There are a few certainties in Hollywood: Meryl Streep gets the nomination; gray hair makes George Clooney more handsome; and small indies outshine big studio productions every award season. When casting a comedy, insiders also know one other thing for certain—Jane Lynch is a genius.
You may not recognize her name, but if you've seen a funny movie or TV show in the last decade, chances are this actress has made you laugh. Since the early 1990s, Lynch has guest starred, co-starred and pretty much stolen the show in more than 100 productions, including Christopher Guest's ensemble comedies and movies like 40-Year-Old Virgin and Role Models .
After many small but memorable roles, Lynch is finally stepping into the spotlight. In 2009, she earned rave reviews as Dorothy, Julia Child's sister, in Julie & Julia . Lynch also co-starred alongside Alexis Bledel and comedy legend Carol Burnett in Post Grad , a coming-of-age film available on DVD January 12, 2010.
But in her breakout role of the year, Lynch plays Sue Sylvester, a sinister cheerleading coach whose one liners are so scathing you're not sure whether to laugh until you cry, or just cry. Sue is the villain on Fox's smash hit Glee , a dark comedy about a high school glee club.
Since Glee premiered in May 2009, its lyrical mash-ups, twisted storylines and Sue's track suits have helped attract millions of loyal viewers. Critics are also singing its praises. In December 2009, Glee earned four Golden Globe nominations—more than any other series on television—including a nod for Lynch for best performance by an actress in a supporting role.
Days before these nominations were announced, Oprah.com caught up with Lynch in a place more cut-throat than glee club sectionals—the mall. As she browsed for holiday gifts, Lynch reflected on her early days in Dolton, Illinois, a small town just south of Chicago, and how she turned childhood dreams into a career.
"I came out of the womb wanting to perform and act," she says. "I was not one of those people who kind of debated back and forth about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I knew what I wanted to do."
After graduating from high school, Lynch enrolled at Illinois State University as a Mass Communications major to appease her anxious parents who, she says, were worried she'd never get a job. "But by the end of my freshman year, I was a full-on theater major," she says. "I changed my major, and I don't think I even bothered to tell anybody."
Lynch went on to get a Master of Fine Arts at Cornell University, and even toyed with the idea of eschewing comedy altogether. "I thought I should be a very serious theater actor doing Shakespeare and the like," she says. "But what I really wanted to do was exactly what I am doing and be in ensemble comedies, especially the Christopher Guest stuff where we're making it up as we go along."
Before landing her first feature film role, Lynch's quick wit was tested at Chicago's Second City improv theater, a training ground for cut-ups like Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Steve Carrell and countless other comedians. In the 1990s, Lynch toured the country as Carol Brady in The Real Live Brady Bunch, a stage show that featured reenactments of TheBrady Bunch episodes.
"Flying by the seat of your pants is what you learn doing Second City and The Real Live Brady Bunch. It's being open to things not going like you thought they were going to be, and to be able to flow with that and roll with that," she says. "You never knew what was going to happen, and that was part of the fun too."
Lynch learned to think on her feet, a talent that served her well on the set of Guest's mockumentaries, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. In these films, the ensemble cast improvised most, if not all, the dialogue.
To this day, Lynch says she prefers big casts and small roles. "I never had any desire to be the only person," she says. "I don't like to be the star of something. I really liked working in a group."
Maybe this group mentality is what makes Lynch a perfect fit for Glee, which features an ensemble cast of young singers and one idealistic Spanish teacher, played by Broadway vet Matthew Morrison.
Every day, Lynch says she worships at the altar of the show's co-creators and writers, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, men who give her character some of the best lines in recent television history. "One of my favorite lines I got to say was, 'I'm going to go to my condo in Boca and brown up a bit,'" Lynch says.
On screen, Sue plots to destroy the New Directions glee club and its faculty adviser, Will Schuester. But in reality, Lynch says she relates more to the glee kids—or Gleeks—than to the popular cheerleaders (aka Cheerios) her character coaches.
"I identify very strongly, and this is going to be very telling, with Tina. Tina is played by Jenna Ushkowitz, and she's the quiet, stuttering Asian girl. She's quiet. She stands in the back, and when you hear her sing, you're like, 'Oh my gosh. Where did she come from? She has talent,'" Lynch says. "I was kind of that person. I was kind of in the background, and then, every once in awhile, I'd pop in and people would be like, 'Where did you come from?'"
In the first 13 episodes of the series—available on the DVD Glee Season 1: Road to Sectionals on December 29—fans have seen Sue swing dance, host politically incorrect segments on the local news and terrorize disabled high school students…but will she ever sing?
"Actually, there's something in the works, and I'm not allowed to say. But in the second episode, I'm going to have me a number. You're going to see me dance a little more," she says. "It's so funny…I have no business dancing. I am not a dancer, and this is my second number. I do the most complicated dance steps. Wait 'til you see it."
If Lynch could choose any song for her character's solo, she says two songs stand out—"Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" or Queen's "We Are the Champions."
As fans await Glee 's return to Fox in April 2010, Lynch will spend this time adjusting to life in the spotlight and focusing on her resolution for the new year. "[I want] to be open to and grateful for and accepting of all of the positive energy that's coming towards me, because it kind of overwhelms me," she says.
Lynch says she never imagined this level of success for herself. "The fact that I've gotten where I am, and I get to do this almost every day and get paid for it, is still kind of amazing," she says. "I still wake up in the middle of the night and go, 'Really?'"
Tune in to NBC on January 17, 2010, to see if Lynch's genius earns her a statuette at the 67th Annual Golden Globes . After all, as Sue says, "Never let anything distract you from winning."