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Jane Lynch is so famous for playing mean—from her career-making turn as hilariously villainous cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on Glee to a recent stint in Annie on Broadway as iconic baddie Miss Hannigan—that her graciousness in real life is almost alarming: During our conversation, she’s unfailingly polite, charming, and easy with a laugh.
It’s no wonder Lynch is feeling chipper. In the past four years, she has skyrocketed from supporting roles in cult vehicles like Best in Show and The L Word to a Best Supporting Actress Emmy win for Glee in 2010 and a gig hosting the ceremony the following year. Long before Lynch became a household name, though, she was a staple of the Chicago theater scene, with memorable turns on many a Windy City stage.
In an exclusive interview with Michigan Avenue, Lynch talks openly about her passion for Glee, her dedication to the LGBT community, and how growing up in Chicago made her the performer she is today.
Congratulations on your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!
JANE LYNCH: Thank you so much; it was an amazing day.
How did you feel when you found out about it?
JL: Completely numb at the time. I’ve had a year to get used to it now. But it all hit me when my brother and sister-in-law who live in Chicago [heard about it]. That was the minute when I was like, “Wow, this is happening.”
Whose star are you next to?
JL: There’s a guy whose name I forget who’s a contralto. [Laughs] It’s some German name, like Stein Guggenhiemer or something like that. And then the man who directed Casablanca is on the other side of me. Right behind him is Gene Autry and then John Cusack, so I have a nice little Chicago connection with John.
All this for a girl from Dolton, Illinois.
JL: Yeah, who’da thunk it? I certainly didn’t. It wasn’t on any of my lists, you know, I always just wanted to work and act—it was a part of me, especially when I was younger, that wanted to do these things. I never even went this far in fantasy.
What was it like growing up in Dolton?
JL: Well, Dolton is a suburb, and for us everything centered around the church because we were Catholic—so St. Jude’s and Thornridge High School. We all knew each other and hung out at the strip mall there, Almar Plaza. In high school we’d just drive around for fun; we’d pile into one car and pass all the places where other kids were hanging out under the streetlights. When I told my mother I wanted to be an actress, she told me, “Not everybody’s dreams come true,” and I started crying. She said, “I just want to protect you from the disappointment,” but it didn’t protect me from anything. It probably put more spunk in my desire to do what I wanted to do. But it’s funny, years later my mom said, “I can just hit myself for what I said to you. It was just so wrong, but I really thought I was protecting you.” What made me think that I could do this, not only make a living at it but, like, do it in big time?
You mention telling your mother you wanted to be an actress. When did the idea of performing come into your mind?
JL: I don’t remember; I just don’t remember it not being there. Watching television, I knew I wanted to do that. I remember seeing my first play: I was very young, it’s a very foggy memory, but I remember going to the high school, and I was a little kid and watching one of the neighborhood kids in a play. When the lights came up, I was just absolutely transfixed. I remember there was a bird in a cage—a kid was playing the bird—and I was, like, “Let him out! Let him out!” I was so afraid for that bird. I wanted it to be free. I really bought into it, and I wanted to be a part of that world of make-believe.
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Were there any actors or performers growing up that you wanted to be like or whose career you wanted?
JL: Carol Burnett. I never looked at it as, “Oh, I want her career,” so much as I wanted to do what she’s doing—she looks like she’s having a blast, and it looks like she’s doing it with all her friends. I now know Carol Burnett, and I asked her, “Was it a blast?” And she indeed said it was a blast; they were all her friends, and they all hung out, and it was really a beautiful thing where even though her name was in the title, it was an ensemble show. She allowed everybody to shine, and I want to do that, too—I’d love to create opportunities for my friends to perform. I never really wanted to be the star and I never really have been, but I like being part of an ensemble.
As an actress you paid your dues on stages around Chicago, from Second City to Steppenwolf and all these other theaters. How do you think the Chicago scene prepared you for the life that you’ve gone on to lead as an actress?
JL: When I was doing all that stuff in Chicago, I didn’t look at it as paying my dues—I was doing exactly what I wanted to do and was thrilled every time I got a job, or every time someone asked me to be in a play, and I did it for free a lot. How it prepared me, well, I’ll tell you what the wardrobe person on Glee said: “I always know an actor is from Chicago if they hang up their clothes.” After I meet somebody and we’ll speak for a while, they’ll say, “Where are you from?” I’ll say Chicago, and they’ll say, “I knew it.” There’s kind of an openness and willingness to experiment—a team player kind of vibe—that would describe the Chicago theater scene, both Equity and Non-Equity. It’s really an actor’s town and a creative town, and we do it for the love of doing it; we don’t just open theaters—we create ensembles like Steppenwolf, which is of course the one that’s most famous, but there are ensembles all over Chicago. I was a member of a couple of them, and that’s the way to go. It’s like a creative family. We have each other’s backs, which is why I love Glee, because that’s exactly the way Glee is, too.
One Chicago role that gave you a taste of fame was playing Carol Brady in The Real Live Brady Bunch, which became a huge cult hit in 1991–1992 and toured to other cities. What was that time of your life like?
JL: It was so heady; it was a blast. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder and more often than when we did that show. I was part of an ensemble the way I love to roll, and we were getting this attention that we never really thought we’d get, but were absolutely flattered and tickled by. We were on the Geraldo Rivera Show, we were on Entertainment Tonight, and the real Bradys came to see our show—Brady Bunch creator Sherwood Schwartz came to see the show in Chicago. The first day when we opened at the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, we all were on the roof eating pizza and drinking beer and we’re thinking, You know, our friends will come [and that’s it]. But there was a line up and down Broadway and around Belmont. It was insane. People came and smoked and drank, because it was a Mick Napier theater, so you were free to do both of those things. The fire marshals didn’t shut us down, and we just had this crazy night, and I remember I felt like I was out of my body. I was shaking; I was supposed to be flipping hamburgers in the first scene—we had no set and we barely had props, I think I just had a spatula, but I can remember the spatula just shaking in my hand.
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What were some of your favorite hangouts and places in Chicago at that time?
JL: The Closet, which was a gay bar; the Melrose Restaurant was a good one, and I loved the surf and turf place on Diversey, Half Shell. Is that still around?
Yes—it’s a classic. Do you still feel a strong connection to the city?
JL: I do. My family is here, but with my mother passing away last year, I don’t go to the suburbs anymore; I go to the city and my sisters and brothers meet me there. I usually go to the Public Hotel, which used to be the Ambassador—I went to the Ambassador for the longest time. I hang out there, and then we take a walk north, because I lived in Old Town. My sister lived on LaSalle, and I lived on Menomonee and Cleveland, so we walk around that area. We’ll go have breakfast at the original Nookies on Wells. Of course Second City, and then there was the Earl of Old Town. We used to drink there a lot, and we used to shop at Treasure Island.
Moving ahead in your career, you attained a certain level of acclaim for your work in the Christopher Guest films—also very much ensemble pieces. How did you get involved with that crew?
JL: Christopher directed commercials, and I think he still does. He was directing, like, a commercial a day back then—that would have been 1999, right after Waiting for Guffman, which I was a huge fan of. So I auditioned for a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercial; I got called back, he was at the callback, and he cast me. Then about six months later, I ran into him at a restaurant in Beverly Hills and he said, “Ah, I forgot about you—come to my office today,” and by the end of the day, I was cast in Best in Show.
Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester in Glee, for which she won an Emmy in 2010
Your role in Glee has come to define your career, at least for now. What has that journey of playing Sue Sylvester for nearly 100 episodes been like?
JL: My recognition factor has gone up in terms of the public, so my life has changed in that way, for good and sometimes annoying. But creatively—playing the same character for nearly 100 episodes, I’m still enjoying it. There are moments when I’ll look at an episode and go, “Oh come on, can’t I do something else other than destroy the Glee club?” Then of course they always give me something just stellar and fun, and this season I’m having the best time. Professionally, I don’t think I would have been just handed the role of Miss Hannigan in Annie on Broadway if I hadn’t been cast as Sue Sylvester—I don’t think that would have happened—so I am deeply indebted, because that was the best experience of my life. Doing Miss Hannigan on Broadway and working with all those wonderful people and doing eight shows a week, it very much brought me back to why I do this and why I was bitten by the need to be on stage. Whatever inspired me back when I was a kid seeing that play at the local high school, that came alive again.
Miss Hannigan is such an iconic mean character, and Sue Sylvester has her meanness, too—what is it about characters with a mean streak that you’re attracted to?
JL: I guess I have to take responsibility for it. I can’t sit here and say, “Well, I think people throw that at me,” and I’m the victim of this wonderful typecasting. You know, I think I just do “put upon” well; I do victimized well, and I do entitled well, and I think it’s because I’m fascinated with all three of those things. Of course they live in me, of course they do. But I find them hilarious and curious and a very satisfying step into the shoes. Whereas Miss Hannigan was kind of sloppy and drunk and frustrated and she just wanted out of there, Sue Sylvester is stealthy and looks at everything as an opportunity to wage war and win. She’s a warrior goddess.
Do you see yourself doing more theater in the future?
JL: Yes, absolutely. I will be back.
Jane Lynch with her Emmy from 2010.
You have so much experience working with ensembles, but Glee is different in that you are considerably older than those actors who are, to a certain extent, new to the business. Do you find yourself being a mentor to those actors?
JL: Not at all. First of all, I don’t work with them very much. I mostly work with Matt [Morrison], Iqbal [Theba], Dot[-Marie Jones], and Jayma Mays, and I love them. They’re just the best. I don’t work with [the young actors] that much. I mean kids these days are so sophisticated and smart; I did not have the chops—the life chops—that they have. My niece is from Chicago; she’s 28 and she works on the show, behind the camera, and she’s very good friends with the kids on the show, so I’ve gotten to know them that way as my niece’s friend, and they are fabulous. They’re just great kids. They’re really exceptional people.
Switching to another project: Back in 2009 you wrote a memoir called Happy Accidents. What inspired that?
JL: I found myself going through speeches that I had written—for a while there I was at every gala where I would be the featured speaker. I always made it personal because that’s the only way I know how to roll, my own personal experience with whatever these particular organizations I was speaking to, usually LGBT-related or animal-related. I started going through all of them because I was writing one and I figured I would just steal from myself. I thought, “I should just put these all down in order.” A friend who is a writer said, “Let me introduce you to this agent and you guys can talk about it,” and she actually wrote the proposal for me. Then the agent took it to book people, and before I knew it I had a book deal and a deadline. My wife sat down with me and the two of us put it together, and it was great—it was a very joyful thing.
Another recent project is Hollywood Game Night, which was just renewed for a second season. Just watching that, it looks like you’re having so much fun.
JL: We were, and I was.
What did you enjoy most about that experience?
JL: I love hosting parties. I don’t necessarily like going to them, but I love allowing people to shine—creating a platform for really fabulous people to enjoy themselves and show their fans what they’re like. I know how fun that was for me when I would watch Password, even going back to Password, or Hollywood Squares or, what did I watch? Baffle. [Laughs] Any of those Gene Rayburn game shows and Bert Convy game shows. I loved watching these really funny people like Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly just rile each other, having a lot of fun, and just seeing them without lines where they were playing a character. When offered this opportunity by Sean Hayes, who’s a friend of mine and a fellow Chicagoan, I said, “Oh yeah, you betcha I would love to do this.”
You mention speaking at galas for the LGBT community. Over the past several years, you’ve become a real role model in that community; do you think it’s getting easier to be out in Hollywood?
JL: First of all, Hollywood is so gay and has been forever—maybe not so much in front of the camera, and most people just didn’t know. It is much easier, but I think we still have a problem as an audience—we haven’t come far enough to where we will accept an openly gay person in a straight love interest role, whereas they can happen on Broadway all the time. That’s the next thing around the corner. But yes, absolutely, I think it has [gotten easier], and it’s due to people who had the courage to stand up when nobody else was doing it—people like Melissa Etheridge, Ellen DeGeneres, K.D. Lang standing up and saying, “Yes, this is who I am,” plus Rupert Everett, Ian McKellen, and [in British accent] the British male homosexuals. [Laughs]
In the 1991-1992 run of The Real Live Brady Brunch
You mention that another cause dear to your heart is animal rights. Why so?
JL: I just love them. We domesticated these little babies, and it’s up to us to take care of them. We have to spay and neuter our pets and take responsibility for how and if they reproduce. I think the people out there saving animals off the streets and from abusive homes deserve all the support in the world. I support that work, but I could emotionally never do it. We do this thing with six shelters at the Rose Bowl around Halloween called Race for the Rescues. We do a walk or a run and somebody wins and everybody gets little prizes, but we take all of the animals and put them on a catwalk—including cats—and we parade them, basically, we whore them up and down the catwalk in costumes, and every single one of them gets adopted every year.
That’s so great. Now, you’ve worked with so many comedy greats. Who in particular are you inspired by these days?
JL: Amy Poehler. I find her hilarious, and there’s such a huge heart behind it. She’s a real bright light and inspires me. I love Alec Baldwin’s touch. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous continue to blow me away—I still watch the old ones they made in the ’90s over and over again.
In terms of your own career, what’s out there that you’d still like to accomplish?
JL: I want to do more theater for sure, and I wouldn’t mind spending more time in New York doing that. I’m going to talk to a friend about doing a series of concerts—I want to get a little band together and do some singin’… that sounds like a lot of fun to do on my hiatus.
In your Twitter profile, you describe yourself as both an actress and a bon vivant. Outside of acting, what is giving you the most joy these days?
JL: My friends. My friends and my family—one-on-ones, two-on-ones, three-on-ones, no more than that. I had a huge party at my house the other day, and I really enjoyed it, but I basically talked to one person the whole night. But I love going out; I love making dates with my friends. That’s what I love doing.
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February 2, 2016