- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2000

NEW YORK

In the midst of hurling orders at his staff, President Bartlet stops, cranes his neck and asks his press secretary a personal question.

"C.J., are you taller than you usually are?"

"No, sir," she says, towering over him. "I'm my usual height."

One of the many joys of NBC's White House drama "The West Wing" (9 p.m. Wednesdays, Channel 4) is beholding the contrast between the sawed-off prez (Martin Sheen) and 6-footer C.J. Cregg, who is played to the heights by Allison Janney.

The power of "The West Wing," and of Miss Janney's role in it, rises far above cosmetic humor, though. As with the rest of the Bartlet administration, C.J. (merciful shorthand for "Claudia Jean") is a scrapper with enormous heart, many fallibilities and a gift for snappy repartee.

"C.J.," says the president, arguing a point, "on your tombstone it's gonna read, 'Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.' "

"OK," says C.J., no less deadpan than puzzled. "But none of my visitors are going to be able to understand my tombstone."

Miss Janney laughs. "Every day, I can't wait until I get to say C.J.'s lines."

Home in New York from Los Angeles, where "The West Wing" is filmed, Miss Janney can look back on a spectacular first year. The series is a ratings hit, and its 18 Emmy nominations (one for Miss Janney) are equaled only by nods for HBO's "The Sopranos."

As Miss Janney opts for a fruit smoothie rather than coffee at a Manhattan restaurant ("I don't want to vibrate"), she recalls the bracing challenges of "making a movie that never ends. I had no idea what kind of world I was entering into."

That's because the 39-year-old Miss Janney came from a theater background. Raised in Dayton, Ohio, she was starring in a stage production at Ohio's Kenyon College when alumnus Paul Newman arrived to dedicate the school's new auditorium.

Mr. Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, encouraged the drama freshman, and after graduation, she moved to New York.

Soon she was appearing off-off-Broadway and scooping ice cream to help make ends meet. Just in case the acting thing didn't work out, she was telling anyone who asked that she was a photographer for National Geographic. "I thought that sounded like a really romantic, wonderful job," she says.

With growing success, Miss Janney dropped the ruse. She landed a 1998 Tony nomination for her performance in "A View From the Bridge." She starred as Katharine in last summer's Shakespeare in the Park production of "The Taming of the Shrew."

She also scored roles in the films "Big Night," "Primary Colors," "Drop Dead Gorgeous" and this year's Oscar-winner, "American Beauty," in which she is chilling as the ex-Marine's depressed wife.

So, why a TV series?

"I was filming 'American Beauty' when my manager sent the 'West Wing' script," Miss Janney explains. It was written by Aaron Sorkin, who already had the acclaimed "Sports Night" on ABC. She read the script. She was hooked. "But I thought I did a lousy audition. I thought I wasn't gonna get it."

Since being proved wrong, Miss Janney has marveled at and gloried in Mr. Sorkin's prodigious output as he continues to write nearly every script. Brilliantly. And often just under the wire.

"He writes under enormous pressure," she says, "and he always comes up with something amazing."

So does Miss Janney in performance. Her actor's tools are formidable. She has a sinewy voice and eyes of heavy-lidded knowingness; they seem to have been borrowed from a character in "Doonesbury."

Did we mention that she's tall?

"There's something about me that says power and intelligence all the things that I don't feel, speaking to you now," Miss Janney says with a laugh. "I play women who tend to be in the center of something that's whirling around them as they try to hold everybody in place."

That sounds right. C.J. is in charge of the White House spin and, with only a few painful lapses last season, she kept the press corps in line.

Meanwhile, she sparred with an admiring reporter (played by Timothy Busfield), whose gift for her office, a goldfish bowl, is stocked not only with a pet goldfish, but also with an inside joke for sharp-eyed viewers: an object (a tooth, an Easter Bunny) keyed to that week's episode.

On one festive occasion, C.J. treated her co-workers to a lip-synced performance of "The Jackal," a sultry recording by acid-jazz artist Ronny Jordan.

"I had done some impromptu lip-syncing in my trailer that Aaron happened to be privy to," Miss Janney says, "and he wrote that into an episode. I'm kind of shy, but the more he gets to know me, the more I see familiar things in my character."

There's one trait C.J. will never share with Allison, however: "I know nothing about politics," the actress confesses. "I'm such a pretender."

She pauses for reflection. "I guess people don't need to know surgery to play a doctor. Besides, I'm learning. I mean, I watch 'Crossfire' now."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide