Allison Janney on Her Oscar-Winning ‘I, Tonya’ Role: “It was my challenge to bring her to life without judging her”

"I like to play these roles where people... are inspired to want to act. I want to change their lives." - Allison Janney

Actress Allison Janney

“I like to play these roles where people… are inspired to want to act. I want to change their lives.” – Allison Janney

Some actors might be best know for just one major role on a long-running popular TV series, but not Allison Janney. Not only has Janney starred in a number of successful television series (The West Wing, Mom, Masters of Sex), she is now an Oscar winner for her startling performance as LaVona Harding, the abusive mother of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. In an interview with The Independent, Janney spoke about playing the fictionalized version of Harding’s mother, the surprising way she was first suggested for the role, and what she hopes other actors learn from her.

While LaVona Harding is an actual person, her whereabouts (and whether or not she is even living) were unknown during the production of the film. Because of that, Janney felt like she could create her own character based on what was written in the script. She explains:

“She is certainly one of the more complicated characters I’ve ever had to play – she’s completely a mess. [Writer] Steven Rogers couldn’t find the real LaVona and Tonya didn’t care if she was alive or dead – she didn’t know where she was – so I was relieved of the responsibility of playing someone real. I thought, ‘Oh good, I won’t offend this woman.’ That would have made me nervous because obviously she has now resurfaced and disagrees with everything. She’s relentless, and quite a piece of work, but it was my challenge to bring her to life without judging her. There’s nothing more fun for an actor than to do a direct address to the camera and tell your character’s point of view. That’s a really fun thing and that was the part that I was most looking forward to doing this movie – sitting there with that bird and fur coat.”

Another big surprise is how Janney was cast in the role. She also reveals that she had been hand-selected to play LaVona Harding — even before she had any idea that the project existed. She says, “Steve [Rogers] literally attached me to this movie before he even asked my permission because he was so sure he wanted me to play it. I have the good fortune of having friends who have worked with me and know they want to work with me. I remember one of the first things I did in New York was a play called Five Women Wearing the Same Dress (1993) that Alan Ball wrote – that was before he wrote American Beauty (1999) – and told Sam Mendes he wanted me to play the mother. It wasn’t like I read American Beauty and went, ‘Get me that role.’ I’ve made some good choices and had good choices made for me.”

When asked about what she hopes other actors will learn from her — particularly as an actress who defies stereotypes about age — Janney reveals that she hopes to serve as inspiration. She says, “I like to play these roles where people – especially with [her West Wing character] CJ or roles like this one – are inspired to want to act. . I want to change their lives. Or I just like to keep entertaining people and healing through showing people’s pain and having people feel validated somehow. Shit like that.”

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