With a storied career and an Academy Award for I, Tonya, Allison Janney doesn’t need a costume to get into character. Just a swimsuit. Here, the 58-year-old actress opens up about hair woes, dating in your 50s, and her late start in Hollywood.
LAURA BROWN: Let’s get right to it: Your legs kill me! Are both your parents tall?
ALLISON JANNEY: “Jerv” Janney — Jervis Janney — is tall. He’s 6 foot 1 or 2. My mom was tall; some people shrink when they get older, I’m told. She was around 5 foot 9. But she was a dancer, and she was known for her legs. She used to be an actress and got a review that was specifically focused on her beautiful legs. It was amazing.
LB: So you got their height. How tall are you?
AJ: Six feet. I got my father’s legs but some of my mother’s shape. I definitely think my legs are better-looking than my father’s. [laughs]
LB: If you had a man’s legs, that could be a challenge, but you would have good calf definition. A bit hairy, though.
AJ: I didn’t get my mother’s hair. God, my mother has beautiful, thick hair. I have a head full of hair extensions. Years of blow-drying and coloring and dyeing, it’s just fluff. So I choose to help fill out my [hair]. I’m not afraid to admit that.
LB: Put a little infrastructure in there and call it a day.
AJ: I have a wig fetish. Even before I was known as an actress in New York, when I started doing theater there, I would go to the grocery store with different wigs on for fun. I loved it. I’m trying to remember all the characters I used to play. Mostly accents, Long Island or Brooklyn or French. I loved buying hair, experimenting with it. It was something to amuse myself with when I wasn’t getting work as an actress [laughs]. Now it helps you in the trailer in the morning — wigs cut preparation time. Bonnie Plunkett [her Emmy Award-winning character] in Mom has a full-on wig.
LB: Can you remember the first beauty look you tried that either worked — or really didn’t?
AJ: A perm. That was tragic. My hair was already naturally curly. But everyone was doing it, so I was like, “I need more curl.” I had to have been 16, 17. I also dyed my hair platinum blond for a movie with Stanley Tucci [Big Night], and all my hair fell out. It was overbleached — it would rip — so I just cut it off.
LB: What do you do when all your hair falls out?
AJ: You wear a lot of hats and scarves. I’m almost ready to do it again, get rid of all the extensions and just cut my hair short and see if I can rock a Jean Seberg look.
LB: Who were your first beauty idols when you were younger?
AJ: Lauren Hutton was my ultimate. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
LB: Were you a cut-things-out-of-magazines-and-stick- them-on-the-wall girl?
AJ: A huge magazine girl. I was a fashionista when I was growing up in Dayton, Ohio. I would go to the Rike’s department store and covet Ralph Lauren pants.
LB: What was the first professional photo shoot you did?
AJ: I think it was for The New York Times when I was making my Broadway début in Present Laughter, in ’98. They photographed me at the Algonquin Hotel wearing my own clothes. I was 37, 38. It was a pretty late start. I had been in New York for a while but didn’t get a big break until then.
LB: Amen. I always think it’s best to get the break older. With The West Wing, how did you metabolize being so visible
AJ: First of all, you’re working 18 hours a day, so you don’t know what’s happening. The first time I came to New York [while doing the show], I was in the subway, and I was like, “Oh my god, all of a sudden people are looking at me. God, I’m not gonna be able to take the subway anymore.” I came to my stop, I reached down to pick up my stuff, and realized my whole blouse was open. That was one of those funny moments, like, “Oh, I guess I’m not that famous.”
LB: How much did you think about walking down the street?
AJ: I was more self-conscious knowing there could be someone who recognized me, so I felt like I always had to be on my best behavior. Not that I wasn’t nice, but sometimes I just get mad and I want to tell someone to fuck off, and I can’t.
LB: Did you feel more pressure to be “Hollywood hot”?
AJ: No. People would come up to me, especially during West Wing, and go, “My god, you’re so much better-looking in person.” I was like, “Thank you, question mark?”
LB: What is your beauty routine now? You work out quite a bit, right?
AJ: Most recently, on location, I didn’t work out one bit. I’ve got a gym in my garage and a Pilates trainer who comes on the weekends, and that feels good.
LB: How is your fitness now compared with when you were younger?
AJ: It wasn’t a workout society back then. People went to the gym, but it wasn’t until I got to New York in the ’80s that the gym craze started. I did Jane Fonda’s [workout]. But my favorite way to work out is just to dance — go to a dance club and just sweat buckets.
LB: When you were becoming known, what did you feel secure, and insecure, about?
AJ: I felt insecure that I would be fired, that I wouldn’t be good enough. I preferred to audition because I’d rather have them know they wanted me than have to go on the set and not deliver. And I’m a little insecure about my height. I know certain men are threatened by it, or uncomfortable. To be in heels at an awards show — when I’m 6 foot 3 or 4 — is quite a commitment to being seen. You can’t hide when you’re my height. And I consider myself shy. So I’ve had to deal with people assuming that I feel powerful, which usually is not the case. Now, having won Emmys and an Oscar, I feel a different kind of confidence when I walk onto a set. I’m not afraid to ask for what I need — that’s been a great result of getting recognized. The bad part is, no one likes to look at themselves in the mirror every day in fluorescent lights.
LB: How do you not become obsessed with it?
AJ: It’s hard. My biggest insecurity is my jowls. I’m gonna do one of those thread lifts. I remember telling myself when I was younger, looking in the mirror and seeing some imperfection or wrinkle, even in my 20s, “Just remember this, Allison. You’re looking at your face now and finding fault with it. Just stop. Because you will always find fault.”
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LB: Do you remember your first significant wrinkle? When you went, “Oh, shit. That’s a wrinkle”?
AJ: Oh, it was terrifying. There are a lot of things I’m noticing as I get older. I’m trying to grow old gracefully and embrace it, but I also want to fight it and do little things here and there to help. Especially when you’re still single. I’m not totally out of the game, but I’m one foot in, one foot out. I think this guy, whoever he is, is going to have to find me because I’m not going to find him.
LB: Professional success — harder or easier with men?
AJ: I think harder. I think you become more intimidating. I always said it takes a man who has a good relationship with the world, someone who doesn’t feel threatened.
LB: So you won all these awards. You just got nominated for another Emmy [for Mom]. Has there been a palpable difference in roles?
AJ: In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. As much as I’d love to be No. 1 on a call sheet, that hasn’t happened yet. But I’m excited. I’m working with Hugh Jackman in this movie Bad Education. Hugh and I are the leads, and together we embezzle $11 million.
LB: I always think if aliens looked at Hollywood red-carpet events, they’d be like, “What are they doing?” Who does the best red-carpet posing, in your opinion?
AJ: Well, my gal [Sarah] Paulson. She knows her shit on the carpet. Paulson, I think you’re beautiful, I do. Obviously Beyoncé is freakin’ gorgeous. Penélope Cruz. Charlize [Theron]. Rihanna.
LB: What do you think makes somebody beautiful?
AJ: There are certainly women who know how to dress and style themselves. I could do more of that because I really spend most of my time in sweatpants and want to be comfortable. But I also think not being comfortable in your body makes it hard to be sexy. No matter what your shape or size, if you’re comfortable in it, it’s so sexy and so obvious to people. And doing things to help that along is valuable. Like, I remember doing this S Factor pole-dancing class, and it did so much for me. It’s like wearing lacy underwear. No one sees it, but you know you have it on. [kicks a leg high]
LB: Look how bendy you are! You’re pretty flexible, aren’t you?
AJ: I could be a Rockette.
Photographer: Alexander Neumann/Shotview. Styling: Andreas Kokkino/The Wall Group. Hair: Jill Crosby. Makeup: Sergio Lopez-Rivera/Cloutier Remix. Set design: Gille Milles/The Magnet Agency.
For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Sept. 14.