Her senior year, she returned to that same stage for her theater arts class’ performance of the musical Godspell. Spellbound by the electricity onstage and camaraderie backstage, she knew she’d found her calling. It wasn’t long before she found her inner diva as well. For years beginning in college — first at Illinois State University and then at Cornell, where she attended graduate school — she would channel her anxieties and insecurities about her own talent into harsh criticism and scathing insults of her fellow actors. That indignant behavior has now become her comedic stock-in-trade whenever she dons Sue Sylvester’s tracksuits, but it won her few friends and even less consolation back then. She remembers what a difficult and confusing time it was in her life.
“I didn’t write the memoir to help people, but ultimately I think it will be helpful as far as its message to just relax and go easy on yourself,” she says. “Especially at that time in our lives when we’re trying to find out, ‘Who are we? What is our place in the world? How do I matter? How do I make a difference?’ I went through that to such an extent and was filled with anxiety. It occupied my every stray thought. What I would like to do, if I could go back in time, is put my hands on my shoulders and say, ‘You’ll be fine. Trust that your life is going to be presented to you. Look at what’s in front of you, right here, right now. You have to start where you’re at — with what is going on right in front of you — and do your best with it.’ ”
In hindsight, Lynch can now recognize the happy accidents that nudged her, and her career, in the right direction. She aced an open audition for Chicago’s famous Second City improv troupe and landed a spot in their touring group — at the same time Steve Carell was in the mainstage show; Carell (actually, Carell’s wife) would think of her years later when casting The 40-Year-Old Virgin. At an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Lynch met the therapist who would help her finally come out to her family and close the distance she’d created. At an audition for a Frosted Flakes commercial, she met Christopher Guest — the director of Waiting for Guffman, whose offbeat film style she loved and whom she dreamed of working with one day. (“I’d filed it under ‘Preposterous Fantasy,’ ” she says.) Guest not only hired her for the commercial but later cast Lynch in her breakthrough role of dog handler Christy Cummings in his acclaimed comedy Best in Show.
“It became clear immediately [while working on the commercial] how smart, funny and talented she was,” Guest says. “Jane was an incredible addition to the ensemble. She is an original voice and brings a stunning inventiveness to her characters.”
Her intense character development for her three Guest films — Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration — would later serve her well on Glee, as she worked with the show’s trio of writers to flesh out Sue Sylvester’s backstory and figure out what made the cutthroat coach tick. Which leads to the question: What would Sue think of Happy Accidents? “Self-indulgent!” Lynch says with a laugh. “Get over yourself! Tell me something new!”