Glee’s Jane Lynch: interview
By Gina Piccalo For The Telegraph.
January 10, 2011
A withering bully called Sue Sylvester in the US comic TV series Glee has put the actress Jane Lynch exactly where she belongs – in the spotlight.
Jane Lynch is a morning person. She’s been up for hours by the time she arrives at a clamorous little café in the thick of Los Angeles, around the corner from her home. Six-feet tall, she walks up to the place with purpose, in her plum-coloured velour jogging bottoms, her shoulders back and chin up. At the table, she whips off her sunglasses and flashes a high-beam smile, offers a firm handshake, puts her BlackBerry within texting distance and summons a waiter.
It is a week before she returns to the set of Fox’s hit musical comedy drama Glee to reprise her role as the nasty cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester for the second season. Just behind Lynch’s penetrating blue eyes it seems a clock is ticking. Life is moving very fast for her these days.
In the span of a few months last year, the gay actress married her partner, psychologist Lara Embry, and made the chat show rounds explaining that the couple were raising Embry’s eight-year-old daughter. She earned two Emmy nominations, eventually winning the award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy and a Television Critics Association award. She was mobbed like a rock star during Glee’s live concerts around the United States last spring.
And at the August unveiling of Lynch’s her very own Madame Tussauds wax figure, Glee co-creator Ian Brennan declared her ‘a woman of such national importance that everywhere she poops should be made into a national park’. Lynch, 50, takes it all like a pro. Albeit a pro who has been eagerly awaiting her turn in the spotlight for decades.
‘I’ve been in the business a long time,’ she says, matter-of-factly. ‘And I’ll be in it a long time after all the hoopla has died down. So there’s a certain equanimity about it.’ She adds: ‘At the same time, I’m really enjoying it!’
No one could have predicted Glee’s arc from daring pilot to cultural phenomenon. But Lynch saw the potential in Sue Sylvester from the beginning. When she read in the script that Sue ‘may or may not have posed for Penthouse’ and ‘may or may not have taken horse oestrogen’, she was in.
Originally, her character was just a guest star, but Lynch is a gifted scene-stealer and it didn’t take long for Brennan and co-creator Ryan Murphy to recognise that she amped up everyone else’s game just by being on the set. Soon Brennan was giving Lynch the show’s most memorable lines and a back-story that grew more outrageous every episode.
One minute the cheerleading coach was the daughter of Nazi hunters and a veteran of the Falklands War, the next she was a wannabe Baywatch babe, devastated when producers told her ‘they were going in a different direction’. Sue even warranted her own catchphrase, modified slightly every week and chronicled dutifully by fans online. ‘You think this is hard?’ – went one variation on the Sue Sylvester-ism – ‘I’m passing a gall stone right now. That is hard!’
‘When you read the lines on the page, you think, “This is too crazy. We’ll never get away with it”,’ says Glee executive producer Dante De Loreto. ‘And when she says it, the most insane thing suddenly seems believable.’
For Lynch, Sue Sylvester was a familiar character. She didn’t need to do a lot of deep thinking. At least, not at first. ‘Right away I saw this arrogance, self-belief,’ she says. But as the show’s popularity grew and reporters asked complicated questions about her character, Lynch psychoanalysed Sylvester and came to some conclusions about the queen of the meanies, insights that will no doubt come in handy when Sylvester writes her autobiography, a book that will be published in the real world as well.
‘I think she was tortured in high school,’ Lynch says. ‘And she’s out to revenge that. Now they’ve given me the sister with Down’s syndrome and I’m like, “Perfect!” That totally fits into the fact that I was sticking up for my sister. I took care of her. I raised her. So I figured [Sue] went back to high school to get back at everybody.’
And that she does, kicking nurses down the stairs, terrorising her troupe of pony-tailed ‘Cheerios’, blackmailing the principal with a YouTube video and taking every opportunity to dismantle the Glee club. And yet, it is very easy to root for this villain. Indeed, she saves the whole enterprise from drowning in adolescent angst and gives Glee its wonderfully tart aftertaste.
‘There was no question,’ de Loreto says, ‘she was who Ryan and Ian and myself wanted.’
Glee is Brennan’s ode to his own Midwestern high school choir and it chronicles the trials of a team of misfits in their quest for self-acceptance. Since its pilot aired in the US in May 2009, the show has become a sensation, embraced for its talented and nubile cast, its wit and its portrayal of adolescence as one fabulous Broadway show.
Glee’s cameos (Olivia Newton-John and Josh Groban) and tributes (the Madonna episode) created such a stir that Sir Paul McCartney recently sent his own mixtape to co-creator Murphy in a pitch to get his own music featured. Next season, Britney Spears will appear in the Glee kids’ hallucinations and Susan Boyle has reportedly been cast as a ‘dinner lady’.
Lynch wasn’t hired for her singing voice, unlike her younger co-stars, some of whom came straight off the boards of Broadway. But it was no secret she wanted to get her own dance number. To make her point, she spent weeks on set humming within earshot of her producers. It worked. Murphy gave her two, the first of which was the remake of Madonna’s 1990 Vogue video.
Here, Lynch appears as the Material Girl in a routine that won’t soon be forgotten. It was a rigorous experience that humbled her. ‘I worked on that over the course of two or three months,’ she says. ‘Over Christmas break, flying from town to town [on a press tour], I was doing it. For something to get in my body, it takes a long time.’
Next, Lynch got to lock eyes with Newton-John, whom she called ‘the lady who wrote the soundtrack to my teenage angst years’ in a re-imagining of the Aussie singer’s 1981 music video Physical. It was, as Lynch later said, better than any fantasy.
In person, Lynch is an amiable, if somewhat punctilious sort. She keeps the interview moving at quite a clip. But no question is off limits and she answers every one with candour. For instance, Lynch volunteers the fact that like Sue Sylvester, she too can be a real disapproving b—-. She says she was just born that way. ‘My parents felt judged by me,’ she quips. Even now, taming that inner critic takes concentrated effort.
‘Recently, I did a little outside thing,’ she says, leaning over her tofu scramble, shifting her otherwise open, friendly face into a stony, Sue-style glare. ‘The director and I did not jive. He’s really nice, though. Which was good, so I resisted going into that mode. But I felt it coming back. I said to him, “I don’t understand three-quarters of what you’re saying to me. [Pause. Stare.] I don’t know what you’re talking about.” [More staring.] And I just really had to bring myself back and say, “Don’t be that person”.’
Don’t get her wrong. Lynch is no diva. But she has become a bit exacting after all those years spent trying to wring scene-stealing performances out of television guest spots and forgettable movie roles. Lynch earned a scholarship to Cornell University’s professional theatre arts program. She was classically trained there. Yet she had no mentoring or much encouragement from her acting teachers.
‘I didn’t stick around for encouragement,’ she says of her early career. ‘Because it just wasn’t forthcoming. When I look back, I think I must have been hugely motivated. I would have loved for somebody to say, “You go for it!” I just didn’t have that.’
What Lynch did have, though, was an insatiable drive that fuelled a manic work schedule. Over 20 years, Lynch has appeared in some 60 movies and 70 television shows. She appeared at least once in nearly every hit television show from Married With Children to Arrested Development, often cast as a doctor, therapist or a lawyer. She paid her bills for years as a voice actor in children’s animated series and in dozens of radio commercials.
In the late Nineties, she landed a Frosted Flakes commercial where she played a woman stalking the cereal’s mascot Tony the Tiger. For a time, Lynch was famous in the US for an ad in which she stood atop a cliff and shouted: ‘I am every woman who has suffered from acid reflux!’
In 2008 alone, she appeared in six feature films and was a regular guest star on three hit television shows, Showtime’s The L Word, CBS’s Criminal Minds and the sitcom Two and a Half Men. And last summer, on the cusp of Glee mania, Lynch took a one-scene role as a Nevada diner owner in the forthcoming Nick Frost-Simon Pegg sci-fi comedy film Paul. She sandwiched that in between promoting two other films: the little-seen romantic comedy Post Grad; and Julie & Julia, in which she co-starred opposite Meryl Streep.
‘I didn’t say no,’ she recalls. ‘I wanted to do it so badly, I would do my best to make it a good situation. People would suffer in the process because I was not shy about giving my opinion or letting someone know something was sub-par, maybe not to their face, but they would know. I can be kind of razor sharp in my disapproval. Every once in a while I might say, “This sucks!”’
It was an attitude, Lynch explains, motivated less by arrogance than a fear that ‘the parade was going to pass me by’. Actor and film-maker Christopher Guest made sure that didn’t happen. He directed Lynch in those Frosted Flakes commercials and recognised her ability to improvise. So he wrote her into his comedy Best in Show (2000) as dog handler Christy Cummings. At the time, Lynch was doing sketch comedy around Los Angeles and had cultivated the comic sensibility that Guest valued.
Lynch dug deep into the profoundly self-assured dog show superstar, helping craft her character’s wardrobe and even the sets she would inhabit. ‘I did real Method preparation,’ she says. ‘I would find a hook in me psychologically, a tenderness. From there, all good things flow.’
The film earned critical acclaim and introduced Lynch to the masses. But it was another five years – and Lynch appeared in another six feature films and some two dozen television series – before Judd Apatow took the advice of Steve Carell’s wife and cast Lynch in a role originally written for a man in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. In the film, Lynch plays Carell’s boss Paula, who offers to deflower him and then serenades him with a nonsensical song that Lynch made up on the spot.
In her personal life, Lynch says she just doesn’t possess the over-the-top confidence of her characters. And maybe that’s part of the reason she’s been a perpetual late bloomer. Lynch was 31 before she came out as a lesbian to her parents and finally left her hometown of Chicago for good.
‘It was my own internalised homophobia,’ she said earlier this year. ‘I didn’t want to be gay. I wanted an easy life. I am gay and I still have an easy life.’ Lynch says she couldn’t have the same career – one in which her sexual preference is virtually irrelevant to fans – if it weren’t for Ellen DeGeneres and her 1997 Time cover that read: ‘Yep, I’m gay!’
‘Just by virtue of being who she is, [DeGeneres] blazed this trail that I kind of walk down like this,’ she says, throwing her elbows out and holding that chin up again. ‘I don’t know that I have much to do with it aside from the fact that I never hid it. And I don’t march in a parade every day with a flag.’
Lynch was the middle child of a middle-class Irish Catholic couple – a banker father and homemaker mother – raised in the Chicago suburbs. She discovered a passion for performing after watching her parents sing and dance at a church fund-raiser.
At 12, she called into a radio show to ask Ron Howard and Anson Williams, then television’s biggest stars on Happy Days, how she could become an actress. ‘Ron said, “Stay in school and do school plays.”And Anson said, “Go find an agent.”’ So Lynch enlisted her brother to take her headshot. She was headed out the door to find an agent when her mother stopped her.
She said: ‘You will never be an actress. People can’t always get what they want in life.’
‘I think she was protecting me,’ Lynch recalls. ‘She really didn’t think that people like us got to do our dreams, you know? I cried and got so upset. And then she got upset and said, “No, you be the best actress you can be.”’
Lynch hasn’t stopped trying. Though she sounds ready to ease up on herself a bit. Success has a way of doing that. ‘I’m married now,’ she says. ‘I’ve got a kid. I’m busy. I’ve got a whole new life. I don’t have that kind of crazy need to fill every moment.’