What a difference a year makes. Early in 2013, Allison Janney was lamenting her inability to find another TV series job. Within a few months, the actress had landed not one but two plum roles: Bonnie Plunkett, the recovering alcoholic mother to newly sober Anna Faris on the CBS sitcom Mom, and Margaret Scully, a repressed ’50s woman whose sexuality is finally awakened and learns that her husband (Beau Bridges) is gay on Showtime’s drama Masters of Sex.
On Thursday, she received Emmy nominations for both roles: supporting actress in a comedy for Mom and guest actress in a drama for Masters of Sex. Then Sunday night, on Masters of Sex’s superb Season 2 premiere, Janney delivered another nuanced, devastating turn as Margaret that likely secured her another Emmy nomination for next year.
In the Masters premiere [SPOILER ALERT], Margaret is surprised when husband Barton, who is undergoing electroshock therapy to “cure” his homosexuality, tries to initiate sex with her. But her euphoria evaporates when she realizes he is simply trying to pretend she is a man. Later in the episode, Janney navigates another emotional minefield as Margaret and her daughter (Rose McIver) discover that Barton has attempted suicide.
The performance caps a year of accolades for the West Wing alum, 54, who also continues to pile on movie roles on the side (including Tammy, with Melissa McCarthy). Shortly after receiving the news of her dual nominations, an ebullient Janney checked in from Atlanta, where she had just wrapped another film, the comedy The Duff, to discuss her “double O,” her latest bravura episode of Masters of Sex, and when she’ll next return to the Showtime series.
Is this double nominee Allison Janney?
Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m very happy to say. It’s pretty exciting. I was very excited to get the call from my publicist this morning. It’s a really nice feeling because I love both these shows.
You won four Emmys on The West Wing. When that show ended, did you think that would be it for your trophy tally?
I’m an actress and there’s nothing else I could do, and I’ve always known that. So I felt quite sure I was going to keep working. I certainly had great fun doing Broadway musicals and movies after The West Wing, but finding a place on television has been a little trickier than I thought it would. And I really struck gold with both of these.
How did you get involved with Masters of Sex?
I had no idea what it was going to be. It was pitched to me even before they had written the character. [Executive producers] Sarah [Timberman] and Michelle [Ashford] called me and talked about the character of Margaret Scully they wanted to write about, and hit on some of the story points, and I thought, “Gosh, that sounds like a really compelling storyline.” And I’m a huge fan of Michael Sheen’s, and Lizzy [Caplan] and I have known each other for a while, and I love her work as an actress. I didn’t know what it was going to turn into, but I certainly loved the subject matter, loved the time period and thought it would be a wonderful thing to be a part of.
How did Mom factor in?
I started doing Masters, and I knew I had gotten Mom, and I filmed a couple episodes of Masters and went to film the pilot of Mom and then went back to film Masters and didn’t know if Mom was going to stick or not. So there I was, in the position of doing two shows that were going to be on back-to-back nights. And I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of a cool party trick!” I had no idea it was going to work out that way, but I’m happy to have found a couple of places to be on television in the last year.
Hollywood tends to stop thinking about women in their 50s in a sexual way, but now you have two roles that celebrate that.
It’s lovely! It feels very European of us, to let woman over 50 be seen as people who are sexy and are still vital. Surprise surprise: Women over 50 enjoy sex, and they want it!
In your hilarious Critics Choice acceptance speech last month, you called your dual wins for Mom and Masters “the climax of my career.” So how do two Emmy nominations compare?
[Laughs] I should have said, “Well, this is certainly a climax!” I didn’t mean to say that this was going to be it, because I plan on doing a lot more in my life. But it’s an incredible feeling to have a double O—a double orgasm!
Was there any concern that Mom wouldn’t let you come back for Season 2 of Masters?
Fortunately, Showtime and CBS are under the same umbrella, so they let Beau [Bridges] and I continue to do Masters of Sex in addition to both our comedies. If it had been another network, I don’t know if they would have been as generous. But I think it was lucky that we were both at CBS-affiliated shows, and I was really happy that they encouraged us to do that as well.
Let’s talk about the second season premiere. You traversed so many conflicting emotions in such a short time for that bedroom scene.
Yeah, it’s a very complicated, layered scene. She loves her husband, and she knows he’s gay, she wants him to want to make love to her, she wants to be wanted by him more than anything in the world, and so it’s almost like a dream come true that he comes in, and she feels that he wants her, and it’s all she wants. And she lets herself believe it for a minute against her better judgment that he does want her, because she wants it so badly, and then she realizes that the way he wants to have sex with her means to her that he wants her to be someone that she’s not, which is a man. And then it’s just this anger that comes out, and she just shuts down. It’s incredibly sad to play that scene. And it’s so vulnerable, because you’re playing this sex scene, and both of us are pretty much naked.
How did you shoot it?
Beau is such a great actor, we work out just every move, and Michael Apted, the director—I love that man so much—we choreographed everything by the numbers. “I’m going to put my hand here, I’m going to go here.” Then once the cameras roll, you can lose yourself in the characters and just fully commit. It’s easier to be with the cameras rolling than figuring it out, that’s the uncomfortable part. Once you can just go into character and the cameras rolling, it’s really freeing. I know how to play that scene. I haven’t been in that situation, but I know the feeling of wanting something and you get mad at yourself for letting yourself believe that something is the way you want it to be, when it’s not.
You’ve talked about how scary it was to film your nude scenes last season. Was it any easier this time around?
It was still nerve-wracking, but I knew how respectful everyone on set is, and how they keep a closed set, and everyone’s very professional, so I knew what it was and it made that part easier. It still is uncomfortable doing it, and I don’t enjoy watching those. I watch with my hand over my eyes. “OK, I saw it, I saw it. I don’t have to see it again!” I won’t go back and hit rewind and watch it all over again. [Laughs] I can’t! But I’m not afraid of them anymore. I’ll do them because the wonderful thing about Masters of Sex, it’s the only show about sex that isn’t gratuitous in any way. Every sex scene is integral to the storyline. So that felt really nice too. There wasn’t ever a question of whether this scene was appropriate or not. That scene with Margaret and Barton is essential for them going to that next step where he tries to kill himself. It’s the journey.
His attempted suicide must have been just as challenging to pull off.
They had a stunt double, but Rose and I, our shins were bruised more than I’ve ever been bruised before because of that coffee table we had to drag over to put under Barton’s legs to keep him from hanging. So we both kept sending each other pictures of our bruised shins. That was the only casualties, thankfully, in that scene. I found that in the master of it, when you had to play from the beginning to the end of that, that’s when it was very emotional to do. And then when we padded up and started doing coverage on it, it takes on a different life and becomes very weird. I’m sitting there holding him and trying to cut him down and right before we go, I’m thinking, “Now how many chocolate peanut M&Ms did I eat at craft services?” You become disassociated from it in a way, and it becomes harder to live it. Which sometimes I’m grateful for, because that was a really hard thing to watch, to come down and see him there.
Will we see you and Beau again this year?
No, but I’ve been told that they want to bring us back in Season 3. It’s not because they don’t want to do more with our characters, it’s just that they’re following the book and they’re jumping to a different time period with Bill and Virginia that won’t involve our storyline. I know they want us to be part of the series, so hopefully we’ll come back in Season 3 and play more.
You’re still doing lots of movies. This Mom hiatus alone, you’ve squeezed in Spy with Melissa McCarthy and The Duff. When will you take a breather?
I thought about that, and then I felt, you never know in this life when opportunities are going to stop. And a lot of these movie things, they’re small commitments on my part. The Melissa McCarthy thing, I love Melissa, I adore [director] Paul Feig and I got to go to Budapest and see the world a little bit. That was so thrilling and I was so happy that they wanted me to be a part of it. And this movie, I read the script and I thought it was really funny. I thought, “Why not go to Atlanta? What am I going to do, sit at home?”
Well, you could take a vacation.
I could have vacationed somewhere. But it’s also, I’m single and when you think about going to a spa somewhere, it’s like, “Eh, I don’t want to go to by myself to a spa.” I would rather take advantage of the fact that I am single and I can go off and do a movie. I’m better when I’m working. I tend to get nuts and think too much when I’m not working. It’s better for me to be engaged with a lot of people and work. It’s how I keep myself happy.
You go back into production soon on Mom. What do you want to happen with Bonnie next season?
The writers don’t share anything with Anna or I about where they’re going, but I know Chuck [Lorre, the creator] loves being able to explore deeper emotional levels with these characters, and the subject matter that they’ve chosen to deal with is not typical half-hour comedy fare. We’ve dealt with cancer and teen pregnancy, and we’re constantly dealing with the recovery issue and trying to make that decision every day to be sober and choose life. It’s been rewarding as an actress to get to do that, and also do the comedy, but that they’re not afraid to let us show our emotions as characters. I think it makes us earn the laughs more, and people relate to these characters more and want to see them go through this stuff. So I hope they continue with that, throwing the hard stuff our way and watching us continue to navigate that with humor and pathos.
Well, congratulations, you’ve had quite an amazing year.
It really has been. This is just the perfect recognition for the kind of stuff I got to do. It’s really sweet.
How are you going to celebrate your two nominations?
My friend Chris Lowell, who was in The Help with me, is having his photography exhibit open tonight in Atlanta, and Octavia [Spencer] is down here doing Red Band [Society, a new FOX drama]. We’re all great friends and we’re going to hook up tonight and see his photographs, and then go have a party and celebrate him—and hopefully raise a glass to me. I’d say a couple of glasses to me!