Allison Janney Talks ‘Mom,’ Why We Need Another ‘West Wing,’ And If She Can Still Do ‘The Jackal’


As Mom ends its third season on Thursday following a year of loss, pain, growth, and maple syrup heists, it’s impossible not to call this sitcom one of broadcast television’s most important shows thanks to its willingness to tell hard stories and find humor along the road toward recovery. And while it takes a village, Allison Janney (Bonnie) and her co-stars deserve a lot of the credit for their role in putting a human and relatable face on addiction and recovery — elements of life that are mysterious and scary, and thus, largely ignored.

We spoke to Janney recently about the impact of the show, its focus on addiction, the show’s widening support structure for Bonnie and her daughter Christy (Anna Faris), why the world needs another West Wing, and where her “Jackal” skills are at this point.

Can you talk a little about Bonnie’s mindset as Christy moves toward accomplishing her goals on the show?

I think Bonnie has always been a wondrously selfish character, and I think she views Christy’s goals as something that are going to take Christy away from her. I think she feels a little bit threatened by Christy’s dreams, and it kicks into her fear of abandonment issues, so she’s not behaving… I don’t think she behaves in a very mom-like fashion. It’s very Bonnie-like, which I love, but ultimately she makes the right decision.

Are you eager to see Bonnie find something for herself — a relationship, a better job, etc. — or do you think the show needs to have that balance where one character is up while the other is down?

Chuck [Lorre] knows more than I do about the dynamic. I know there’s always going to be conflict. To make anything interesting, there’s always got to be some sort of essential conflict, and the relationship between mother and daughter is inherently filled with conflict. So, I think there will always be something there, whether we’re on the same side of it, fighting against someone together or with each other, or jealous of each other. It’s just so rich, that environment. That mother-daughter relationship and the recovery world is just rife with so many kinds of conflicts and issues, and I hope they keep throwing them at me.

I guess traditionally when you think about TV shows, if there’s any kind of happiness or profound peace, it’s like, “Why do we want to tune in anymore?” Everyone kinda wants to see… or laugh at other people’s problems or feel connected to them and be able to laugh at themselves through that.

We’ve seen a bigger role for the rehab group this season, and it’s allowed the show to become more of an ensemble than it had been. Can you tell me about the group dynamic?

I think it’s basically two families going on in this show. There’s the blood family (Bonnie, Christy, Roscoe, and Sadie, and Matt Jones) — that nucleus family, then there’s the family in the recovery world. I think it’s wonderful that Chuck and the writers have given us these new wonderful female characters to bond with, because I think, in the recovery world sometimes, that family is just as important in helping you get through life as an addict or a recovering alcoholic. And the women that they brought to us are so wonderfully different, and it’s a great thing about having a show about recovery because it’s a great equalizer. It allows for someone like Jaime Pressly’s character, Jill, who’s incredibly wealthy and spoiled, to be in the same room as Christy, who has no money and is downtrodden. And then Mimi Kennedy’s character and all the different women from all different walks of life, and the only thing that unifies us is that we are all in this struggle together, to be in recovery.

It’s been really rewarding to work with all these great actresses. We get some great males, too, but primarily the recovery community for these two women is mostly women. I love that the show has opened up like that, and brought in these great characters and these great actresses. It’s a lot of fun.

The show does such a good job of tackling real issues. We’re seeing another era where TV sitcoms — Black-ish is one, The Carmichael Show — are actually tackling real issues after a period of time where that wasn’t done. Why do you think we’re seeing that kind of increase?

I always felt that art reflects life, so I feel that it’s what’s happening in the world right now. I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t know somebody who’s affected… whether it’s the prescription pill epidemic, or drugs, or alcohol. I think there’s a lot going on in our world right now, so much coming at us, it’s hard to… I think a lot of people turn to drugs or alcohol to numb themselves from everything that’s going on in the world. I think maybe there’s a lot more abuse of things in the world; it’s an issue that needs to be talked about and put on the table and destigmatized. Perhaps we need to talk about it as a society, and look at it and not hide behind it and not feel any shame about it. I think it’s just a result of what’s going on in the world.

We just got to go to Washington to speak with the Surgeon General and a panel about the opioid epidemic. The Surgeon General is such a lovely man and was so concerned and wanted to talk about things like meditation and things that we can do as a society to put ourselves in a better place, to be able to deal with everything that’s coming at us, instead of turning to prescription drugs and alcohol. To meditate and take better care of ourselves. I think it’s an exact reflection of what’s going on out there, and that’s why people are grateful. I’m very proud when some people come up and say how grateful they are to watch a show like Mom; they’ll come up and share with me that they’re in recovery, and they have nine months, they have two years, they have twenty years. They’re just grateful to see a show that’s dealing with it.

We’re definitely not making fun of it. We’re dealing with it in a real way, and it’s Chuck’s and the writers’ choice to have one of our characters die from an overdose, a young girl. Sometimes we just let things happen, we don’t try to make them funny because it’s not funny, but it’s real and that’s what happens in recovery — not everybody makes it.

Did you anticipate that the show would have this kind of impact? 

I didn’t know how far they were going to go into it at all, and I never know what the next episode is going to bring, because we’re not in the writers’ room, we’re not part of that process. I liked the tone of the first episode, and I am really glad. I don’t know what Chuck would say if he knew he was going to do this. I like to think maybe they weren’t sure, and they just kept pushing the envelope and tackling issues that aren’t inherently funny — bringing humor to them.

Perhaps they saw with each episode that we did, and it went well, that it gave them more license to continue in tackling things. I am glad that it went this way because it feels like it’s needed, and I feel proud to be putting something like this out there that does a lot to destigmatize the issue and to shine a light on it and show it with love, hope, and humor.

Do you think that a show like West Wing could find success now? It seems like there’s so much rancor in politics now, it seems like we kind of need a West Wing.

Oh, absolutely. I think we need another sort of Camelot-hopeful version of politics. House of Cards is fantastic, but that’s a really dark look at politics. Wonderful, but so fucking dark. I think we could stand to have another West Wing. Can you imagine if we were just starting out right now? That would be… I don’t know. It was great when it happened. I’m glad people are coming back to it through Netflix and other methods of watching. It would be pretty nice; I would love to watch it. I can’t even watch the news anymore. I just fast-forward through the political stuff. I just go to the human-interest stories because I can’t bear to listen to the dialogue that’s going on in that race.

If you had to, could you do the “Jackal” lip sync perfectly now or have you lost the memory of it?

No, I think I could do it. I never learned the whole song, which is amazing, but I bet I could do it. I was just thinking about it the other day, because… unfortunately, I couldn’t do it, [but] I was asked to do The Colbert Show and start it as the press briefing and do “The Jackal” with Stephen Colbert, and I couldn’t do it because I was back here, and I was like, “Damnit!”

I was just thinking of the lyrics again, thinking about them this weekend and wondering if I could do it, but I didn’t put it on to see. But I did go through what I did remember in my mind.

I’m sure you could. I’m sure it’d all come back to you.

I know. I think it will, too.

The Mom season finale airs Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.