Hollywood Walk of Fame honoree's roots in theater keep her sharp, limber and a perennial fan fave
Although she’s best known as silver-tongued killjoy Sue Sylvester, a scheming cheerleader coach with a propensity for track suits on Fox’s “Glee,” Jane Lynch’s range as an actress runs wide and deep. Her roots with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Second City in Chicago set the stage for a series of scene-stealing parts in movies and television, beginning with her breakthrough film role as Christy Cummings, a butch dog trainer in Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show.” She has since starred in Guest’s “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration,” as well as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Role Models” and “Julie & Julia,” alongside Meryl Streep. Her smallscreen work includes “The West Wing,” “Arrested Development,” “The L Word” and “Two and a Half Men,” in which she played Charlie Sheen’s shrink. Over the summer she earned raves as Miss Hannigan in the Broadway musical “Annie.” Variety spoke with the actress, who’s receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Sept. 4, about typecasting, theater training and awards season madness.
Variety: You’ve been indelibly associated with Sue Sylvester on “Glee.” Are there drawbacks to that?
Lynch: No, no, no. I mean, it’s a great job. I love the character. I can’t think of one thing that would be a drawback about it. That’s my problem (laughs).
How did her character become the person she is? Did you and/or Ryan Murphy create a backstory for her?
Well, when I came on board, there was one line where it was described as “Sue Sylvester may or may not be on horse estrogen and she may or may not have posed for Penthouse.” So I took that and ran with that. And Ian Brennan is basically the writer who puts every word in my mouth. He created me out of Ryan’s instructions.
What’s Sue’s soft spot?
Her own vulnerability, which is expressed through her sister with Down syndrome. I think the undefended and the preyed-upon in our society are the people she fights for.
Do you find yourself getting an inordinate amount of scripts in which you’re expected to play an acerbic character who delivers outrageous bon mots?
No, I haven’t.
How are you most like Sue and how are you most different from her?
I do feel that softness for the vulnerability and the innocence in our world, including my own. I have, in the past, been a warrior in that way. And how am I not like her? I’m not openly mean (laughs). I think my cruelty hides beneath the surface a lot more than Sue Sylvester’s.
What were the most important benefits of performing with Steppenwolf and Second City for you?
I think about Chicago as being a very actor-centered theater town and people aren’t in it to get to the next level, like movies and television. We’re there for the love of the theater. So I think it fit right into my particular skill set, which is I love performing live.
Is the live theater experience essential for an actor?
It is for me, but I know other people who have no desire to be on stage.
What about improv? Is that something all actors should experience, to think fast on their feet?
You have to follow your own path in terms of your own artistry. It taught me to get out of my head, to, like you said, be fast on my feet and respond in the moment, which is a really great thing for life as well.
I figure anybody who could deliver dialogue with your precision is also a writer herself, and you’ve written a play, “Oh Sister, My Sister,” that was staged in ’98 and again in 2004. And you also wrote a memoir, “Happy Accidents.” Any other writing projects that you’re working on?
I’m doing a children’s book with Lara Embry and A. Elizabeth Mikesell called “Mean Marlene” that will come out next year, in the fall of 2014.
And who is Mean Marlene? What’s it about?
It’s this kid who’s a bright light and has a lot of energy but doesn’t really know how to apply it socially. She’s kind of mean to all the kids and she’s just not sure how to befriend them. So (the book) shows kids that if you trust and try to get to know people with more positive actions, it will make for better friendships.
How did you hook up with Christopher Guest?
I was cast in a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercial that he directed and we met through that. And then about six months later, I ran into him at a restaurant and he asked me to be in “Best in Show.”
Was a lot of that improv or was it all written out or a combination of the two?
It was all improv. There was no dialogue, the script is just a scenario, and we improvised everything.
And generally, how many takes did you do on any given scene? Or was there an emphasis on just keeping it really fresh?
He’d shoot a master, where we’ll go on and on and on, and then he’ll come back and say, “Do it all again, except you don’t have to do that part and make sure you do this part.” And then he’d just move the camera around. It’s really fast. It’s faster than anything I’ve ever shot before.
Is there a classic theater role or a character in literature that you’ve always wanted to play?
Not really, but I will say that when I was growing up, I loved “Annie” and I loved Miss Hannigan and I did get to play her on Broadway over the summer. That was great.
What do you do to keep your mind sharp in your free time?
I read a lot, but lately I’ve been listening to audio books, which is a different thing than reading, maybe a little more passive, but I love being told stories. What it’s doing is it’s entertaining me and inspiring me and satisfying my curiosities.
“Glee” is basically a weekly civics lesson in tolerance and acceptance and being true to one’s self. And yet, you’ve been involved in social causes like the Trevor Project that continue to advance those messages. Are there pressures in being a public personality to be involved in these causes, or is that just a natural extension of who you are as a person?
I get asked to do a lot of things. So I have to decide what I’m going to be involved in. But yeah, it’s kind of a natural extension of who I am.
How is “Glee” going to be able to fill the void left by the death of Cory Monteith?
I don’t think you fill a void. We’re going to honor his memory in our third episode of the season, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read written by Ryan and Brad (Falchuk) and Ian, the three writers who wrote the first season who are the beating heart of this show.
Speaking of beating hearts, Cory was, in life and his character, the most empathetic, heart-centered person I’ve ever met. And he’s going to be missed big time.
We seem to be in the golden age of television, and landing a recurring role in an acclaimed TV show has become the holy grail for a lot of actors. What are your favorite shows?
I watch very selective television. I watch “Mad Men,” and I usually watch a season at a time. I watch “Episodes,” “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” And I love “Modern Family,” as well. And “Glee.”
Are there any actors you admire?
I love Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes.” And Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley from “Absolutely Fabulous.” I think they’re absolutely fabulous. I love Ed O’Neill in “Modern Family.” I think he’s just brilliant.
You’ve won a Golden Globe, you’ve won a SAG award and an Emmy. You’ve hosted the Emmys. There’s this whole cottage industry that’s been build up around the so-called awards season. What do you feel about all this emphasis on entertainment as competition?
I stay out of that mindset. I don’t go out of my mind over wins or losses. I look at them as big parties where I get to fraternize with people I really admire who do the same thing I do.
What’s next for you after season five of “Glee”?
I’m doing another season of “Hollywood Game Night,” which is on Thursday nights on NBC. We got picked up for a second season. And I have two films coming out: one’s called “Afternoon Delight” (Aug. 30), directed by my friend Jill Soloway, and another one called “A.C.O.D.” (Adult Children of Divorce), with Adam Scott, Catherine O’Hara, Richard Jenkins and Amy Poehler. That comes out in the next month or so.