Wednesday, October 10, 2001

'West Wing' spokeswoman can talk the talk

Former Ohioan Allison Janney combines comedy, drama and a smattering of political knowledge

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fans of The West Wing know that Allison Janney is full of surprises.

        As press secretary C.J. Cregg, she can be hilarious one week trying to talk after a root canal, and the next week get in the face of a stubborn Army general planning to blast the administration.

[photo] Allison Janney portrays White House press secretary C.J. Cregg.
(NBC photo)
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        When I asked her about growing up in Dayton, Ohio — the hometown of co-stars Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe — she floored me once again:

        “I used to live in Cincinnati! On Drewry Farm Lane!”

        Her father, Jervis Janney, the son of a Procter & Gamble Co. executive, had lived in Cincinnati since 1948. She was born in 1960 in Boston, while he studied at Harvard Business School. The family returned to Cincinnati for four years, then moved to Dayton in 1964.

        “He was working in Cincinnati for his grandfather's company, Dayton Hydraulic, before he moved to the Dayton office,” said Ms. Janney, 40, who plays a pivotal role in tonight's third-season premiere of The West Wing (9 p.m., Channels 5, 22) postponed from Sept. 26.

Hockey player

        In Dayton, she developed her love affair with figure skating and acting. She made her stage debut in the Miami Valley School sixth-grade production of Oliver, with little Rob Lowe in the audience.

        At the private Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, the 6-foot-tall Ms. Janney (her character's Secret Service code name is “Flamingo”) played lacrosse, field hockey and co-ed ice hockey. Maybe that's where C.J. Cregg gets her steely determination.

        “They had a club hockey team, and I was one of the only girls on the team. It was really fun,” she said.

        Ms. Janney, who won an Emmy last year as best supporting actress in a drama, said she's just as amazed as West Wing fans when she encounters each new episode. She can't wait to open the script to see what creator Aaron Sorkin has written for C.J., the president's skillful spokeswoman. .

        “It's always a surprise, what is going to happen,” she said. “I'm glad he let's me do both” comedy and serious drama.

Bartlet's numbers down

        In today's show, postponed because of the hastily produced terrorist attack special last week, the White House press corps hounds C.J. after she makes a “crucial gaffe” during a press conference. Ms. Janney refused to discuss specifics of the two-part show, set at President Bartlet's (Mr. Sheen's) New Hampshire ranch four months after announcing he will seek a second term.

        In a summer interview, Mr. Sorkin explained that “the two-part opener takes place over a weekend in New Hampshire, when they're officially kicking off the campaign. But it keeps flashing back to that night, just seconds after the (May) finale, and then takes us up to the 12 weeks that got us to New Hampshire.”

        He wouldn't mention C.J.'s role in the script, though it could relate to President Bartlet's declining popularity.

        “One of the things we talk about is that Bartlet's poll numbers have gone down, and the difficulty in raising them. Once the press writes about the poll numbers going down, that pushes down the polling numbers even more, and it's difficult to climb out of it,” Mr. Sorkin said.

Cast expands

        Back for the next two shows is Oliver Platt as White House chief counsel Oliver Babish, who has been investigating the president's criminal liability for not revealing his multiple sclerosis.

        Stockard Channing also has joined the cast as a regular character, after appearing in seven episodes last season as first lady Abigail Bartlet. She's still upset that the president decided to seek re-election without discussing it with her.

        “There's some friction there. It's a tough walk to the bedroom for him,” Mr. Sorkin said.

        The first lady will become a pivotal character this season, he said. “She allows us to see a different side of Bartlet. She's the only one who doesn't call him Mr. President,” Mr. Sorkin said.

        A trio of campaign advisers — played by Ron Silver (Timecop, Veronica's Closet), Connie Britton (Spin City) and Evan Handler (It's Like, You Know) — also have been added as recurring characters this season.

        The ever-expanding cast makes it tricky for Mr. Sorkin to give meaty roles to each of his regulars who helped The West Wing win a record nine Emmys after its first season. The writer had admired Ms. Janney's versatility since seeing her fall down the stairs in Primary Colors. She was filming American Beauty in 1999 when she was asked to audition for NBC's Oval Office drama.

        “I wasn't looking to do television, but I read the pilot and thought it was such great material. It was very smart, and I liked who was involved, and it worked out,” Ms. Janney said.

        “When she did that fall on Primary Colors, in a little scene with (John) Travolta, I thought it was hysterical,” Mr. Sorkin said.

        “The role of C.J. in the pilot wasn't huge. We knew it was going to be — she was the press secretary, one of the regulars. But after the third or fifth episode, everybody started saying the same thing at our meetings: "Allison is just going to be a break-out, huge part of this show.'

        “Allison Janney is as funny as any actress is going to get. And I don't want that to serve as a punishment for her,” he said. “There's not enough you can ever say about Allison. She's hysterically funny — and beautiful at the same time — and so soulful and smart.”

Not a policy wonk

        Well, maybe not that smart. She surprised me again by admitting that she's not that up-to-speed on American politics, international affairs or any of the thorny domestic issues that C.J. speaks about with such great authority or passion. She takes her clues from the scripts and Dee Dee Myers, the former White House press secretary who is a consultant on the show.

        “Dee Dee Myers is the one person I talk to a lot. A lot of the story lines that happen are directly from her. She gives Aaron ideas,” she said.

        “I vote, but politics have never been my forte. It's all I can do to just memorize the words. And I hope that my voice and my presence takes care of a lot of what I don't actually know. Because I'm telling you right now: I don't know what I'm talking about!”

       Contact John Kiesewetter by phone: 768-8519; fax: 768-8330; e-mail:


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