ENTERTAINMENT
23/02/2018 07:24 GMT | Updated 23/02/2018 07:24 GMT

From 'I, Tonya' To Awards Season: Allison Janney Pauses For Thought On An 'Extraordinary' 12 Months

The actress talks playing her first villain and suddenly finding herself in the spotlight.

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Allison Janney at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival 

Allison Janney is a very busy woman. When we meet, she’s already started her day with a television appearance and numerous broadcast interviews. As soon as our late afternoon chat finishes, there’s another interview and an event to attend, before an ‘I, Tonya’ screening, fan Q&A and two more parties the next day. On the Sunday, she’ll become the proud owner of a Bafta.

“It’s been a real long day,” Allison admits, as soon as she sits down. “It’s all good stuff but just…”

Frantically darting between interviews and events, to read-throughs and meetings, is nothing new for Allison. When ‘I, Tonya’ was in production a year ago, the actress was filming the Emmy Award-winning comedy ‘Mom’ and preparing for a return to Broadway, in a revival of John Guare’s ‘Six Degrees Of Separation’.

“It was really nutty because I was doing ‘Mom’ and then I was in rehearsals to go back to [the stage],” she says. “I hadn’t been on Broadway in almost seven years and I was incredibly stressed out knowing I was going back.

“I was rehearsing, I was filming, and then got the call that the movie was coming together and that they wanted me to fly to Atlanta to film it.

“It was the craziest time and I thank the producers of ‘Mom’ and ‘Six Degrees Of Separation’, Margot [Robbie] and everyone at ‘I, Tonya’, for getting in the sandbox together and making everything work out.

“It took a miracle to make this happen for me. I’m really glad that it happened.”

In her ‘I, Tonya’ character, LaVona Golden, the actress has her “first villain”. As many of Allison’s on-screen alter-egos are, LaVona - the mother of figure-skater Tonya Harding - is a complex character.

Neon

For a start, LaVona’s motivations are unclear and she has an acid-tongue that makes light work of cutting through her daughter’s thick skin. She’s abusive, guarded and cold, to the point where it becomes unnerving to watch. Allison later sums LaVona up by stating, in a suitably matter-of-fact tone: “She’s not going to get Mother Of The Year, that’s for sure.”

When the idea for the film came together, I, Tonya’s producers soon located the ex-Olympian, who was happy to share her side of the story, but LaVona had disappeared without a trace in the late 1990s. Her own daughter was ambivalent to whether she was dead or alive. Rather than complicating things, Allison insists this made her job easier as she - to use her own, diplomatic, wording - “just assumed that she wasn’t here with us anymore”.

“I took that off my plate,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess that takes the onus off me’. I won’t feel as responsible or as bad about portraying the darker side of her.

“I would have been worried that I would hurt her feelings or make her feel bad but when doing the movie, I just assumed that she wasn’t a real person. I approached her like I would any other role, where it’s someone I’m playing and I have to make them come to life.”

In January 2018, it was time for another twist in the completely bizarre story of Tonya Harding when the real LaVona emerged, alive and well (living under a different name to avoid detection). Allison isn’t in a rush to contact her - “I don’t know if she’s seen the film but I don’t think I want to meet her at this point” - however, she has thought about what she would say if she did.

“I would have asked her, ‘Why all the different marriages?’,” she says. “I would want her to tell me about her marriages and I would want her to tell me about what her childhood was like, what her father, what her mother did.”

Given everything she’s learnt while playing her, Allison isn’t optimistic enough to think LaVona would be completely honest.

“I don’t know that she would tell me the whole truth,” she says. “A lot of people aren’t that honest about what they go through in life, I think.

“People say what they need to tell themselves which is one of the themes of this movie, about the truth and perception of it and what everyone’s individual truth is, what they need to tell themselves to be ok with life.

“I don’t think she would have copped to being abusive or thought of herself as being abusive. I think I would have just got a lot of clues on who she was and who she needed to pretend to be.”

After debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, talk around whether ‘I, Tonya’ - which Margot Robbie produced, while also starring - would be set for Oscar nominations began circulating. Sure enough, come February, Allison found herself on the shortlist for the Best Supporting Actress accolade while Margot is up for Best Actress. 

Empics Entertainment
Allison with her Best Supporting Actress Bafta

By this point, she’d already picked up the Golden Globe and the SAG Award, a hugely-significant prize, as the winner is decided by actors themselves.

The aforementioned Bafta was just weeks away and despite the fact Allison has been in the entertainment industry for decades - starring in ‘The West Wing’ and making a name for herself as one of Hollywood’s best character actresses - this level of attention is a new experience.

“It does seem like sometimes I want to laugh and go,” she says, raising her eyebrows and adding: “...Overnight success?’”

“I wouldn’t have been ready for it when I was younger and my career didn’t really start until I was 38. I’ve been a late bloomer to a lot of things in life and so it suits me fine to have this happen now.”

After deliberating on the right phrase to describe the past two months, she settles on referring to the awards as the “absolute icing on top of everything, that’s already pretty great” and continues: “I’m incredibly grounded in my life, what this career is and what these awards are and yes they’re really, really lovely.

“It’s an extraordinary moment to be having. I’m so grateful for it and yet I feel really grounded about it. And yet I don’t, and yet I do. It’s so complicated. 

“I’m terrified and nervous about walking down those carpets. What dress am I going to wear? What if I win? What if I don’t win?”

The topic of winning presents one final question: If she does triumph at the Oscars, where will the award be kept? It turns out this is one of the very few awards season-related conundrums Allison hasn’t considered. 

“Oh my god…” she says, eyes widening. “I haven’t even thought about that. I’ll keep it right with me. I would keep it... I don’t know! It’s definitely going to be with me though.

“Maybe in my bedroom so every morning I would wake up and see him,” she concludes, laughing at the thought. “That would be a pretty great confidence booster.”

‘I, Tonya’ is in UK cinemas now.