As seen on TV

‘Mom’ star Alison Janney finally gets the laughs

 
 
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22:  Actress Allison Janney arrives at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Actress Allison Janney arrives at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Jason Merritt / Getty Images

Allison Janney extends the maxim that the best actors can entertain simply by reading a phone book. She manages with commercials.

Her voice is warm and burnished with compassion on radio and TV voiceover spots for a health care provider, possibly the most melodic soft-sell ever.

Then there’s her real craft. Consider, for instance, her sharp, take-no-prisoners delivery as C.J. Gregg in The West Wing, and her manic chatter as a blowsy woman in the indie film The Way Way Back.

Or enjoy the sly purr she employs as Bonnie, a wayward but goodhearted parent and grandparent who’s trying to stay reformed in the Monday night CBS sitcom Mom. Anna Faris co-stars as her similarly imperfect daughter.

“It’s acting,” Janney said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I feel like actors like to be challenged and play all different types of roles. For whatever reason, I’ve been given the opportunity to do so.”

That reason, of course, is she is an enormously gifted and appealing performer with a range that’s second to none. Her talent has been on display on Broadway, where she earned Tony nominations for 9 to 5 and A View from the Bridge, and in movies including American Beauty and Drop Dead Gorgeous.

She earned four Emmy Awards for playing White House press secretary C.J. Cregg in The West Wing.

In person, the willowy Janney is polite and soft-spoken — the product, the Ohio native says, of her proper Midwestern upbringing. She’s also prone to a full-throated laugh, along with charming moments of candor and modesty. Her six-foot height, she says, earned her some brutal early career assessments from short-sighted agents: One said her roles would be limited to a handful of options, including aliens.

And Janney acknowledges that her 1999-2006 experience on the intricate, densely scripted political drama from Aaron Sorkin ( The Social Network, HBO’s The Newsroom) was something she treasures but also acutely recalls as demanding.

“It was fascinating to be part of that, and all the people in Washington who wanted to be part of it because it’s the first time they were made to look good and exciting,” she said. Then there was the thrill of “going to D.C. and feeling like a rock star.”

The heavy shooting schedule, however, required a commitment that meant missing “a lot of family things, and weddings and funerals,” and putting relationships a distant second to work, said Janney, who is single.

A multi-camera comedy like Mom offers a different experience, with shorter rehearsal days followed by a once-a-week taping.

“This is so civilized,” she said.

But it’s laughs that Janney really is after.

“Comedy is what I love the best. I’m just drawn to it,” she said, with Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore among her TV favorites as a youngster.

Serious drama has its own rewards, she added, but also drawbacks.

“If I have to be in a dark emotional place, I spend my day looking for reasons to be in that state, so I can bring it when I need to. It’s just a lot trickier,” she said.

But Janney, 54, sure is having a blast as sexy, loose-cannon Bonnie, and CBS ordered a full freshman season of Mom on the basis of its initial ratings.

“It’s nice to be my age and be sexually active and aggressive — in the parts I play,” she said, adding a chortle as perfect punctuation. Of course.

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