One of my favorite films at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival was Jason Bateman‘s directorial debut Bad Words. Andrew Dodge’s fantastic script centers on a high-school drop-out (Bateman) who uses a loophole to compete in an 8th grade spelling bee, enraging teachers and parents alike, but befriending an awkward young contestant along the way. While the film could easily be a family friendly, PG movie that plays it safe, I’m happy to report Bateman has crafted a wholly R-rated movie that’s loaded with inappropriate dialogue and hysterical situations. It also explains why Focus Features snapped it up during an all night bidding war following the world premiere. Bad Words also stars Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, Philip Baker Hall and Rohan Chandz and is now in theaters.
Last year, when the production was filming in Los Angeles, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. During a break in filming, we landed a great interview with Allison Janney. She talked about working for Bateman and with Philip Baker Hall, her character, the way she likes to work, her love of Homeland, her career, The West Wing and reuniting with the cast for a PSA, and so much more. Hit the jump for our Allison Janney interview.
ALLISON JANNEY: Okay.
Which is your love of Homeland.
JANNEY: Really? How do you know that I love Homeland?
Because we follow you so hardcore on Twitter, Facebook, we are on you. We’re monitoring your DVR.
JANNEY: Why are you asking me that? I don’t tweet, I don’t twitter, none of that stuff.
[Laughs] We have an inside source in your life and we have heard your love of Homeland.
JANNEY: I do love Homeland. I just watched last night, Sunday’s episode.
He’s not caught up.
JANNEY: So you don’t want to know that- no, I did that to someone on Game of Thrones, I’ll never forget it. Someone who said he was a true follower and I said, “Can you believe that they blah blah blah?” And I ruined it. He was like, “You just ruined my thoughts of you.” The guy loved me and now he hates me because I ruined Game of Thrones for him. So I wont do that, I wont be a spoiler, but I’m obsessed with it, want to be on it, it’s the best show.
Have you put it out there to the people that you want to be on it?
JANNEY: No I haven’t, but I’m hoping that you will do that for me perhaps. I don’t know who I can play, but I know I could be good on that show. They should have knocked on my door a long time ago.
Can you tell us about who you play in this movie?
JANNEY: I play Bernice Deagan who is the director of the Golden Quill national spelling bee. This is her world, this is her life, this is what she lives for, she has been doing this for twenty years and she is hard as nails, doesn’t suffer fools, she means business and Jason’s character enters into her world and she wants him out. So we are not fond of each other in this movie. We have a lot of animosity- well not for me, but he’s ruining my life basically and everybody is looking at me to fix it, and I try and- I don’t want to give anything away, but it is my job to get him thrown out of this spelling bee.
How far is your character willing to go to make that happen?
What was your relationship with Jason before this film? How long did you know him?
JANNEY: [Sighs] Well, I wish that we had dated and he was my husband, but I met him, funnily enough, we did Juno together, we had no scenes together, but I met him on the press tour and absolutely just fell in love with him. We were stuck together in a lot of the- they would break us up into groups and I was always in his group and he just made me laugh so hard. He’s so funny and so fun to be around, and when this came around- I don’t know when Juno was made, that was a long time ago.
JANNEY: 2007, I was like “Please can we do something together?” And this finally happened and I said yes. I didn’t even read the script, I was just like, “Yes”.
Were you nervous about him being the director?
JANNEY: No, no and I’ve been really impressed with him on the set. This man knows what he’s doing. He’s not like an actor who’s dabbling with being a director, he’s really good. He knows- I mean, how long have I been doing this? I still can’t tell you what the lens numbers are. He comes in and he’s like, “Yeah, can you drop that to a fifty?” I’m like, “How are you doing that? Does he have someone?” He knows what he’s doing.
I head yesterday that he’s the youngest person ever inducted into the DGA.
JANNEY: Well, he should be doing this. I wish this would go on and be a series and we could do it every day. He’s that good. And I find that the people he’s surrounded himself with all are here because of their love for Jason and respect for him. Everybody is- it’s one of the nicest groups of people all across the board and it it’s because of him. He’s a great leader, I would follow him off a cliff.
I’d be right behind you.
JANNEY: [Laughs] Truly.
How do you gauge spelling bees? What’s your perception of spelling bees? Because it’s a funny thing, they’re funny concepts.
JANNEY: They are, I’ve never actually been in one. I would be terrible, I’m the worst speller on the planet. I’m so glad for spell check on my phone. I can’t even- I find myself going lately, “How do you spell ‘what’? How does that…?” I can’t even- why does it sounds so weird, w-h, really? No, I’m not a good speller and I’ve never participated in one, never seen a spelling bee, so I’ve actually been watching- I’m not in all this coverage they’re doing now, but I’m actually in there just watching because its kind of fun and these kids are so great and talented. I don’t know, it’s a whole world that I’ve never dabbled in until now.
Did you spend a lot of time working with kids?
JANNEY: No, thank god, no. [Laughs] No, I love kids, I love them. No, I just watch them on stage and I know they have to be shot out before me, so a lot of times I have to wait around for a long time until they’re shot out, because kids can only work a certain amount of hours. Wish I were a kid [laughs]. I am at heart.
Some actors prefer the Clint Eastwood method of two takes and some people like the David Fincher method of fifty, what do you like and what have you typically been doing on this movie?
JANNEY: I am closer to the Clint Eastwood school of thought on that. Yeah, because the more takes we do the more I start to doubt myself like, “Are they not liking what I’m doing?” I start to spiral in a bad place as an actor if the director keeps asking for more takes. I start to- yeah, not good. Jason, who does not do a lot of takes, but he knows when he has what he wants and he just moves on, and we don’t have a lot of money and wiggle room there to go on and on. I think people, if you can take that much time, people tend to take that much time, but if you can’t, you do it. You got a lot to get done every day, so financially I think they have to move along pretty quickly, but I also think Jason is smart and hires great people who will know their lines and hit their marks, spit it out and move on.
JANNEY: In takes you mean?
JANNEY: Well, old Jack Warner used to always call me two-take Janney. I’m trying to think…you know what, I’ve never been in a really big, big budget movie where they took a lot of time with takes. I don’t think I’ve ever had that or experienced that before…well, that’s not true. Oh Lord…I can’t say now, I can’t name names [laughs].
I was so close.
JANNEY: Oh my god, You were. There was one thing I did, it was a television show and there was one scene where I think they shot on this one scene six hours of footage over and over and over again. Yeah, it was relentless. But I can’t tell you who that was. I can’t. I can’t do it.
This is a dark comedy and you do everything, I haven’t seen you do a horror film, but you do everything.
JANNEY: Oh that would be good.
What do you feel most comfortable in? What genre do you feel- or does it not phase you and you’re just as comfortable doing comedy as you are doing drama?
JANNEY: I like the ones that are not specifically comedy, not specifically drama, but they’re just inherently funny because of the situation and the behavior.
You mean like this film?
JANNEY: This would be this film. I like this this kind of-
JANNEY: Believable, yeah, it’s real life and Jason wants you to be really grounded in reality. I’m not trying to be funny as Bernice Deagan, but she’s so committed to the spelling bee and her stakes are so high that it makes it funny. So yeah, this is right up my alley. I love this kind of stuff. Juno, most the films I’ve done sort of reflect that world I like to live in, which is much like real life. It’s all about my mother, everything. My mother, her stakes are high all the time so it’s just like I learned from her.
It’s been a very busy year for you.
I looked at the always accurate IMDB and saw that you just did The Way Way Back with Jim Rash, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and a few others as well, what’s this year been like for you?
JANNEY: I’ve not made a lot of money, but I’ve had a lot of fun [laughs]. I did this incredible film in Connecticut that Christian Camargo directed, it’s still untitled but it’s based on Chekov’s The Seagull, with Jean Reno and Cherry Jones and William Hurt, just a really great group of actors; very low budget film that I’m very excited about. Then I went into Jim Rash’s The Way Way Back, very crazy character- all different parts too. I find in these smaller films that I get offered better roles. The Way Way Back…what else did I do? I feel like there was another one that I did, but I can’t remember.
You’re getting ready to do Trust Me with Clark Gregg.
JANNEY: I just did that, I already did that one. Yes, thank you, that was the other one I did [laughs]. Clark, he’s another man that I adore who I worked with on West Wing. He asked me to do Trust Me and that was fun to get to play with Felicity Huffman and Sam Rockwell. It was so funny, I went right from The Way Way Back with Sam Rockwell and Amanda Peet into Clark Gregg’s, which had Sam Rockwell and Amanda Peet, and then this one of course didn’t, but I’ve just gotten to play with some really great, fun actors this year. Yeah, this summer, the end of this year. It’s been a great year.
JANNEY: I did, I almost lost my voice doing those, my gosh. I play a very battle ax character and some crazy things happen to her, I had to vocalize them and I lost my voice the next day. A lot of screaming and yelling and being very commandeering. I can’t wait to see that. I’m hoping they’ll pull me back in.
Can you talk about working with Philip Baker Hall? Do you have most of your scenes with him?
JANNEY: No, I’ve had no scenes with him, but I adore him. He’s one of those actors that anytime I see he’s in a movie I can’t wait to see what he does. He’s so fascinating to watch. He’s a wonderful man too, he’s a really nice man and I think he’s a brilliant actor. I saw him in a play here in LA recently too, which I can’t remember the name of. The first time I saw him on screen I just thought, “Who is this man?” He didn’t seem like an actor to me, he just seemed like he was this person he was playing.
Who do you have most of your scenes with in this movie?
JANNEY: With Jason.
With Jason, okay. Is it kind of animosity?
JANNEY: Yes, infuriatingly so.
Are you like his Nurse Ratchet?
Do you see yourself as a villain to him?
JANNEY: Absolutely, yes.
Are you playing her as a villain?
JANNEY: I don’t play her as a villain, I just play her as someone- you know, this is her world, the spelling bee. That’s what she does and to have this intruder come into her world and try to rain on her parade is just…she is livid. And she makes a terrible choice because her anger gets the best of her, and she makes a choice that changes her life forever in this movie, poor Bernice. But yeah, he’s a great adversary to have, Jason. We go toe to toe. He doesn’t flinch, he is fearless.
Is it difficult to keep a straight face in some of these scenes? Does he ad lib a lot?
JANNEY: He does and he’s so fluid with it. It just comes out of his mouth. Obviously, he’s written this, but yeah he’s brilliant at it. I think all my years on The West Wing I kind of lost my confidence in improving in a scene or ad libbing, you know with Aaron Sorkin you’re not allowed to change an apostrophe, anything, but he’s brilliant at it. I just tend to let him do it and I just nod or shake my head and stick to what he’s written.
Were you surprised when this year you did the “Walking and Talking” little thing?
JANNEY: That was so fun. I cannot tell you how great it was for all of us to get together again. We haven’t been in a room together since 2007, so I was so happy to get to do that for Mary’s sister. I’m not very comfortable being an actorvist so to get to do something like that, which I believe in, it’s a much more comfortable way for me to be political, and I was so grateful that I got to do that to help Mary’s sister even though she did not win the election, but we tried, we helped, and it was enormously fun.
When did that come about?
JANNEY: Mary McCormack, who was on The West Wing with us, her sister Bridget Mary McCormack was running for State Supreme Court in Michigan and she decided she wanted to put this PSA together.
JANNEY: No it was all for her sister, it was to remind voters to look for the section for the State Supreme Court nominees in the back of their voting ballots, some people didn’t know it was there, so to sort of inform and educate people but also hope that they would vote for Mary’s sister.
That made my week when it came out.
JANNEY: I loved it. I was so thrilled. God, we had a good time. It made me wish we were doing something like that again.
You’ve had such a long and interesting career, what are you most recognized for by people on the street?
JANNEY: You know, it’s funny because obviously West Wing, but the movie I get most recognized for is Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Are you serious? That’s so funny.
JANNEY: I’m serious, it’s the funniest thing. People will come up-
What do they say? What sticks out in your mind?
JANNEY: The things that they say?
Yeah, any weird encounters?
JANNEY: You know, people will come up and say a line that Loretta- I think that was my character’s name on Drop Dead Gorgeous, someone will come up and say, “Hey are we on COPS again?” Or they’ll start talking in a Minnesota accent and ask me to do that. Yeah, people just quote lines that I’ve said from that movie, which is fun, I love it. And then a lot of people lately have said, they come up in the airport or something and go, “I just want you to know that I just love your voice on those Kaiser Permanente ads.” I’m like, “I’m glad. Any of my movies that you’ve seen?” [Laughs] It’s pretty funny.
JANNEY: You know what, he gave me a lot of confidence just by showing an interest in me as a young actress, he and Joanne both, and if I can do that for somebody that would be the lesson I would take on from that. Don’t ever underestimate the power of mentoring someone, or helping some young actor, doing a favor for them, or introducing- everyone needs somebody to help them along when they’re first starting out. They were extraordinary people. They gave a lot to me and a lot of other people. Also it was nice, Paul Newman was not bad looking and my gosh, such an incredible man.
How much are you working with the costume department on your outfit?
JANNEY: [Laughs] You know why I’m only doing these interviews? They say, “Will you do EPK’s?” and I’m like “No!” because I can’t do it like this.
You didn’t raid your home closet for that did you?
JANNEY: No. I’ll have you know this is a Dickie I have on. They’re still out, they still make them. This is a Dickie that goes under most of Bernice’s outfits. It’s just an extraordinary look [laughs]. The young kid Rohan was so funny. He saw me in the makeup trailer today and he didn’t know I had a wig on, which I was glad about, but April, the costume designer, she and I went through all the clothes in my wardrobe- no, just kidding- she and I had a great time putting Bernice together, and when we finally found the right wig and all these ill-fitting-
It’s like a librarian look.
JANNEY: Not a sexy librarian look.
Not even one where you hope there’d be something more to it.
Are you channeling anyone?
JANNEY: Nobody, nobody. I could think of nobody that I knew like Bernice Deagan. No, I don’t know who she is, but she comes out when I put this wig on and these pearls.
So is that how you enter the character? You don the wardrobe?
JANNEY: Definitely, I didn’t know how I was going to play her and then I started putting these clothes on and I just started feeling like her. I could feel what she did at home, that she has cats and she likes Chinese food, and maybe she listens to Aerosmith a little bit, but that’s her secret little-
Old Aerosmith or new Aerosmith?
JANNEY: [Laughs] Old Aerosmith, old Aerosmith. We started having fun. Everyone started giving me some backstory for Bernice because she’s just quite an interesting looking gal. Yeah, and there were some other little backstories that I put in. Dr. Bowman, Philip Baker Hall’s character, I kind of thought maybe there might be a little romantic interest there. The proctor as well, every character basically, I’ve said that we may have a love connection that we’re trying to keep from…anything to keep it interesting.
So what are you thinking about for next year in terms of projects?
JANNEY: I would love to find a really smart, interesting character to play on television that would shoot here in Los Angeles [laughs]. I miss that. I miss the consistency of something and working at home. I have three dogs and it’s hard to travel, so I’d love to be here working on a great show and keep doing movies like this. I’d love to find a wonderful television show to land on again, that’s what I’m looking for.
JANNEY: What did I do? Was Mr. Sunshine last season or was that the season before?
It was 2010, wasn’t it?
JANNEY: I think it was 2011 and we filmed it through the next, but I was- yeah, this is the first time I’m actually looking. Yeah, I think I didn’t… I’m not going to remember the time.
I think it was two years ago.
JANNEY: Two years ago…
It’s funny how you remember your lines [laughs].
JANNEY: I don’t remember what I did this weekend, I came in and everybody said “How was your weekend?” I said, “I have no idea”. I can’t remember.
But I remember what I’m going to say to Jason Bateman in the next scene.
JANNEY: Yes, exactly! And I remember what I said in Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I don’t remember any part of my real life.
That’s really interesting.
JANNEY: [Laughs] I don’t remember, but I am actively looking for something right now so if you have any suggestions.
Pilot season is right in front of us.
JANNEY: I know, all the scripts are coming and they’re all due around December 17th, so ideas have been bought, but they haven’t been written yet.
JANNEY: I like- well, especially if it shoots here in Los Angeles, I would like to work where I live and kind of afford you a semi-normal life, even though the hours can be excruciating. I just like to work and to be on a great show like West Wing, be on another great show like Homeland- but I don’t think Homeland shoots here does it?
No, but I think you would be willing to travel.
JANNEY: I guess I would for five episode story arc or something like that [laughs], but to be in something here just would make me really happy, because you get tired of living in hotel room sand renting houses.
What else is on TV that you religiously watch?
JANNEY: Well, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. I even watch Dexter, I started watching that and have not missed an episode of that.
Have you got into The Walking Dead yet?
JANNEY: No, but I have a friend who said if I don’t start watching that he’s not going to speak to me anymore, so am going to download that and get into that. I’ve been watching American Horror Story, which I love. I love Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange. I’m really not a fan of horror things, I get very creeped out. Breaking Bad, holy…it’s just…yeah, there’s some really great television out there and I want to be part of it!
It’s arguably the best it’s ever been.
JANNEY: I think so too.
I would argue against that because The West Wing is gone.
JANNEY: That’s true, I like you.
But you see, while The West Wing was amazing, it’s an amazing show, it was not surrounded on all these cable channels with other amazing shows.
JANNEY: That’s true, yeah.
And it’s interesting because The West Wing won a lot of awards, and if it had been against the shows that are on now-
JANNEY: Who knows.
It’s the same with movies isn’t it in a way?
JANNEY: It’s nice to know, because I got so disappointed when- because the advent of reality TV kind of happened right during The West Wing, so The Bachelor came out and our ratings started to go down. I was like, “Are you kidding me? Why is America-?”
That was a scary time.
JANNEY: It was terrible. I was terrified of that. As I result I’ve never really been a fan, I don’t really watch reality TV.
Do you keep in touch with your costars from West Wing?
JANNEY: We do, we love each other, but I don’t see them as often as I like to, which is why doing that PSA was so fantastic for us all to be together. Everyone’s got their lives, everyone’s working on other things and busy. It’s very hard to see each other and have that kind of day in, day out experience together. We were a family and everyone’s off doing other things, but we email and text. Janel Moloney lives across the street from me, I see her. Melissa Fitzgerald is a dear friend of mine, I see her a lot. Richard Schiff, I’m going to go see him in his play in New York. I adore them all.
JANNEY: Gosh, I haven’t…to tell you the truth, I don’t. I can’t think of anything.
I heard one of the lines of direction he gave to some of the kids, which was “Same thing, just a little bit better.”
JANNEY: [Laughs] Oh yeah, yes, he’s very dry. I think he said something like that to me too, “This time could you just try to make yourself understood.” It just makes you laugh. He’s so appreciative and everyone knows his sense of humor. I just want to always work with him.
Or move into his house, one of the two.
JANNEY: Or move into his house [Laughs]. I used to- so funny, when I was growing up, I was really young everyone used to say I looked like his sister, Justine, when I was in my 20s, all the time.
Did you tell him that?
JANNEY: No, I haven’t told him.
We’ll tell him.
JANNEY: No, I was waiting for the right moment. I feel like looking like this, you know, maybe at the wrap party, I don’t know [Laughs].
JANNEY: [Laughs] Oh Jason… alright, see Bernice is secretly in love with his character Guy Trilby, yeah.
He seems like a gent, this Guy Trilby.
JANNEY: I know, what is he doing, what is he up to?
Do you think at the end, you know how they have the funny outtakes when the credits are rolling?
JANNEY: Oh gosh, I have to do something before I’m off this film that will make it into the gag reel. I have to make it into that gag reel. Okay, now I have new purpose in life. I’m going to do something. I don’t know what it’s going to be.
Play Rick Astley, you’ve got to do a Rickroll. It’s been a while for a Rickroll, it went away for a few years.
JANNEY: A Rickroll?
You remember the viral YouTube thing? You think the trailer for Avengers 2 is out and then they link you to Rick Astley “Never Gonna Give You Up”.
JANNEY: I don’t know.
I guarantee you if it had been around during The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin would have written it into an episode. Oh, you should look up Rickroll when you get home.
JANNEY: Just r-i-c-k r-o-l-l?
Yeah, see you are a good speller.
It’s a trick and what you need to do is when you’re on set you could always say you’re going to do something and have someone push play on Rick Astley.
JANNEY: Oh really?
Yeah, something stupid.
He’s making a fortune. He started monetizing, like you have to have approval now and he’s making a fortune.
JANNEY: I have to tell you guys this, because this is my best gag reel role ever, It’s in that movie The Object of My Affection. I am in that movie as two characters, no one in the world knows this except I’m telling you guys right now, I was Jennifer Anniston’s step-mother, married to Alan Alda, and then the wonderful makeup artist Naomi Donne made me up as a man, full on beard and everything, and I was an extra in this scene where Paul Rudd had to speak to an auditorium full of people. In this one take, he was in on it with me, he has to walk out of the auditorium and the camera is following him and he stops in my row and looks at me and he leans down and starts absolutely making out with me. Nick Hynter the director was like, “Cut! What is going on?” It was the best. I have the gag reel to this day, but I am in the movie as this professor sitting there, which is kind of fun. That was the best gag role I ever played.
You should do something like that for this, that’s a really great idea.
JANNEY: I kind of look like a man like this [laughs].
JANNEY: No, but I am in the movie.
Ten Things I Hate about You had a great gag reel, I remember that.
JANNEY: Yes it did have a good gag reel, yeah and they put that on the DVD.
Gag reels are cool.
JANNEY: I live for gag reels. You should see the West Wing gag reel. They didn’t even give it to us. John Wells has it locked in a safe because it was…god, I want to see that again.
For the eventual Blu-ray box set.
Oh when is that? That’s the big question of course, when is that happening? I think it’s only on DVD.
JANNEY: You know, I just talked to some journalist form Ireland yesterday and he said the box sets for West Wing were flying out of the store.
JANNEY: Yeah, in Ireland. It’s big in Ireland.
It’s huge in the UK, huge.
JANNEY: The only places I feel like we’re rock stars is when I go to Washington DC and London.
People stop you on the street?
Really? How does that feel?
JANNEY: Oh it’s fine, I love it. It doesn’t happen that much in my life, but when people do they’re so sweet.
JANNEY: It makes me go, “You know, I am good!”
I was good in that Kaiser Permanente one!
JANNEY: No, I’m very grateful. Listen, that’s the best thing an actor can have as a side job is to do voice over stuff. Oh my god, it’s the best. It’s the best.
It’s kind of easy money isn’t it?
JANNEY: It’s wonderful. And I like their campaign they do. I’m so grateful for that.
Does your character work for Philip Baker Hall?
JANNEY: Yeah, he’s above me, definitely above me.
Ah, that was the biggest thing when I read the synopsis. I was like is she working for Philip Baker Hall? Because I was thinking in my head CJ’s working for Richard Nixon.
JANNEY: Oh my gosh, that’s- I wish I had gotten to do a scene with him, the only scene-well I don’t want to give it away. The only scene I have with him I’m not going to give it away, but I wish I had more with him. I really think he’s phenomenal. Did you talk to him yet?
JANNEY: You’ll see. You’ll see.