I, Tonya: Oscar-nominated Allison Janney talks transforming into Tonya Harding's abusive mother
The West Wing actress reveals her own figure skating dreams and how her Best Supporting Actress-nominated role was "terrifying"
When I walk into Allison Janney’s Knightsbridge hotel suite, there is a black chair crumpled on the floor. The star of stage and screen, looking glam in heels and a mauve dress, has just endured a furniture malfunction midway through a photoshoot.
“It literally collapsed on me,” she gasps. “It was a very eye-opening moment. Fortunately, I do have some athletic prowess and I stopped myself from falling.” She resumes her seat, smoothing her blonde locks. “I could’ve been sent to the hospital!”
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Being bed-bound is the last thing Janney needs in her already drama-packed life right now. Famed for playing CJ Cregg on The West Wing and for movies like Juno and The Girl on the Train, Janney is currently the darling of the awards season for her role in biopic I, Tonya.
She’s already won a Bafta, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award as best supporting actress. And this weekend she will compete for the first Oscar of her career.
While she’s won seven Emmy awards (including four for The West Wing) and been twice nominated for Tonys for her work on Broadway, this is the first time – at 58 – that she’s really been in the spotlight in Oscar season.
“It’s a new arena for me,” she says. “I’ve been in movies that have gotten recognition, like Juno and American Beauty and The Hours, but I’ve never been singled out like this before. So it’s a new thing for me. It’s exciting.”
I, Tonya is definitely the best eight days work Janney has ever done. It’s the story of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie), who became headline news in 1994 when her husband orchestrated an attack on rival competitor Nancy Kerrigan.
Janney plays Harding’s vile mother, LaVona Fay Golden. “Truly not a very nurturing woman,” says Janney, putting it mildly. Bitter, resentful and violent, LaVona has an abusive relationship with her daughter that is shockingly painful to watch.
While she may be the most bilious matriarch since Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, Janney didn’t want to make her a monster. “I had to give her depth and realise that she had to have come from an abusive family herself,” she says. “She was extraordinary on the page and a huge character, and I knew my job was to ground her in reality. She was a little terrifying for me.”
What made tackling the role a little easier, was that Janney identified with part of Tonya and LaVona’s story. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Janney loved ice skating. She had a coach and her parents would get up at dawn to take her to the rink, which was owned by her real-estate broker father.
“I know what it takes in my small way, what kind of commitment it is and what it means to get up at 5am and drive someone to ice skating. It costs a lot of money; it’s a very expensive sport. That’s another reason why class comes into play.”
An accident at a party, where she went through a plate-glass window, put an end to Janney’s thoughts of competitive skating. Fortunately, she had other dreams. With an arts background – her mother Macy performed in theatre; her father Jervis played jazz – Janney veered towards acting.
“My parents came to see me in everything I did growing up,” she remembers. “They’ve been so supportive of me.”
After attending Kenyon College, Ohio, where she was encouraged to act by Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward, she joined the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, alongside her good friend Steven Rogers, who wrote the script for I, Tonya.
Roles came swiftly. Gracing TV shows As the World Turns and Law & Order, she made her movie breakthrough in films like Big Night and Mike Nichols’s political drama Primary Colors, which proved crucial.
“That was the reason I got West Wing, because Aaron Sorkin saw me in it.” As the steely White House press secretary (and later Chief of Staff ) in Sorkin’s drama, Janney spent seven seasons on the show.
“It was the first time I was out in pop culture,” she remembers. “I lost my anonymity a bit there. I remember going to Hawaii and going to the top of Haleakala, the highest point in Maui, and the guy taking the tickets up at the top said, ‘Are you Allison Janney? Do you play CJ?’ I couldn’t believe I got recognised there.”
Making The West Wing, Janney relocated to California after years on the East Coast, but working on the show made her love life difficult. “It’s hard to go on a dating service when you’ve been on TV,” she sighs. She still hasn’t found “the one”.
A huge animal lover, she has three Australian cattle dogs back home. “Dogs, they just love you, no matter what. They’re always happy to see you and they don’t answer back. I’m not married yet – I’m open to the possibility but I’m not sure about that right now.”
In the run-up to the Oscars, Janney has been busy working on sitcom Mom, which has already won her two Emmy awards. Five seasons in, Janney recently shot the hundredth episode (“a pretty big milestone”), but surely I, Tonya and this whirlwind awards season will change things for her now?
“Maybe it will,” she nods. “I’d like to think it will. We’ll see what happens. We should check in next year and see where we are!”
I, Tonya is now in cinemas