Allison Janney has already won six Golden Globes across her career. Now she can add her first Oscar to the trophy collection, after her performance in I, TONYA. Why Janney is so fascinating as the iciest mother in film history – and why she was afraid a budgie could steal the show from her…
Eigentlich hätte Allison Janney nie Schauspielerin werden sollen.
As a child, the young Allison, who was born in Boston in 1959 and grew up in Ohio, dreamed of a career in figure skating. She wanted to compete in the Olympics one day. However, at the age of 17, Janney had an accident with a glass panel that severed several tendons and the young girl lost a lot of blood. The consequences of the accident were so severe that she had to bury her dream – and turned to acting.
After focusing on acting and graduating, Janney made her first appearances in college and in smaller films and Broadway plays. Her worldwide breakthrough came in 1999 with two roles at the same time: alongside Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in the Oscar-winning “American Beauty”, and the political series “The West Wing”.
When her life-long friend and screenplay-writer Steve Rogers came to her with his new project, I, TONYA, the former figure skater was immediately hooked. “I had turned my back on figure skating, but it had never left my heart. So naturally I knew who Tonya and Nancy were. This story and the way it came about will never be forgotten”, said Janney today.
Lucky for Rogers: who wrote the screenplay for I, TONYA with the idea in mind that Tonya Harding’s mother LaVona should be played by Allison Janney – and made this casting decision one of the conditions when selling the script. The role that would later bring Janney her first Oscar award for Best Supporting Actress, thus came from her closest circle of friends. In gratitude, she took her best friend with her to attend the Oscars and gave him special words in her acceptance speech: “You are a great author. Thanks for the gift called LaVona. I did not see that coming. You give the word friend a whole new meaning. “
More than just a sports scandal
After reading Rogers’ book, it was clear to Janney that beneath Tonya Harding’s story there was a lot more than just a sporting scandal: “To begin with, you’d think you’re seeing a film about this infamous sporting incident. But actually its more about the life of a young woman and relationships in which she grew up”
The film follows Tonya Harding in her 20s,
Nachdem sie Rogers’ Buch gelesen hatte, war Janney klar, dass hinter Tonya Hardings Geschichte viel mehr steckte als nur ein Sportskandal: „Zu Beginn denkt man, man sehe einen Film über diesen berühmt-berüchtigten Vorfall. Tatsächlich geht es aber um das Leben einer jungen Frau und in welchen Verhältnissen sie aufgewachsen ist.“
The film follows Tonya Harding over a period of over twenty years, from childhood and the first steps on the ice to the end of her career in figure skating.
Janney portrays Tonya’s mother with an unwavering fearlessness. And watching her is not easy. Her character beats, offends and demolishes her daughter, forbids her friendships and forces the little girl to exercise to the point of exhaustion. A very unfamiliar role for Janney, otherwise known for her warm-hearted characters. For example, as a loving stepmother in Jason Reitman’s “Juno”, in “Masters of Sex” or as inspirational press officer C.J. Cregg in “The West Wing” – a role for which she won four Emmys alone.
Janney took a lot of time to prepare for this major transformation. Unlike Tonya Harding herself, there were not as many video footage of her mother from the 1980s and 1990s, in which Janney could orient. But she had a key moment when she saw in an old Yale student’s documentation how torn Tonya was about her mother’s dealings. “I could see Tonya talking on the phone with her mother. You could not hear what LaVona said. But Tonya’s reactions to her mother alone helped me shape my role. “
Although it is easy to see LaVona Harding as a monster – in one scene she kicks the young Tonya from her chair at the kitchen table – the actress recognized a kind of loving severity under the cruel façade. “I was not sure if it was possible to not portray LaVona as a monster. But I knew she saw something in her daughter that could be the way out of poverty for both of them,” explains Janney.
For the external transformation in LaVona she relied entirely on the talent of the mask and wardrobe. The team created an unforgettable fashion presence in the film, complete with wig, fur coat and parakeet.
To the important stuff – the budgie. As shown in the credits of the film, the real LaVona Harding actually performed with a bird on her shoulder during interviews. In the film, Janney does these interviews and of course had to work with a real budgie named ‘Little Man’.
“I did not have time to make friends with the bird, but I instantly fell in love with it. His trainer put it on my finger and suddenly he was on my fur coat, trying to drink from my glass. He was nibbling on my ear as I tried to focus on my text. It was magical, “says the newly crowned Oscar winner.
Before the shoot, Janney was initially nervous. She was afraid that Little Man might steal her show in a central scene: “Animals always play you against the wall,” she says.
This fear should have finally disappeared with her first Oscar. After winning numerous critique and guild awards over the last few weeks, including her sixth Golden Globe Award, Janney is now allowed to own the world’s most important film award.
By the way, she thanked the budgie during the Oscar ceremony.
“I, Tonya” will be screened on the 22nd of March.