Jane Lynch's Year of Living Famously

The divine Ms. L. talks about breaking through in "Glee," getting hitched and enjoying TV's comfiest wardrobe.

by Margy Rochlin
Photograph: Photo: Martin Schoeller

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 cafĂ©—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.

When the Glee offer arrived last year, Lynch, true to her workaholic form, was already committed to two other series: Starz’s Party Down, on which she played a relentlessly positive failed actress working for a caterer, and an ABC project that, if it had been picked up, would have slotted her into “an uninterest­ing role that I might have been tied to for many, many years.” This meant that for the first four or so episodes of Glee, as Lynch swaggered grandly down the hallways of fictional William McKinley High firing insults from the side of her twisted mouth (“So you like show tunes. It doesn’t mean you’re gay. It just means you’re awful”), her status there was temporary. “We were keeping our fingers crossed that I got to stay,” she says. By the time she was released from her other commitments, Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker had reviewed Glee gleefully and crowned Lynch “the greatest Broadway-­musical villain to ever costar in a TV series.”

What is perhaps most extraordinary is that Lynch plays Sue Sylvester without a trace of attack-mode desperation and without poisoning the show’s cheerful air.

“She’s so over the top, it’s laughable,” the actress says of her alter ego. “Tony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs—there’s a despicable, scary guy. Sue Sylvester is not scary; she pretends she is. She thinks she’s the villain in a movie of her own. I felt all along, because you have to play something real emotionally, that she would much rather have her students’ love than their fear.”

Ian Brennan, the young Glee writer–coexecutive producer responsible for most of Sue’s toxic lines (he com­poses them, he insists, while “almost in a trance”), says Lynch is a big reason he has the best job in the world. “Jane is absolutely unparalleled at what she can do. She just has a sort of magic behind her eyes,” he says. “She’s been everybody’s favorite for so long, but now she’s hit in a big, mainstream way. That’s what’s so cool about seeing her get the recognition—she’s been working her ass off her whole career.”

“I love what I do,” says Lynch, who in career terms thinks of herself as an antistrategist. “I rarely step outside of myself and assess where I am, where I’ve been and where I’m going. I kind of try to be in the present.”

At the moment, the present is full of the perks that a hit show offers. To wit: a dressing room that she’s appointed with her own pil­lows and scented candles, instead of the journeyman actor’s shabby temporary quarters the size (and occasionally the aroma) of a bathroom stall. A comfy ward­robe consisting entirely of gym shoes and custom-made polyester tracksuits in dark colors. “They’re slimming!” she says, noting that there’s a neon purple number in the works because she wanted one “that makes viewers go, ‘What the . . . ???’ ” Her tracksuits “are like putting on your pajamas every day.” And she can get camera ready in less than half an hour. “My makeup takes 20 minutes,” says Lynch, who cuts down on primping time by putting herself on blow-drying detail. “I’m very picky about my hair,” she adds. “It’s very fine, but I have a lot of it. I have to make sure that the volumiz­ing product is just enough; too much, and it will go flat. If it turns out wrong, I will rewash.”

One of the most surprising effects of having a steady gig, she admits, is what it has done to her “fevered ambition, this kind of crazy need to fill my time with work. I know we’re at least going to have three seasons. It calmed me to know that; I can relax.” Her seemingly bottomless reserves of energy have now shifted to her new family. Last year Lynch, who is openly gay, was backstage at a National Center for Lesbian Rights fund raiser in San Francisco when one of the award recipients—pretty, dark-haired Lara Embry, who has a PhD in clinical psychology—asked Lynch if she would pose for a photograph with her. Sparks flew. The following week, Lynch was winging her way to Sarasota, Florida, where Embry lived.

Just before takeoff, Lynch recalls, she phoned Embry and said, “We need to acknowledge how courageous both of us are that I’m coming into town and you really don’t know me. And I’m hopping on a plane to visit someone I really don’t know. So for a moment, let’s give ourselves a little pat on the back.” After six months of romantic bicoastal commuting, Embry proposed, and on May 31, on the grounds of the Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland, Massachusetts, with Jeannie Elias—an old friend of Lynch’s who is an ordained Universal Life minister—presiding, the two women exchanged matching diamond wedding rings in a small ceremony.

Now Lynch is renovating her log cabin–ish house in one of Los Angeles’s canyons to make room for Embry and her eight-year-old daughter, Haden. What’s it like to become a parental figure for the first time in midlife? “I haven’t really done it [on a day-to-day basis] yet,” she says, but she has spent time in Sarasota ramping up for stepmotherhood. “I took her to school. I picked her up. I went to lunch with her. So I kind of had a test run. We’re pretty darn good together.”

When we meet, Lynch’s wife and daughter aren’t due to move in for six weeks. Until then, the actress has time to confront what she feels is a holdover from single life: her obsession with tidiness. “I’m a little OCD,” says Lynch, who admits she stares longingly at the dozen or so boxes of Embry’s belongings that have been shipped to L.A. and fantasizes about paring down. “I don’t want to touch the boxes, because they’re my wife’s. I don’t want to start going through them and saying, ‘Well, we can get rid of this, and that!’ But it’s hard.” Even as she’s speaking, it’s clear that she’s looking forward to closing the single-gal chapter of her life. “My focus now is this entity that is called my family. That comes first,” says the actress, adding that her track record when it came to relationships was somewhat spotty. “I think Lara really, truly came into my life when she was supposed to. I shouldn’t say this, but I’d never dated anyone that I wanted to marry. I didn’t think it was going to be out there for me. But the minute we were married, I felt the difference: I felt like I am no longer alone.”

For decades before that, however, Lynch’s focus was on a different kind of connection. Growing up in Dolton, Illinois, a suburb on the South Side of Chicago, she found that being onstage made her pulse race. Her official theatrical debut? She was a candle in her third-grade school play. When asked to rate her performance, Lynch jokingly barks, “I was probably awesome.” But she’s also prepared to solemnly recite her still-remembered lines as proof. (“A is for air so filled with smells of spice/ smell of cake, pudding and pie/ everything that’s nice . . . ”) From then on, her public school stage career continued to soar, until she entered Thornridge High and abruptly bailed on her role as the king in a one-act version of The Princess and the Pea. “It was just . . . fear,” says Lynch. “It was as if I was walking up to my destiny, and I got scared and turned around and joined the tennis team.”

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?’

“I like the equanimity that comes with my age,” she adds. “I don’t have big highs, and I don’t have big lows. Even if this job goes away tomorrow, the nonstop ambition is a thing of the past for me. I’ve mellowed.”

Margy Rochlin has profiled Diane Keaton, Felicity Huffman and Sigourney Weaver, among other stars, for More.

Originally published in the November 2010 issue of More.

Read: Jane Lynch's Little Secret

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First Published Mon, 2010-09-27 14:28

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