After earning four Emmys for playing White House press secretary C.J. Cregg in The West Wing, Allison Janney snagged two more statuettes last year for her wildly disparate performances in the CBS sitcom Mom and the Showtime period drama Masters of Sex. Now starring as a no-nonsense CIA director in Paul Feig’s Spy, in theaters June 5, the 55-year-old actress reveals how much her art imitates her life, particularly when it comes to cursing and closeted gay men.
The Advocate: How do you explain your loyal gay following?
Allison Janney: Because I’m six feet tall and still love to wear high heels. [Laughs] I’m not afraid to go big and take chances with out-there roles, and I think people respond to that. I feel honored to be embraced by the gay community. Truly, it’s a huge validation of my work. I don’t want to say that gay people are smarter than other people, but…yeah.
You often play characters at both ends of the spectrum: sexually repressed conservatives and boozy trailer trash. In other words, there’s a Prudy in Hairspray for every Loretta in Drop Dead Gorgeous on your IMDb page. Do you identify with those extremes?
Oh, yeah. I have an affinity for both kinds of women. That insecure, sexually repressed woman is definitely inside me, but I also have some great relatives who inspired me to be bold and funny. My fabulous grandmother would wear kooky shirts, bright green silk cigarette pants, red nail polish, and she’d smoke Marlboros and drink martinis. Growing up, I idolized her.
You grew up in Ohio in the ’60s and ’70s. What was your introduction to gay culture?
That’s an interesting question. Maybe from watching Laugh-In? Well, I did theater in college, but I never openly talked about it with anyone until I moved to New York in the early ’80s. I started hanging out with a lot of gay men at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where I studied acting. It wasn’t until then that I discovered there was this whole gay world out there.
Were you raised in an environment that was open and accepting of peoples’ differences?
Oh, my parents didn’t talk about sex, politics—nothing. I love my family, but there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation at the dinner table. It was very “pass the peas.” I don’t know why we didn’t talk about anything. I wish we had, because I would’ve been more prepared for life.
Why did you click with gay men in New York?
I liked to have a good time and be silly. I also felt awkward and impossibly tall, and when you connect with gay men, you don’t have to worry, Does he like me? Does he want to kiss me? It’s just about friendship. The lack of sexual tension made it really easy to hang out. There’s a reason why so many women have gay best friends, and there’s a reason why so many women fall in love with gay men. There are gay men in my life today that I’m totally in love with. They’re more sensitive, understanding, and they appreciate things about women that straight men run from.
Like height and heels.
Exactly. My friend Dan likes to put my high heels at the top of his Christmas tree, just for fun, because I have the biggest feet on the planet. I have a lot of gay friends who borrow my clothes, actually.