Interview: ‘Mom’ star Allison Janney talks multi-cam drama, comic grieving

04.02.15 3 years ago


The only people surprised when Allison Janney won an Emmy last fall for “Mom” were people who haven't been watching “Mom.”

In the first season of the Chuck Lorre-produced sitcom, Janney's Bonnie battled a relapse of her alcoholism, had manic sexual misadventures with daughter Christy's chef boss and went through menopause.

Paired with the “West Wing” favorite's very different Emmy-winning turn in Showtime's “Masters of Sex,” it was a pretty terrific year for Janney. 

As much emotional heavy-lifting as the “Mom” writers gave Janney last year, Season 2 has been even darker, as Bonnie has had to cope with the death, under very risqué circumstances, of Alvin (Kevin Pollak), the love of her life and Christy's father. 

Rather than writing Alvin's death, dealing with it for an episode and then moving along with hilarious hijinks, the “Mom” team has taken Bonnie on a sad and often lonely spiral, only sometimes peppering the grief with humor. Don't be surprised when Janney is back in the Emmy field again this fall. [And despite a reduced profile on “Masters of Sex,” Janney's work in the Season 2 premiere will almost certainly have her up for Guest Actress in a Drama for a second time.]

Last month, I dropped by the “Mom” set on the Warner Brothers lot to talk about the different processes of doing big emotions on a sitcom versus a drama and her initial experience doing multi-cam comedy. We also discussed the periodic appearances by Bad Bonnie, who had just blackmailed her entire condo board in the previous episode.

Click through for the full Q&A and remember that “Mom” airs on Thursdays at 9:30 on CBS and could always use a bigger audience.

[We begin by talking about TV. She's enjoying “Togetherness” and lists Melanie Lynskey and Gaby Hoffmann as two of her favorite actresses.]

HitFix: In the episodes that have aired this spring, you've spent more time than most of comedic actresses spend crying.

Allison Janney: [She laughs.] I know!

HitFix: How did they tell you not only that that was an arc that was coming but that it was going to be an arc that was going to progress for that long?

Allison Janney: Yeah. They don't tell us much of anything. I never know what's coming down the pike. No idea. I think I may have gotten a heads up…  Yeah we got a heads up about Alvin because it was going to be big news for us and they knew how much we loved Kevin [Pollak]. And then Chuck [Lorre] explained that while they don't want to show these characters in misery all the time, they can't afford to have everything be happily-ever-after with them too because they really have found that what they want to do with this shows is show these women surviving all obstacles that are thrown at them, some better than others, as we shall see as is this storyline progresses for Bonnie and how she copes with losing Alvin. I can't imagine trying to be in recovery. I mean it would be hard enough with just life going along in a nice way, but then when awful stuff happens, how you maintain the strength to get through it?

HitFix: But it's just the kind of thing that some shows would do, but they do it for one episode and then by the week after people would be just moving on with their lives. Bonnie hasn't done that.

Allison Janney: I know. I know. I'm glad they have, because as an actress it's much more rewarding and challenging to get to play things not just for the comedy. Chuck is definitely not afraid to let us lean into the tragedy, the sadness, the emotions and I like to do that. So I'm thrilled by it and I'm glad that they're letting me do that and Anna as well. That makes it more special and more profound and more relatable, everything that we're telling in this story I think, everything about it.

HitFix: When you signed on did you know that they had those aspirations? Or did you think, “Multi-cam comedy? It'll just be funny”?

Allison Janney: Yeah. I didn't know they had that at all. No idea actually. I had never done that before, the multi-cam, and I wanted to do it. I've been trying to get a series with Chuck for a while so I was like, “Yeah I'm ready for this. I'm ready for this.” I had no idea it was going to be as challenging in all these different ways as it is and that they would really welcome us being the emotional creatures that we are.

HitFix: In the past year you've had these two extremely different, extremely emotional roles. One in a sitcom and then of course on “Masters of Sex” where it's a drama. Are the muscles exactly the same? Are the muscles very different in playing high emotion in a multi-cam sitcom versus a drama?

Allison Janney: Yeah they're a little different just because I think because of the set, just in terms of location and how many cameras are there and how many people are on the set, just the physical things are different around. But the acting I think is the same for me. I approach it all the same way. Not for the sad moments but definitely for moments here when you do it in front of the live audience and you have to wait for the laugh. Even in “Masters of Sex,” I could hear where a laugh would be in a scene. Like when I was in the bar with a hooker and she says, “And what is your husband into?”  And I got, “Oh, he loves Salisbury steak and the opera.” I could hear where the laugh is, but here you have to wait for it. You can't play through the scene. So there's a different rhythm that the laughs come in here that sometimes it makes it challenging because you hear a scene one way and it's like, “Oh we've got to wait for the laugh.”

HitFix: Does that make it harder to build that emotion?

Allison Janney: It does. Fortunately, and they've been protecting us a lot, for the really emotional scenes. We tended to pre-shoot, because we have a pre-shoot day and then we have the live shoot in front of the audience and they have been protecting us and asking us, “Would you rather do the scene without an audience?” And most of the time for some of the stuff that I've had to do I've preferred to do it pre-shooting because I think it would be kind of hard for them to, you know, watch it and then expect them to laugh. I don't know. Anna has been braver about that. She likes to do some of her emotional stuff in front of them and I'm like, “I don't want to. I want to be…”  I think a couple times I had to do it. So I don't know how to answer.  It is different but isn't.

HitFix: I think that's what the answer is then.

Allison Janney: Yeah. It is different but it isn't.

HitFix: But you have a good internal barometer of the volume and the pitch and the tone?

Allison Janney: Yeah I think so. Like I would know if I was standing on a Broadway stage I would know how to deliver a line. If I'm standing here and the cameras there it's a different way. But the internal, I mean I always just try to make it truthful, though I think it might be hard to go back to Broadway now and stand on the stage and say [she bellows], “What do you want for dinner?” I think it would take me a little while to get used to, to get that muscle working again.

HitFix: So when some people say doing multi-cam feels like doing a play, and that it's similar, you don't feel like that's the case?

Allison Janney: I don't think it is at all. Well. See every time I say something I go back on what I said. It isn't, but it is. It's nice to know that we have a longer scene and we get to play it in front of the audience when we're really right in front of the audience and you feel the laughs and you ride them and you come in. I like that. But a lot of times in here like the sets are such that you'll be doing a scene over there, the audience can't even really see you. It's live but it doesn't feel like it works as well because it's not written… The audience is not…

HitFix: You're not getting their energy?

Allison Janney: Yeah. It's sort of delayed a beat or something. So yeah there are moments when it feels like the theater. Most of moments it doesn't though because the audience is there watching you having messed up and watching you get a touch up and watching you rehearse. It would drive me crazy to rehearse a Broadway play and have people, an audience watching you through that whole process. You would feel like you can't take risks or make mistakes because they're right there watching you.

HitFix: Now, in the last new episode we saw where we saw Bonnie basically overturn the homeowners association and retake control, I like that because it was a reminder of Bad Bonnie. Because that's not a good thing that she does at the end. Is it good for you to get to play that sort of unreconstructed version of the character?

Allison Janney: Yes. I love to play Bad Bonnie. I love it. I want more Bad Bonnie. I've always wanted more flashbacks so we can see what Bonnie was like when she was really using and behaving badly. But yeah, I think Bad Bonnie is definitely endeared herself to me and to the audience too. I think they enjoy seeing her just be completely wrong and inappropriate.

HitFix: What is the worst detail that you've gotten about Bonnie, the worst thing that you've sort of gotten the impression she did?

Allison Janney: You know, I think mostly it has to do with what she expose Christy to, you know, stuffing her baby carriage with drugs to cross the border or just using her daughter has a pawn in her her drug-dealing games. I think that behavior was pretty bad. I don't know if I would want to go back and see that. We did a couple. We saw – no that was a dream that – that's right that was a dream Christy had when we were in Mexico trying to go over the border and I threw her under the bus. Maybe something that didn't endanger her but showed us just being Lucy and Ethel as drug dealers.

HitFix: I understand that we're heading back in another relapse direction. How is this year's relapse different than last years relapse? Or how are you approaching it differently?

Allison Janney: I think this year there's more at stake because of what these women have gone through together, how they mended their relationship and spent so much time doing that and reforming and reuniting their family. There's a lot more to lose now I think. And so the stakes are higher. And I honestly don't know how it's going to play out. I know what I'm doing in this episode but I don't know how far they're going to go with it, how far they're going to make her go, what the repercussions of what happens to Bonnie are going to be, I don't know.

HitFix: Now this is a variation on the question that you had trouble answering earlier. Sorry. But doing drama and high emotion in this forum, is it easier to step away from it at the end of the day than something like “Masters of Sex”? And again is there a difference?

Allison Janney: Yes. I always, if I felt I've nailed it, connected to the emotion in every take that they needed, I can walk away from anything and be happy as a clam and absolutely drop it. If I don't get it, then I'll beat myself up for it. I just hate myself if I don't get the right emotion or it doesn't come for whatever reason and I don't know why. So in both mediums I can, as long as I felt I've done a good job and I felt that I was telling the truth emotionally, I feel very happy to let it go and I can go right out and have a great time. It doesn't linger.

HitFix: Has that always been the case with you?

Allison Janney: I think whenever I feel I've done a good job it does. It was harder on Broadway if I felt like one night – I always feel like a doctor who loses a patient on the operating table or something where I felt just devastated and I beat myself up until I get to try it the next night and “I'll get it better tonight.” So I'm hard on myself. I think I'm not alone in that regard with acting. [Anna Faris walks over and whispers into the recorder, “She's awesome.” “Thank you!” Janney replies. “Stop talking about me like that.”]

“Mom” airs Thursdays at 9:30 on CBS.

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