September 2011

Q+LA Jane Lynch

Glee’s undisputed queen of mean on Sue Sylvester’s underbelly, the benefits of being a yea-sayer—and what she’s really good at by ERIC ESTRIN


The young Jane Lynch’s quest to be an actress wasn’t some childish fantasy so much as a deep-seated hunger to soothe the gnawing inside. Growing up outside Chicago, Lynch writes in her memoir, Happy Accidents, she never felt right in her body—or in the world.

So the validation-starved middle child wrote fan letters and called in to radio talk shows seeking advice. Sometimes the emptiness would envelop her—and yet when her parents brought her to church theatrical events, she felt an elation she could hardly contain.

Slowly, the validation came. Now 51, Lynch is on top of the world both professionally and personally. Happily married to Dr. Lara Embry, a clinical psychologist she met in 2009 at a lesbian-rights gala, she is helping to raise Embry’s nine-year-old daughter, as well as three cats and a dog. A critics’ favorite for scene-stealing performances in comic films from the likes of Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow, she just completed a role in the Farrelly brothers’ upcoming Three Stooges—and of course, there’s Fox’s megahit Glee.

Lynch is deaf in her right ear—most likely, she says, as a result of a severe childhood fever—but the six-foot Second City alum is hearing nothing but raves for her role as Glee’s Sue Sylvester, the tracksuit-wearing, hypercompetitive shrew she’s turned into the finest TV character viewers love to hate since J.R. Ewing.

She is up for her second Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy this month—and will host the ceremony as well, only the third woman in TV Academy history to land that solo role. Fox hopes her presence on the broadcast will attract hordes of Gleeks, the devout young followers who embrace the show’s message of inclusion, theatrical pizzazz and winning cast. Speaking in machine-gun bursts, Lynch says it’s a message she herself longed to hear growing up.

Your Sue Sylvester has to be the meanest character on television. How do you keep her from being a caricature?
There’s a real anger and tenderness at the same time—a real dark shadow. I think artisti-cally my work became a little more “profound,” if you will, once I started to look at the shadow. You dig right into that to get the best stuff. But you gotta have a sense of humor, so Sue is a perfect role for me.

Have you thought about what Sue would be like off camera?
You know, it’s funny, I don’t so much—I kind of dive into the feelings and emotions first. But when they created Sue’s condo, it was like an episode of Hoarders—trophies and accolades all over the place. I learned so much about her in that condo.

If she weren’t running the high school cheer squad, what would she be doing?
Probably be a drill sergeant in the army. But even if she worked at the hardware store, she’d be running it like she runs the cheers—like she’s at war.

Do you think your physical appearance helped you establish yourself as a comic actress?
I wonder. Deep down, I always felt it was a detriment: Oh, I’m taller than all the guys. It was a time when being a sort of a tall, butchy person was...well, you didn’t see that many of me around. I wasn’t even that butchy back then. I was kind of wearing Peter Pan collars, working the preppy thing as best I could.

You did a lot of TV.
I always thought I would be in theater. I thought the repertory life was for me. I ended up falling into the comedy world via Second City when I was cast in the touring company. The smartest thing I did, if I can give myself credit, is to say yes to everything.

But sometimes that can get you in trouble.
Well, you don’t say yes to porn—you draw the line there. But what it means is you show up to do crappy shows sometimes, and you still do your best. The alternative of not doing something was never acceptable to me. But it wasn’t like I was walking into dark studios for a calendar shoot.

As I recall, you played a former porn star in A Mighty Wind.
Yes, I did. It was so much fun. She sure said yes to everything.

In a lot of your work, there’s often been a strong sexual component. Why is that?
I don’t know. I think I’m fascinated with sexual entitlement. [Laughs.] I’m fascinated with entitlement in general, actually. I had very, very little of it—I didn’t think I deserved anything. I thought I was gonna have to fight and scratch for every-thing. I never felt attractive the way Laurie Bohner in A Mighty Wind feels. She walks into a room and thinks every-one wants to pork her. She just assumes it, and she loves it. And that cracks me up. Same thing with the woman [I played] in The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Of course Steve Carell would want to lose his virginity with me. It’s a gift I’m offering him.

That movie introduced you to a whole new audience.
Absolutely. Ensemble comedies were all fresh and new. We shot in that store over several weeks, and we all came in every day, even if we weren’t in any of the scenes that were designated to shoot that day, ’cause Judd [Apatow] might say, “Jane, get in there,” or, “Paul [Rudd], get in there.” It was like sitting on the bench in the basketball game, and you’d get called in.

So, a lot was improvised?
All of it. That’s why I say in the book that my agent didn’t want me to take it. It was a horrible script. It was really just kind of stupid and sophomoric. [Laughs.] The film wasn’t stupid and sophomoric—it was done in an artful way. But yeah, it’s all improvised.

Did the title of that film ring a bell with you? You were a bit of a late bloomer yourself.
Yeah, it did. I wasn’t a 40-year-old virgin, I’ll have you know. But it was about coming toward something late in life. I was watching Steve’s character get to find love at 40, and I was a little jealous. I was wondering when it was gonna happen for me. I got married at 49, actually, so I almost ended up being a 50-year-old virgin.

But not literally, right?
No, let’s put “virgin” as a metaphor. That would be really sad. But I was a relationship virgin, that’s for sure.

Was it worth waiting for?
It sure was, yeah, absolutely. And I’m good at it—who would have thought? I’m really good in a relationship.

What was it like doing Bill Maher’s show when you and he read those text messages between [former Rep.] Anthony Weiner and his girlfriend?
Well, you know what—we’re all horny. We’ve just gotta be careful where we do it. And you know, I love Anthony Weiner. You probably don’t figure that because I engaged in that skit, but I think you’ve got to find the irony in everything. I’m sorry he’s gone. I really do wish he had hung in there, and I miss him. He should still run for mayor of New York.

In the back of your mind, do you hope something goes wrong on the live Emmy broadcast so you can have fun with it?
[Laughs.] No, you don’t want things going wrong, even if that’s where the good stuff comes from. You can’t consciously hope things go wrong.

Last year Stephen Colbert handed you the Supporting Actress Emmy. Did you know him?
Yes, he’s a Second City guy. It was lovely to have him give that to me. It would be great to hand him one this year. He is something else—he has really made a difference. He’s deaf in one ear, too.

Oh, really? So between the two of you—
We have perfect hearing!

ERIC ESTRIN has written for television and film. He edits the review site Movie Smackdown!