She spent the next three years getting a taste of what it’s like to audition and always be passed over: “There was a whispering of ‘If you cast her, she’ll just quit.’ ” In the past, she portrayed this dry spell as something between a Mean Girls moment and an early lesson in honoring commitments. But this afternoon she has a more professional take. “I was difficult to cast,” says the actress, who reached her full height by the time she was 16. “I was still kind of a tomboy. I didn’t look like a boy or a girl. I didn’t carry myself as one thing or another. I was just stuck.”
Lynch reversed her bad fortune with a triumphant senior-year performance in Godspell (she played a character who was “the minx,” she says, “with a boa and everything. I kind of did it like Mae West”) and never looked back. Although she was a C-minus student, she was determined to become a classically trained actor and enrolled at Illinois State University, majoring in theater. It was right around her senior year of college that she had her first relationship with a woman. “I dreaded that this was the truth about me,” says Lynch, who was concerned that her sexual orientation would make life more difficult. She proceeded to get her MFA at Cornell and moved to New York briefly (“I was depressed there and not acting at all”), then back to Chicago (where she learned improv at the Second City, along with Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell), then to Los Angeles—all the while concealing the particulars of her dating life from her Irish Catholic middle-class parents.
“It wasn’t in their experience,” she says. “I was afraid of losing them. So over my twenties, I distanced myself from my family. I had this whole other life I couldn’t share with them. I started seeing a therapist and came to the decision to write a letter. The therapist said, ‘You don’t have to send it,’ but that’s a ruse. You always end up sending it.” She was knocked out by the warmth of her family’s response. “They called immediately and said, ‘We love you! Don’t let this come between us!’ ” By the time she met Embry, she’d long since made peace with herself about her sexual identity. And she loved being able to realize two wishes many mothers have for their daughters: “I got married—and I married a doctor!” she says.
In 1991, about a year before coming out to her family, she achieved a different personal breakthrough: She decided to get sober. As Lynch remembers her childhood, she came from “a real drinking culture.” She paints the picture in her very matter-of-fact way: “My parents always toasted each other after work with ‘First today/Badly needed.’ They had these blowout cocktail parties. It was the ’60s, where everybody got blotto. It was really fun.” By the time she was 14, she was spending her weekends at rundown suburban Chicago bars drinking beers with shots. At 31, she realized she was getting drunk every night. “I was hungover all the time,” she says. One evening, while talking on the phone, she told a friend, “I’m pouring out this glass of wine and never drinking again.” She kept her promise. “Relatively speaking, my personal bottom was rather benign,” recalls Lynch, who says she used to stand up at 12-step meetings and quip apologetically, “Had I known I’d be telling my story over and over again, I would have made it a lot better.”
Having just turned 50, Lynch is thrilled to have a steady, rewarding job, a loving spouse and a new stepdaughter, who on the big day gifted her with a helium balloon that said birthday queen! To celebrate the recent milestone, Lynch threw a small party—just Embry, Haden and a handful of friends enjoying lots of Aurelio’s pizza (Lynch’s favorite, flown in frozen from Chicago). “It was very low-key,” she says, taking a moment to luxuriate in the cozy domesticity of it all. “For many, many years, I was always whipping up things in order to keep myself busy and moving ever forward and saying, ‘What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?’