yeah.
JANNEY: Yeah, I really am really proud of both of these nominations because the projects are both - they're just so different, and I got really lucky to be able to show myself in these two very different women at the same time.
GROSS: Well, I wish you good luck with the Emmy's.
JANNEY: Terry, thank you.
GROSS: It's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank You so much.
JANNEY: You're so welcome.
GROSS: Allison Janney is nominated for two Emmys - one for her performance in Showtime's "Masters of Sex" - the other for her performance in CBS's sitcom "Mom." The Emmy ceremony is August 25. Coming up, David Bianculli looks back on the early history of interactive TV talent shows, and takes us back to the days of the clap-o-meter. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.