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A Good Mean Is Hard to Find

Glee’s nasty but lovable Sue Sylvester, actress Jane Lynch, is once again at her best (and funniest) scaring the bejezus out of poor, innocent children—this time from May 16-July 14 as the notorious Miss Hannigan in Annie. Here, some of her frighteningly frank thoughts.

Although she looks as sweet as pie, actress Jane Lynch does one heck of a job portraying ruthless characters, inluding Glee’s Sue Sylvester, and this month, Annie’s
Miss Hannigan. 

Performing on Broadway has always been a dream of mine, but one of those preposterous ones I never thought would come true. When it came my way, I was floored by it! In fact, it kind of threw me off, scared me so much that my initial reaction was a scrambling in my head for reasons not to do it—which always tells me that I need to do it. That means that I’m afraid of it, and I need to step up to it.

I’ve known every breath of Annie since it came out, but I’d never seen it on stage. So, when I saw it at the Palace last year, that was the first time I’d actually seen it with lines and everything. It lived large in my imagination. I just adore Dorothy Loudon on the soundtrack. She played the original Miss Hannigan [in the 1977 production]. She had such a great, brassy “11 o’clock number” voice, a real broad’s voice, and she was just mean, mean, mean! I love that about her. And by the time Annie came out, I was too old to play Annie herself, even though I loved her songs and would sing those at the top of my lungs. But I always had my eye on Hannigan, anyway—that was the part I gravitated toward. It was the great character role.

I think what I love about playing ruthless characters is that they’re so open with their hostility. Nobody is safe from it—not even an adorable, curly-red-haired orphan. It’s the same thing with [Glee’s] Sue Sylvester: Those really sweet, vulnerable high school-aged girls, she’s just awful to them. I’m always fascinated with extremes as personalities—not that I want to live with one, but I love playing them.

I think I do have some traits in common with characters like Sue Sylvester and Miss Hannigan, or else I couldn’t play them. Both of them are very “unprecious” about innocence and about children, and I’m the same way. I’m not a real traditional kind of mother figure. I don’t gravitate toward kids—I like babies and puppies. I think you could probably say the same for Sue Sylvester—she’s more comfortable around the helpless.

I’ve worked with kids before. There’s something about being an actor, and being in show business, that’s a great age-equalizer. You respect each other as professionals. The kids work as professionals. If they didn’t understand that when they show up they need to be 100 percent present, they wouldn’t be there. This is especially true in the theater, where it takes a great deal of focus and discipline, and shutting out everything else but what you’re doing during the run of that show. They’re smaller and their skin is clearer, but they're actors just like everyone else.

I kind of knew Glee would be successful. We had three or four months in between the pilot and the first episode, and the show just burst into flames—in a positive way. In that brief amount of time, it became this wildfire.

The first time I read the script I laughed out loud and cried out loud, and I thought it was so sweet and so wonderful. I’m a fan of musical theater, so it was just my cup of tea. I knew it would have an audience; I just didn’t know it would be so big. I knew it would have a rabid audience because people don’t feel halfway about musicals—it’s an obsession and a passion that takes you by the throat. And what we’ve found out about Glee is that there are a lot more kids than we thought, and a lot more adults, who would turn out to be musical theater geeks. It’s such an American art form—we created musical theater here in America. It’s so in our DNA. We just love being in the middle of a scene and then bursting into song in order to express whatever emotion we’re having even more fully.

On the show, I probably identify most with Kurt. [As an actor], he’s not somebody you can stereotype—he wouldn’t be cast in a traditional way, although he loves that. It’s the same for me. I was kind of tomboyish, and tall and gangly; there really weren’t any parts written for me. So I had to find a way to fit myself into those parts. As it turns out, I think that’s Kurt’s—as the actor and the character—and my greatest gift in this life: that we’re not easily put into a mold. I never tried to be—I just couldn’t, because I didn’t fit easily at all, so I had to be ruthlessly myself, just like he does.

I went to Cornell for graduate school and then I spent nine months in New York; I was going through a really dark night of the soul, and it was hard. But then I came back 10 years later to do the Real Live Brady Bunch, and I was sober, I was in a better place in my life, and I reclaimed the West Village for myself. I exorcised the ghosts, and now it’s actually alive with great memories. I love New York now; I love spending time here. And I’m really excited about doing the play. I’m going to do the whole hotel-living thing—I love hotels. I’m going to bring my little dog, a 13-year-old Lhasa apso named Olivia, and I’m going to love it.

The Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway, 800.250.2929,