Allison Janney feels at home on 'Mom'

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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 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" (9:30 p.m. Mondays). Anna Faris co-stars as her similarly imperfect daughter.

"It's acting," Ms. 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 with a range that's second to none. 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 person, the willowy Ms. Janney is polite and soft-spoken -- the product, the Ohio native says, of her Midwestern upbringing. She's also prone to a full-throated laugh, along with charming moments of candor and modesty.

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 Ms. Janney acknowledges that her 1999-2006 experience on "The West Wing, 'the intricate, densely scripted political drama from Aaron Sorkin was something she treasures but also acutely recalls as demanding.

"It was fascinating to be part of that, and all the people in Washington who wanted to be part of it because it's the first time they were made to look good and exciting," she said. Then there was the thrill of "going to D.C. and feeling like a rock star."

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 Ms. Janney, who is single.

A multi-camera comedy like "Mom" offers a different experience, with shorter rehearsal days followed by a Friday taping.

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.

"I just thought it was the most fun you could have," Ms. Janney said. Serious drama has its own rewards, she added, but also drawbacks.

With "Mom," she sees the best of 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.

Ms. Janney is aware that viewers sometimes balk when an actor identified strongly with one character, like C.J., tries on another. But 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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