Jane Lynch: Glee-ful Scene Stealer

Jane Lynch has a stealing problem. Nothing that would get her arrested—she doesn't cheat on her taxes or, as far as we know, even take pens from restaurants. But make no mistake: she is one larcenous lady. To steal as often as this actress steals scenes in the many movies and television shows she's appeared in borders on compulsion. She stole a scene from Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which she played his lecherous supervisor. She inhaled all the oxygen in her scenes as part of Christopher Guest's mockumentary ensembles in Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Of the 10 episodes comprising the first season of Weeds, the moment I remember most vividly is Lynch's appearance as the "Candy Man," a merchant of marijuana-laced sweets. Her scene lasted all of 85 seconds. Sticky fingers, that one.

Next, she's prepared to steal from the fresh-faced youths of Glee, the Fox musical comedy that's practically a phenomenon after one episode. In it, Lynch plays Sue Sylvester, a nefarious, power-hungry cheerleading coach who begins to unravel when the lowly glee club starts siphoning precious resources away from her. Despite the show's massive ensemble cast, Lynch stands out—as usual.

For her part, she is modest about her work. "I think 'scene stealer' is a compliment, or at least I take it as one," she says. "I certainly don't try to take attention from anyone else, I just do the best job I can with the material." Intentional or not, her dry comedic sensibility and natural magnetism are quickly cementing her place among the ranks of elite character actors.

At 49, Lynch is at an age when the great lead roles for women are few, and her unconventional look—a 6-foot beanpole with an abbreviated blonde shag—confines her to supporting roles. But like Steve Buscemi before her, she's managed to turn Hollywood weaknesses into strengths. Now that she's let go of the ambition to become the next "it" girl, she's working more than ever, including a role in Julie & Julia (in which her scenes opposite Meryl Streep are generating Oscar buzz) and a bevy of television guest roles. "I know this will sound a little cliché," she says, "but the moment I stopped pursuing things so doggedly, they just kind of started coming to me."

Now, after all that time and effort spent on becoming grateful and self-adjusted, she may have to readjust to a greater level of fame and recognition than she was expecting. After all, she's now part of Glee, perhaps the buzziest scripted television show since ABC debuted Lost and Desperate Housewives five years ago. Lynch's role in Glee makes ideal use of her best assets: her ability to deliver a zinger like a close-range cannonball, and a smile that can easily communicate menace. There is, however, one gift Lynch doesn't get to use in Glee, her considerable improvisational skill. But she doesn't miss it, especially since the show gives Sue one terrific line after another—in the pilot she barks at her cheerleaders, "You think this is hard? I'm living with hepatitis, that's hard!" "I don't want to change anything on the page," Lynch says. "The lines I get are just so delicious and evil that I don't want for anything." It's a good thing for her castmates, because if she did want something, she'd probably just take it.