Three decades ago, Allison Janney ’82 was on the verge of giving up acting. She had spent her 20s trying to establish herself in the New York City theater world, with limited success.

Despite receiving encouragement from none other than Paul Newman ’49 H’61 and his wife, Joanne Woodward, Janney was convinced she would never make a living in her dream profession.

“I knew I had talent and access to my emotions — I just didn’t think I was castable,” the actress said over coffee near her home in Los Angeles.

In retrospect, it’s hard to fathom that Janney, winner of the 2018 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in “I, Tonya,” couldn’t catch a break. In addition to her Oscar, Janney has seven Emmy Awards to her name, including four for her role as White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg in Aaron Sorkin’s political drama, “The West Wing.”

“I was told: ‘You’re too tall; you’re not pretty enough.’ Someone else said I didn’t have enough ‘edge,’” Janney, who is 6 feet tall, said with a sigh. “One agent told me I would only be able to play lesbians and aliens. It hasn’t always been easy for me being so tall, especially as someone who is shy and relatively introverted. You’re noticed whenever you walk into a room.”

Now 59, Janney is at peace with her height and appearance, but she jokes about keeping her long hair dyed honey blonde “to mitigate the gray that’s coming in.” In the past few years, Janney, who for decades flew mostly under the radar, has become a household name.

Back in the 1980s, Janney took a variety of low-paying jobs to help pay the bills while she went out on auditions. “I was scooping ice cream, and I worked as a receptionist in a recording studio, where I was actually an inadvertent drug dealer. ‘Packages’ were delivered and I would give them to the nighttime musicians,” she said with a laugh. “I was a member of a variety of theater companies, but it was a struggle. And it was disappointing; there were many times I was in tears on the subway. My parents subsidized my acting career,” she confessed. “I couldn’t have done it without their help.”

Heeding the words of a theater coach who had warned that “acting is a hard life — if there’s anything else you can do, you should do it,” Janney considered looking for a different profession and even took a series of aptitude tests. “They said I’d make a great systems analyst,” Janney laughed. “I didn’t even know what that was.”

She didn’t have to find out. Days later, Janney had an audition that resulted in a job understudying the actresses Kate Nelligan and Faith Prince in a 1994 production of “Bad Habits,” a play by Terrence McNally. “It was wonderful and saved me from packing up and going back to Dayton,” Janney said, referring to the Ohio town where she was born and raised.

“A bird on your shoulder.”

The arts are in Janney’s DNA. Her mother, Macy Brooks, was an actress, and her father, Jervis, owned a commercial real estate business, “but his passion was music. He’d come home at night and we’d have dinner, then he would play the piano, so there was always music in the household,” she said. “I had a happy childhood. We grew up in a big, beautiful house that my great-grandfather had built in 1911.”

Her older brother, Jay, is “an artist and musician who makes maple syrup and lives a quiet life in New Hampshire,” Janney said. Her younger brother, Hal, took his own life in 2011 after a long struggle with addiction.

“I loved him very much. He was so funny and incredibly talented, and a joy to me, but he couldn’t find a place to land,” she said. “There was a lot of depression that was probably not diagnosed properly.”

When Janney took the stage to accept her Oscar, she dedicated it to her late brother, proclaiming, “This is for Hal. You’re always in my heart.”

A drama enthusiast from childhood, Janney was also musical and athletic. “I played field hockey and figure skated, because my father owned a building that housed an ice-skating rink, so I got free ice time. I couldn’t get my skates on fast enough.”

Janney’s skating experience would prove useful decades later for her role in “I, Tonya,” which stars Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding and tells the story of the disgraced skater’s involvement in an attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, in 1994. “My friend [“I, Tonya” writer] Steven Rogers told me, ‘I’m writing a role for you and you get to wear a fur coat and have a bird on your shoulder’ — and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’” she exclaimed. “I loved that Steven found the nuances in the story, the environment Tonya grew up in, and how her mother was a monster,” she said of the script.

Looking back, Janney said her path to acting seemed preordained. “It’s the only thing I can do,” she said. “My brother Hal said something funny. I was always so emotional in my family — very reactive to things — and he said, ‘You need to develop some other skills.’ I think this was exactly what I was meant to be doing; some kind of destiny mixed with hard work, persistence and tenaciousness.”

“I was willing him to cast me.”

When Janney arrived in Gambier in 1978, she quickly immersed herself in theater classes, and the timing was serendipitous. “I found out that there were auditions for the first play in the Bolton, [Pulitzer Prize-winner] Michael Cristofer’s ‘C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby,’ which would be directed by Paul Newman — and I was beyond excited,” Janney said, though she assumed her chances of landing a role were slim, “because everyone was auditioning.”

During auditions, Newman (by then the star of classics such as “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” and “The Sting”) asked the students to tell him a story. “Knowing that he was a race car driver, I told him about driving from Dayton to Gambier in my Volkswagen Scirocco (which had been a fancy high school graduation gift from my grandmother) — how it usually takes two hours and 40 minutes, but when I took the back roads, I could get there much faster. I got back to my room in Gund, where I had an iconic poster up on my wall of Paul Newman with Lee Marvin [in ‘Pocket Money’],” she recalled. “I was looking at Paul, going: ‘You want me.’ I was willing him to cast me.” Janney snagged a part — as one of five chorus girls.

She has vivid memories of rehearsing with the screen legend (who died in 2008): “He would come down to the stage and pull you to the side and tell you what he wanted you to do. I thought how wonderful that was because it didn’t embarrass the person he was talking to.”

Newman clearly recognized Janney’s gifts. “I must have done something that impressed Paul,” she said, “because he told me: ‘If you ever need a favor, you can ask me for it — it has to be specific, so don’t waste it!’ I actually never asked him for anything, but it gave me confidence knowing he believed in me.”

“I found my tribe.”

As a theater major at Kenyon, Janney studied under Harlene Marley H’05; she cites the drama professor — the first woman hired into a tenure-track position at Kenyon — as an inspiration. Marley, also the first woman to serve as a department chair at Kenyon, retired in 2005 and died in 2017.

“She was a great role model — a strong, independent woman with a powerful voice. In Kenyon’s theater community (and under Marley’s leadership), we had every opportunity. I was building sets. I was running lights. I didn’t feel that I was held back at all because I was a woman. Because of Harlene, I wasn’t aware of any discrimination,” she said. “I loved the theater; I found my tribe.”

Janney’s college social life revolved around theater. She studied dance and choreography, and lived in Caples at one point with five friends. Kenyon was also the backdrop for Janney’s first forays into dating. “At Kenyon you didn’t really date,” she recalled. “We hung out in small groups. (But) I met my first serious boyfriend, Tait Ruppert ’82, there” while acting in “C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby.”

Thirty years later, Janney returned to Gambier to portray Professor Judith Fairfield in “Liberal Arts,” the 2012 film directed by and starring Josh Radnor ’96. Kenyon audiences were quick to spot similarities between Professor Fairfield and Marley. In a 2013 interview with the Alumni Bulletin, Radnor acknowledged: “On her first day of working, I told Allison how she sounded like Harlene. She went into this Harlene thing. I just think her performance is brilliant. I don’t care where she got it, but I didn’t base the character on Harlene,” he said.

For Janney, filming in Gambier was steeped in nostalgia: “It was lovely to be there,” she said, “because I got to walk around and let my memories float back in a time warp.”

Post-graduation, Janney’s strong Kenyon connections helped her navigate the ups and downs of life as a working actor.

“I think our friendship has endured because at 18 we were both figure skaters,” longtime friend and fellow actress Allison Mackie ’82 said in an interview. “We loved to sing and to laugh really hard; we loved the theater and films; we loved dogs; we loved to cook and eat (especially) and to play board games. We’ve been each other’s fiercest cheerleaders throughout our careers.”

Mackie left Kenyon early to help stage-manage a production for Joanne Woodward in New York. Woodward had encouraged Janney to follow in her friend’s footsteps, although she needed some extra coaxing. Mackie, Janney explained, “was very much the reason I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre (Woodward’s alma mater). I didn’t fill out the (application) forms — she filled them out for me.”

Woodward also formed a company called the Actors Group of New York and invited Janney to join. “Agents would come and see us perform. I’ll be forever grateful to her,” Janney said of her mentor Woodward.

During visits to the Newman-Woodward home in Westport, Connecticut, Janney said, “We would sit in the barn and do readings of plays that Joanne directed. She made us sing, and I hated singing. I felt very nervous, but she said, ‘It’s not about singing. You have to act and tell the story.’ She pushed me beyond my comfort zone.”

“You are going to be successful in spite of yourself.”

Janney has made a career of portraying self-assured, and even controversial, women, but behind the scenes, she admitted, her own self-confidence is a work in progress. “I have always been ridiculously hard on myself.”

“I remember getting a phone call for an audition and I was so excited, but I never called back because I was so afraid to jump in,” Janney recalled. A friend told her, “Allison, you are going to be successful in spite of yourself.”

That declaration proved to be prophetic, “but it took a long time before I started to make a living at acting,” Janney said. “I went from Kenyon to the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1982, to getting my first Broadway play, ‘Present Laughter,’ when I was 36. That was a big thing for me. I have never been more terrified in my life. I thought I was going to be fired every day, and I had to see a therapist to help me through it. The fear didn’t subside until I set foot on stage with the audience, which made me feel my power.”

She finds the contradiction between her on-and offscreen personas ironic.

“I do tend to be cast as the strong, domineering woman who can control everyone, and, in a way, it’s a thrill for me to get to do that, because in my real life I don’t feel like I have those skills at all. I fake it. One of the things I love most about acting is getting to play roles like C.J. Cregg, an unbelievably powerful woman holding her own in a world of men.”

“The West Wing,” which first aired in 1999, was a game-changer for Janney. “I loved everything about the show. I was so thrilled to say all the smart, savvy things C.J. got to say; it was a dream part,” she said.

The global popularity of “The West Wing” resulted in international recognition for Janney, though she insisted, “I was so much in the bubble of the show that I wasn’t aware of becoming famous. I was just worried that the show wouldn’t be picked up for the next season; it was a nail-biter every year.”

After “The West Wing,” Janney landed a variety of memorable roles in films, from comedies such as “Juno” (2007) and “Spy” (2015), to the hit musical “Hairspray” (2007), the drama “The Help” (2011) and the thriller “The Girl On The Train” (2016). And in 2017, she returned to Broadway to star in a production of “Six Degrees of Separation.” Meanwhile, in her television work, she’s won two Emmy Awards for her role in the sitcom “Mom” as Bonnie Plunkett, a mother who is recovering from addiction; Anna Faris plays her adult daughter, Christy.

In its six seasons on the air (and with two more seasons currently in the works), “Mom” has received critical acclaim for taking on topics that are not easily resolved in the span of a 30-minute episode. “When I heard (the show) was about a mother and daughter who were getting sober, and it was going to be filled with redemption, it excited me,” Janney said. “I thought, ‘This is the role I should be doing for Hal.’ I love how it destigmatized recovery, showing how your life doesn’t stop when you are in recovery.”

Fans often express their appreciation for the show. “I see how it has affected people when someone comes up to me and says, ‘I have five years’ sobriety and your show means the world to me,’” she said. “And so many people have tears in their eyes.”

“I still can’t believe I won.”

Janney has been nominated for 200 awards over the course of her acting career. Still, she said she found the run-up to the 2018 Oscars ceremony overwhelming.

“I was shooting ‘Mom’ at the time, so I was going right from work to getting hair and makeup, and going to screenings to do Q&As, and running here and there to shake hands with people,” she explained. “I’ve never been comfortable talking about what I do — I like to let the work speak for itself instead of having to dissect it.”

On the big day, “I was terrified I wouldn’t win and would let everyone down,” she said. “I still can’t believe I won — it’s like a popularity contest. And when they called my name, I felt more relief than joy. The joy came when I was sitting in my kitchen the next morning with a cup of coffee. I just burst into tears. I was like, ‘I just can’t believe that happened.’ It’s a wonderful trophy to have. It gave me a little bit of peace of mind. It was almost like, ‘Oh good, now I can quit and do something else.’”

Needless to say, Janney has no plans to quit acting. On the contrary, she’s busier than ever. Upcoming projects include roles in “Bad Education,” a drama also starring Hugh Jackman; and a not-yet-titled film about the late head of Fox News, Roger Ailes (played by John Lithgow), who was fired amid a sexual harassment scandal. In it, Janney plays lawyer Susan Estrich. She’s also excited about the upcoming thriller “Lou,” which, directed by Anna Foerster, has been described as a cross between “Thelma and Louise” and “Taken.”

While inequities still persist in Hollywood, Janney is optimistic that opportunities for women of all ages are gradually increasing. “Women have started having bigger voices recently, and the ‘Me Too’ movement has helped to close the pay gap, even though it’s still very much there. That’s exciting.”

Currently single, she is devoted to her three adopted dogs, Dutch and Sippie (named after her grandparents), and Addie, and relishes time spent with friends, including Allison Mackie. “I hate going out, and usually just want to stay home,” she said. “Allison is a great cook, so she’ll make dinner and we’ll watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.”

When asked what she considers to be her greatest achievement, Janney exclaimed, “Oh Lord! The Oscar is one of them, but I think it is just that I am a generous, kind person who cares about other people. … I’m just Allison.”

Elaine Lipworth P’16,’21, of Los Angeles, writes for global publications including Marie Claire, Harpers Bazaar, YOU Magazine (The Mail On Sunday), The Guardian, The Observer, Psychologies, The Four Seasons Hotel Magazine and Thrive Global. She profiled Ted Walch ’63 in the Summer 2018 Alumni Bulletin.

Photos courtesy of the Kenyon College Archives.

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Kay Adams