Jane Lynch doesn’t have a bullhorn endorsement deal yet, but that’s about all she’s missing. In the meantime, this sublime comic actress has etched herself into our pop-culture consciousness in ways that continue to delight her. This year she took home an Emmy for her performance as the unapologetically fearsome cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on Glee, and she got a second nomination for playing Charlie Sheen’s dryly cynical therapist on Two and a Half Men. A wax figure of Lynch as Sue, in all her tracksuited glory, is now on display at Madame Tussauds Hollywood. She hosted VH1’s Do Something! Awards with so much brio and confidence, it was as if she’d been headlining her entire life, and she received one of the ultimate comedy accolades when she was asked to host Saturday Night Live in early October. Today, when she strolls into a West Hollywood café—six feet tall, with her signature short, cowlicky blond hairdo, lopsided smile and rolling gait—she’s spotted instantly, and the tweets start ricocheting through cyberspace, their gist being “Holy smokes! Jane Lynch just walked in!”
For Lynch, this sudden burst of fame is the culmination of a journey that began in 1993 with a bit part as best friend to Harrison Ford’s doctor on the lam in The Fugitive and picked up steam with her hilarious turn as the butchily efficient poodle trainer in Christopher Guest’s improvised mockumentary Best in Show. But she has also made a staggering number of appearances in other movies and TV shows—more than 135 of them.
“I would show up for one day or maybe five,” says Lynch, drinking iced tea at an outdoor table and wearing a navy blue tank top, loose beige slacks and an expensive-looking pair of sunglasses. “You get to shake hands with the stars, and you can go on the crafts-services truck; they won’t kick you off. I was grateful to have the work. Every time I went to an audition, nobody knew who I was, so it allowed me to do a lot of things, not just stick to one genre.”
Now that everyone knows who she is, couch potatoes are constantly being startled by her fleeting, Was-that-really-her? rerun appearances in procedurals like JAG (guesting as a Wiccan soldier who participates in naked bonfire parties), batty comedies like Arrested Development (playing an FBI agent named Cindi Lightballoon) and evening soaps like The L Word (on which she played a controlling, tie-wearing feminist attorney). Sometimes, as with her role as a sexually overconfident electronics-store manager who offers to deflower Steve Carell in the hit film The 40-Year-Old Virgin, her part (minus the sexual overtones) was originally written for a man. The seduction idea “came out of our improv,” Lynch says, “so they put it in the script.”
“That moment when she turns into a wild sex maniac? I thought it was one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen,” says writer-director Nora Ephron, who ran over to introduce herself to Lynch at a premiere and later cast her in the role of Julia Child’s sister in Julie & Julia. “She doesn’t use funny voices or shout at you; she’s just funny. It’s always that way with truly funny people.”
It was during one of Lynch’s guest-star turns—on the WB’s short-lived teen soap Popular, on which she played the triple role of serial killer, travel agent and CDC official—that she met and befriended the quirky show’s creator, Ryan Murphy. Nine years later, when the brass at Fox suggested to Murphy that what he needed for his new musical-comedy series Glee was a classic villain within the high school, he didn’t miss a beat. He told the network executives that he had a cheerleading coach named Sue Sylvester in mind and that Lynch was the actress to play her.