BURBANK, Calif. — Allison Janney extends the maxim that the best actors can entertain simply by reading a phone book. She manages with commercials.
Her voice is warm and burnished with compassion on radio and TV voice-over spots for a health care provider, possibly the most melodic soft-sell ever.
Then theres her real craft. Consider, for instance, her sharp, take-no-prisoners delivery as C.J. Gregg in The West Wing (for which she won four Emmys), and her manic chatter as a blowsy woman in the indie film The Way Way Back.
Or enjoy the sly purr she employs as Bonnie, a wayward but good-hearted parent and grandparent whos trying to stay reformed in the new CBS sitcom Mom (9:30 p.m. Monday). Anna Faris co-stars as her similarly imperfect daughter.
Its acting, Janney said. I feel like actors like to be challenged and play all different types of roles. For whatever reason, Ive been given the opportunity to do so.
That reason, of course, is she is an enormously gifted and appealing performer with a range thats second to none. Her talent has been on display on Broadway and in movies including American Beauty and Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Janney acknowledges that her 1999-2006 experience on West Wing, the intricate, densely scripted political drama from Aaron Sorkin, was something she treasures but also acutely recalls as demanding.
The heavy shooting schedule required a commitment that meant missing a lot of family things, and weddings and funerals, and putting relationships a distant second to work, said Janney, who is single.
A multi-camera comedy like Mom offers a different experience, with shorter rehearsal days followed by a Friday taping.
But its laughs that Janney really is after.
Comedy is what I love the best. Im just drawn to it, she said, with Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore among her TV favorites as a youngster.
Serious drama has its own rewards, she added, but also drawbacks.
If I have to be in a dark emotional place, I spend my day looking for reasons to be in that state, so I can bring it when I need to (for a role). I can do it, but its just a lot trickier for me, she said.
Serious and funny Mom
With Mom, Janney sees the best of both worlds a combination of humor with serious moments of love or disappointment or fear, not just what she calls the joke-joke-joke-joke barrage typical of many TV comedies.
She admits to nervousness at work, from the initial script reading to just before the taping begins. Its characteristic, she said, but also stems from working for a TV comedy master, Chuck Lorre, whose hits include The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men.
Its scary to do a run-through for Chuck. I dont want to mess it up or miss a laugh, she said.
But Lorre, it seems, is putty in her hands.
Allison is a writers dream come true. She can literally do anything. And do it brilliantly, the writer-producer wrote in an email. Physical comedy, sweet poignant moments, heartbreaking scenes, classic straight man, you name it.
The 54-year-old said shes having a blast as sexy, loose-cannon Bonnie, and CBS ordered a full freshman season of Mom on the basis of its initial ratings.
Its nice to be my age and be sexually active and aggressive in the parts I play, she said, adding a chortle as perfect punctuation.