Allison Janney First Time in Variety
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

The prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival prides itself on discovering top talent, and in the summer of 1985, a tall, young actress arrived in Massachusetts ready to make her mark. Allison Janney’s roles as “Woman #1” and “Man #3” in the festival’s production of “Citizen Tom Paine” earned her not only her first review in Variety, but also set her on a path that would include her Emmy-winning role as C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing” — as well as her current Emmy-nommed parts on CBS’ “Mom” and Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.”

What do you remember about that summer?

I didn’t get paid — you don’t get paid to go to the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I auditioned, and got accepted, and got cast in the first play there. My first official big job! I was thrilled to be in the in crowd. I was finally doing what I wanted to do.

How did it feel to see the review in Variety?

I don’t think I even had an agent at that point. I had a manager who told me I was in Variety. I felt like I was validated; here’s proof that I’m an actress.

Who were your contemporaries at the time?

I met a lot of people that summer who ended up changing my life. It got a lot of work for me. They ended up remounting that play at the Kennedy Center. That was how I got my Equity Card.

Who were your mentors?

Joanne Woodward. I met her through Paul Newman, because he directed me in a freshman production at Kenyon College. She formed a theater company, and gave us a place to work. (We) put on a night of one-acts, and had agents come see us. It’s so hard to be seen and be noticed, and she gave us a significant leg up.

What was the best thing about that time?

To start a career without being associated with a group of people is very terrifying, and I was so grateful to be working with actors, to be at the playhouse, to be in school, and to be with Joanne providing us with workspace to do scenes. I felt filled with hope and possibility.

What was the hardest thing?

Not being sure it would work out. I was pretty hard to cast, because I was so tall (6’0”). I had not been out in the real world yet.

What would you do differently if you could go back to that time?

I would go to the gym more.

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