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'You go, girl': Allison Janney on her sitcom turn and still getting the jitters

No actor on television is making viewers laugh and cry in equal measure the way the über-versatile Allison Janney is doing at the moment.

On Monday’s episode of CBS’ “Mom,” her character, Bonnie, snuck in through a window in the middle of the night, drunk-peed on her daughter’s bed, and sported some seriously crazy hair. The night before, Janney broke hearts with her portrayal of a naïve and repressed housewife who finally accepts there is something terribly wrong with her marriage on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.”

Darren Michaels / Today
In an equally funny and poignant turn, Allison Janney's Bonnie fell off the wagon on Monday's episode of "Mom."

“It’s such a great opportunity as an actress to play these two women on TV at the same time,” Janney said in an interview with TODAY. “It’s a great gift to show your chops in all different styles of acting. That’s what I’ve trained for all my life. I’m more of a character actress. My career has never been based on being the ingénue or being stuck in one type of role, and I love that about where I am.”

Janney, 54, has four Emmys for her work on “The West Wing," but even this seasoned actor admits nerves still get the best of her before she hears “Action!” It doesn’t help that on multi-camera sitcoms, writers draft jokes until show time--and continue to make changes even in front of the audience during the taping. Sometimes, like during rehearsals on Nov. 15, it gets tricky to keep track of last-minute add-on lines that involve “gummy bear breasts” and turning “lemons into grapefruits” while sitting in a fake oncologist’s office.

“Oh Lord!” Janney said recalling her flubs. “They had just re-written that whole scene and I could not get those words to come out in the right order. I kind of like the nerves, though. I have found that the nerves never go away especially when you care about something and you want it to be good.”

The veteran stage, film, and TV actress says she is still adjusting to her first sitcom, a workplace actors often compare to theater because of the element of the live audience. But, unlike theater-goers who see the finished product, sitcom audiences witness the episode being formed from start to finish—warts and all.

“Sometimes I get a little bit overwhelmed on the show night,” Janney admitted. “But then you do a run of a new line and you hear the audience respond to it and you know whether or not it works. When it works, it’s fun to have them there. But they love it when you mess up your lines. That’s what they came for—to see the behind-the-scenes stuff.”

Which is what the audience got during the Nov. 15 taping of the "Mom" episode,“Cotton Candy and Blended Fish,” which is scheduled to air on Dec. 2. 

As Janney puts it, Bonnie is a “soberish” grandmother who is trying to reconnect with her estranged family while maintaining her promiscuous, carefree lifestyle and it’s not working. After going on a bender to cope with losing her job and apartment, Bonnie had to confront harsh realities about herself as her new friends staged an intervention and Bonnie had to fess up.

“She’s not really fully committed to being sober,” Janney said. “She’s just flirting with it and doing it because she got a nudge from the judge and she’s trying on the surface to make it look like she’s dealing with her problems ... She realizes she can lose everything that matters to her. But in telling her story, she laughs at herself and makes fun and makes jokes. It felt very real to me ... That’s how I tell stories. If I’m in the middle of telling something awful that happened to me, I usually make jokes and make light of it. That’s life. It’s messy. It’s sad and funny all at once.”

Janney’s other alter-ego, Margaret on “Masters of Sex,” has not had much to laugh about. Stuck in a sexless marriage with a man she does not know is gay (played by Beau Bridges), Margaret shocked herself and viewers when she began an affair and realized she was missing something vital in her relationship with her husband. In Sunday’s episode, facing the truth that her husband has never felt any passion for her, Margaret asked him for a divorce.

“A woman like that is the complete polar opposite of Bonnie,” Janney said. “She’s someone who is a very smart woman but just emotionally very young in terms of her experiences in the world with men. She’s been denied sex for a long time and has come to believe that’s normal. You just feel for this woman and this man at a time when you couldn’t be gay in our country. He stands to lose everything if that comes out. So his determination to keep that secret and her determination to find out what’s wrong with her marriage, it’s just heart-breaking. But she’s not a pushover. She’s going to become someone that people will no longer pity—it will be more like, ‘You go girl.’

Recently, Arsenio Hall and his viewers thought the same of Janney when she appeared on his show and reprised her famous “West Wing” Jackal lip-synch.

“When I do these talk shows, I’m not comfortable talking about myself,” she said. “I’d rather make a fool of myself. I had to brush up my Jackal skills. I love that there’s a resurgence of ‘West Wing’ fans right now. I’m getting a lot of second generation West Wingers. It’s fun to have that coming around again.”