Actress Allison Janney had an inside edge on her role in I, Tonya. Like Tonya Harding, whose mom she plays in the film, the actress trained to be a figure skater in her youth. After accidentally running through a plate-glass window at a party and nearly losing her leg at 17, Allison gave up her Olympic dreams. “I left the skating world,” she says. “But I never left it in my heart.”
Now Allison, 58, has a shot at a different kind of gold — she’s been nominated for a Golden Globe and is earning Oscar buzz for I, Tonya. The role of the abusive yet somehow endearing LaVona Harding was written for her by Steven Rogers, a friend of Allison’s since they studied acting together in the ’80s at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse. “No one plays a mess as well as Allison,” says Rogers.
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Of course, this wouldn’t be Allison’s first acting trophy. She’s won seven Emmys for her roles on The West Wing, Masters of Sex, and her current CBS sitcom, Mom. Her turn as a recovering addict on Mom is a tribute to younger brother Hal, who committed suicide in 2011. “I lost my brother to addiction,” she says. “It was terrible, and I think that’s why when this show came into my lap, I was like, ‘I just want to do it for him.’”
Allison fell in love with acting after her skating days were over, but she was discouraged because of her height. “Saying I’m five feet, 12 inches isn’t lying,” she jokes. “An agent told me I would only ever be able to play lesbians and aliens.”
At the Neighborhood Playhouse, “I got to know Paul Newman,” she says. “I played ping-pong with him!” Paul and wife Joanne Woodward urged her to stick with acting, and she started working steadily in theater (snagging Tony nominations for A View From the Bridge and the musical 9 to 5), film (American Beauty, Juno) and TV, including her breakthrough as press secretary C.J. Cregg on The West Wing. “That broadened my life and brought so much to me,” she says.
Although she’s never wed nor had children, Allison has no regrets. “She never wanted it and chose another path,” a source tells Closer, adding that Allison has been in a relationship with Philip Joncas, a production manager 20 years her junior, for the past few years. “It’s easier for her to date younger men — they’re less threatened by her career.” Although she and Philip see eye to eye, “shorter men have always been into me,” Allison jokes. “Maybe because they like to climb mountains.”
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There’s no doubt Allison is at a professional peak. “She is grateful to be thriving and doing what she loves,” the source says. “Allison says her ‘third chapter,’ as she calls it, will be her ‘most fabulous one yet.’”
And if that chapter starts out with an Oscar victory, all the better. “She loves the awards,” the source says. “She loves the fact that she is a role model for the ‘odd girl/woman out’ in life. So the Oscar, or even a nomination, would mean the world to her.”
Should she fall short of that goal, Allison would certainly get right back on her feet. “I do the best I can,” she says. “Everything else is everybody else’s problem.”
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Closer Weekly.