When Allison Janney answers questions about her acting career, she doesn't sound much like The West Wing's C.J. Cregg, responding to reporters' questions about presidential policy.
As C.J., at the podium of a White House press conference, she's cocksure and canny, deploying her wit and executive bearing to deflect tricky questions and to show those ink-stained wretches just who's in charge.
As herself, speaking by phone from the lobby of New York's Four Seasons, she comes off as sincere and almost demure.
It's the same basic voice, with that swift, chirpy sound that can swoop down to a lower register for a sotto voce aside. But there's a sweeter note in there, too, and a more relaxed tone.
Asked why she's chosen to play Mandy Moore's newly divorced mother in How to Deal, Janney sounds positively Oprah-esque.
"I loved the part of Lydia, the mom, because she was going through a divorce and was in great upheaval, and yet she was trying to be a mom and be there for her children and be positive," says the 42-year-old actress, who is single and has no kids.
Timing is another reason that Janney took on the role that director Clare Kilner calls, in press notes, "the 'adult' anchor of the film." She has only a six-week break from her West Wing schedule, and the new film's five-week shoot happened to fit conveniently into last year's break.
"I was able to go to a spa with my mother and relax for a week and then go do the movie," she says. Somewhere along the line, she also managed to squeeze in a voice performance as the starfish Peach in this year's biggest hit, Finding Nemo, and a small role as Meryl Streep's life partner in The Hours.
"I think I'm the only actor in West Wing to miss one whole episode, because I was in London shooting that movie," she says of The Hours. "It's always kind of a pain for them to have to accommodate us if we do other things, so I don't think they're going to be as accommodating anymore."
Janney's performance as The West Wing's press secretary was recently nominated for an Emmy for best actress in a drama, an award she won last year. She also has two Emmys for the same role, but as a supporting actress.
Why has C.J. touched a nerve with the TV academy, the critics and the public?
"She's a woman in such a powerful position in such a man's world, Washington politics, and she's holding her own," Janney explains. "Yet she still maintains her femininity and her sense of humor."
The character, which Janney calls "a great role model," is in the Katharine Hepburn tradition. Janney reveals that she "burst into tears" when she heard of the great actress' recent death.
"Katharine Hepburn would have loved C.J.," says Janney. "I flatter myself to think that maybe she watched West Wing a couple of times."
Work on the show's new season is just beginning for Janney. And although she doesn't yet know what's ahead for C.J., she hopes that romance is waiting in the Wing.
"I love the personal-relationship side of C.J.," she says with a chuckle. "I think I've got the press briefings down pretty much, and I'd love to get into some complicated relationship scenarios."
A note of concern enters her voice when talk turns to the departure of Aaron Sorkin, who created the show and wrote or co-wrote virtually every episode. At the end of last season, an exhausted Sorkin bowed out from the program.
"He couldn't share it," she says, explaining why Sorkin chose to make a clean break from the series. "The way I finally figured it out is that if someone came to me and said, 'Listen, someone else is going to play C.J. for 10 episodes, you don't mind do you?', I'd be like, 'Are you crazy?'"
If C.J. is capable of standing up to the press and, sometimes, even the president, the actress who plays her is more of a softie. Asked about working with pop star Moore in How to Deal, Janney becomes unglued.
"I was a little intimidated by her, actually, because she's so together and confident for someone her age, and she's done so many things," says Janney. "As an actress, she's not afraid to make a fool out of herself, which are my favorite kind of people."
Only once does Janney show some of her West Wing edge, and that's in defense of How to Deal.
The film, which seems targeted to Moore's youthful fan base, expresses an attitude that, if not quite pro-drug, might fairly be called drug-tolerant. The character of Moore's wise, adorable grandmother wanders through most of the movie stoned on pot.
"Hey, listen, you know what I'm going to want to say about that?" asks Janney, allowing a sharpness to creep into her voice. "It's all out there. No one can hide that stuff from their kids, and if they think they can, they're wrong."
Got it. Thanks, C.J.
Or, rather, Allison Janney.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.