EXCLUSIVE: Jane Lynch Brings Gravitas to 'Manhunt'

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Photo: Getty Images
Jane Lynch is a comedic force. But even her funniest onscreen performances are rooted in a commitment to the truth of human nature, a quality that carries over into her more recent dramatic work. The three-time Emmy winner has created indelible characters of all sorts -- most notably as Sue Sylvester on Glee -- over the course of nearly three decades in Hollywood. But perhaps none have loomed as large in the popular imagination as U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, whom the actress portrays in Discovery Channel’s latest scripted project, Manhunt: Unabomber. The eight-episode anthology series, created by Andrew Sodroski, follows the FBI’s pursuit of Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) and his ultimate capture based on breakthrough linguistic evidence assembled by agent Jim Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington). In just a few short scenes, Lynch embodies a key player in the true-crime drama, and perhaps the sole character as recognizable to the American public as the Unabomber himself. MORE: Jane Lynch, TV's Go-To Host, on Shaking Up the Status Quo
“I dug into it the way I dig into everything, which is to find the hook in the character that I can grab ahold of,” Lynch tells ET. It’s the morning of the series’ New York City premiere, and the streets in Midtown are sweltering. But inside the cool recesses of Manhattan’s London Hotel, Lynch is at once poised and relaxed as she opens up about her approach to playing one of the most prominent, and divisive, public servants of a scandal-filled decade.    Like many who tuned in at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle, the Illinois native watched as the first woman to serve as attorney general was faced with one highly publicized catastrophe after another, including the Whitewater scandal that embroiled the Clinton White House, and the FBI’s deadly standoff with David Koresh and his followers in Waco, Texas.
“She had a lot of stuff on her plate,” Lynch says, “and she handled it with such dignity and such independence, and such devotion to the law and where the facts led her -- which is kind of a contrast to what’s going on today.” For insights into the public figure’s private workings, Lynch tracked down a former assistant of Reno’s who became the late attorney’s lifelong friend. “He told me some real gems about her character. She had a huge laugh, she was very respectful, gentle, could be very formal, but a huge heart,” Lynch says. “I’m fascinated with human nature -- the way we fool ourselves, the way we defend ourselves, how we try to save face,” Lynch explains of her approach to developing a character, one that might apply as easily to her zany villain on Glee or as to Lynch’s recurring role as mentally ill Diana Reid on Criminal Minds. “Then you take somebody like Janet Reno, she really didn’t have those mechanisms. She didn’t see herself from the outside, she didn’t care about her mask. She just did her job; she was concerned with the truth.” MORE: Jane Lynch Transforms Into Janet Reno on 'Manhunt: Unabomber'
“Getting Jane for Janet was critical,” says showrunner Greg Yaitanes, who helmed all eight episodes of the series and serves as executive producer. “Because that role needs to come in with some gravitas. I needed the weight of Jane's career to come in and elevate that.” And considering that Will Ferrell’s hilarious portrayal of Reno on Saturday Night Live is one of the few onscreen versions of the late public servant, who died in November of last year, Yaitanes wanted to make sure Lynch’s version did not come off as a caricature. “It was important that Jane really got the walk down for Janet Reno,” he says.
Photo: Discovery Channel
With that said, Lynch, appropriately enough, also has a comedic version of Reno tucked away. “I actually played her in a sketch comedy Christmas show where she sang ‘Run, Run Rudolph’ with backup male dancers,” Lynch recalls with a smile that’s never far from the surface. “So, this was not my first time at the Janet Reno rodeo.” And it very well might not be her last. While a second season of Manhunt has not been officially announced, a key shot of pressing cases on Reno’s desk could serve as inspiration for future installments. “I’m very open to the idea, especially if there was more opportunity to cross over some with the world and characters from Unabomber,” Yaitanes says. “There are maybe some future seasons on that desk.” Also coming up on Ryan Murphy’s prolific TV production schedule is another installment of American Crime Story focused on President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, a scandal set squarely during Reno’s tenure.
When asked about the possibility of reuniting with the Glee creator, Lynch doesn’t miss a beat. “I would love to. Whatever he wants me to do, I always told him I’ll be there. He’s so out of the box and there’s always some really crazy, interesting hook he finds in a character and then he gives it to you in a gift-wrapped box, so I love that about him.” MORE: Jane Lynch, Jon Hamm and More Stars Who Became Famous After Visit Stars Hollow on 'Gilmore Girls' Furthering her dramatic turn on TV, Lynch recently appeared on another TV franchise renowned for its outside-the-box characters in a role she’s keen to return to. “I love The Good Wife and I love Christine Baranski, and then I saw the poster for The Good Fight and I was like, I have to be on that show,” Lynch says. “I almost said yes without looking at it. I was like, ‘Jane just read it!’” Lucky for her, FBI investigator Madeline Starke fits right into Michelle and Robert King’s menagerie of off-center guest stars. “You think she’s not even listening or connecting the dots, she just seems like a wackadoo,” Lynch says. “But she’s listening to everything, and at the end she comes in and -- boom! With the knife.”
Lynch would also welcome a return appearance on Showtime’s upcoming reboot of The L Word, where she played a divorce lawyer involved in the messy separation between Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) and a love interest to Cybill Shepherd’s character, Phyllis Kroll. “I hope they invite me to be on it, I would love to reprise my role. I think it’s great.” While the landscape has changed for LGBT representation even since the series wrapped in 2009, Lynch considers The L Word groundbreaking for allowing each of its characters to have that hook she so often looks for. “It wasn’t a political show, the assumption right away was, here are these people and here are their lives, we’re not going to judge them,” she says. “It normalized, if you will, our quote-unquote lifestyle, which is a lifestyle like everybody else’s lifestyle. Who cares?”