Jane Lynch prefers to let her work speak for itself.
Mention a project, and she’ll gladly extend accolades to the rest of the team, be it the directing style of Christopher Guest or the writing prowess of Party Down creator John Enbom. Lynch will shout out fellow cast members, recalling with detail how wonderful they were — but when the praise lands on her, she’s quick to change the subject.
Luckily, she won’t have a chance to avoid the topic when she’s feted at a special Sketchfest tribute in her honor on Jan. 28. While it may seem like a no-brainer for the festival to celebrate one of modern cinema’s most memorable scene-stealers, hearing the news took Lynch by surprise.
“It came out of the blue for me,” she says. “I was thrilled.”
Sketch comedy was never in Lynch’s plans, but she’s glad things turned out that way.
“I thought I was going to be a theater actress, but then one of my auditions in Chicago was with Second City,” she says. “It was certainly not on my list of things I wanted to do, but I was cast in the touring company, and it turned out to be an absolute perfect fit for me. I loved changing characters every other sketch and I loved singing silly songs. I loved the improv. It turned out to be fortuitous that I got that job.”
Eventually, sketch gave way to film and television. Some of Lynch’s first roles include small parts in The Fugitive and Basic Instinct. According to her, many of the characters she played early on in her career were parts originally intended to be men.
“I had a really great agent,” Lynch explains, “who was smart enough to see that I have this air of authority about me. He would call casting directors and say, ‘For this doctor or this teacher, could you see a woman?’ They always said yes, so I would always get a read.”
The circumstances were similar when it came to 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. While it’s nearly impossible today to imagine anyone but Lynch as Smart-Tech’s sexually explicit store manager Paula, it was a suggestion from Steve Carell’s wife Nancy that swayed director Judd Apatow to consider Lynch instead of casting a man in the role.
What would follow is a run of memorable supporting turns in films like Role Models, in which Lynch proved that in her hands, even bagel dogs can be hysterical. Precisely how she steals a scene is hard to pinpoint, although her dry demeanor and perfectly timed expressions of disgust are a part of it. Mostly, however, it’s the charisma that shines through even her most unlikable characters.
In fact, Lynch has a history of playing harsh teachers, from her 2013 Broadway debut as orphanage matron Miss Hannigan in Annie to her breakthrough turn on Fox’s Glee as cheerleading coach and resident bully Sue Sylvester. Asked what draws her to these kind of roles, Lynch confesses there is something compelling about playing mean.
“I’m kind of fascinated with cruelty,” she laughs. “I like the entitlement that some people walk around with — people who have an arrogance and belief in themselves, but then there’s always some tender heart that they’re protecting underneath that. I don’t have it, but I can pull it off because I’m 6 feet tall and I have a stern affect!”
However, Lynch’s most important role was likely the one she played in the 2000 dog show faux documentary Best in Show — a role that paired her for the first time with director Christopher Guest.
“I met him doing a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercial,” she recalls. “He basically brought me up from the minors into the majors.”
Lynch’s turn as dog-trainer Christy Cummings was another act of cinematic theft — her scenes with trophy wife Sherri Ann (played by Jennifer Coolidge) are truly a masterclass in comic absurdity. Guest and Lynch have subsequently gone on to work together on the films A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration, and Mascots, and she plans to keep saying yes as long as he keeps asking.
“I think the magic of what he does happens in his trust in us,” she says. “Everything is up to you in a Chris Guest movie. I prepare more for these movies than I do anything else, because we’re basically creating it out of whole cloth. He gives you a narrative and he’ll give you a really great background on your character, but then you’ve got to hang flesh on that. It’s a freedom that’s intimidating at first, but when you get into it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is so much fun.’ ”
With her star having risen thanks to her work with Guest and, later, the overnight success of Glee, opportunities arose to do things she’d never dreamed of. In 2011, Lynch became only the third woman to host the Emmy Awards solo, and in 2013, she became the host of NBC’s Hollywood Game Night. (At present, she remains the only female game show host on network TV.)
As an openly gay woman, Lynch is not shy about championing the causes she believes in, but she cautions against making career choices simply to push an agenda or break the mold.
“Never. Never. Never,” she says. “I’ve never done something or accepted something because I thought it was going to further something. I just always do the best job I can and let all that stuff happen itself.
“There are so many wonderful people in show business that do things because it makes them feel good and that ends up serving,” she adds. “I mean, they get that connection. When you do things that feel really good, and you do them the best you can, and from the heart, that’s when you’re really of service.”
“SF Sketchfest Tribute to Jane Lynch” with Jane Lynch, Michael Hitchcock, and more
Sunday, Jan. 28, 2 p.m., Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St. $30; sfsketchfest.com.
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