As Harding’s Mom, Janney’s Aim is True

By Steven Libowitz   |   February 1, 2021

I don’t know if it means anything that my phone went dead just after I asked Allison Janney about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There was a long pause. Some laughter. Then she said, “Oh boy, oh dear. I don’t know how anyone could want to be …”

Janney, of course, is the actress who first came to national prominence portraying fictional press secretary C.J. Cregg on The West Wing back in 1999, a role for which she won four Emmy Awards. Now, following two decades of terrific acting in movies, TV, and on Broadway, Janney stands on the precipice of wining her first-ever Academy Award for playing LaVona Golden in the black comedy I, Tonya. The film is a mock documentary multi-version re-telling of the story of figure skater Tonya Harding, LaVona’s daughter, who was implicated in the knee-capping of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, in 1994. Janney is stunning as the mother-from-hell, including several “interview” scenes where she faces the camera with a bird perched on her shoulder.

Janney, who has already claimed the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild supporting actress awards back in January, shares the stage with her co-star Margot Robbie next Thursday, February 8, at the Arlington, where the pair will share the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Outstanding Performers of the Year Award. She talked about the part over the phone from Los Angeles last weekend.

Q. Screenwriter Steven Rogers wrote this part specifically for you, to play against type. What was the impact when you first read it?

A. We’ve known each other forever and have been great friends, and he’s seen that I always seem to play the woman who holds things together, the glue, or else the silly sidekick. He only told me after the fact, but he wrote it to show people that I can do so much more. I’m so touched by what he wanted to do for me, even though she’s really quite awful. I haven’t asked him how he knew I could do it. But he did know that I’d be determined to make her not just a monster but a real human being. Which is what I love to do in any role. I’ve never had this great a challenge to make someone like that believable.

What did help me was having been a figure skater. I had dreams to do what Tonya did. My parents would get up at 5 am and take me to the rinks, spend lots of money on skates and lessons, and commit all that time. That helped me ground myself in that part of her about what she did for Tonya. But I had to imagine that she must have come from a family where that kind of abusive behavior is sickeningly normal.

LaVona really is such a villain. How did you find her worth in order to love her enough to play her?

Well, I didn’t have to love her, but I couldn’t judge her. I had to think that she was a little girl who never had anything turn out the way she wanted. She’s angry at the world, and now she’s attached her own self-esteem to her daughter, her one chance to redeem herself. I’ve spent a lot of time working on myself and what makes me do things. So, I’m frustrated by people who are so angry at the world, pointing fingers at everyone and never being accountable for their own behavior. LaVona is definitely one of them, and I hate her for that. But I understand it comes from fear and insecurity, being a woman who was never loved or know how to love.

Let’s talk about your look in the movie: the bowl cut, the make up. How did it impact your approach to the role?

I felt liberated. I loved looking at myself wearing it because I knew I was unrecognizable. And it gave me permission to be as awful as I needed to me. It was like my armor. Vanity was not involved, only anger.

So, the bird. How challenging was it to never look at it on camera?

I was a little afraid of it. But I imagined that if someone had a bird for as long as LaVona had, you just know it’s there. It was an extension of someone teaching me how to look cool while smoking. You don’t look at the cigarette, because real smokers don’t. I figured it would have to work with the bird too. You don’t check and see if it’s okay. So he was just on my shoulder. And it was almost as if he said, “Oh yeah? You’re not going to look at me? How about now?” He was really annoying.

This is about motivation and whether it’s changed over the years: Do you think you have to truly know who you are to fully embody a character, or does portraying someone else help you learn about yourself.

Every role helps me find out a little bit more about myself – both who I am and who I’m not. My way into LaVona, really, to play someone that mean, was through the inner voice that’s very critical of who we are and everything we do. I have a very big one. It’s been awful to live with. That’s who LaVona is for me. I imagined myself talking to myself, with Margot (Robbie, who played Tonya Harding) as me. That helped me be able to be that mean to her because I’ve been that furious at myself. Saying things like “How could you be such an idiot?” It’s just awful and I’ve been working for years to be kinder to myself. But it helped here. I clicked into the role because I know how to be that nasty – to myself. There are parts of myself I can bring to every role. Bonnie on Mom is a lot more fun for me to play. She’s got no filter, she’s selfish and narcissistic, and uncensored. It’s just a lot of fun.

Nobody knew where LaVona was when you were making the movie. But now she’s surfaced. Do you want to meet her?

It would have been fascinating to sit down with her before we made the movie, hear her own story, all about her own family. But now? I wouldn’t want to at this point. Unless Steven writes I, LaVona, no.

Recovery through Classical Music and Community

Richard Hawley hasn’t yet experienced the results of the Montecito mudslide first-hand. But the clarinetist who has been a member of the faculty at the Music Academy of the West (MAW) since 2005 was in town for the earlier evacuations when the Thomas Fire threatened the village in December. His parents have lived in Montecito since the 1980s, first in the Bonnymede community and more recently in Birnam Wood.

“I’ve been coming home to Montecito for 30 years, and now I spend my summers there too,” Hawley said over the phone last weekend.

The clarinetist flew into Santa Barbara to visit his folks in mid-December after a concert in Colorado – just in time for the Thomas Fire evacuations. “The notices showed up on the phone right as I got off the plane. They had to leave their neighborhood,” he said. “So, I rented a giant vehicle at the airport and made multiple trips between the house and hotel rooms, taking as much stuff as we could fit.”

That was already evacuation number two for Hawley in the last few months. He’d gone through another major disaster last August in his current home of Houston, where he teaches at Rice University. With Hurricane Harvey making landfall in mid-August, the National Guard told Hawley’s family that they had less than an hour to get out.

Then his parents had to hightail it again for the January 9 rainstorm that produced the flash flood and mudslide, and the deaths and massive damage from debris flows all around town.

“Fortunately, their house is fine, but they’re can’t get back in there because services aren’t even on yet. And Montecito has just been devastated. I was messaging some of the MAW compeers and friends who are sponsors, seeing if they were okay. (The village) is my family, my friends, my parents. A lot of my world is centered around Montecito. It’s heartbreaking.”

So, it was a no-brainer when he got a message from Patrick Posey, MAW’s vice president of artist planning, asking if he’d be interested in participating in MAW’s Concerts for Recovery and Hope for the community, a pair of chamber music performances at Hahn Hall this weekend. The concerts on the Miraflores campus – which was largely spared, though phone service was out through Sunday – are meant to offer a gathering place for people to come together for comfort and healing music adjacent to the neighborhoods that were heavily damaged by the fire and mudslides.

“People have been going through so many tough emotions,” Hawley said, adding that he participated in a similar event in Houston after the hurricane. “Music can be celebratory and healing, which is what we need right now. It’s a special feeling to have everyone coming together sharing experiences, mourning the lives that were lost, celebrating recovery, and hopefully moving on. The Music Academy has been a meeting point for a lot of the Montecito and Santa Barbara community. I’m sure there will be a lot of people who haven’t seen each other for a while, maybe since last summer, who will have similar experiences. It’s part of my healing process too.”

The free 75-minute program on Friday, February 2, at 7 pm and Sunday, February 4, at 4 pm (visit features Hawley plus fellow Music Academy faculty members Nico Abondolo (double bass), Natasha Kislenko (piano), Julie Landsman (horn), Paul Merkelo (trumpet), and alumnus cellist Joshua Roman, with additional artists expected to appear. Among the pieces to be performed are Purcell’s Trumpet Sonata in D Major; Lev Kogan’s Kaddish for solo horn; Rachmaninoff’s Elegie, Op. 3 No. 1; Arvo Pärt’s Fratres; two Slavonic Dance by Dvořák; and movements from Brahms’s Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114, and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622.

“It’s going to be such an emotional experience for us all,” Hawley said. “I’m delighted to be able to make some music to help the community heal. I think it’s going to be a magical event.”

Comedian Has the Wright stuff

Steven Wright wanted to clear up a misconception: He did not write the joke “How come we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway?” That was George Carlin, it turns out.

Still, zillions of other great one-liners that take a look at twisted language, faulty thoughts, and the absurdities of life are the work of the veteran comedian, a master of the deadpan delivery who returns to the area for the first time in years with a show at the Chumash Casino Resort on Friday night, February 2. Wright got his start at open mics in western Massachusetts before a 1982 gig on The Tonight Show broke his career wide open, and he still seems bemused by his success. “One appearance, five minutes, and my whole life changed,” Wright said over the phone from his home outside of Boston earlier this week.

Here are other excerpts from our conversation:

Q. I’m told you’re shy. Did the monotone delivery help with that?

A. Well, I have more expression on the phone with you than on stage. But it’s basically my tone… I’m a very introverted person and public speaking was horrifying. But I had a goal to do this thing that was contradictory to my personality, so I made myself do it. I was even more monotone because I was afraid. I just wanted to say the joke the right way, communicate it without stumbling on the words, and keep the rhythm going, which takes a lot of focus. That’s why I always looked so serious.

Has your process changed over the years?

No. I still like to make things up in my head. I love to think and write the jokes – even more than performing. It’s all about noticing stuff, figuring it all out, and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

So, is there a formula now for that last part?

No, I really don’t have one. Only one in four jokes get a big enough laugh to sustain my act. But I can’t predict which one. If I think of something funny, I write it down. Then I try it out. But if three different audiences don’t laugh, I throw it away. Even when I think they’ll definitely laugh, they don’t. I just don’t know. That’s the hardest part: standing there and saying a new joke with no idea if 800 people are just going to stare at me blankly.

Nobody would know. You always have the same expression.

Yeah, even though I might be thinking “Oh, s—t”, they can’t tell. They don’t know I’m disturbed. I just go on to the next joke anyway.

What’s always amazed me about your act is that you don’t even have a through line. There’s no story. Mostly just a bunch of non sequitur one-liners, and it doesn’t matter at all.

I’m not building to anything. The common denominator is just my abstract train of thought. It’s just me. It’s like I’m a canvas, and all the jokes are just parts of the painting. I’m the character – some odd person that you listen to.

I’ve been doing a lot of personal growth and communication processes that begin with “assume nothing.” It seems that’s the attitude you have to be able to come up with your observations, which others have called “a good zen koan,” like a philosophy.

I’m looking at the world from an aerial view, or a big mosaic painting that’s 30′ by 15′ and I’m standing way back there to see the whole thing. Those little tiny squares are subjects, concepts, words. I’ll notice the connections between them and put them together in ways they usually don’t and that’s the joke. That’s where the philosophy comes in. I just go through my life and something pops out.

And it’s quick – 25 seconds, usually. It’s like my head is a factory and some new part comes in, and the guys assemble it into a joke in the shortest amount of words to get the point across. Half a minute. That’s it. To me, there’s only one way to say it. There aren’t any questions or doubts. Thirty seconds and it’s done.

I wish my job were that simple.

Yeah… I like my mind. I’m just hanging out with my mind right now. I drink coffee, I get more imagination. It’s like I’m plural, just hanging out with myself. It’s pretty good.


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