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The Juno Interviews, Part III: Allison Janney & J.K. Simmons
One of the pleasures of writing film reviews is catching on to performers like Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons -- consummate pros who make even the worst films better by their very presence. Janney is best recognized for her role as C.J. Cregg, the president's press secretary on the long-running drama The West Wing. She has portrayed similar tart-mouthed characters in films and television for over a decade. Simmons also broke out through television, as the terrifying neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger in the HBO prison drama Oz. Subsequent series include recurring roles on Law & Order and The Closer, but film fans know him best as J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker's perennially grumpy boss in the Spider-Man films. The two play the perplexed parents of Juno MacGuff in the new film Juno, whose lives take a turn for the surreal when their daughter announces that she's pregnant. They recently sat down to talk about their work to the press.
Question: I am sure you both read a lot of scripts. When did you know you wanted to do this one?
Allison Janney: The first two pages of it, I was just captured by Diablo Cody's language and intrigue. I just loved it right off the bat. Before I even knew what part they were considering me for, I just thought I wanted to be part of this.
J.K. Simmons: Me too, absolutely. Jason handed it to me and said, "This is really great, you have got to read this." And he didn't actually say, "I want you to play Mac." He just told me to read it. I read along, thinking, "If he wanted me to play Mac, he would have said something. I'd rather play Mac, but this is so genius!" By the time I finished reading the script, I literally would have played the high school teacher that Olivia Thirlby flirts with [who has no lines in the film]. I had to be in this movie.
Q: Allison, your character was particularly great, because she doesn't much like her stepdaughter, but eventually rises to the occasion...
AJ: That was part of what made the script so surprising. Any time there was somewhere I thought it would go, it didn't. I kept waiting for the "evil stepmother" to make it hard for Juno, and then she didn't. She was actually trying to support her stepdaughter and say, "It isn't going to be easy, but I'm going to be here for you." And she really forged ahead and created a relationship with Juno. Where it really comes to blossom is the scene with the ultrasound, where she comes to Juno's defense. There's something wonderful about Diablo [Cody, the screenwriter]; she does not seem to judge any of her characters. And there are so many different kinds of women in that script. And then the one woman who crosses a line is the one I get to tear into, which is always fun to do as an actor. It wasn't your typical script. And Diablo herself was a stepmother too, and I think she wanted to debunk the evil stepmother myth personally and take that, you know, in a whole new direction.
Q: Ellen obviously is an amazing talent. What was it like working with her?
AJ: Yeah, we both found her wise beyond her years, incredibly intelligent, much different than a lot of young Hollywood actresses. Just very grounded, very smart.
JKS: Well, she's not a Hollywood actress, she's a Nova Scotia actress. (Laughter.)
AJ: That's true, but now that she's going to be considered in those terms, she'll bring all that with her. Her very strong sense of self and the interesting choices with the movies she's done so far.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about your working relationship with Jason Reitman? How does he communicate with his actors? Is he somebody who talks at great lengths with you guys about your characters and what should be going on? Or does he kind of let you play and then tweaks it?
JKS: I think that, like with a lot of good directors, we didn't rehearse hardly at all. I think Jason does a lot of his work just in casting the movie. I never met him before his first feature [Thank You for Smoking, in which Simmons appeared]. I went in and read for it, but basically, he had seen me in a few things and just thought I was the guy for part. It think it was same for both of us in this film: he did not audition a bunch of actors. And then on the set, he is very low key. He surrounds himself with the cast that he wants and he just trusts you. But then you also find him really subtly directing you, which is not always there on a set. In all my scenes (and I am sure in all the scenes), I felt like there were a lot of ways he could have gone with it. I mean, my first line after Juno says she's pregnant is, "You're pregnant." How many ways can you do that when your 16-year-old daughter is saying that to you? There were times when I would want to go a little bit more in one direction and Jason would let me go there, and we would do that. Then he'd pull back and say, "Now do it the way that it is going to end up being in the movie." But always with a great head and a great heart: belying his youth.
Q: Do you all have children? Any pregnancies or situations like this in your family?
JKS: Well, I was a late starter. My kids are six and nine, and no pregnancies thus far.
AJ: I have a puppy, but no kids. The puppy's enough of a handful.
Q: J.K., is it weird for kids to identify you with Spider-Man and that whole thing?
JKS: Oh, that's great. It's especially great having a fourth grader and a first grader, because it is instant cool-dad credibility. And when I am coaching their baseball teams, they automatically listen to me because of the Spider-Man movies. That is the biggest benefit of doing those films... though the pay was nice too. (Smiles.)
Q: And then when they are in high school and they discover Oz, they will listen to you.
JKS: I'm hoping that will still play when the boys come over to pick up my daughters... but I will be like 65 years old by then.
Q: Obviously a good script is a good script, but is there a need to choose a role that gets away from typecasting: away from the grouchy bosses or sassy moms?
AJ: Yeah, I think you have to pay attention to that a little bit. I've just played two moms, but there were very different moms. Even so, I probably wouldn't jump into another mom part right away. I would be looking for something a little different. And fortunately, I have the freedom to do that right now. But I think you have to watch out for that.
JKS: Yes, absolutely. Oz could have become a real trap and I turned down a lot of Nazi-jerk parts after that happened. And actually, when Jason came to me with Thank You for Smoking, he was worried because the character is a grumpy boss who yells at people. He thought people might associate it too much with Spider-Man. He asked what I thought we could do to avoid that, and I said, "Well, I could not wear a flattop wig or chew a cigar." (Laughter.) I wanted to be in Smoking and sometimes you take a part despite that risk of typecasting. Yeah, I was the crabby boss, but it was worth doing because that was a smart script too. And you know, if all I get is Dad offers as a result of Juno, then I'll sort through them and pick the best ones. Scripts like this are worth it.
Q: You both have had a lot of success on television. Which medium do you think is offering more alluring roles to play?
AJ: I miss the routine of The West Wing. I liked having a steady job. I really, really lucked out: it's so rare as an actor to have that kind of work. It was the first time in my life that I had that kind of stability and that kind of home to go to, and I really thrived in that. I loved it. I love doing movies too, but it is not as long of a journey.
Q: Is there an artistic difference for you when you're on the third or fourth season of a show and have time to really explore your character? Is that different then when you are on a movie?
AJ: Yeah, there is a certain... comfort. But on The West Wing, I never quite knew where my character was going from script to script. It was kind of like a new character every time; each new episode was an adventure. At the same time, coming in to do something like Juno -- without a lot of rehearsal time -- you just have to kind of throw it up there and hope something sticks. You don't have the luxury of all 200 episodes to find out who your character is, so there is a certain difference there.
JKS: One of the different vibes in television is that, when a new director comes in and you are on your 53rd episode, they don't need to tell you what your character is about. Sometimes you're telling them. Whereas on a film... it's more of a director's medium, and there's often less time. So you listen and do as you are told.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about whether you are not contractually obligated to come back for a Spider-Man IV, and if so -- if Sam or some of the other cast members do not return -- are you still willing to come back?
JKS: I am not contractually obligated. My understanding is that no one is. All of us initially signed up to do the three films, including Sam [Raimi], Tobey [Maguire], Kirsten [Dunst], and myself. I am hopeful that Sam will do more. I'm sure somebody will do more, and I hope to be involved in any case, but it would be doubly great if Sam were still making the movies. I love working with him as a director. If he's not the director, then I hope he is still very involved in making the movie.
Interview transcript by Debbie Davis.
Article published 01.27.2008.
More from The Juno Interviews:
Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Juno.
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