If there’s any question about Jane Lynch’s range, this week should answer it. As Emmy voting begins, the three-time winner (Glee and Hollywood Game Night) is in the hunt again, this time nominated for playing the cutthroat executive producer of a failing soap opera in the hilarious short-form comedy series Dropping the Soap, and tonight, she’s portraying Attorney General Janet Reno in the fourth episode of Discovery’s gripping Manhunt: Unabomber.
As you see in the clip above, in June 1995, the attorney general meets with Don Ackerman (Chris Noth), the Bay Area divisional head of the FBI, to hear his recommendation on the Unabomber’s proposition: The man the audience knows is Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) claims he’ll stop sending deadly mail bombs if his complete 35,000-word manifesto is printed in the New York Times or the Washington Post for all to read.
Lynch had always been an admirer of Janet Reno’s, at first because of her stature — “I’m a big girl so I was interested. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s a very tall person,'” she says — but then because of her work. “If you look at what she had on her plate during that time, she had Waco, which was a disaster for her. She had the Atlantic City bombing. Of course she had Unabomber and Whitewater. So she had a lot of very important cases, and what I loved about her is that she took the facts where they led her, and she made some very risky decisions, especially in terms of the Unabomber case in publishing that manifesto, which could appear to the outside eye as negotiating with terrorists,” Lynch says. “It ended up working out in that the desired result occurred — somebody recognized Kaczynski’s writing, his own brother, and they were able to track him down that way. But it was a big risk.”
To prepare for the role, Lynch watched a lot of tape of Reno. “She reminded me of gym teachers I used to have with that Southern, closed-jaw kind of thing. And very much to the point. On television, she was rather flat and methodical, and there was almost no inflection in her voice. She wasn’t somebody who was born to be on camera, that certainly wasn’t her thing, but she was all about the information she was relaying with very little emotion behind it,” she says. Lynch also traded emails with a man who was Reno’s assistant around that time and became a lifelong friend. “He gave me some great information on her as a person. She was a real can-do person, and yet had a Southern formality about her. Very gracious, knew the right things to say, the respect for your elders — she lived that. She also had a huge laugh. She loved to laugh. She loved to put her hands on her hips and stick her belly out and throw her head back. That was her favorite laugh posture. And she had a huge, huge heart,” Lynch says.
Even though we won’t be seeing a belly laugh in this particular story, no information goes unused. “It gets in there somehow,” she says. An example: Reno was 6 foot 2 or 6 foot 3 — two or three inches taller than Lynch — and had very long arms. “It’s almost as if the awareness of her body stopped at her elbows. She didn’t know what to do with the rest of those arms, so they kind of hung dead,” Lynch says. “She didn’t buy anything custom, of course, she didn’t have anything made, so the sleeves stopped at her mid-forearm. I had [the costume department] take up my sleeves. If it looks three-quarter it looks purposeful, so I made them a little longer than three-quarter, so that just her wrists were hanging out there, with nothing to do. And of course she didn’t think about it at all. She wore what she was supposed to wear — the suits and sometimes really bright colors, which is funny. And she wore these little flats and did not have a sense of herself from the outside in. She didn’t care.”
Greg Yaitanes, the showrunner and sole director for Manhunt — who shares Lynch’s appreciation for Reno (he made sure her office in the series is a picture-perfect recreation) and admired the amount of research Lynch did for the role — was particularly excited about seeing Lynch in a scene with Noth. “I always thought that Michael Mann missed an opportunity not having De Niro and Pacino in the same frame together in Heat. I didn’t want to miss that with Paul and Sam [Worthington, who stars as FBI profiler Jim Fitzgerald] or Jane and Chris. Here are two major TV stars,” he says of the latter, “and that power of the frame, you can feel it when they shake hands at the end of that scene.”
Lynch credits having a day of rehearsal before filming the pivotal conversation. “I can do all the work I want in my bedroom at home and figure out how she does things, what she thinks, but it doesn’t happen until you’re face-to-face with the other actor and you’re sitting in that set. The whole idea of these two coming together and the gravity of this conversation they were having was evident in that rehearsal and really informed when we shot,” she says. “[Reno] has an unquestioning authority about her, but within that authority is so much compassion and grace. And she knows the very human element of what goes into these decisions here, and like she said to Ackerman, ‘You may live to regret this.’ I know what happened at Waco was something she said she would never forget the rest of her natural life. People and children were killed as the result of her order. So she lived with that every day of her life, and yet she still went forward and continued to make the tough decisions. She wanted to pass that on to Ackerman, that she completely understood. He was close to retiring, he could very easily go the safe, tried-and-true route here, but Ackerman had the courage to say, ‘Nope, I really want to catch this guy, it’s been 17 years and we have to try something outside of the box.”
Completely switching gears for Dropping the Soap — the ensemble web series created by her friends Paul Witten, Mandy Fabian, and Kate Mines and available for viewing on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play — Lynch takes on the role of Olivia Vanderstein, the EP who arrives to shake things up behind the scenes on the ratings-challenged Collided Lives. Each episode begins with a scene from Collided Lives — shot and performed with the same signature lighting and contractually-obligated close-ups — then seamlessly segues into the backstage backstabbing among the cast, led by Witten’s Julian Draker and Mines’s Kit Knockers, the woman who plays Julian’s wife on the soap and, unknowingly, his beard off of it.
“What I loved about [Olivia] is how stealthy she is, and how much joy she gets out of planting a seed that creates so much chaos,” Lynch says. “I love the little scene I have with Paul [in the premiere] where he’s in my office and the whole time he never knows if I’m on his side or not. I give him a little bit of encouragement and then I rip it away, and I do it with the same look on my face the entire time. She’s almost like my cat when my cat kills a mouse and toys with it first. So Olivia’s toying with all of them, and then of course she’ll eventually kill them.”
The 10-episode first season, which also features guest stars Diedrich Bader, John Michael Higgins, and Patrick Fabian, ends on a cliffhanger that we will not spoil because we’d like everyone to watch so the show scores a second season. “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but I know they have it all mapped out,” Lynch promises.
In the meantime, we do know we’ll see her on Amazon in another series: Last week she wrapped a guest spot on Amy Sherman-Palladino’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. She plays Sophie Lennon, the most famous female comic of her time (the late ’50s) who crosses paths with Miriam “Midge” Maisel (House of Cards‘ Rachel Brosnahan), a young Jewish woman who’s getting a divorce and decides she wants to be a standup comic. “Of course there are very few female comics [then], but the only female comics who can make it are women who will have kind of a caricature of how ugly they are and how men don’t love them and ‘Oh, well.’ Sophie’s of that old school,” Lynch says. “She’s almost vaudevillian in that she does a joke and ‘Baboom! Baboom!’ Her signature phrase is ‘Put that on your plate!’ and she’s a stickler hausfrau from Queens. I have an encounter with Midge … and I think Midge probably decides ‘I’m not gonna go that route.'”
Manhunt: Unabomber airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Discovery. Dropping the Soap, distributed by Glass House Distribution, is available for viewing on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.
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