“Sorry, I have a little alfalfa sprout coming out of my head,” says Jane Lynch, attempting to smooth down a stray strand from her signature blonde crop as we begin our chat. If you’ve seen Lynch’s formidable turn as psychopathic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester in Glee (sample line: “I’m engorged with venom and triumph”), you might imagine that an audience with her would be a pretty formidable prospect. But even over video call, Lynch radiates self-deprecating charm, greeting me with a burst of opera (The Barber of Seville, in tribute to my surname), cracking jokes, and generally doing her best to outdo the sunshine that streams through the windows of her LA living room.

The 62-year-old actor is currently promoting Party Down, a cult-favourite Starz sitcom that’s back after a 13-year hiatus. The show is a cynical look at a bunch of LA actors who are running a catering service while trying (and mostly failing) to hit the big time. But ironically, its second series came to an abrupt end shortly after Lynch landed the Glee job, and her co-star Adam Scott left for Parks and Recreation. “Everyone’s careers have taken off since Party Down,” she says, “so getting us all back together was like herding cats. I didn’t believe it was happening until I was in my wardrobe fitting and I thought, ‘Huh, they’ve spent money on this.’”

Now, its characters can pick up where they left off: older, but definitely not wiser. Especially in the case of Lynch’s lovably bonkers character Constance Carmel, who is a refreshing break from the nightmarish girl bosses Lynch more usually plays: “I tend to play type A, aggressive, extroverted people but she’s just very chill, very happy with her life,” says Lynch. “She’s kind of like Yoda, minus the wisdom.”

Party Down TV Still Starzplay Lionsgate https://presskit.lionsgateplus.com/uk/
Jane Lynch and Megan Mullally in Party Down (Photo: Starzplay)

Carmel’s laidback hippie vibes extend to waxing lyrical about her ayahuasca experiences. But does Lynch have her own bohemian side?

She reels off her kooky credentials: “I love astrology, I love stories about near-death experiences, UFOs… I don’t believe we’re alone in this world. And I go deep. I haven’t done ayahuasca, but last year, I did mushrooms by myself in our guesthouse.” She gives a fruity chuckle. “I wanted to transcend this human form. This can’t be all there is! I’ve heard people can break through to the other side but it didn’t happen for me. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I was just doubled over laughing, then I’d open my eyes going, ‘Oh god, I’m still high!’”

Lynch clearly had a great time filming Party Down. “It was a blast! We knew we were making something really, really funny because we were laughing all the time,” she says. But the sitcom contains darker themes, too, exploring the jealous agonies of seeing someone else get the job your whole life seemed to be leading towards. And despite her goodnatured attitude to life, Lynch can relate. When she was a struggling early career comedian, “I just remember hating people I knew who got onto SNL [star-making American telly improv show Saturday Night Live]. I wasn’t a gracious loser.”

GLEE: Coach Beiste (guest star Jone Shannon, L), Will (Matthew Morrison, R) and Sue (Jane Lynch, C) argue in Principal Figgins' office in "Audition" the season premiere episode of GLEE airing Tuesday, Sept. 21 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2010 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Adam Rose/FOX
Coach Beiste ( Dot-Marie Jones), Will (Matthew Morrison) and Sue (Jane Lynch) in Glee (Photo: Adam Rose/FOX)

“The theme of these new episodes is ‘When should you let the dream die?’ which is an interesting question,” Lynch continues. It’s clearly a question that hits home for an actor whose career didn’t really take off until she was cast in goofy canine mockumentary Best In Show (2000) at the age of 40.

As her big birthday loomed, Lynch had come perilously close to giving up. “I had a four-hour period in 1999 when I was hiking up Runyon Canyon and I was feeling despondent,” she says. “I was getting work but I wasn’t getting the good stuff. And I was tired. I bumped into a friend at the top of the climb and said, ‘I’m giving up,’ and she said” – Lynch adopts a tone of utter Sue Sylvester-esque contempt – “‘No you’re not.’ So I didn’t. And by the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I was back in the game.”

Just a few months later, she was on the set of Best in Show, hitting it off with co-star Jennifer Coolidge as she played her dog trainer and (it’s heavily implied) lesbian lover. “We were both new to Christopher Guest movies, and we were both scared to death,” she says, explaining that they had to improvise all their lines as the camera rolled. “But I recognised immediately that this is a funny person. Just walking through the park with her was endlessly entertaining: her thought processes are so different. If you’re gonna hang out with her you kind of have to be her caretaker.”

Like Lynch, it took a while for Coolidge’s offbeat talents to find mainstream acclaim. But after Coolidge’s memorable, meme-able turn in White Lotus, Lynch is basking in her friend’s success: “I always said that the world has to catch up with Jennifer Coolidge, and now the world has.”

BEST IN SHOW - The owners (and handlers) of five show dogs head for the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. A film crew interviews them as they prepare for the trip, arrive at Philly's Taft Hotel, and compete. Film Still SEAC
Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge in Best In Show (Photo: Warner Brothers Entertainment)

More recently, Lynch teamed up with another cult-favourite actor, Beanie Feldstein, in a Broadway production of musical comedy Funny Girl. But it wasn’t the same unqualified success. “The reviews were mixed…” I say, in a futile attempt at tact (“Feldstein falls flat on Broadway,” ran the NY Post headline). “The reviews were terrible,” she says, in her gravelly deadpan. “But the minute you walk into that theatre, none of that exists. You’re a team. And Beanie was such a great team leader. She was endlessly positive and cheerful.”

Lynch opted to leave the cast of Funny Girl two days before her former Glee co-star Lea Michele joined it, replacing Feldstein as leading lady. It might seem like an odd time to depart. But then as now, Lynch is keen to avoid making comment on the controversies swirling around Michele, who has been accused of bullying by fellow cast member Samantha Ware.

I ask Lynch, with due caution, what she thinks of the online backlash surrounding Michele, including TikTok and Twitter memes alleging that she doesn’t know how to read.

“I know for a fact she can read!” says Lynch, visibly frustrated. “When people are at their keyboard they’re the worst. They’re petty and they’re jealous and they’re small. I do not read it, I do not pay attention to it, and we will point to this as evidence of the downfall of Western civilisation.”

At last, here’s a bit of Lynch’s on-screen fieriness, breaking through her natural affability. It’s what made watching Glee so satisfying: the lip-smacking salt she brought to a show that otherwise tended towards sickly sweetness. But I wonder aloud if the world’s moved on. Today, it’s hard to imagine a teen comedy character delivering lines like: “All I want is just one day a year when I’m not visually assaulted by uglies and fatties.”

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Lynch agrees: “Sue Sylvester [appeals to people because] she says things you’re not supposed to say. But that was back in 2010. You look at our Congress these days and most people are talking like that, and it’s not funny.”

As American culture risks lurching towards social conservatism, I wonder if Lynch, as an out lesbian, considers herself a role model for young LGBTQ+ people? “Yeah, sure!” she says, offhand. “But I don’t like labelling myself. Everyone feels like an outsider, even if they’re a cheerleader or the head of the football team.”

It’s a perspective that Glee tried to hammer home, too: it wasn’t just the geeks and outcasts who struggled with their sexuality or body image, but the jocks and cheerleaders. In the years since it ended, the show’s legacy has been overshadowed by real life – Cory Monteith (Finn) died from an overdose, Naya River (Santana) drowned in a reservoir in California, and Mark Salling (Puck) died by suicide after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography – but in its heyday, it was a beacon of hope for teenagers who didn’t fit in. And while Sue Sylvester had no empathy, Lynch does.

“I’m a Triple Cancer,” she says, referencing her star sign, “so I go towards the vulnerable – the people who are just trying to hang in there whether they’re gay or straight.”

That empathy extends to raising rescue dogs with her wife Jennifer Cheyne, whom she married in a private ceremony in 2021. “Love is the most powerful medicine,” she says. “Our dog Mildred is very tender, very skittish, but she just loves Jennifer and she follows her everywhere.”

This burst of sweetness isn’t the kind of thing you can imagine dropping from Sue Sylvester’s famously acid tongue. But it’s entirely in character for Jane Lynch.

Party Down is out on Lionsgate+ today

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