Jane Lynch: A Life Of 'Happy Accidents'

Sep 16, 2011
Originally published on September 16, 2011 8:43 am

It's a big week for Jane Lynch. Her memoir, Happy Accidents, was released on Tuesday, and this Sunday night, she'll be hosting the Primetime Emmy Awards. And she's a reasonably good bet to pick one up, too: her second in a row for playing the scheming cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on Fox's Glee. On Friday's Morning Edition, she talks to David Greene about her career, her book, and the difficult process of telling her parents she was gay.

Lynch learned perseverance early after she quit a school play in which she'd been cast because she was afraid of making mistakes. Despite the fact that wanting to be an actress was her "first conscious memory," she became so afraid of failing that she walked away from the project. "That is the last time I walked away from anything," she says. "I've been a yes person now for a long time."

One person to whom she eagerly said yes was director Christopher Guest, whose work on so-called "mockumentaries" like This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman she already admired when she met him when he directed her in a commercial for Frosted Flakes. Lynch and Guest ran into each other again later, and he cast her in his 2000 film Best In Show, where she played one-half of a dog-showing couple opposite Jennifer Coolidge. She went on to appear in Guest's A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, as well as Judd Apatow's wildly popular The 40 Year Old Virgin, where she played Steve Carell's sexually accommodating boss who sings him what she says is a Guatemalan love song. As Lynch explains, though, the words come from a Spanish textbook and in fact vow to blame her mother for cleaning her room.

But in spite of her many successes, Lynch says it wasn't easy for her when she told her parents she was gay. "I went to see a therapist," she says, "because I was just suffering so much over this alienation I felt from my family." The therapist convinced her to try writing her parents a letter, with the understanding that, of course, she didn't have to send it. But when she wrote it and the words came easily, she sent it after all — which, she says, was undoubtedly the point of the exercise.

As she cruises into her high-profile hosting gig this weekend, Lynch says she's learned a lot about how to approach her own limitations: "I think the most important thing is that it's not like I'm done growing and evolving, but I certainly have so much more compassion and kindness for myself, and I have cut myself some slack."

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Here are some facts about the woman who's going to be hosting the Emmy Award this Sunday. She used to be addicted to Miller Lite. She named her cat after Greta Garbo. She was so afraid of being on stage that she quit her first high school play, and then she went on to act alongside Harrison Ford and Meryl Streep.

Today you know her best as a brash, cheerleading coach named Sue Sylvester on the hit TV series "Glee."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Our assignment for Glee Club is to find a song that reflects our voice.

JANE LYNCH: (as Sue Sylvester) Yeah, you know what? I checked out of this conversation about a minute back. So good luck with your troubles, and I'm going to make it a habit not to stop and talk to students, ?cause this has been a colossal waste of my time.

GREENE: Another zinger from Coach Sue Sylvester who's played by actress Jane Lynch. On top of getting ready to host the Emmy's, Lynch has a new memoir out called "Happy Accidents." And she joins us from NPR West in California.

Jane, thank you for being here.

LYNCH: Thank you so much for having me.

GREENE: Sue Sylvester is very confident, among other things, but your own memoir introduces us to a Jane Lynch who is not so confident in much of your life. You quit a high school play because you were so afraid to mess up.

LYNCH: Yeah. Yeah, you know, I've always wanted to be an actress. It was my first conscious memory was that I want to do that, that they're doing on television and that they're doing on stage. And when I got my opportunity I was so afraid of blowing it that I walked away from it. And I'll tell you, that is the last time I walked away from anything.


LYNCH: And I've spent the rest of my life saying, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes maybe to things I should have left on the wayside. But I've been a yes-person now for a long time, and it works for me.

GREENE: You know, one person who seemed to really set your career on its course was director Christopher Guest.

LYNCH: Yeah.

GREENE: And you first met him on the set of a Frosted Flakes commercial?

LYNCH: Correct.

GREENE: So do you owe your career to cereal?


LYNCH: I guess from one perspective, I do. Yeah, I was doing a bunch of commercials. And I went to an audition and I saw that the director was Christopher Guest, and I was a huge fan from "Waiting for Guffman." And he cast me in this. And then at lunch, we were shooting, he said, You know, I do movies. And I was like I know, I saw "Guffman" and loved it.

GREENE: I'm aware of that.


LYNCH: Aware of that. Aware of your work. And "Spinal tap," of course. And he said, you know, maybe we'll get to work together someday and we left it at that. And then I happened to be at a restaurant about four or five months later...

GREENE: It was an accident. I mean you...

LYNCH: A happy accident.

GREENE: ...saw him in a cafe.

LYNCH: Yeah, I was - should I go to the Urth Caffe or the Newsroom. I decided the Newsroom. Christopher Guest walks in and he says, you know what, I had forgotten about you, but come to my office today. And by the end of the day, I had been cast in "Best in Show," and I would be going to Vancouver in a couple of months.

GREENE: "Best in Show," of course is that mocumentary about the competitive world of dog shows. And I'll never forget this scene.


LYNCH: (as Christy Cummings) With Sherri Ann, we have this fantastic friendship, too. It's really great. And we have a little bit of a family dynamic going here, and pretty much mirrors what I grew up with, you know. My father was the taskmaster, the...

JENNIFER COOLIDGE: (as Sherri Ann) Which is...

LYNCH: (as Christy Cummings) ...the disciplinarian, which is what I do. I'm the mommy/daddy.

COOLIDGE: (as Sherri Ann) Total disciplinarian.

LYNCH: (as Christy Cummings) That's right.

COOLIDGE: (as Sherri Ann) Like Mr. Punishment.


LYNCH: (as Christy Cummings) Oh well, you know, and I also reward. But Sherri is responsible for the unconditional love. You know, just...

COOLIDGE: (as Sherri Ann) And the decorative abilities.

LYNCH: (as Christy Cummings) Exactly. The heart and the soul, you know, which is what my mother did and that was her job. You know, she was there for the unconditional love and it worked for my family. You know, until my mom committed suicide in '81.

GREENE: Your character in "Best in Show," Christy, is gay. And you wrote about through your career, before that movie, struggling with the idea of coming out to the world, to your family. What was the struggle?

LYNCH: Well, you know, I grew up in Dolton, Illinois in the '70s. And there, nobody was gay. It wasn't talked about and I knew that I did not want to go out with boys. I knew I was different.

GREENE: You came out in a letter to your parents. Tell us about that letter.

LYNCH: I went to see a therapist because I was just suffering so much over this alienation I felt for my family. And I love my family. And she said, you know, you can tell them in a letter. You don't have to send it. Just write it. So, of course, it came flowing out and it was beautiful...

GREENE: No pressure, you're not sending it...

LYNCH: No pressure, I don't have to send it. But, of course, the ruse is that you do send it. And it had a happy ending.

GREENE: Can you just read from the book, just a couple of paragraphs about this very moment?

LYNCH: (Reading) I finished the letter and I felt good about how I'd expressed myself. I was able to articulate my fears and my hopes for the future. And the whole thing was just very cathartic. When I read the letter out loud in therapy, I got all choked up and felt like I might hurl. My lady therapist said that's lovely. I said I think I'll send it. And she said okay.

GREENE: A lot of your memoir is deeply, deeply personal. And one way you manage your fear of coming out - among other things - of being rejected, was drinking. What did alcohol offer you that theater and acting just couldn't?

LYNCH: Well, I don't know that I looked at it that way so much. I just knew that the first couple of times I drank and I got drunk, I really enjoyed the feeling.


LYNCH: And I chased that feeling for the next, you know, 15, 20 years. Every night, I went to the bar, hoping that the night would go really well. And, of course, it ended up kicking my butt. And, you know, you have enough of those nights and your consciousness starts to knock on the door there and says, you know, you need to look at this.

But yeah, I don't know that I drank because I was tiding(ph) that I was gay or was unhappy or whatever. It was just - it seemed to make me feel better and more comfortable in my body. But it rarely worked.

GREENE: You've played some pretty insane characters in your career. But I think my favorite may be from "40-Year-Old Virgin."


LYNCH: (as Paula) You know, Javier, before he made passionate, yet gentle, love to me for the first time, he serenaded me with a beautiful old Guatemalan love song.

STEVE CARELL: (as Andy) Really?


GREENE: Jane, tell us what's going on here.


LYNCH: Well, I am allowing Steve Carell - I've offered to myself to his character, Andy...

GREENE: Throwing yourself at him, really.

LYNCH: I've throwing myself at him. I said, you know, if you want to lose your virginity I am at your service.

GREENE: And what are you singing to him in Spanish, exactly?

LYNCH: It's a Guatemalan love song, which actually is a dialogue from a Spanish class in high school that I am so surprised I remember, because I've barely paid attention.

GREENE: It's a dialect from like a textbook? Like a Spanish language book?

LYNCH: From a textbook, ALM Spanish, yeah.

GREENE: Okay, and what do you...

LYNCH: Dialgo Number 1.

GREENE: Are you saying anything about romance, love?

LYNCH: Not at all. I'm saying: whenever I can't find anything, I blame my mother for cleaning my room. Where are my things?


GREENE: Just some of the typical stuff you'd say in the classroom.


LYNCH: Exactly. Everything is in its place and I'm going to a football game.

GREENE: Okay. Well, you are married now. You are clearly in love. You just seem to have found a real place of peace now.

LYNCH: Yeah, and I think the most important thing is it's not like I'm done growing, evolving.


LYNCH: But I certainly have so much more compassion and kindness for myself. And, you know, I have cut myself some slack.

GREENE: That's actress Jane Lynch who will be hosting the Emmys this Sunday night. Her memoir, "Happy Accidents," is out this week and you can read an excerpt at NPR.org

Jane, this has been a true pleasure. Thanks so much for joining us.

LYNCH: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Take care.

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.