On a quiet street in west Hollywood, an unassuming house sits behind a stone wall. From the outside, the house looks calm, peaceful, even, but walk past the wall and through the side door and familial chaos reigns.
A frankly adorable nine-year-old girl named Haden chases a small dog around the dining-room table, pausing only to push her spectacles back on to her nose, Little Miss Sunshine-style. Family friends stand around chatting and laughing. Lara Embry – Haden’s mother and a clinical psychologist – resides in her own oasis of calm, working at the table. Cats stalk in and out of the room.
“Hi there!” chirps the actor Jane Lynch, peeking out from around the corner, making an eye-roll that is definitely more fond than irritated. “Let’s go outside for some quiet. We’ll be out on the terrace, OK?” she says to her wife, Embry, with a smile, and briefly touches her shoulder.
For fans, this seems about as unlikely a setting in which to find Lynch as happening upon Clint Eastwood in a creche. Since her breakout role in Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Best in Show, in which Lynch played a gung-ho poodle trainer, she has become known for a very particular role in quality comedies.
“Yeah, the angry, scary, probably lonely woman who lives in her own delusions,” grins Lynch.
It’s a persona that she has perfected in films including The 40 Year Old Virgin and Role Models and it now defines her thanks to her enormously high-profile role as the demented cheerleader coach, Sue Sylvester, in hit TV show Glee. She riffed on this role when she was hosting the Emmys this year – itself a plum job for any performer to get – and it has made her one of the most beloved scene-stealers in American comedy, an industry not known for its support of female performers, let alone ones who are 51, as Lynch is. It also doesn’t particularly sound like a character ripe with comic potential. But as everyone who has seen her boasting about her “sick thoughts” in Role Models or monologuing about her work in “short films for more mature audiences” in A Mighty Wind knows, Lynch is one of those rare comic actors who doesn’t need to say things that are funny to get a laugh – she can make anything funny.
Lynch sees her comic approach slightly differently: “There’s a kind of comedy that is all about hitting the joke as quickly as possible, the wacka-wacka. It’s very masculine, I think, all about getting to the orgasm as soon as you can. And then there’s the feminine kind where you’re not so worried about getting to the end. You’re more like … ” She swims her hand up through the air, tadpole-like, “let’s just enjoy the process and not worry about the pay-off. That’s what I’m better at.”
In perhaps her best known dramatic role, she played not an angry woman but a strong and dominating one as Julia Child’s sister in Julie and Julia, opposite Meryl Streep, and more than held her own. Lynch’s career suggests that, contrary to received wisdom, being what Lynch describes as “a completely unfeminine woman” can work well for a female actor, particularly in comedies in which women are, all too often, relegated to the bland babe/girlfriend/wife roles. Tellingly, the role she played in The 40 Year Old Virgin, the terrifying manager of an electronics store who alternately bullies and propositions a petrified Steve Carell, was originally written for a man.
“It’s always a good idea to go up for the male roles. You go up against a bunch of beefy guys and the casting director then feels smart for taking you on, like he’s the one who thought outside the box,” she smiles.
In person, Lynch is strikingly beautiful and appealingly straightforward. She speaks at a decidedly un-California clip, but is warm, friendly and at times disarmingly open, happy not only to answer absolutely any question, but eagerly ushers me into her bedroom at one point to introduce me to her cat, Greta.
“She’s named after Garbo,” she says, smiling fondly at the pet. “God, I was in love with her. Nothing like falling in love with a dead actress to prove your sanity.”
Lynch’s candour and comfort with self-revelation, as well as her knack for self-deprecation, are all on show in her excellent and often surprising autobiography, Happy Accidents. While the book contains plenty of hilarious lines (“Like any good, closeted young lesbian of the 70s,” the second chapter memorably begins, “I developed a raging crush on Ron Howard”), these are far outweighed by the evocative descriptions of the intense anger, loneliness and confusion that Lynch has known in her life. They are related with a lack of self-pity that is as rare in celebrity autobiographies as the self-knowledge and biting honesty that characterises the book, and can only come from long years of therapy and marriage to a psychologist.
It is, in the best of senses, brutal and ego-free, and it shows that Lynch herself was once as far removed as her characters from the happy domestic bliss in which she now lives.
Lynch was born in Dolton, Illinois, just south of Chicago, the middle child in a typical middle-class family, in middle America, in the middle of the 20th century. She always felt, she says, “a sense of alienation” and when she was 12, she realised, then quickly suppressed, why. One day two girls from school were describing a recent holiday to Florida where they’d seen “boys holding hands with each other on the beach … because they’re gay.” They said this in a tone of “scandal and disgust, as if the subjects were the sexual proclivities of circus freaks”, Lynch writes in her book, and she immediately thought “that’s what I have. I’m the girl version of that.” This epiphany was promptly squashed with the self-issued edict: “No one can ever, ever know.”
Thus followed years, decades really, of Lynch suffering from self-loathing and self-harm, which manifested itself, variously, through outward prickliness, alcoholism and youthful quasi-homophobia. She fought with her best school friend because of “his open homosexuality … I pushed him away for what I was afraid of in me,” she writes. At university there was only one out lesbian in her theatre course: “Needless to say,” Lynch writes, “I didn’t want anything to do with her.”
In light of her own youthful fear of homosexuality in others – which was, of course, just an expression of self-loathing – how does Lynch view the many American politicians who seem to see homophobia as a political credential? Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has described homosexuality as “a sexual dysfunction” and her husband, Marcus, runs a Christian counselling service which, it has been claimed, teaches homosexuals to “pray away the gay”.
“The people who get the biggest charge out of the anti-gay thing are people who have something going on with them. There is probably some suppression on both of their parts about their sexuality,” shrugs Lynch. “She [Bachmann] is just outrageous. She has to be one of the most mentally ill people to run for president.”
Lynch herself thought, for a long time, that being gay would preclude a happy, “normal” life (almost as if she were trying her best to force normality upon herself, she went to college at Illinois State which is, sweetly, in Normal, Illinois.) Decades later, after finding romantic happiness with Embry, she resisted her girlfriend’s desire for marriage because there was still a part of her that thought marriage was only for straight people and gays were not, she says, in a dropped voice, “entitled”.
“It’s amazing how those thoughts cling to you,” she says with a shake of her head.
Even after she came out to herself, tentatively, in college, she would lash out at anyone who tried to love her. When a young woman Lynch met in her early 20s “committed the cardinal sin of liking me … it made me want to punish her,” she writes.
“So much of Sue Sylvester, the angry woman, came from that part of my life, wanting to crush other people’s dreams and judging others so harshly which is always just a way of deflecting your own self-judgment,” Lynch smiles sanguinely, looking the opposite of a dream crusher as she strokes Haden’s hair (who has now joined us). “I just hadn’t learned how to make it funny then.”
Did all that anger come from anxiety about her sexuality?
“That was really only one factor. I think I came wired with an extra helping of angst,” she replies.
When she was 31 she stopped drinking after walking into her bathroom one too many times to find vomit from the night before, and no recollection of how it got there. Did she drink to quiet that inner Sue Sylvester who judged herself so harshly and suffered so much angst?
“Oh yeah. I chased that soft cotton place that alcohol brought me, that ‘click’ as they say in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, that,” she makes a blissful sigh, “even though I only got it a few times. But I chased it.” (In typical Lynch fashion, she self-deprecates her credentials as an alcoholic, writing how she suffered “drunkalogue envy” of others she met in Alcoholics Anonymous with their “horrible” stories: “And here I was with my Miller Lite and … occasional unremembered vomit in the bathroom.”)
Yet throughout her unhappy teens and early adulthood, Lynch knew that she wanted to be an actor and, despite her best attempts at self-sabotage and bouts of self-doubt, she worked pretty consistently. After college, she was briefly part of The Second City, the legendary comedy school and theatre from which Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Amy Poehler emerged. When Lynch was there Carell, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris were all there, but Lynch was told, heartbreakingly, that she would never be part of the main stage company. But she fell right on her feet when she promptly got a job with the even more prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre, and she proceeded to work as a jobbing actor for the next decade. Yet despite “living what I thought was the dream”, she says, she was desperately unhappy and lonely. In one memorably bleak passage in the book Lynch describes living in New York in her early 30s and, too shy to ask if she can share an apartment with her theatre friends, ends up staying in a room in what is basically a convent run by the Salvation Army. She had just stopped drinking but not self-medicating:
“To pass the endless hours before I could leave for the show without being ridiculously early,” she writes, “I’d close the drapes of my tiny room, take a swig of Nyquil, toast with a simple ‘Bye-bye’ and go into a deep sleep.”
But things began to improve. First, she finally came out to her family (who were all completely fine about it “but my mom, bless her, had one question: ‘What about Ronny Howard?'”) and her career began to take off. She got a small but significant part in The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, a part that – incidentally – was originally written for a man (“Harrison could do some powerful silent fuming but, overall, we got along well”) and, with the “bossy know-it-all-vibe I gave off, I created a little niche for myself, [and] no one was competing with me for it,” she writes. By now, deeply in therapy, she was slowly gaining confidence and the ensuing professional success helped that. A chance meeting at a cafe with Christopher Guest led to her being cast in Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, which in turn led to led to the other films and a slew of TV spots, such as on Two and a Half Men (“Charlie Sheen,” she writes in one of the few doubtful moments in her autobiography, “is a kind-hearted gentleman who was loved by the cast and crew”) and, eventually, Glee, which was pretty much written for Lynch.
It was just after Glee first aired in 2009 that Lynch was asked to present an award at the National Center for Lesbian Rights gala in San Francisco, and was approached by Lara Embry. Hours later they were making out in Embry’s room. A year later, they were married.
“I was obviously attracted to her but in that attraction I could see a calm and it just made me go – ” and she makes another blissful sigh, a longer one than when she was talking about alcohol – “and I think I’ve added, for better or worse, agitation to her life – but she goes along with it. Our differences really brought us together,” she says.
One of those big differences was that Embry had a daughter, Haden, and Lynch had absolutely never considered having a child.
“But when I met Haden, it felt like this was the child I had been waiting for. Hey! What you doing there?” she suddenly calls out to Haden, who has sneaked away from Lynch’s side.
“Climbing a tree!” replies Haden.
“Don’t like it!” says Lynch, nervously. “Lara! Do something!”
“Oh, she’s OK …” calls out Embry, and Lynch settles, slowly, calmly back in her chair.
One of the loveliest moments in the book comes when Lynch wins a Golden Globe for Glee. Just a few years earlier she had barely been able to watch herself in Best in Show, wincing at what she, wrongly, perceived were all her performance flaws. But when her name is announced at the Golden Globes she stands up: “‘Jane Lynch’, I thought, ‘You’re damn right, Jane Lynch!'”
Lynch was inspired to write the book by the It Gets Better Project last year, in which celebrities, gay and straight, made videos telling gay teenagers that things won’t always be so difficult.
“And that really is so true for me. It’s just the height of irony that I play this angry character [Sue Sylvester] who wants to belong to something warm and welcoming. And now I finally have that.”
“Look at me, I’m a cat!”
Haden has managed to evade the eyes of both her mothers again and has scrambled up the wall, lying atop like, as she says, a cat. Embry hurries out of the house, looks at her daughter and laughs. Lynch, taking, once again, the mothering cue from her wife, relaxes as well. Haden grins at her mothers proudly.
“Well, now, look at this,” murmurs Lynch. “Isn’t it perfect?”
Hadley Freeman, The Guardian