If at First You Don’t Succeed

UPDATED: October 10, 2011
PUBLISHED: October 10, 2011

When actress Jane Lynch finally attained accolades and fame, one TV critic claimed it was a sign, perhaps from God, “that things will soon be turning around for the rest of us. The Dow will regain its previous high, the ozone layer will close… all will be right with the world.”

He had a point. Although Jane Lynch was not a household name, she had a résumé as long as her 6-foot frame and a face that was instantly recognizable from any one of her hilarious turns in roles like the perfectionist poodle handler in Best in Show or the libidinous store manager in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Despite her credentials, it wasn’t until she nabbed the role of Sue Sylvester, the fire-breathing, tracksuit-wearing skipper of the McKinley High cheerleading squad on the hit show Glee, that everyone came to know who Jane Lynch was. And that was when her mantel began to fill up with Emmy, Golden Globe and People’s Choice Award statuettes.

Lynch grew up in Chicago, the middle child in a Norman Rockwell-esque family that sat down to the dinner table at the same time every night. Despite her cheery Midwestern upbringing, though, she says she was “born with an extra helping of angst.” Wracked with insecurities, she says she always felt like an outsider. Perhaps because she was so uncomfortable in her own skin, she took a liking to acting and knew from a very young age that it was her true calling.

During her freshman year in high school, she was cast in a production of The Ugly Duckling. But when rehearsals started, she became “paralyzed with fear” and quit. “I was face to face with my destiny, and I walked away from it rather than risk failure,” she writes in her book Happy Accidents , which hit stores in September. “I knew I had killed the thing I most wanted in the world.”

‘Somehow I Kept Going’

Her youthful reaction to stage fright haunted her for years—and propelled her. Committing herself to her craft, she obtained a theater degree from Illinois State and a master’s in fine arts from Cornell and then took whatever voiceover, commercial, guest spot, bit part or other gig came her way. Her agent even joked at one point that she’d work for “a buck fifty and a steak,” suggesting she might want to be a bit more selective. But her passion for acting, mixed with her self-doubt and panic about not knowing where her next paycheck was coming from, wouldn’t allow it. “I lived very in the moment, with my head down, just trying to get the next job,” she recalls.

So how could someone so admittedly angst-ridden and lacking in self-confidence survive a career so wrought with rejection? “You know, I don’t know how I did it,” Lynch admits in a phone interview during a break in filming of the Farrelly Brothers’ upcoming comedy The Three Stooges, “because I could be crushed just by a look. But I kept going because I loved it so much. Somehow I kept going.”

Lynch’s fortitude paid off—whether she knew it at the time or not. Because for every desperation job she took, she walked away with an experience that ultimately made her the skilled actress and comedian she is today. Case in point: In 1987, Lynch took a part as a hostess on America’s Shopping Place, one of the country’s first home shopping shows. She and her co-host—a perky blonde named Kendy Kloepfer—worked the overnight shift, hawking everything from grandfather clocks to electronic flea collars. “Television home shopping was uncharted territory, so we had to fly by the seat of our pants and make things up as we went along,” Lynch recalls. Little did she know that the ability to ad-lib would soon pay off when, a few months later, she auditioned for Second City, Chicago’s renowned improv theater troupe. “Improvisational theater scared me. It required basically making something out of nothing. At the time, I failed to see that this was what I had been doing all along on America’s Shopping Place.”

Being Able to Breathe… Finally

By taking other roles that supposedly more serious actors might have snubbed their noses at, Lynch was able to forge working relationships that resulted in future offers. In fact, it was a Frosted Flakes commercial—one in which she and her TV husband stalk Tony the Tiger, no less—that led to her first big break. Kellogg’s had hired director Christopher Guest, fresh off the success of his hilarious send-up Waiting for Guffman, and when it came time for Guest to cast his next movie, Best in Show, he remembered Lynch and chose her for the part of Christy Cummings, the overly zealous dog trainer. The result was a standout performance in a film now considered a cult classic. “I never would have thought that flacking Frosted Flakes could do so much for my career,” quips Lynch.

Roles in subsequent Guest films followed, as did a catalog of more than a hundred parts in everything from Dawson’s Creek to The West Wing. One of those jobs, as a character on a 2001 episode of the WB series Popular, led to Lynch’s next big break—the one that’s been a real game changer, the one that has fans coming up to her on the street and professing their love, the one that has her spouting some of the most memorable lines in TV history, like “I’m going to ask you to smell your armpits. That’s the smell of failure, and it’s stinking up my office.”

On Popular, Lynch worked with writer-director Ryan Murphy, and made such an impression on him that he insisted on her for the role of the cantankerous cheerleading coach on his new show, Glee. Her life, and career, would never be the same.

In addition to starring on one of TV’s top shows, Jane Lynch has recently found success—and finally comfort—in her private life as well, getting married to clinical psychologist Lara Embry earlier this year, and becoming a co-parent to Embry’s two young daughters. “Do you know that feeling, when you finally arrive somewhere after a long trip, of being able to relax and breathe?” Lynch writes in her book. “Like you are free to focus on where you are rather than on how to get where you want to be? This is how I feel much of the time these days.”

Fighting Who She Was

It wasn’t always smooth sailing getting to that point. For years, Lynch drank to help cope with the anxiety she felt and the loneliness that often came along with her line of work. Eventually, she realized she had a problem, but every time she thought about stopping, she says she started to panic. “It felt like my best friend was dying,” is how she describes it. But then she remembered something she had read in a book, The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav, which said that every time you say no to your addiction, you fund power for yourself. “I was struck sober,” she says of the ensuing epiphany. “I woke up one morning, literally and metaphorically, and the need to drink and be that person who was a drinker and struggling and trying not to drink went away.”

Lynch also struggled with her sexuality, not even coming out to her parents until she was 32. “I spent so much time fighting who I am and wishing I was someone else and was in another place,” she says, “that I wasted a lot of time and experienced a lot of suffering I didn’t need to.”

Today, she’s finally learned to accept herself. But it was a long, often bumpy road, whose twists and turns she bravely negotiates throughout the pages of Happy Accidents . Perhaps putting it all down on paper has helped Lynch get to a place where she can look back and reflect. “You really do have to get out there and get in the world and be open. And not look at things that might have been mistakes as mistakes, but as part of everything just leading you to the fact that where you are is exactly where you need to be. I mean, when I got that, all the anxiety fell away.”

‘Everything You Do Will Get a Laugh’

That peace of mind that comes with age and experience doesn’t mean she doesn’t still have her moments. Like the time back in 2010, when she was nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actress for her role on Glee. “I always thought I’d be on cloud nine if I got an acting award nomination, but instead, I was somewhat unnerved by it,” says Lynch. “I found myself struggling a bit with those age-old feelings of unworthiness. When I tried to muster a feeling of ‘deserving’ the nomination, I could still feel the effect of my mother’s aversion to show-offs and braggarts. At 49 years old!” But after the initial wave of emotion, she says, “I found my balance and arrived at a place of equanimity.”

By the following year, when she was nominated again for her portrayal of cheerleading ogre Sue Sylvester, Lynch says she was able to accept the nod without “having it rock my sense of self” and was even a little excited and looking forward to the ceremony.

She’s been to a fair amount of award shows since (she was even tapped as the host of the Emmys this year) and has made her share of acceptance speeches. After one such event, she had a brief encounter with actor Alec Baldwin. He took her by the arm and said, “You know that big laugh you got at the SAG Awards just looking into the camera when they announced your nomination?… People expect you to be funny, and from now on, everything you do will get a laugh. That’s the good news and the bad news.” It was great advice, she says, adding, “What’s funny and works for me today may not be funny and work for me tomorrow. I have to allow my work to evolve and grow, which in the future will hopefully mean that I won’t be throwing a new generation of kids into the lockers with an adult diaper under my trackie.”

But Lynch doesn’t lose sleep over any of that—not anymore. Asked if there’s anything she hasn’t accomplished that she wants to try, she says, “For the rest of my life I want to be perfectly content with where I am in any moment.”