08.06.09

Jane Lynch on Playing Meryl Streep's Sister

The six-foot-tall darling of Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow films is about to act opposite Hollywood's towering doyenne. She’ll try to keep the fart jokes under wraps.

Jane Lynch is a “that girl” actress—the one who’s appeared in various beloved cult films, but who can still dine in relative anonymity in a public place. “They want me to explain who I am,” she says of people who recognize her on the street, “and I’ll size ‘em up and think what I think they might have seen, and already I’m taking up too much time with this person that I don’t want to have a conversation with.”

This, despite her consistently rising star, ever since Christopher Guest cast her as a lesbian dog trainer in 2000’s Best in Show, and despite her roles in several big-budget “guy” movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Role Models, and Talladega Nights. (She’s also found plenty of work in prime-time television, with parts in Two and a Half Men, The L Word, and Party Down.)

“When I was a little girl, I played hardball with all the boys. Every day, the only girl.”

This Friday the six-foot-tall comedienne takes on a small but showy dramatic role as Julia Child’s sister in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia (amazingly, she’s slightly small for the role—in reality, Dorothy McWilliams was six-foot-four). And this fall she’ll star as a comically abusive cheerleading coach on Ryan Murphy’s Fox series  Glee. She spoke to The Daily Beast about getting punk’d out of a trip to Paris, being a member of the boys’ club, and her totally inappropriate love of fart jokes.

How did Nora Ephron cast you in Julie & Julia?

I met her at the premiere of Mighty Wind and then I saw her socially a few times, and when she was getting ready to do this movie, we had lunch in New York and she asked me if I wanted to play Meryl Streep’s sister. And I took about a second and I decided, yes, I would. I think I was the tallest actress she knew. So she said, “You’ll get a free trip to Paris out of it.” And then she found locations for us to shoot that were better in New York, so I didn’t get to go to Paris at all.

Your costars have talked about gaining weight during filming. Did you?

No. I was very nervous about working with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. I was really kind of beside myself. And I did a lot of walking in New York, and I lost, like, eight pounds. I looked fantastic, frankly.

How did Christopher Guest cast you in Best in Show?

He directs commercials. He directed these Healthy Choice commercials that I’m in now with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and I did a Frosted Flakes commercial with him in 1999. It was about a husband and wife team stalking Tony the Tiger in Battle Creek, Michigan. I ran into him at a restaurant six months later. He said, “I forgot all about you. Why don’t you come into my office?” And by the time I left the office I was going to do Best in Show.

He’s said to be extremely quiet.

Yes, and there’s nothing worse for an actor than to be around a quiet person. Because you start talking like crazy, you try to fill the space, you try to impress him because you think him being quiet means he doesn’t approve of you. Many actors become blabbering idiots around him just because he’s quiet! I had to have a little bit of self-therapy: “He’s not judging you, Jane. He’s just a quiet person and you don’t need constant affirmation.” His wife is eccentric, and he is the exact opposite: He’s concentric. And between the two of them, they make a normal person. Jamie Lee [Curtis]’s energy is very accessible and open-hearted. She touches you and she’s very warm and Christopher is just not that person.

How would you describe your humor?

It’s pretty sophomoric. Sometimes it revolves around farting. I’m almost 50 years old! It’s rather tragic. The actual poop I don’t think is funny. I draw the line at the actual poop. I also like the word “chimichanga.”

What would you like to sing on Glee?

“Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, about how she sacrificed everything for these kids. In five years I’m sure I’ll be playing Mama Rose at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Are you recognized a lot?

Recently a guy came up to me and asked me how my home in Brazil was. I don’t know who he thought I was. And then another woman insisted I was the provost of a small university in Southern Florida. And she was like “Come on, of course you are.” Then there’s, “Where do I know you from?” They want me to explain who I am, and I’ll size ‘em up and think what I think they might have seen and already I’m taking up too much time with this person that I don’t want to have a conversation with. Before I know it I’m having a conversation with a person who’s sucking the life out of me and I don’t even have time for people I care about.

It sounds like the character actor’s version of the paparazzi.

Exactly. People who don’t quite know who we are and they know they should know and you have to explain for 15 minutes who you are.

How does it feel being part of so many comedy boys’ clubs?

When I was a little girl, I played hardball with all the boys. Every day, the only girl. And I got picked on a lot. When I’m on set, every once in a while I look up and I’m the only girl, but now everyone’s really nice to me.

Marshall Heyman is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who has worked at The New Yorker and at W. He writes for Harper's Bazaar, W, In Style, Teen Vogue and the New York Times Sunday Styles as well as many other publications.