On the new ABC comedy Mr. Sunshine, Matthew Perry stars as Ben Donovan, the manager of a San Diego sports arena called the Sunshine Center. His boss is arena owner Crystal (Allison Janney), a woman who is as erratic and unpredictable as she is attractive and powerful, and who is the cause of many of the venue’s legal problems. Married six times, she is now faced with getting to know Roman (Nate Torrence), her sweet-faced but clueless adult son, who is looking to forge a relationship with his mother..
During a recent press day to promote the series debut, actress Allison Janney talked about the appeal of playing a character so drastically different from CJ Cregg on The West Wing, how gratifying it is to have a role created and written specifically for her, working with Matthew Perry as a co-star and executive producer, and how much fun she’s been having doing comedy. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
ALLISON JANNEY: Crystal is a woman that should not exist, in the real world. She is a woman who is unapologetically selfish and she doesn’t have a filter system. She is very un-politically correct. She is just wrong, on so many levels, and I was interested in playing her because of that. Coming from playing CJ on The West Wing, I was so politically correct with very serious subject matter. It’s something I’m quite proud of, but it’s fun to get to play someone completely opposite.
I thought that, if I were going to come back to television, I’d want to do something completely different than CJ, and this is it. And, Matthew Perry wrote the part with me in mind. I guess he didn’t think I would be interested in playing a part like this, but he was very wrong. (Executive producer/director) Tommy Schlamme, who is also my friend from The West Wing, called me and said, “Matthew has written this part and he wants you to play it, but he doesn’t think you’ll do it.” And I said, “I’d love to act with Matthew Perry. I think he’s hysterical.” So, they sent me the script and I read the first line that Crystal said, and I knew I was going to play the role. Her first line was, “Have you seen a small white pill with some Spanish written on it?” I just thought that was hysterical. I was like, “Yes, I can see myself crawling around on the ground, looking for a pill.” I just love her and I love playing her.
How gratifying was it to know that someone wrote this role for you?
JANNEY: That is the most gratifying thing. I’ve been asked to develop things, but I can’t write myself. I’m not really good at it. So, to have someone talented think of me and write for me is the ultimate compliment. I wish people would do it more. It’s very flattering. I love it.
Was it different working with Tommy Schlamme on this project, as opposed to The West Wing, since they’re such different shows?
JANNEY: They are different, but Tommy is always the same director. He’s so specific and so visually brilliant. I love working with him. I’d follow him off a cliff. I think Tommy Schlamme is so enormously talented, and I also happen to love him as a person, too. I would do anything with him.
JANNEY: I was looking. I did have a development deal, but I felt like that was putting the cart before the horse. The write material has to find its way to me, rather than me creating it, because I don’t write. I’m not a comedienne who can write my own material. So, I was very lucky that this came my way. If I came back to television, I wanted to do something completely different than CJ, and I don’t think there’s a part that could be more the complete opposite of CJ. So, I definitely thought, “This is what I want to do.”
Do you think that people will be surprised to see a funny side of you?
JANNEY: You know, I’ve done some comedies, but maybe they didn’t reach a wide audience. I did Drop Dead Gorgeous, which is a huge comic underground hit that a lot of people still recognize me from and love. But, television reaches such a wider audience and people know me mostly as CJ, so they’re not aware that I can do comedy. This will open a lot of people’s eyes to that. They’ll be like, “Wow, she can do that too?” I know I can, and I’ve done both all my life, but I think I’m more known for playing a dramatic role than this. This should surprise people. I hope they enjoy me in it, as much as they enjoyed the character of CJ. CJ was certainly a role model, and Crystal is not a role model, by any stretch. She’s everything you shouldn’t be. I’ve gone from one end to the other. That’s why I like it. I hope some people won’t even know who I am or recognize me. I like to keep them guessing.
What’s the most challenging part of playing Crystal?
JANNEY: I guess it’s just wanting to make people laugh. Sometimes it’s harder, if you try to make people laugh. Comedy is a serious business. It’s frustrating when I can’t find the right thing that makes the crew laugh. If I don’t make them laugh, I get very disappointed in myself. You don’t really have a live audience, so you just depend on the crew to let you know if you’re doing something funny. That’s difficult. I’m excited for the premiere on Wednesday night. We’ll finally see what people think. We worked on this all Fall, and we finished shooting on December 18th. Now, we finally get to let America see it, and hopefully they’ll fall in love with it. We put so much work into it. It’s our baby, and we want people to think it’s a beautiful baby.
JANNEY: It’s definitely a relationship that will be forged through the course of the show. They definitely start to make groundwork, and it will be very touching when they do. There are moments when they meet and have mother-son moments together, and then it fails. Crystal does something inappropriate and they get mad at each other. It will be a journey and it will be fun to watch them fall in love with each other, so to speak. And, there’s Matthew’s character’s journey of trying to let someone in to his life. Everyone has their own little personal struggles in the show.
How do the events at the Sunshine Center intersect with the lives of the characters?
JANNEY: Crystal skates with a Smurf in one of the episodes. We find out that Crystal used to be a figure skater and she had to leave because she got pregnant and was fired from some ice show she was involved with. So, this same company comes back and she gets to come to terms with that and have closure in that part of her life. In that respect, the show coming in helps Crystal have closure in something that happened in her life.
What’s Matthew Perry like, as a producer?
JANNEY: I don’t get to see much of Matthew, the producer, which I’m very happy about. I don’t like to know what goes on behind the curtain. He stays long after the rest of us go home. I’m not privy to that. I see Matthew as the actor and the writer on the set. He’s always around the monitor, trying to think of a funnier line, and some of the writers are there, hanging out with him. He works very hard to think of something better, and he’s always working on the fly. We’ll stop sometimes for half an hour, to think of a better ending to a scene. He very much works in the moment and creates. I see that side of him quite a bit. He’s very generous with giving ideas to the other actors, as a director too. I actually see him putting on that hat soon and directing some of the shows. It’s half-hour, single camera show and I’m already there from 6 am until 10 pm, a lot of times, and then he stays after. He doesn’t sleep much anyways, so he might as well be working on the show.
JANNEY: Just the fun that we have together. I’m not fenced in at all, with this character. I get to just be inventive and explore and be as big as I can be. I’ve only been reined in a couple of times. The people that they’ve had on as guest stars has been great. To get to sing with James Taylor was extraordinary for me. He’s one of my idols. I never thought I’d ever get to sing with James Taylor, nor did anyone else in the world, and I got to do it. That was just so amazing and surreal. If this show goes, I think we’ll have a lot more opportunities to have our idols come on the show and get to play with us. I’d like to sing a duet with Bonnie Raitt, if she’s come on the show.
What did you sing with James Taylor?
JANNEY: I sang that Leon Russell song “A Song for You,” which is such a gorgeous song and very difficult. There were a lot of high notes that I didn’t quite reach.
Do you do a lot of improv on the show?
JANNEY: I usually don’t. At the end of a scene, maybe I’ll ad-lib and throw something in. Usually, the directors will keep the camera rolling, at the end of a scene. I always like to throw something in and the end, and if they use it, good, if they don’t, it’s okay. Sometimes Matthew will say, “Say something else here. I don’t like what I wrote here, so make up whatever you want to say.” Sometimes I’ll come up with something funny, but most of the time, I’m better at improv-ing physically than verbally, like slapping people or throwing small children. That’s what I’m good at.
JANNEY: I think she’s going to have to grow, if she’s going to forge a relationship with her son. You’re going to see her actually grow up, in that area. She’s going to have to. I think there will be moments. I don’t think she’ll ever lose the things that just make her so Crystal-y, but I think you’ll have moments of going, “Wow, Crystal actually is a thoughtful, sweet woman. Oh, no, she’s not.” I don’t want her to grow too much ‘cause she is fun to laugh at, but I think she will grow in small ways.
You also have feature films coming out this year as well, don’t you?
JANNEY: Yes, I’ve got The Oranges, with Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Hugh Laurie and Leighton Meester. And, I just did The Help – the Kathryn Stockett novel – in Mississippi, which was an extraordinary experience. I’ve been very busy. It’s been great. I have a lot coming out, in the next year. I love to keep switching it around. Fortunately, I love to do all things and go from theater to movies to television. I love it all.
Is acting still fun for you?
JANNEY: Oh, god, yes! I love it. I really, really love it. It’s really the only thing I can do, so I’m glad I love it, and that I have the opportunity to do it. To be on a show like this is the most fun because of how collaborative it is on the set. Everyone is encouraged to participate and it makes it feel like a group effort. It’s a real collaboration. I’m just very lucky.