Through the years, John Carroll Lynch has established himself as one of the premier character actors in Hollywood. He’s a man known for elevating the quality of every project of which he is a part. Lynch first gained notoriety for his role as Norm Gunderson in The Coen Brothers’ classic, ‘Fargo.’ He is also instantly recognizable for his television work on the ABC sitcom ‘The Drew Carey Show’ as the title character’s cross-dressing brother, as well as on ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ as Twisty the Clown. His films include ‘Face/Off,’ ‘Gran Torino,’ ‘Shutter Island,’ ‘Ted 2,’ ‘The Invitation,’ and ‘Zodiac.’ Most recently, he portrayed McDonald’s co-founder Maurice “Mac” McDonald in ‘The Founder,’ where he starred opposite Michael Keaton. As one of the hardest working actors in the business, he has continued to keep his career momentum building by taking on increasingly challenging roles. His latest role in writer/director Timothy McNeil’s ‘Anything’ is no exception to the rule.
The film centers around Early Landry (John Carroll Lynch) who, following he death of his wife and an ensuing failed suicide attempt, is forced to move to Los Angeles so he can be cared for by his over-protective sister, Laurette (Maura Tierney). After a few months, he asserts his independence and starts a new life in Hollywood. A buttoned-down middle-aged man living among hipsters, hustlers, and hobos, Early is initially a fish out of water, but quickly becomes enamored of this strange, new world. He is especially taken by his next-door neighbor, Freda (Matt Bomer), a beautiful transgender woman who finds Early every bit as exotic as he finds her. Loneliness and a shared need for companionship opens their hearts to a remarkable new relationship, as they both discover they’ve found what’s been missing in their lives.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with John Carroll Lynch to discuss his unique path, his evolution as an artist and the challenges of bringing his character in ‘Anything’ from script to screen.
You are a familiar face with your eclectic work in film and television. How did you get involved in the arts early on and pursue it as a career?
I had been doing plays in elementary school and that was always fun! I went to see a high school production of “Camelot” that my brother was in and my sister was working backstage on the crew. It was a really, really good production! It was so good that this high school production moved to a community theater and had another run! My brother played one of the knights and he has a beautiful singing voice. He came out and started singing the opening song to all the people. In my head, I was like, “He’s a knight. One of Arthur’s knights.” Then I had this kind of reverb moment where I was like, “No, no. He’s my brother … but he’s a knight … but he’s my brother … but he’s a knight.” I was like, “How is this happening? How can he be someone else, simply because he says he is?” That was the beginning of it for me! I said, “I want to try that! I want to be someone else by just saying that I am!” That’s what started me off on doing that. Over the course of time, I realize that was my opportunity of telling stories. The fundamental element of my life has been to tell stories.
Pursuing a career as an actor can be a scary step to take. Did you have reservations about taking the plunge?
I never really thought about it in that way. I thought of it as something that I could not do but had to do! It was such a primal thing that I didn’t even think about it in those terms. Certainly, I was terrified but the idea of not doing it didn’t make any sense at all to me. It called to me in such a clear way! As I got older and said, “I’m going to do this for living,” it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t! Gratefully, I’ve been very fortunate to be one of the few people who has said that, and it has happened that way. It was always about this idea of transforming and being someone else. More specifically, it’s got to be more and more about what stories we are telling, what we are saying about ourselves and how we can take these tools, illuminate the human condition to ourselves and others and hopefully change their hearts, minds and the world.
Who had a big impact on you and the way you approach your craft?
With every piece of work I have done, be it a play or television or film job, I’ve learned something from somebody doing it, so it’s a long list! Early on, I worked with a place called Catholic Youth Services. There was a priest who is running the place who was a frustrated actor himself and had decided to create the opportunity for high school and elementary school kids in Denver. His name was Father Dennis Dwyer. This is where I was really introduced to straight drama as I had only done musicals up until then. After that, there were people in college. Then it got to be people who I was not only directed by but worked with. Early on, I worked with a former artistic director of the Guthrie Theater named Garland Wright. While people don’t know him outside of the profession, those who do know him as a theater director know that he was one of the most gifted and fundamentally life-changing artists of his lifetime. He died very young, in his 50s, but he was an extraordinary director and somebody who introduced me to the idea that you could have an aesthetic or individual voice in this business. His voice was so strong and so beautiful. To be working for him at the age that I was, in my early 20s, was amazing. He has been a primary point of conversation throughout that time, in my work, all the way through to well after his death until now.
What are the keys to longevity when it comes to a career in the arts?
Just having the good fortune of having people hire you is a big part of it! [laughs] Longevity in this business is based on people going, “Yeah, I’d love to have them in my project!” I got great advice early on, “Do your work with joy. Go home.” I like that, and it’s certainly been part of what I’ve done. I try to always be value-added and never take away. I’m constantly trying to learn more about the way in which stories are told, how I can support them and how I can support my fellow storytellers, be it the people who I work with on the crew, all the way up to the directors. I love actors and acting. I love storytelling and I’m very passionate about it. I’ve been fortunate that people continue to say, “Yes!” That’s really the key to longevity; getting people to say, “Yes!”
Your latest project is terrific. How did “Anything” come onto your radar and what made it a story you wanted to be a part of telling?
I had worked with Mark Ruffalo a couple of times. We were out having a drink together and he said, “Ya know, my friend Tim [McNeil] is writing the screenplay from a play has written. You should read it.” It was a few months later when I got a call from him saying, “This is Tim’s number. Give him a call.” Tim and I started talking about it. This was a long while ago. I don’t know how far after the play was written, which was 2007, so I’d say it was only two or three years after the play was written that this conversation started. He agreed that it would be great if he directed it and I would play the part of Early. It took a long time to gestate, as independent films often do. Matt [Bomer] came on board and was such a fantastic collaborator and wonderful to work with. His Freda, she’s terrific! We got to rehearse together before we started working on it. The thing that really drew me was the truth that the story tells, which is you can’t mistake love wherever you find it. It is an unmistakable thing! Love is not dependent on anything but love itself. I’m really a big believer in, “Let’s stop worrying about it and get it out of the way because it’s such a precious commodity.”
Tell us more, if you would, about preparing for this role. How did it compare and contrast to what you’ve done in the past?
The beauty of this for me was that I had such a long time with the script! With most projects, I don’t have that long to live with the character. I lived with Early for a long time. I also read Eudora Welty and other things about the South because Tim had asked me to do that. Tim was fundamentally bringing this to life. He had written a play, written the screenplay and played the part on stage in Los Angeles, so he knew it backwards and forwards. When Matt and Maura [Tierney] joined the cast, it really started to bubble. Everybody in the movie came for the right reasons! That’s one of the great things about Independent film — everybody is there for the right reasons! They’re there to tell that story and that really helped this project become something greater, as well.
Each project brings its own challenges. What were the challenges you faced with this role?
Time is a big factor! [laughs] we had a limited amount of time because of the budget of the film. The film is kind of a cocoon of a film because it has a lot of interior scenes. We were doing a lot of scenes back-to-back in the same room at different parts of the film. To keep those things straight in rapid succession was an interesting challenge. We talked about the fact that I got to live with this character for so long, but I think the biggest challenge after that was forgetting I had lived with it at all. I needed to be present in the moment with my fellow actors in those circumstances and embrace those moments for the first time. That was a wonderful challenge, one that I always appreciate when it comes to theater and one that I really appreciated about this project. It’s very different when you come to something and a week later you were on the set, which happens quite a bit if you are fortunate enough to work. You get a piece of material and a week later you’re doing it. In cases like that, you don’t get the chance for it to steep and it’s very fresh. With “Anything,” it got a chance to steep for a very long time, so the challenge was to keep it fresh. The last challenge, I would say, was that I normally don’t get to play an arc this big with this amount of material and transformation in a character. It was my goal to shepherd, as best I could, the journey of the character inside the material. That was a really important part of the work that I did. It was exciting to do that, and it was particularly exciting to do that as I was preparing to direct for the first time. Literally, I had two weeks of prep for “Lucky” and then I went into rehearsals for “Anything.” We shot “Anything” and then I went back into prep for “Lucky.” I had just done a lead role in an 18-day shoot when I started working with Harry Dean Stanton on his lead-role in an 18-day shoot! It was great for me to be thinking about it holistically as a storyteller with Tim and Maura, as the primary collaborators, along with the producers and everybody else who also contributed.
You came a long way from your early years as an actor and continue to take on challenging projects with each passing year. How have you evolved as an actor along the way?
I understand how the whole process works a lot better than I used to. I know what’s possible and I know how to push the envelope more now than I did before. The gray part for me is that as much as I’ve learned about how to act better, I’ve also never lost my love of it. It’s never stopped being fascinating and it’s never stopped captivating my heart the way it did when I was 13. I’m so fortunate to be as interested in it today as I was then.
Where do you see the journey taking you?
I want to direct more. I definitely want to do that. I certainly want to tell more stories like “Anything.” I want to support us all and come to the agreement that we are all worthy of love. I’d like to continue to do stories like that. At the same time, I don’t mind throwing elbows and reflecting human evil! I don’t have any issues with that. I would say that the primary thing that I want to keep doing is to keep supporting stories that I think are important to tell. Working with the people that I’ve gotten a chance to work with, especially over the past few years, has been truly exciting. I love where they are headed, and I love what they are talking about and I want to continue to have those conversations! I also have some material that I have written that I would like to find a way to produce. Those are the things I’m looking forward to doing moving forward!
We can look to all you accomplished as an inspiration. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Try and fail and try and fail and try and fail and try and fail and try! [laughs]
Well, it doesn’t boil down any simpler than that! [laughs]
Yeah! That’s what it is! That’s what it is! Try and fail and try and fail and try and fail and try and fail and try! [laughs]
Thanks for your time today, sir! It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks for all the great roles you’ve taken on over the years! I can’t wait to see where the journey takes you!
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate that! I’m sure we’ll cross paths again in the future. Have a great day!
Timothy McNeil’s ‘Anything’ opens in theaters in Los Angeles on May 11th.