"I'm going to ask you to smell your armpits," Sue Sylvester informs two misbehaving cheerleaders. "That's the smell of failure, and it's stinking up my office." Sylvester, the cheerleading coach on Fox's smash teen-musical show, Glee, is a tyrant in a tracksuit: she claims to have had her tear ducts removed, and in one episode from the show's first season, she appears on local TV to advocate corporal punishment for kids. ("Yes, we cane!") But Sylvester saves her fiercest bile for the members of McKinley High's Glee club, New Directions. "I will go to the animal shelter and get you a kitty cat," she tells their chipper coach, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison). "I will let you fall in love with that kitty cat. And then, on some dark, cold night, I will steal away into your home and punch you in the face."
Jane Lynch, the 49-year-old actress who wields Sue's bullhorn, has made a career out of playing a hard-ass. But in person, as it happens, Lynch is nice. She smiles easily and gushes over the show's writers, her castmates and her fans. In the earnestness department, in fact, she isn't too far removed from the Glee clubbers themselves.
Over lunch at a Manhattan hotel shortly before Glee's April 13 return from a four-month hiatus, Lynch characterizes the show's student singers, without irony, as "a group that just wants to make a joyful noise." She tears up recalling her own high school choir experience. She bursts into song. Five times. And though she says Sue Sylvester "doesn't live too far from the surface," the Glee character she feels the most kinship with is Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz), a wallflower who fakes a stutter to mask her shyness and generally confines herself to the chorus. "She's kind of in the background ... but then she steps up to sing and you go, 'Oh, my God, what a voice,'" says Lynch. "I was definitely like that in high school. I would step out occasionally and show what I had, and people would go, 'Wow, that's something.' And then I would kind of recede back."
It's a pattern that could just as handily describe Lynch's career. After years of acting in commercials, minor films and TV shows (her 1988 turn in Vice Versa, she half jokes, is "a hard thing to watch"), she caught a break as a lesbian poodle trainer in Christopher Guest's 2000 mockumentary, Best in Show. ("She's as smart as anyone I think I've probably ever met," says Guest, who tailored the role to suit Lynch's talents.) Over the next decade, she delivered impeccably timed comic performances in a slew of roles, among them a porn star turned folksinger in A Mighty Wind (2003), an unctuous lawyer on Showtime's The L Word (2005), a guidance counselor with a past in Role Models (2008) and Julia Child's sister in a critically acclaimed turn opposite Meryl Streep in last summer's Julie & Julia. All of them, however, were bit parts characters, as Lynch puts it, with a "function": to advance the plot or help the central characters grow without sticking around long enough to grow themselves. Now, with her role in Glee which has earned her a Golden Globe nomination and helped clinch an ensemble win for Best TV Series (Comedy or Musical) Lynch has been nudged firmly into the spotlight, whether she likes it or not.