‘West Wing’ actress: ‘This is not a dress rehearsal’

Story highlights

Allison Janney is spokeswoman for the Go Red for Women campaign

Janney played C.J. Cregg on "The West Wing"

Janney has also starred in "Juno," "American Beauty," "The Help"

Actress lost 20 pounds by hiking daily with her dogs, focusing on diet

Allison Janney was always on the move as a child. The “West Wing” actress played sports and enjoyed figure skating, so staying active was easy. But over the years, exercise took a back seat to Janney’s evolving career.

“I think when ‘West Wing’ ended, I just went into a slump,” she recently said.

We all did, Ms. Janney.

Thankfully the popular government drama is back, available for streaming on Netflix due to a new deal with Warner Bros. that sent fans to the couch in rerun ecstasy. And Janney has returned to her active lifestyle, dropping 20 pounds by focusing on her diet and daily hikes with her dogs.

Janney’s had more than one high-profile role since “The West Wing” ended: She played the dog-obsessed mom in “Juno,” a Southern socialite in “The Help” and Matthew Perry’s crazy boss on “Mr. Sunshine.” But Janney said White House press secretary C.J. Cregg will always be one of her favorite characters.

“I feel proud,” she said. “I feel like I can die happy; I did something good. Not that I’m planning on dying anytime soon.”

That’s good, especially considering Janney’s newest role is spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign.

The campaign aims to spread awareness about the No. 1 killer of women: heart disease.

Heart disease kills one woman every minute, according to the American Heart Association, and the gap between women’s and men’s survival rates continues to widen.

Janney comes from a long line of “cream and butter” lovers, she said. Her family’s history of heart disease – including a grandfather who died of a heart attack – led her to volunteer for the campaign.

“I feel if there was one cause that I actually had experience with, and a reason to step up for, it would be this,” she said. “I hope I can make a difference in someone’s life.”

CNN spoke with Janney about Go Red for Women, how she stays healthy and where she hopes her career heads next. The following is an edited version of that interview.

CNN: I love the dress that you’re wearing in the new PSA; that bright red color looks great on you.

Allison Janney: I love it, too! Red has always been a great color on me, which is why I decided to do the campaign. (laughs)

CNN: What does that color symbolize for women?

Janney: It’s blood. It’s love. It’s your heart. It’s vibrant. It’s alive. Red is just the most standout, powerful color I think there is.

This famous costume designer I worked with … said the woman who gets to wear the red dress is the one who’s the most powerful. It’s the perfect color to go with this campaign, because it’s all about keeping women strong and healthy and vital.

Survivor of heart failure dedicates birthday to educating others

CNN: Let’s talk about the real reason you’re working with the American Heart Association.

Janney: I had a bit of a scary experience with my mother who, like most women I think, ignored the symptoms.

She was driving, going to see the grandkids. She was in a motel and probably had what was a very small heart attack – but a warning. She just thought she was having this unbelievable pressure and discomfort in her neck and shoulders.

She drove 10 hours to Dayton, Ohio, and drove right to the doctor because she knew something was wrong. He just couldn’t believe she drove all that way. She went right into the hospital and had emergency quadruple bypass surgery.

I almost lost her. For that reason alone, I’m glad to be part of this campaign.

CNN: You mentioned that many women feel like they have to tough it out and just ignore the symptoms. Why do you think that is?

Janney: I think, as women, we tend to always put our own needs in the back seat to take care of our family or loved ones. My mother did just that.

Women feel they need to take care of everybody, (but) they can’t take care of anybody if they don’t take care of themselves.

Jennie Garth: Know your heart, know the risks

CNN: How did that experience, and learning more about heart disease, change the way you looked at exercise and nutrition?

Janney: I’ve lost 15 (to) 20 pounds since the summer. I’ve been doing Pilates three days a week, and I have three dogs, which gets me out walking every single morning. It’s been nice to slim down and bump up the exercise.

CNN: Do you have any favorite foods that you’ve had a hard time giving up?

Janney: I don’t believe you have to give everything up completely. I am my mother’s daughter. I like cream sauces. I like macaroni and cheese, all that comfort food.

I love chocolate, but now I go for 88% and 90% dark, dark chocolate to treat myself.

I go for Greek yogurt instead of heavy cream in a recipe. It’s kind of a game to see how I can take a recipe and make it healthy and still make it taste good. It’s a challenge I’m enjoying.

CNN: So you like to cook?

Janney: I do. I’m not the best cook, but I do like to get inspired – you know, get the cooking magazines or watch cooking shows.

Basically, I like to have people over to my house, because I usually hate going out to restaurants. So I’m trying to give them more reasons to want to come over to my house. Like, “Oh, my God, Allison’s a good cook.”

CNN: What else is a staple in your diet? What do you have for breakfast?

Janney: I’ve been doing juicing … kind of an almond milk mixture. And then if I’m still hungry, I make steel cut oats or have oatmeal with some banana in it or a little agave to sweeten it. And that keeps me going.

I eat a lot of salads. Whatever I eat is mostly 70% water. I eat tons of salads and greens and peppers and scallions and avocados, my favorite food on the planet. I’ve been eating a lot of soups and one-pot meals, with quinoa, with chicken breast and tomatoes and thyme.

I really try to stick to that, and I find I feel better; I have more energy. I’m 50-something, and I feel better than I felt 20 years ago. So it works.

CNN: What do you do for stress relief?

Janney: I’m trying to learn to meditate. I haven’t been able to achieve it successfully yet because I get impatient.

I do these breathing exercises where if I start to feel stressed I breathe in for – I start at a high number like eight – and breathe in for eight counts and breathe out for eight counts, until I feel like I can go down to seven and then to six … and it really does calm me down.

Getting a dog I would highly recommend for anyone. Animals are great for stress. The morning comes, and you have to take those dogs out. And I feel better because I don’t feel guilty.

CNN: What would you like to tell women about heart disease?

Janney: We only get to be here once; why not feel the best you can feel? Start making choices that are going to make a difference in your life and the people’s lives around you.

You just have to consciously be aware that we’re not going to be here forever. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is it. This is all we have. And if you look down and you can pinch more than an inch, it’s time to start taking it seriously.

CNN: You’ve been called one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. What haven’t you done that you’d still like to do?

Janney: Really? Wow. I just signed up for doing a series for CBS called “Mom.” Anna Faris plays my daughter. It’s a multicam series, the first time I’ll be doing that sort of format where I’m performing in front of a live audience for television. I’m really excited about that.

There are lots of types of roles that I’d like to do that I haven’t done yet. I’ve always said I’d like to play action hero; a really physically demanding film role would be fun.

I want to be challenged, work with great people and find better roles. Like the role that I found in C.J.; I like the women that I play who are inspiring to other women. That makes me feel good about what I do, that it has a lasting impact on the world.

I want to do more Broadway. I want to continue doing film. I want to have this show (“Mom”) with Chuck Lorre be a great success.

I just want to keep working, because that’s where I’m happy, and I think that’s what I’m supposed to do in this lifetime: keep working and keep experiencing and keep healthy and stay alive as long as I can.

Heart disease often misdiagnosed in women