Allison Janney’s Road to the Oscars Was Paved by a Bird

When it comes to choosing roles, "I love making sense of a hot mess," Allison Janney said.

There are two things Allison Janney is asked about most when it comes to “I, Tonya,” in which she plays LaVona Golden, the figure skater Tonya Harding’s tough-as-nails mother. One is about all the physical abuse the fictional character directs at her daughter, who is played by Margot Robbie. The other is about the bird that sits on Ms. Janney’s shoulder, pecking at her as she re-enacts an interview in the film. (Ms. Janney sported a fake bird during part of the Golden Globes.)

While the real Ms. Golden has denied hitting or hurting her daughter, the interview with her, wearing fur and the bird, very much happened.

Ms. Janney, 58, is favored to win the Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance, and she sat down with me in November to talk about how she channeled her harsh inner critic for the role, what it was like to audition birds, and why she thinks she escaped being sexually harassed during her career.

When I saw your scene with the fur jacket and the bird, I thoughtthis was jumping the shark. But no, it was an accurate depiction.

I never in my wildest dreams would’ve imagined that that’s what she would look like. That is [an] interview that I saw of her, and that’s what she was wearing. It’s just so fantastically bizarre and doesn’t make sense, and somehow it does. The more complicated and twisted the role, the more fun it is to play for me. I love making sense of a hot mess, you know? It’s a lot of fun. It was hard to try to find humanity for [Ms. Golden], it was really hard. But I have empathy for her. I know that she had to come from a terrible environment.

Was it Tonya’s telling of the story that everyone was a competitor, that she wasn’t supposed to be friends with anybody she competed against?

This is Tonya’s version that her mother wouldn’t let her be friends, didn’t want her to have anything that would distract her from getting the gold. According to LaVona, every penny she earned went to Tonya’s skating, and she wasn’t going to let her waste a minute of it, knowing the deck was stacked against her. There’s a great interview of LaVona talking about the skating world, how the only thing that should matter is who’s the better skater, but there were so many other things that unfortunately played a part in whether or not you got the good marks, whether or not you came from a good family, if you had the prettiest skating costume, what music you chose. The judges determined what was part of a whole package. And Tonya very much did not fit into that package.

You had to play somebody with such anger and maintain that anger all the way through. How did you get to that place ofvenom and hardness over and over?

Just coming up against somebody telling you you had to be a certain way to get something. I can immediately connect to an anger about that.

Why?

My whole life, I think [to myself], “You’re too tall. You can’t do that.” Just always feeling like I don’t do something the right way, or being obsessed with “Do I do it this way or that way?” I get mad at myself more than I get mad at anybody else. So I can immediately pretend that I’m talking to some part of me that I don’t like. I’ve always had a very harsh critic in my head. I use it when I need to bring that out. But I’m kinder to myself these days than I have been in the past.

Does the bird have a name? What kind of bird was it?

I won’t remember; I’m not a bird person. I love animals, but I was a little nervous about working with a bird, because birds peck, and I just don’t know what they do. I got to audition three birds for the role.

What?

The woman gave me one, I put it on my shoulder, and one of them kept crawling in my hair. And I was, like, “Next.” The other one was very talkative. And then Little Man — I think that was his name — just sat there and was so sweet. I walked around with him and he just continued to sit there like he could chill out with me all day. I fell in love with him. Cut to filming, there’s a lot of distraction. In the last minute I decided to give LaVona emphysema, because the bird lady didn’t want us to smoke around the bird. I was, like, “Oh, thank God I don’t have to smoke in this scene.” So I had [an] oxygen tube and oxygen tank. Then that bird, Little Man, got on my shoulder and became fascinated with my oxygen tank thing and my ear, and just kept poking at me. I was determined to not let anything stop me from telling my side of the story. And this bird was, like, “I’m going to make this as challenging for you as [possible].” He was kind of great though, because as an actor you sometimes get in your head, and he stopped that. I was either telling my story or dealing with him. He helped me focus in this weird way.

So you always knew there was, to use this terrible term, a casting couch, but have you ever had to deal with it?

I never ever had to deal with the casting couch. I’m really grateful, but I also think that was probably because I started working in my late 30s and I’m 6 feet tall. I probably wasn’t someone that seemed approachable in that way. Fortunately for me, that’s where my height and age helped out. But how wonderful to think of a time when no actress will have to ever deal with that. It’s something we have to talk about as a culture, and get through it and move beyond it. [When] women and men are paid equally, then I think the conversation will change, too. Maybe that abuse won’t happen as much if we are all on the same playing field, which is shocking. Sad, too.

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