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Allison Janney never thought she’d get the chance to become an action hero. The Oscar winner’s career spanned a wide variety of genres, from the politically savvy, fast-talking CJ Cregg to the NBC drama The West Wing to the dysfunctional former alcoholic Bonnie Plunkett in the DFN sitcom Mom. (Both roles won her Emmys.) And, of course, she took home the Academy Award for her role as Tonya Harding’s gritty, abusive mother in Me, Tony.
But despite all that, the actor, now 62, thought the lid was pretty much closed on all roles that involved beating up henchmen and wielding big guns. “It’s a genre I’ve always wanted to play in, and never had the chance to,” Janney told Decider in a recent interview. “As a woman over 60, I never thought it would happen.”
Then came Lou, a film in which Janney single-handedly takes down two men with nothing but a soup can and a few sick martial arts moves. Directed by Anna Foerster, with a screenplay by Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley, Janney stars as the titular character, an ex-CIA agent who lives a quiet, secluded life. At least she was, until her neighbor’s daughter (Jurnee Smollet) is kidnapped by her unstable father and the two women team up to track him down.
Shot during two months in the Canadian wilderness, Lou is Janney like you’ve never seen her. The actor spoke to Decider about her rigorous workout regimen, action roles for older women in Hollywood, and Louunconventional portrayal of motherhood.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Lou on Netflix.
Decider: You were so impressive in those fight scenes. Why did you want to take on such an action role, which is so out of reach of what we’re used to seeing you?
Alison Janney: It’s a genre I’ve always wanted to play in, and never had the chance. As a woman over 60, I never thought it would happen. Then this script came my way, from JJ Abrams on Bad Robot, I met the director Anna Foerster, and we really talked cold turkey about what this would be. Anna said, ‘It’s getting dark and dirty and wet. It won’t be easy. Are you willing to go to these places?” And I said, “Yes, absolutely. I’m terrified, but I want to and I know I’m ready for the challenge.” I am a woman from a very athletic background. Sports, skating, rifle shooting and skeet shooting – little things that I felt didn’t make me a pro did set me up to take on a challenge like this.
What was the training process like?
I met Daniel Bernhardt, the fight choreographer. He was so passionate about what he does, it was exciting for me. I was a bit shocked when he told me that I should train three hours a day! I’d always only exercised for an hour at a time – I never went more than an hour. I was like, “Okay, I’m getting paid for this. It’s a job. I’m going to exercise three hours a day. I just need to get my mind around it and do it.”
Once I started using it, I loved it. I loved learning this whole new body language. They were new moves – training with him in different ways every day. He never kept it the same, so it never got boring. I was boxing. I did exercises to strengthen my thighs and to keep my movements sharp. We would work with a bunch of other guys that he would get there to fight me, and he would film me and show me what I look like. I found it fascinating, the whole process of preparing to do something like that. And when we finally got to the day we filmed it, I felt it was so in my muscle memory. I was so prepared. I have never in my life been so prepared to do something in a movie! I felt that he kept me very safe, and I felt very powerful, very strong learning this. I want to do more. I want to learn more martial arts and other forms of combat.
It’s common to see older men starring in action movies, even into their 70s and 80s, but much rarer for women. Want to see more roles like Lou for older women? What needs to change to make this possible?
Yes, I would. I think people like JJ Abrams and Hannah Minghella, who are looking for projects like this that target women, are making a difference in Hollywood. Giving this to me at 61 is a huge thing to happen. I want there to be more. I want there to be more for me too! [Laughs.] It’s just something you can’t ignore – a woman of a certain age who is capable of taking care of herself, being strong and powerful, being someone who can’t be messed with. It’s nice to see. And it’s nice to see a story told about Jurnee Smollet’s character, Hannah, to help her be a strong, resilient woman too. She comes from a very different path in life, but they come together in this extraordinary circumstance, and they get through it together. I love the story of these two women. I try not to say too much because you know, spoilers.
[Spoiler warning: Skip the next two questions if you haven’t yet seen the movie!]
Speaking of spoilers, I did want to ask about the motherhood aspect if you’re willing to go there. Your character feels like a very transgressive portrayal of a mother.
One of the best lines for Lou’s character is when she says, “Not everyone is meant to be a mother.” I love it because it’s so true. Not everyone is meant to be a mother. Not everyone should be forced to become a mother. It’s a great thing to do with your life, but you shouldn’t feel ashamed or feel like you have to be one. It’s clear that Lou regrets what happened to her role as a mother and the choices she’s made. I think she thinks she made the best choice to protect her son. It didn’t end well, like most things didn’t in her life.
I know you have spoken openly in the past about your decision not to have children. Lou is clearly in a very different situation. But did you find a personal connection to the character that way?
Yes, I did, because I could see I was in a situation where something happened and it was a mistake or something. Because of her job, she couldn’t physically change the course of what happened to her. So she did what she could to take care of the child, but she never intended to be a mother. She did what she could to make sure her child was taken care of, but it clearly wasn’t enough. But yeah, sure, because I’ve never had the instinct to ever have children in my life. I feel like I would if I did, but it was just never an instinct I had. I wanted to have many dogs and many friends. I’m going to be a cool aunt and that’s great fun. By the way, that dog in the movie was fantastic.
I wanted to say, you had a really good boy in this movie.
Excellent dog. He is much better trained than any of my dogs. I had four at this point [of filming]. I mean, Jax was just incredible. The most beautiful dog, good. Sweet.
I know it’s been a few years but loved seeing you play CJ again in the west wing reunion special. What was it like to return to that character and reunite with that cast?
Oh my god, that cast! We’re still all – we’re on a big text chain together. I like that group. They are family to me. Getting back together with them to do that was just heaven. It was just great. I love those actors so much. We’ve been through a lot together.
Would you ever do it again? I know Aaron Sorkin needs to be convinced to do another reunion…
I don’t think he would. But we would all seize the opportunity to do something together. We do many things to help political candidates that we are trying to help. We do a lot of fun game stuff to get people to watch, donate and support candidates we believe in. So that’s great that we can do that.
Allison Janney Didn’t Think She’d Make a Movie Like ‘Lou:’ “I Never Thought It Would Happen”
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