Jane Lynch Shares 'Happy Accidents' of Life

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jane Lynch might be considered a bit of a late bloomer. But what a bloom.

In the past two years, the actress, 51, became a big-name star via Fox's Glee, won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a People's Choice Award, married clinical psychologist Lara Embry and began renovations on her Laurel Canyon house. She hosts the Emmys on Sunday. And she squeezed in a memoir, Happy Accidents (Voice, $25.99), on sale Tuesday.

Lynch's life was hardly empty up to now. She had a busy acting career, including critically praised roles in Christopher Guest films, strong friendships and romantic relationships, but nothing as satisfying as what she has today.

"If you were to tell me five years ago that this would have happened for me, I would have told you you were lying. But it just feels so right and so wonderful," she says during an interview on the shaded patio in front of her temporary home. "I think if this had happened for me younger, I would be so unstable in my energy, fearful that it would all be taken away."

The book, a story that evolved from a series of personal speeches Lynch made to gay organizations, chronicles her life from growing up in a loving family outside Chicago to her acting experiences, and to her personal relationships. It carries a comic tone but also addresses Lynch's tougher challenges, including her time drinking (she stopped in 1991), and conveys her philosophy of embracing life as it is instead of how we wish it were.

"I wasted a lot of time not liking what is," she says, but she took a constructive approach, too. "I said yes to everything, even though I thought I should be over here or over there, and I ended up getting a better life than I ever imagined for myself. It looks like a series of happy accidents when it was really just me kind of saying yes and being really prepared."

Those "accidents" include:
• Being directed by Guest in a Frosted Flakes commercial, then bumping into him again at a coffee shop, a meeting that evolved into the role in the movie Best in Show.

• Having a TV series to which she was obligated not get picked up, allowing her to accept a breakout role in hit Glee, which returns Sept. 20 (8 ET/PT).

• Being on the same airline flight with Mark Burnett, this year's Emmys producer, where he proposed she host the show.

• Meeting Embry at a lesbian rights awards dinner in 2009. They married last year in Massachusetts.

• Starting her house expansion plans before meeting Embry and Embry's now 9-year-old daughter, Haden. "It's almost as if, 'If you build it, they will come,'" Lynch jokes.

Lynch wanted to be an actress since childhood in Dolton, Ill. "For me, it was about being special and counting and also the world of make-believe. And I enjoy getting into the human condition."

It was a school play that Lynch quit as a 14-year-old, The Ugly Duckling, that has long resonated with her. "That was the last thing I ever quit. That was the last time I ever said no."

Growing up, she struggled with her identity. She realized she was gay at a time when it was less accepted, and she wanted to act, a choice that seemed alien to some in her family. She says the book speaks not only to gay youngsters, but to others who feel alienation.

Words that resonate
"Any time you write truthfully about yourself, I think people latch on to it. They don't have to have exactly the same experience to have it resonate for them," she says.

After studying acting at Illinois State and Cornell, Lynch sought roles in New York and Chicago. At one point, she hosted a home-shopping show. She performed with Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe, though she never became a regular cast member, despite her best efforts.

When the Second City door shut, another opened at the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre. Later, she played Carol Brady in what became a popular theatrical sendup of The Brady Bunch that started in Chicago and toured New York and Los Angeles. "That was healing to my little soul. As much as I was going through the bulk of my issues, but starting to come out the other side of it, it was cathartic to laugh so hard," she says.

During that time, the early '90s, Lynch gave up drinking and then came out as a lesbian to her family. Her mother and father, Eileen and Frank, were supportive. Embry says she believes Lynch became more comfortable with herself in her early 30s and less focused on overly controlling things in life.

"She didn't set out for a lot of the things that have been good in her life, but they've happened to her and she's been open to those things changing her life," she says. "I think she's been able to look at the things that she had, the angst of her youth, and to not be afraid of them."

As Lynch's credits grew, she started to land more roles in Hollywood, where she called herself "a jobber," an actor who works regularly but nomadically. She became better known after Guest's films and roles in movies with Steve Carell (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) and Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia).

And, with Glee, she has found a home.
"I think I really needed some professional success. I would have had to find a way to be happy without it, but I think it really did help me get a sense of myself and a confidence. I think if I had just done Best in Show and that was it for me, (I) think I would have been able to rest. I really feel like everything after that has been kind of gravy," she says. "What I don't think I would have been happy without is Lara and Haden."

Lynch had a fan base before Glee, but the world now knows her as cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, the acidic, scheming villain in a tracksuit. She says some of her is in Sue, the best character she has ever played.

"The base of Sue is The Angry Lady," she says of a stage role she created in the '90s of a critical, by-the-books scold based on some of her earlier behavior. "There's such a tenderness being protected by Sue. She's a warrior to protect her own little vulnerability. That's why she goes after other people's vulnerabilities. It's Psychology 101."

Embry says Sue may reflect elements of the younger Lynch but not the woman of today. "I don't see Sue Sylvester in her now," she says. "The thing about Sue Sylvester that's like her is she's honest. She really believes what she's saying. Jane's a very honest person."

Matthew Morrison, who plays her Glee nemesis, Will Schuester, points out some ways Lynch differs from Sue.

"She's a grounded, earthy person, very humble and rooted," says Morrison, who calls Lynch his best friend on the show. He appreciates her acting skills. "I feel like she really upped my game as far as comedy. She taught me a lot, just watching her timing. More than anything, it's her body language, her mannerisms."

'Tender stuff' for Sue
Sue may frequently be the bad guy, but she's not without saving grace, Lynch says. "She's not dangerous like Hannibal Lecter. She's laughable. We get a great kick out of her, and they give me enough tender stuff to keep people from absolutely despising me."

This season, Sue will put her plans to destroy the McKinley High glee club on the back burner as she runs for Congress. "She has to be fighting a battle, so they're going to find her different battles to fight. Some of them will be noble and some of them not," she says.

But fans needn't worry. The hair jokes and the rudeness to Morrison's Schuester will persist. "I don't think her stripes will change," she says.

Lynch is proud of the phenomenon Glee has become, particularly in its advocacy of arts education. And she enjoys the recognition, whether from Emmy voters or youthful fans. "I'm one of those kids," says Lynch, who was in her high school choir. "I would have been the No. 1 Gleek."

As for her Emmy nomination, "It's very gratifying. I've wanted nothing more than to be special and told 'You're exceptional.' And now I'm going to do the best work I can whether I get an award or not."

And she says she isn't worried about the Emmy gig; she has hosted Saturday Night Live and two Do Something Awards shows. Her strategy? Take it in "little bites. That's the only way I can think of it."

Lynch may have learned much over the years, but she says she still has plenty to work on. Like what? That's for the next book."

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