Two of my favorite actresses are hormonally appealing in brand-new films about the sexual pull of a hot mind. Allison Janney plays a crusty professor who beds a former student in Josh Radnor’s campus comedy Liberal Arts (opening next week), while Ari Graynor studies at the school of hard knockers by gamely manning the phones in For a Good Time, Call . . . .
Janney is the four-time Emmy winner (The West Wing) who has had scene-stealing parts in Hairspray, Juno, The Help, and other films stacked with quirk and sass. In Liberal Arts, she’s Judith, a hard-drinking prof who barks about “effete, overarticulate man-boys,” though she’s not above rolling around with them in the sack for some cheap thrills.
“She’s so disappointed, so angry, so disillusioned, so delicious to play,” Janney told me last week. “It’s so ironic that she teaches British romantic literature; she couldn’t be further from having a romantic heart herself.”
Janney loved working with Radnor—they both went to Ohio’s Kenyon College, where the film is set—even in the potentially awkward situation of seducing Radnor’s ex-student character as he directed the scene. “I’d look into his eyes, thinking, ‘He didn’t like what I just did,'” Janney told me, laughing. “And I had to do that scene the day his parents arrived, and they were behind the monitor. ‘I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Radnor. I’m being totally inappropriate with your son.'” What’s more, Janney had to start smoking again for the film, unfortunately choosing the extra-pungent American Spirits for her return to cigs. “I made myself throw up,” she remembered, still horrified. “It couldn’t have been less sexy.”
Still, Janney said she enjoys playing “offbeat, crazy women” like this who just lay out their thoughts, not to mention being in a film that explores how “college is that buffer zone, and getting to a place of self-discovery and exploration before you enter the real world is a magical time.” Not for Janney, though. She didn’t worship her Kenyon years because, it turns out, she’s not at all comfortable with talking. “I’d rather hide behind other people’s words,” she admitted to me. “That’s got to be why I act!” Millions in therapy bills saved right there.
But wait? This from the woman who not only sexed Josh Radnor in front of his folks, but who also, in Todd Solondz‘s Life During Wartime, was undeniably topless? “You have no idea what it took to get me to do that,” Janney revealed. “I had the longest conversation with Todd. I said, ‘You know, no one’s gonna want to see the two of us having sex,’ meaning me and Michael Lerner. I tried to get a boob job in postproduction,” she added, twinkling, “but they didn’t have enough money!” Thank God. Allison Janney is perfect as is.
Meanwhile, Ari Graynor (The Sitter, Celeste and Jesse Forever) had no inhibitions whatsoever about playing a full-throttle phone sex worker in For a Good Time, Call . . . . “There’s no vanity in comedy, and there’s no room for self-consciousness,” the rising star told me by (yep) phone. “You have to check that at the door. The first shot I did was me on the bed, doing my side of the phone sex session with Kevin Smith. I tried to command as much respect as the co-lead and co-executive producer and then lie on the bed and do the phone sex scene!”
The film is really a love story between friends (Graynor and co-writer Lauren Anne Miller) who get over a messy urine incident 10 years earlier and come to adore each other, work out routines together, and occasionally sneak a grab in an affectionately mock-sexual way. When one of them is having sex with a guy, she even picks up the phone to say “I love you” to the other gal!
“It was a very meta experience,” Graynor told me, “to make a female R-rated comedy, all of us producing for the first time and shooting it in 16 days.”
It’s sort of a younger Bridesmaids with more sensible excretions, though I found the campy but sweet gay best friend (Justin Long) a bit of a type. “The truth is, we all have a gay best friend,” Graynor said in defense. “I think Justin is genius and hilarious. He did a little method acting with [director] Jamie Travis. After they first talked, there was a long pause at end of the line, and Justin said, ‘I really like your voice.'” He ended up basing his characterization on Travis!
But while Graynor has been described as Bette Midler meets Goldie Hawn, she’d rather forge her own legend—which right now is one that would make granny’s heinie blush. She’s following this film with the Broadway comedy The Performers, in which high school pals and their ladies reunite at the Adult Video Awards. “I’m quickly making my way through all the various sex-worker roles,” Graynor remarked, “so I’ll get it out of my system and find the differences between all of them. But once I turn 30, I’ll dye my hair brown, and I’ll only play lawyers and doctors!” she added, laughing.
Her last Broadway gig had her as a bride—not a bridesmaid—in Woody Allen‘s one-act Honeymoon Motel, which Woody tweaked during previews. “It was a master class in the technicalities of joke telling and that particular form of comedy,” Graynor said. “One time, he said to me, ‘I’m just telling you now, but ultimately, the audience will shame you into doing it right.'” Now that’s hot! How I’d love to be shamed by a mass of paying voyeurs.