Allison Janney (‘I, Tonya’): LaVona is ‘my favorite character I’ve ever had to create’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

It’s already been a fantastic December for Allison Janney with nominations at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critic’s Choice Awards, and Independent Spirit Awards for Best Supporting Actress. After seven Emmy wins in her career, her first ever Oscar nomination could be just around the corner.

In the recently-released film “I, Tonya,” Janney plays the real-life role of LaVona Golden, the mother of troubled Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie). The movie is directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers. In fact, Rogers wrote the part of Harding’s foul-mouthed, chain-smoking mom specifically for Janney. Watch our recent chat with Janney above or enjoy the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby (Marcus Dixon): Okay, Allison Janney. For years we’ve watched you on TV playing CJ and Bonnie, but those are fictitious characters, so how different is it stepping into the shoes of a real life person, LaVona, the mother of Tonya Harding?

Allison Janney: First of all, LaVona is kind of a mix. She’s part fictional and part Tonya’s version of her mother and part Jeff Gillooly’s version of who Tonya’s mother was and part Steven Rogers having a little artistic license. So she’s kind of an amalgamation of all those different people, ‘cause we couldn’t find LaVona. Steven Rogers tried very hard to find her. Tonya said as far as she knew she was living in a trailer behind a porn shop, basically is what she said, and so we didn’t have the luxury of finding her. All we had is the existing footage of her in a documentary that this young college student made about Tonya Harding’s life and she interviewed LaVona and that interview and a couple of other little videos at the ice rink, that’s all I had to base LaVona on. But my god, what gifts and gems those were. Just that little clip of her in that fur coat with the bird, it’s literally my favorite costume I’ve ever gotten to wear, my favorite character I’ve ever had to create because she was such an extreme character to get behind that, just trying to wrap my mind around what kind of woman wears that fur coat and has that bird and has that haircut and wears those glasses. She just fascinated me, and I got to pretty much make her up in my head because we didn’t have the luxury of having her.

GD (Marcus): What was it like working with that bird? Because they always say, “Don’t work with animals.” In particular, for people that haven’t seen it, the bird is biting you in some moments.

AJ: That bird… I had an interesting relationship with it. First of all, I picked that bird out of three or four other birds they auditioned and that’s the one I picked because all the other birds, when I sat them on my shoulder they would start crawling in my hair and going all over and this little guy, and his name is Little Man, I put him on my shoulder and he just sat there and just hung out and I kinda walked around and he just hung out there, and I was like “Okay, this is the one, this is the one.” And then cut to us filming. There’s a lot of couple interesting things about this day of filming because Steven Rogers decided to have LaVona smoke. He wanted her to smoke, basically so she could say the one line that he wrote about the smoking when she’s told to put out her cigarette on the rink, “You’re not allowed to smoke,” and she goes, “Oh, well then I’ll smoke it quietly then,” and continues to smoke so that’s the reason why LaVona smoked ‘cause I don’t even think the real LaVona smoked.

But we got in right before, 10 minutes before we were filming, the bird handler said, “You can’t smoke around the bird,” and we were like, “What are we gonna do, what are we gonna do?” And I asked the prop guy, “Do you have one of those oxygen tank things, ‘cause it makes sense that she would have emphasis all these years later from doing all the smoking,” and then we saved the bird’s life, probably not my life but we saved the bird’s life. And it’s kind of a great character thing to have that in there but then that bird, Little Man, kinda fell in love with the plastic tubing, he kept picking at it and then he was going in my ear and I was determined not to let this bird knock me off my plate. I was so intent on telling my version of the story, telling my side of the story, and I don’t want him to interfere and no matter what he did, and he did a lot, and in some ways it helped me as an actress get out of my head ‘cause sometimes you’re an actor, especially when you’re doing monologues directly into the camera, you start to think about it too much, like my inner critic stars going off and that bird cut off my inner critic ‘cause I really had to focus on doing the speech and not letting him take my focus away and a couple times I’d be like, “Shut up,” just start talking to it, telling it to shut up and it actually was one of the best challenges possible, really really loved what that bird did for me. I think we were a good couple.

GD (Marcus): I heard a rumor the screenwriter Steven actually wrote this part specifically for you. Does that add more pressure to the role?

AJ: Once I read it I was like, “You thought of me for that part? I’m flattered, I think?” I was actually flattered ‘cause I knew he knew that I would take this woman and I would root her in some kind of, I don’t know if you wanna say… just reality, make her human. Even though she was a monster I felt like I hooked into her sadness. I hooked into feeling like she had had a bad childhood herself, she had to have, ‘cause often you come from an abusive family and that begets another abusive family. It’s an insidious cycle, and I think Steven knew that I would give her heart if she was gonna have it. If there was any chance of her having heart I would bring it to her and he gave me that beautiful speech in the diner at the end where she says, “I did all this for you knowing you’d hate me for it. I wish I had a chance at life.” You just see that this woman, nothing worked out for her. Nothing. And that makes me sad, but that made me connect with her, knowing that all the other husbands fell by the wayside, nothing worked out for this woman.

GD (Chris Beachum): Tell the story you told the other night at the Hollywood Film Awards about how Steven’s written things for you before and then they’ve gone off to somebody else. Did you think, “Oh this is so good, Meryl Streep or Sally Field or somebody’s gonna wanna jump in here and take this away from me?”

AJ: I know. The way we talk about it now it’s as if he’s written dozens of films. It’s probably only three or four films, but he has written a part for me in every single one of them and every single one has gone to a different actress and I don’t know why. Sometimes getting cast in a movie is sometimes like a poker game and you’ve gotta sacrifice, go, “Oh, well I’ll give you her if you give me him.” There’s a lot of wheeling and dealing that goes in so who knows, I’d like to think that it wasn’t because they just couldn’t work with Allison Janney. I think it was just a lot of things that just didn’t work out in my favor and for whatever reason this was the part that was meant to be mine, and I’m really grateful this was the one ‘cause she was a lot of fun to play. A real challenge but really fun, and I also credit that to Craig Gillespie, who is such a great director. We didn’t have a lot of time. I was so busy, I didn’t have time. I had like two weeks to film this with them and basically we shot my stuff in six or seven days. That’s all they had me for, and it was fast and furious and everybody was there ‘cause they loved that script and we all just jumped in and made it work.

Margot [Robbie], getting to work with Margot and getting to do all this physical stuff with her and she just was really game. “We don’t have time to be shy about this, let’s just jump right in. Throw that thing at me, I’ll duck.” We met toe to toe, head to head and just went at it and I’m so grateful that she was so fearless about playing this role because it allowed me to be as well, and having Mckenna Grace, that lovely young actress playing her as a young girl, she helped me with the violence I had to do with her ‘cause she enjoyed the stunts so much. She was having such a great time she’s like, “Let’s do it again, let’s do it again!” And I had to kick her out of the chair. I was like, “I can’t believe I’m gonna kick a small child out of a chair,” and she was having so much fun it made it easier for me to do, and I think the humor, it comes out of the tragedy into the different versions of the story, everybody’s version juxtaposed to the other makes it funny. When you hear LaVona say, “I hit her once with a hairbrush,” Cut to. The wildly contradictory stories, that’s where the humor is.

GD (Chris): Margot not only is opposite you in so many scenes and that carries the movie but she’s a producer. What was that relationship like?

AJ: I just have a girl crush on her. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know how she did it, taking on this classically American, iconic, tragic sports figure, producing it, having to go through all the makeup, the prosthetics and everything and then doing the accent and jumping in and then also putting on her producer hat. She’s kind of remarkable. I really have an enormous amount of respect for her as an actress, producer. She’s gonna be around for a while. There’s gonna be a lot of great things coming out of her and I’m really glad that I got to do this with her and I’m glad that she signed on because I know Steven was taking the project around saying, “This is not getting done with Allison Janney in this role,” and Margot was like, “That’s fine with me,” and Craig Gillespie was like, “Fine with me.” And so I got grandfathered into this one and I’m grateful that she was okay with that and that Craig was.

GD (Chris): One of the people that gave you your breakout role of your career was Aaron Sorkin. I interviewed him last week, he’s got “Molly’s Game” coming out very soon and I asked him this question so I’m gonna reverse it to you. He could be back at the Oscars this year for directing and writing “Molly’s Game.” And you could be at the Oscars for the first time ever so I asked him, “How fun would that be if the two of you were both nominated in the same year?” So how do you feel about that? I would say what he said but it was so long and expansive and dialogue-oriented that I can’t remember all of what he said.

AJ: (Laughs.) Of course (rolls eyes). Of course it was. I wish he could be here to tell me what I should say right now, except for I tried to find him at the Governor’s Awards the other night and I couldn’t find him the whole night. But it would be amazing seeing him there and Brad Whitford too, hope maybe “Get Out” would get something too, and Brad would be there and Aaron. It would be an amazing moment. I know that it would be great to look across the room and catch his eye and just salute him because I’ve often said if I could have Aaron Sorkin in my ear, tell me what to say next. Like Holly Hunter in “Broadcast News” when Albert Brooks had that… oh my god. That’s my dream to have one of those earpieces in my ear and have Aaron just be feeding me my “Cyrano” (laughs). “Tell me what to say and I will say it.” I think that’s why I love being an actress I love to say other people’s words. Its so much more fun.

GD (Chris): Well after seven Emmy wins and a Tony Award nomination, what would it mean for you to be at the Oscars this year?

AJ: Oh my god. It’s…

GD (Chris): We talked before, years ago they invited you to join and you’ve been voting and been a part of the Academy so to be potentially marking your own name on the ballot this year!

AJ: That would be an achievement that I have long dreamed about, that would be probably… I’d have a moment of a lot of tears and a lot of grateful tears and joy. It would be an amazing thing, and especially in something that was written for me by a dear friend, it’s all the more meaningful to get there with a friend.

GD (Chris): Another person I wanted to ask you about, because we’re going to an event tomorrow night. Your friend and producer John Wells is being inducted into the TV Hall of Fame tomorrow night. What does that mean to you and the others that worked with him?

AJ: Oh, John is one of the loveliest, kindest men and he had to take over when Aaron and Tommy [Schlamme] left “West Wing” and he became our father figure. And he was just… he’s such a smart, elegant man who is an extraordinary writer and a great diplomat and a great leader. He was wonderful to all of us on the last four years of “West Wing” and I just admire him so much and he deserves to be in the Television Hall of Fame. He’s one of the biggest hitters. It’s amazing. I’m proud of him. I wonder why… I guess I’m traveling. I kind wish I’d be there to go like this (bows) to him.

GD (Chris): Well he’ll have a statue out on the Academy plaza so you can go visit that and you’ll be in there not too far down the road too, so wouldn’t have to worry about that. We almost always talk “Mom” so much that we haven’t had a chance, but I think my one “Mom” question this year would be, and I’ve asked other people this before too, especially “The Big Bang Theory” people but it hit syndication.

AJ: We get 100 episodes. We get 100 episodes right before Christmas or something.

GD (Marcus): Nice, congrats.

AJ: Thank you.

GD (Chris): Now that’s in in syndication more people are… “The Big Bang Theory” said the recognition factor once that happened just exploded. People had not even seen it necessarily on CBS but now that it was on several times a day that they were catching up.

AJ: Oh my gosh. I don’t even know what that’s gonna feel like. I’m excited to see but I’m excited that more people will have access to it ‘cause it such a great show and such a great group of women and the great backdrop of women in recovery especially and having fun and laughing and surviving. I’m really proud of what “Mom” does and so amazed at how many people come up and are so grateful to have a show about people in recovery. People come up and say, “Thank you, I have 10 years sobriety and I love what you do on that show, it’s really great showing a realistic depiction of what it’s like to live in recovery.” That makes me feel really proud to be telling these stories.

GD (Chris): Well we love” I, Tonya.” We wish you all the best. I think we’re gonna see you at a lot of red carpets coming over the next few weeks.

AJ: I hope so, Chris and Marcus.

GD (Marcus): We’ll have to think of new questions to ask each time we see you.

AJ: I know. I’ll have to think of new ways to answer questions, that’s what I get worried about. Gotta think of a new way to say that, have to get those earwigs and have Aaron Sorkin in one ear and Steven Rogers in the other.

GD (Chris): If you start getting onstage for these awards, I’ve heard of people getting a good writer to help them at least coalesce their thoughts before they get to the auditorium.

AJ: That’s a good idea. I think that I’m gonna start hiring some people.

GD (Chris): I think the two you might mentioned might be on the expensive side.

AJ: I think so too. Hmm. What are you doing later?

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