Allison Janney's Aha! Moment
More than anything, the West Wing actress wanted to land a role in her college play. Enter Paul Newman, stage left.When I was a freshman at Kenyon College, they built a beautiful new theater and, to christen it, put on a play called C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby, by Michael Cristofer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Paul Newman, who was an alumnus, came to direct it, so everybody and their mother tried out for this play. I had a poster of him in my dorm room, and I would stare at it all night and sort of say, 'Cast me, want me, you want me in this play.' I meditated on that poster. I was trying to put a spell on him.
When it came time for the audition, I had to stand up onstage and talk about myself, because there was no material to audition for. It was terrifying. He's a race-car driver, so I talked about my drive from Dayton to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. I said that I could make the drive in an hour and a half, though it should take more than two hours. I embellished a little bit. I think that may be when I found my voice; I remember thinking, 'Well, this is something I can do in spite of myself.' In spite of all the things I hate about myself—that we all hate about ourselves. In spite of the fact I think I'm not good at this or that. There's something I have that works in spite of those insecurities. The play was set in the 1920s or '30s, and something about my look is kind of old-fashioned, so there were certain influences that I had no control over. But it all seemed to work for me when I auditioned for Paul Newman.
I got a part, and he took me under his wing. It was incredible that a movie star like that would drive us in his car from rehearsal or play Ping-Pong with us. The thing about him was that he was someone I admired. He believed in my talent as an actress, and I thought, 'My God, if Paul Newman sees something in me, then there must be something I have that I can develop and nurture.'
The more plays I did, the more comfortable I felt onstage—certainly more comfortable than anywhere else. Somehow I know how to act; it just feels right. And my auditions and performances kept building on each other. I can finally say I'm an actress, and I attribute it in no small way to that first play I got cast in, in college. This was such a small moment, but it was big enough to make me audition for the next one, and the next one; and for me, this moment began the path that I continue to travel down every day.