Best in Show

6 minute read
Laura Fitzpatrick

“I’m going to ask you to smell your armpits,” Sue Sylvester informs two misbehaving cheerleaders. “That’s the smell of failure, and it’s stinking up my office.” Sylvester, the cheerleading coach on Fox’s smash teen-musical show, Glee, is a tyrant in a tracksuit: she claims to have had her tear ducts removed, and in one episode from the show’s first season, she appears on local TV to advocate corporal punishment for kids. (“Yes, we cane!”) But Sylvester saves her fiercest bile for the members of McKinley High’s Glee club, New Directions. “I will go to the animal shelter and get you a kitty cat,” she tells their chipper coach, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison). “I will let you fall in love with that kitty cat. And then, on some dark, cold night, I will steal away into your home and punch you in the face.”

Jane Lynch, the 49-year-old actress who wields Sue’s bullhorn, has made a career out of playing a hard-ass. But in person, as it happens, Lynch is nice. She smiles easily and gushes over the show’s writers, her castmates and her fans. In the earnestness department, in fact, she isn’t too far removed from the Glee clubbers themselves.

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Over lunch at a Manhattan hotel shortly before Glee‘s April 13 return from a four-month hiatus, Lynch characterizes the show’s student singers, without irony, as “a group that just wants to make a joyful noise.” She tears up recalling her own high school choir experience. She bursts into song. Five times. And though she says Sue Sylvester “doesn’t live too far from the surface,” the Glee character she feels the most kinship with is Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz), a wallflower who fakes a stutter to mask her shyness and generally confines herself to the chorus. “She’s kind of in the background … but then she steps up to sing and you go, ‘Oh, my God, what a voice,'” says Lynch. “I was definitely like that in high school. I would step out occasionally and show what I had, and people would go, ‘Wow, that’s something.’ And then I would kind of recede back.”

It’s a pattern that could just as handily describe Lynch’s career. After years of acting in commercials, minor films and TV shows (her 1988 turn in Vice Versa, she half jokes, is “a hard thing to watch”), she caught a break as a lesbian poodle trainer in Christopher Guest’s 2000 mockumentary, Best in Show. (“She’s as smart as anyone I think I’ve probably ever met,” says Guest, who tailored the role to suit Lynch’s talents.) Over the next decade, she delivered impeccably timed comic performances in a slew of roles, among them a porn star turned folksinger in A Mighty Wind (2003), an unctuous lawyer on Showtime’s The L Word (2005), a guidance counselor with a past in Role Models (2008) and Julia Child’s sister in a critically acclaimed turn opposite Meryl Streep in last summer’s Julie & Julia. All of them, however, were bit parts — characters, as Lynch puts it, with a “function”: to advance the plot or help the central characters grow without sticking around long enough to grow themselves. Now, with her role in Glee — which has earned her a Golden Globe nomination and helped clinch an ensemble win for Best TV Series (Comedy or Musical) — Lynch has been nudged firmly into the spotlight, whether she likes it or not.

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A native of small-town Illinois and an alumna of the Second City improv comedy troupe (where she shared the stage with The Office’s Steve Carell, with whom she would later appear in 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Lynch always wanted to act and recalls few moments of doubt that she’d make it. That took some doing, considering that by 1999 she was 38 and had spent seven years in L.A. on a “relentless” but only marginally fruitful quest for comedy, acting and singing gigs. But that spring, she ran into Christopher Guest in a local restaurant; the pair had worked together six months earlier on a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercial. He asked her to drop by his office, she recalls, and by the end of the day, Lynch was cast in Best in Show. The film — a loose, often improvised look at the odd world of competitive dog breeding — suited the appetite for collaboration that Lynch whetted at Second City: “I’m not playing small by being in an ensemble,” she says. “It’s my favorite way to work.” Her co-stars enjoy her too. “There are only a few people out there who are universally beloved,” says Paul Rudd, who worked with Lynch in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Role Models. “Everybody knows how funny she is. The biggest challenge is not laughing while you’re doing a scene with her.”

Finding a Home with Glee

Standing 6 ft. (1.8 m) tall in gym shoes, Lynch has often gotten screen time by taking on parts intended for men. “My first role in high school was the king in a one-act version of ‘The Princess and the Pea,'” she recalls. “It started the pattern.” (In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, she plays Carell’s boss — a part originally written for a guy — with lecherous absurdity.) But Glee is the first chance audiences have had to watch Lynch inhabit a featured character over time.

A regular role has its personal perks for Lynch. Notably, she gets to work in Los Angeles, where she lives. (She’s settling down in other ways too: Lynch recently confirmed her engagement to psychologist Lara Embry.) On a professional level, she notes, the plus is that “I actually have an arc.” Determined not to see New Directions upend the high school pecking order that places her cheerleaders on top — or the budget priorities that let her send her dry cleaning to Europe — Sylvester tries at every turn to thwart the group’s success. But she also gets her own story lines. In one plot twist, for instance, scheming Sue was revealed to be the loving caretaker of a sister living with Down syndrome. In the forthcoming second half of the season (Fox put the show on ice in December, reportedly to clear the decks for American Idol), she will sing, get bullied and collaborate on a music video with Olivia Newton-John (one of Lynch’s go-to choices for real-life karaoke — “‘Sam’ is my favorite,” she says, singing a few bars).

With Glee picked up for a second season, Sue will do a whole lot more than that in the future. For now, Lynch is enjoying every minute — with a fervor that Sue would never tolerate. “I’ve been around the block. I know it doesn’t happen all the time,” says Lynch of Glee‘s success. “It’s kind of a blessed thing.”

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