2017 Emmy nominee Allison Janney may have already won seven Primetime Emmy Awards—she's nominated again for he rperformance on CBS' Mom—but the two-time Tony nominee got her start in theatre. In fact, Janney wasn’t on the acting track until 1978 when Paul Newman directed her in a play, C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby, dedicating the then-newly opened Bolton Theatre while she pursued an undergraduate degree at Kenyon College in Ohio.
Janney trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse (home of the Meisner technique) in New York and spent summers studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Even before she started out doing small roles on television, including soap operas, Janney made her stage debut in 1989’s Ladies at the Theatre at St. Clement Church. In 1992 she appeared Off-Broadway in Making Book before making her MCC Theater debut in 1993 with Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. Later that year she played opposite Kevin O’Rourke in Primary Stages’ Breaking Up. Janney made her Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway debut with New England in 1995 and the following year worked with director Joe Mantello for the first time on Craig Lucas’ Blue Window. It’s also the play that introduced her to John Benjamin Hickey, the man who would become her Six Degrees of Separation co-star 30 years later.
But first, in 1996 Janney made her Broadway debut in Present Laughter as Liz Essendine, the ex-wife of woebegone actor Garry Essendine, played by Frank Langella. Janney earned a Theatre World Award and a Drama Desk nomination for her work in the play. Broadway quickly decided to keep Janney and she starred as Beatrice in the 1997 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, for which Janney earned her first Tony nomination and took home the Drama Desk trophy for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play.
Though Janney had been working steadily in movies and television throughout the ’90s (see: American Beauty, Drop Dead Gorgeous, 10 Things I Hate About You), in 1999 she landed her most famous role as CJ Cregg, press secretary to the President on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. But that summer, Janney made time for theatre, appearing in the Public’s The Taming of the Shrew as leading lady Katherine at the Delacorte Theatre.
Janney went on to win four Emmys for her portrayal of CJ—two for Supporting Actress in 2000 and 2001 and two for Leading Actress in 2002 and 2004. (She was also nominated in 2003 and 2006.) Then, Janney caught the musical bug. She appeared as Mrs. Pingleton (ultra-conservative mother to Amanda Bynes’ Penny) in the 2007 movie musical Hairspray and earned a SAG nomination for it. Staying in Los Angeles, Janney also stuck with musicals and appeared in the world premiere of 9 to 5 as Violet Newstead, a role originated by Lily Tomlin in the film. The actor followed the show from the Ahmanson through its Broadway transfer and earned her a second Tony nomination and second Drama Desk trophy as Violet.
Since then, Janney has only racked up more awards. She won two Emmys in 2014, one for her comedic performance on Mom and one for her dramatic performance on Masters of Sex. She returned to Broadway in 2017 in the revival of Six Degrees of Separation, and is next slated for the feature film I,Tonya, the Tonya Harding biopic.
Tune in to the 69th Annual Emmy Awards September 17 on CBS.
Watch Janney on her opening night of Six Degrees of Separation: