‘Tonya Harding’s story is about a woman being told who she is supposed to be’
Allison Janney relished the role that ‘has a particular resonance at this moment’
A record 126 million Americans watched Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan compete in the 1994 Olympics. Allison Janney, the seven PrimeTime Emmy and Golden Globe-winning artist, would have been watching regardless. Once a serious figure skater herself, an accident involving a floor length dress and a plate glass door at her parents’ house would leave the future West Wing star, aged 17, with a severed tendon. She lost an artery, “three-quarters” of her blood and a career on the ice.
“I was a figure skater long before I thought I’d be an actress,” recalls Janney. “I did ballet and modern dance training. I took to it pretty well. I was always athletic. I was passionate about it. But looking back, even though I did a couple of double jumps, I wasn’t really acrobatic enough. I’m a 6 foot tall woman. You need to be closer to the ground to do triple jumps.”
While Janney recovered from her freak accident a long and unreliable story was unfolding. At a practice session at the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, gold medal hopeful Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a masked stranger. The assault only bruised her leg, but Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the competition, allowing her American rival, Tonya Harding to win.
It soon transpired that the assailant was hired by Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband and self-appointed bodyguard. Both skaters went on to compete at the 1994 Winter Olympics, giving the sport its highest audience figures ever, just before Gillooly testified against Harding.
All found guilty
All parties were later found guilty and given prison time, except for Harding who received three years’ probation and was banned from skating for life. She has subsequently become a professional boxer, released a sex tape and fronted soft-rock band Golden Blades.
“When the incident happened I was very well aware of the skating world and community,” says Janney, “so I was glued to my television set anyway. But this also coincided with the birth of the 24-four-hour news-cycle. It was fed to us non-stop. The verdict was in from the beginning: Tonya was guilty, Nancy was a beautiful, innocent princess. People couldn’t get enough of that narrative.
“Most people misremember the incident: They’ll tell you Tonya Harding took a baseball bat to Nancy Kerrigan. Now, having worked on the movie I, Tonya, I have an entirely different perspective. This is a story about class. It’s a story about a woman being told who she is supposed to be, a story that has a particular resonance at this moment.”
I, Tonya, the Oscar-nominated biopic of the disgraced figure skater from Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie, attempts to unravel the still-conflicting accounts of Tonya Harding’s life, as told by Harding (a fantastic Margot Robbie, who also produced the film), Jeff Gillooly (the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Sebastian Stan), and Tonya’s abusive, tough-loving momager, LaVona (Janney, in a splendid, Oscar-nominated turn).
Between sips of cola, profuse apologies for her jet-lagged state, and last minute outfit adjustments, Janney can’t help but laugh: “My friend wrote that role for me,” she says, referring to screenwriter Steven Rogers. “He must know something about me I don’t. Something dark.”
Janney was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Macy Brooks (née Putnam), a former actress who once shared a stage with Tallulah Bankhead and Jervis Spencer Janney, Jr, a real estate developer and jazz musician.
“It all makes sense,” she says. “My father is an incredible musician and an artist too. I keep a piano at my house so that first thing on Christmas morning, I can hear my father playing. My older brother is an incredible musician. My younger brother, who is no longer with us, played the piano too.
“My mom gave up acting after she met my father on a blind date in New York. I never saw her act but she has been a huge influence. There’s part of her in every character I’ve played.”
Raised in Dayton, Ohio, Janney continued her education at Ohio’s Kenyon College. During her freshman year, Kenyan alumnus Paul Newman directed her in CC Pyle and the Bunion Derby, a play about the founder of the Trans-American Footrace. Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward were impressed by Janney and encouraged the budding thespian to move to New York so she might train at the Neighbourhood Playhouse, a conservatory for actors.
“Joanne was so lovely and such a great mentor,” says Janney. “She was instrumental in getting me real opportunities. She started a theatre company. She showcased us for agents. And Paul Newman insisted that if I ever needed a favour, I had to call him. I never did call him for it but I always felt better knowing that was in my back pocket. I’m forever grateful to both of them.”
In 1984, while training at the Playhouse, she won a scholarship to RADA in London. For the first time she felt “like a real actor”. Breaks in New York theatre followed, but casting agents for film and television were frequently reluctant to consider a 183cm tall performer. The West Wing changed everything. While playing White House press secretary CJ Cregg in Aaron Sorkin’s hot show, Janney was convincing enough to attract job offers in political pundit.
“I could only have done that work if I had Aaron Sorkin feeding me lines,” she says. “In fact, I wish I had Aaron in an earpiece all the time, telling me what to say. I’d be so interesting.”
In recent years, Emmy hauls from the TV shows Mom and Masters of Sex (a showcase for Janney’s first sex scene, aged 50) have allowed Janney to tie with Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner, as the second most awarded thespian in the history of the award ceremony.
“I can’t believe I’m even in the same sentence as her,” says Janney. “In my mind I’m still on the other side of the television watching Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett. It’s amazing. These days television is the place you go for great roles for women. We all get great characters, great friendships, great storylines and important issues made relatable with humour and love. At every table read you look around and see all these great women who are all over 40.”
She whispers for comic effect: “Some if us more so than others.”
She suspects her relatively late start in film and television helped shield her from the predatory behaviours that are currently been addressed by the #MeToo movement.
“I got lucky: I never had to deal with anything serious,” she says. “But my career didn’t start until I was 38. I heard about serious things. There was a whispering network. We all looked out for each other. “Watch out for him,” that’s how you dealt with it. There was no other way to work and navigate those waters. Or so we thought.
“The casting couch was there from the beginning. It was something that you knew about. There’s starting to be a huge culture shift that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. I don’t know where it will lead or how it will pan out but it has to end with a better work environment and with fewer abuses. It’s extraordinary what’s been going on.
“I don’t have children, but if I had a daughter I’d be so pleased knowing that she wouldn’t have to face those kinds of abuses of power. That’s really huge, and positive, not just for Hollywood.”
Adding to her recent Golden Globe win for I, Tonya, her many Emmys, her Oscar-nod, and various other awards, Janney received her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2016.
“I’ll tell you who I’m near,” she gushes. “I’m between Montgomery Clift and Lucille Ball. Isn’t that fantastic?”
She’s equally excited about the Oscars, not because of her own nomination, but because the ceremony will allow for reunion with her long-time chum, Octavia Spencer (who is shortlisted with Janney in the Best Supporting Actress category). The pair first worked together on Tate Taylor’s 2003 short, Chicken Party. Taylor would later direct them in The Help.
“We’ll have a mini-Help reunion,” says Janney. “We all met each other in Los Angeles around the same time I got The West Wing. I am so happy for all of the extraordinary women that were involved. There’s Octavia and Mary J Blige - who did the song for The Help, and Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain and me. That movie has become a wonderful touchstone for all of us. I can’t wait to see everybody.”
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I, Tonya opens February 23rd