On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with Jane Lynch about her career as an Emmy-winning actor, improv comedian, and quiz show host. They discussed how she prepares for performing improv, what it takes to work on a game show, and why she enjoys playing characters with a dark side. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: How do you slip into the kind of person who’s larger than life, over the top? Nobody in real life is like Sue Sylvester on Glee.
Jane Lynch: People are like that in real life! I’m taking it from real life. I’ve seen people who walk into a room and they’re all full of themselves. You can see right through to the syrupy little sense of self they really have. Sometimes people walk into a room and they have a natural power. It’s graceful, and it’s something that you go, “Oh, I would trust that person.” But this person walks into the room and you inherently do not trust them. It’s not organic. It’s covering up some insecurities that, ultimately, you’re going to see. Eventually, if you line up with this person and think they’re going to be trustworthy, they will turn on you, because they’re that small. I’m fascinated with that kind of person.
With Sue Sylvester, they gave me a very good reason for why I acted that way: I had a sister with Down syndrome, and I spent most of my life protecting her. I took on this militaristic thing when, deep down inside, my heart was breaking for the vulnerability of my sister in this very cruel world. So I was protecting her, but it’s a very thin veneer—about as thin as her track suit.
It must have been great knowing that your wardrobe, every single episode, will be yet another tracksuit.
The best. Like pajamas.
You sang so many times in Glee, but I remember when you did “Vogue,” that was presented as, “Sue’s really going to sing.” Partly it was because she looked so different—Marilyn Monroe–ish , Madonna-ish. Do you still remember preparing for that particular song?
I do. It was a big deal for me. It was a big deal for Ryan Murphy. He was so excited to do it. He oversaw every detail of that. We basically remade the “Vogue” video shot for shot. We even used a lot of the original set pieces. They happen to be at Paramount. The dancing was quite challenging for me. I worked on it for quite a long time. We kept pushing the date of shooting. He kept pushing it because his schedule was so wacky at that point. He was so busy, so I was very grateful to have the extra time to get that dance in my body.
Did being Sue Sylvester all those years help you, now that you seem to be getting so many of these roles of larger-than-life characters? Does Sue inform Sophie Lennon, from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, in a way?
Sure, because Sue is informed by Jane Lynch, and Jane Lynch plays Sophie. Sophie isn’t the character she plays, who was much more free and joyful, how Sophie wishes she were. Sophie’s very tightly wound and, again, deeply, deeply insecure. The elite, seemingly eruditeness of her is a complete act, and she can’t go anywhere without a couple of servants.
She has no real friendships. She’s always just creating an outside, a veneer, and hopes that people won’t dig too deeply. Of course, Susie Myerson, played by Alex Borstein, can see right through it. She’s of the streets. She knows when someone is putting on airs. And Sophie really has no idea that Susie can see through her until the very end of this last season.
Nora Ephron said that she cast you in Julie & Julia because you’re the tallest actress she knew. It was your height that got you that job in a rare noncomedic role. What was that like? Was it very different playing that kind of role?
It was a comedic role. In real life, Julia Child and her sister were very, very close and came from the same mold. They were very big physically and boisterous and loved life—they just enjoyed everything, the way they would eat food. I don’t think of that as a straight role.
I met Nora Ephron at the premiere of A Mighty Wind. She was coming out of the bathroom, and I was going in. I was thrilled to meet her. She said, “Maybe we’ll work together someday.” Within about six months, I got a call, and she said, “You’re the tallest person I know.” She said, “How would you like to go to Paris and shoot a movie?” And I said, “Oh, I would love to.”
It ended up that I didn’t go to Paris because they didn’t have a railway station—or they didn’t have one that didn’t have Pepsi-Cola signs and advertising. But there is a train station that is kind of locked in the 1930s—in Hoboken, New Jersey!