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posted: 12/2/2013 6:00 AM

Allison Janney making the most of 'Mom'

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  • Allison Janney made the move to TV comedy this fall with CBS' "Mom."

    Allison Janney made the move to TV comedy this fall with CBS' "Mom."

  • After a rough night, Bonnie (Allison Janney) shows up at the restaurant where her daughter Christy (Anna Faris, right) works in CBS' "Mom."

    After a rough night, Bonnie (Allison Janney) shows up at the restaurant where her daughter Christy (Anna Faris, right) works in CBS' "Mom."

By Lynn Elber
Associated Press

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 voiceover spots for a health-care provider, possibly the most melodic soft-sell ever.

Then there's her real craft. Consider, for instance, her sharp, take-no-prisoners delivery as C.J. Cregg in "The West Wing," 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 who's trying to stay reformed in the new CBS sitcom "Mom." Anna Faris co-stars as her similarly imperfect daughter.

"It's acting," Janney said. "I feel like actors like to be challenged and play all different types of roles. For whatever reason, I've been given the opportunity to do so."

That reason, of course, is she is an enormously gifted and appealing performer. Her talent has been on display on Broadway, where she earned Tony nominations for "9 to 5" and "A View from the Bridge," and in movies including "American Beauty" and "Drop Dead Gorgeous."

She earned four Emmy Awards for playing White House press secretary C.J. Cregg in "The West Wing."

In person, the willowy Janney is polite and soft-spoken -- the product, the Ohio native says, of her proper Midwestern upbringing.

Her 6-foot height, she says, earned her some brutal early career assessments from short-sighted agents: One said her roles would be limited to a handful of options, including aliens.

And Janney acknowledges that her 1999-2006 experience on the intricate, densely scripted political drama from Aaron Sorkin was something she treasures.

The heavy shooting schedule, however, 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.

"This is so civilized," she said, both for her and for Faris, "who has a baby and can see her child grow up."

But it's laughs that Janney really is after.

"Comedy is what I love the best. I'm just drawn to it," she said, with Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore among her TV favorites as a youngster. In her early years on stage, in college and with regional theaters, she flexed her comic muscles.

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 it's just a lot trickier for me," she said.

With "Mom," Janney sees the best of both worlds, a combination of humor with "serious moments of love or disappointment or fear."

She admits to nervousness at work, from the initial script reading to just before the taping begins. It's 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."

"It's scary to do a run-through for Chuck. I don't want to mess it up or miss a laugh," she said.

But Lorre, it seems, is putty in her hands.

"Allison is a writer's 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 she's having a blast as sexy, loose-cannon Bonnie, and CBS ordered a full freshman season of "Mom" on the basis of its initial ratings.

"It's nice to be my age and be sexually active and aggressive -- in the parts I play," she said, adding a chortle as perfect punctuation. Of course.

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