One of the most talented -- and often underappreciated -- character actresses of the late 1990s, Allison Janney first began courting critical attention with roles in such acclaimed films as Big Night (1996) and American Beauty (1998). Able to play characters ranging from a name-dropping Manhattan socialite to a withdrawn, abused wife, the 6'0" Janney infuses all of her portrayals with equal parts poignancy and unforced gusto.
A product of Dayton, Ohio, where she was born November 19, 1959, Janney was raised as the daughter of a homemaker and the president of a real estate firm. She aspired to be a champion figure skater from a young age, but any hopes of pursuing a skating career were halted by a freak accident that badly damaged Janney's leg when she was in her mid-teens. As a student at Kenyon College, she became interested in acting, and got her first break when she successfully auditioned for a play being directed by Kenyon alum Paul Newman. After impressing Newman, a racing enthusiast, with both her acting skills and her love of fast cars, Janney went on to impress his wife, Joanne Woodward, who directed her in a number of off-off-Broadway plays during the early 1980s.
Although she enjoyed early stage success, Janney had difficulty starting her career, something that was hindered by her height: one disparaging casting agent went so far as to tell her that the only roles she was suitable for were lesbians and aliens. Thankfully, the actress pressed on in the face of such idiocy, waitressing and scooping ice cream to support herself during dry spells. Her luck began to change for the better in the late 1990s, when she started garnering luminous reviews for her work both on Broadway -- where she earned a Tony nomination for her role in 1998's A View from the Bridge -- and onscreen in such films as Big Night (1996) and Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (1998). In the former film, she appeared as the quiet, capable love interest of Tony Shalhoub's struggling Italian chef, while the latter featured the actress in the minor but poignant role of a painfully-awkward schoolteacher who is seduced by John Travolta's libidinous Presidential candidate.
Janney, who had been appearing on television and in films since the early '90s, went on to do reliably excellent work in a variety of films that ranged from The Object of My Affection (1998), in which she played the supercilious, name-dropping wife of a high-powered literary agent (Alan Alda); to Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), which featured her as a beehived, chain-smoking trailer park resident; to American Beauty (1999), in which she gave a quietly powerful portrayal of the abused wife of a tyrannical ex-Marine (Chris Cooper). Janney's talents have also been put on ample display on the small screen: in 1999, she joined the cast of the acclaimed NBC White House drama The West Wing, originating the role of tough press secretary C.J. Cregg.
In addition to continuing her work on The West Wing, Janney played a supporting role in the award winning psychological drama The Hours (2002), and voiced Peach the Starfish in Pixar's wildly successful Finding Nemo (2003). The actress' would play the neighbor of protagonist Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) in 2004's drama Winter Solstice, and continued to play small, yet meaty roles throughout the coming years (among them include On Our Very Own and Hairspray), she earned mainstream attention and critical praise for her role as the parent of a pregnant teen (Ellen Page) in Juno. Ironically, in light of her Juno success, Janney was also critically recognized for her performance as an emotionally detached mother in Sam Mendes' bittersweet comedy Away We Go (2009).