Put Your Phone Away for Allison Janney

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Four years ago, Allison Janney told Jimmy Kimmel she knew she would work with comedy legend Carol Burnett someday. Turns out manifestation really works. “I dreamed it my whole life,” Janney tells the Cut. “I gotta make another vision board right now, as a matter of fact. I need to get more of those going.” The two iconic actresses appear together in Palm Royale, a new Apple TV+ comedy miniseries premiering on March 20 that examines the strict etiquette of Palm Beach’s lush, late-’60s high society. Kristen Wiig plays Maxine, desperate to be accepted into the most exclusive members-only club in the city, while Evelyn (Janney) is a skeptical gatekeeper. The show’s cast is stacked with impressive performers like Laura Dern and Ricky Martin, a real draw for Janney — but Burnett was the “cherry on top,” she says.

Since Janney’s breakout in The West Wing, the actress has made a defining mark on television’s contemporary evolution, collecting Emmys for everything from Masters of Sex to Mom, and even earned an Oscar for her role in the 2018 film I, Tonya. She was recently added to the cast of Netflix’s The Diplomat for its second season, a full-circle return to the political drama. Although she can’t wait to get back into the political world with some of her West Wing alumni (like The Diplomat’s showrunner, Debora Cahn), she wants us to temper our expectations: “She’s not anything like C.J.,” she says of her next character. Below, the Oscar-winning actress shares her thoughts on Edible Arrangements, the advice she gives new actors, and her rules for proper phone etiquette.

Palm Royale’s Evelyn is your first main television role since Mom. What were the deciding factors in choosing this project in particular?
Kristen Wiig was a huge part of it. I’m a huge fan of hers and just love the idea of getting to know her. I thought this sounded like something I’d have fun doing just from Kristen alone. And then, you know, when everyone else started joining the cast … every step of the way, I kept thinking, I’m so glad I did this. It was so fun to inhabit this character, especially because Evelyn is fighting tooth and nail to hold her place in society and sitting on a lot of secrets. There’s a lot of vulnerability underneath that, which makes her interesting to play for me. I love playing women who live in a bubble — they’re very fragile and yet seemingly strong.

You had the bonus of being a little mean to Wiig in this role, too!
We had fun sparring with each other and being mean. All the ladies were very competitive with one another. Everyone was so game.

Is there anything you want to do differently in this next chapter of your acting career?
I think I’m doing okay. I just want to keep having these opportunities come my way, and I love working in television. Listen … working on a show like Mom was heaven. It’s the best schedule in show business if you want to have a life outside your work. Palm Royale is an hourlong show, so the hours are different. But we’re all grateful that we all got along so well, because it made the day go by quicker.

Palm Royale is all about high-society etiquette, so let’s move into our “Rules to Live By questions: What’s your No. 1 rule for a successful dinner party?
The successful dinner party is all about social chemistry. It’s about the people you invite. You’ve got to really think about who will get along with who. Who’s going to be good at talking? Who’s good at listening? Curating the right group of people.

What’s your No. 1 fashion rule?
Always wear underwear. [Laughs.] I’m just kidding. It’s one of those things my mother said: “Always wear clean underwear in case you get into an accident.” I’m like, Really? But goddamn it if I don’t think about that every time I get dressed and go out. But I think, really, my fashion rule is to be comfortable — and then you’ll look elegant. I’m comfortable in what I’m wearing right now. I could wear it all day.

What’s your No. 1 rule for sending a gift?
Ooh, it depends on who. I like to send food to people because they always welcome food, and it can always be used. My dad loves pink grapefruit, so I send him grapefruits to arrive every month. He’s so happy. Send something that you know people will appreciate.

Would you send an Edible Arrangement?
My mother used to send those to me. I wasn’t a fan because I just never quite trusted them. I was so gracious about it, but I didn’t love them. She ended up sending a lot of cookies from my favorite bakery in Dayton, Ohio, to the cast and crew of Mom every year. That was great.

What’s your No. 1 rule for tipping?
I like to tip generously. I never want people to say, Oh my God, she’s a terrible tipper. I live in fear of going abroad and not knowing the customs. I want someone else to do it because I get nervous that I’m going to insult someone or not tip enough. Tipping is very stressful. I like how lately the bill will have how much you tip for each percentage, because I get flustered with math. I’m terrible at math.

What’s your No. 1 rule for giving advice?
I never like to tell people what to do. I don’t think you should. I think my rule is saying, “Listen to yourself. You’ll know what to do.” Empower the person you’re talking to. Make them feel they can make their decision. If there’s any experience I’ve had that I can share, I would share that, but I definitely wouldn’t tell someone what to do.

Do less seasoned actors ask you for advice?
Yes, and it’s hard because the world is such a different landscape out there for actors trying to break into the business. For me, it was a whole different world. For them, I don’t even know what they have to do. I usually just say, “Study your craft and keep learning as much as you can. Take from this method, that method — just learn how you can use your instrument, and keep it tuned so you’re ready when your break comes.”

What’s your No. 1 rule for canceling plans?
My mother always taught me if you’re invited somewhere and then you get a better invitation, you should go to the party you were first invited to and call to cancel the other. And if you have to cancel, it’s best to do it at the very latest the day before, unless you’re sick. I find most people are so happy when you cancel plans. Like, Oh, thank God. I don’t have to drive over the hill in this rain. I’m always very generous when people cancel, even if you cancel five minutes before.

What rules do you have around your phone?
I don’t like to use my phone on airplanes. I don’t like to use my phone in public places. I can’t stand it when people talk loudly on their phone on an airplane. Like, why do I have to hear your conversation? It just seems so rude. They’re invading your space with their voice. I get irritated by that. There are places where you shouldn’t use your phone. If you’re going to have lunch with people, you put your phone away. Don’t keep it on the table turned up so you can see when someone calls you; it just shows that you’re not interested and you’re not really there. There really is good phone etiquette that people should know. People think you’re not important to them if you’re looking at your phone, and it’s annoying!

What is your No. 1 rule on set?
Show up on time. Come when they call you to set, and respect everyone else’s time. Know your lines. And play — have fun. That’s the way I roll.

Put Your Phone Away for Allison Janney