Photography by M. Sharkey
Jane Lynch wasn't exactly sitting around waiting for some guy to make her his muse. He found her anyway.
The actress-comedienne spent a decade with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and toured with Second City. She did commercials, bit film roles, and TV guest spots. "I spent many, many, many years saying yes -- to everything," she says. One of those yeses led her to Christopher Guest, and his improv mockumentary films (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) helped make her just-off-center character work cultishly desirable.
She held her own alongside Steve Carell (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights), and the other brash boys of mainstream comedy. And then another twisted scribe in need of an unexpected muse, Ryan Murphy, cast her in 2008 as Sue Sylvester, the amoral cheerleading coach whose acerbic insults are the strychnine sucker punch to Glee's saccharine.
"I love people who make big choices, who don't stay safe," she says, naming former costars who serve as her own inspiration: William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, and even Meryl Streep ("She might be playing a character who's not as eccentric as Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher, but her stakes are always very high," Lynch says of Streep, whose sister she played in Julie & Julia).
SLIDESHOW: See Jane Lynch's Out100 Cover
As Hollywood (again) discovers it has access to a deep untapped pool of female humorists, Lynch has started writing. "I'm spending a lot of time inside my head in a closed room," she says, adding that she has been motivated in some ways by younger generations of self-assured women. "The difference between people like me and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey [is] there's kind of an entitlement that they have to their right to have a seat at the table," Lynch says. "They're out there saying, 'This is what I do, and this is why it's funny. And if you don't like it, you don't like it.' But it looks like everybody likes it."
Though Lynch can say no whenever she pleases -- "It's been a personal growth thing for me," she says -- her yes list is bigger and brighter: In 2011, she hosted the Emmys; the year after she helmed Saturday Night Live. She's won basically every trophy they give to a funny lady on TV, peppering her acceptance speeches with heartfelt thanks to her wife since 2010, Lara Embry, and their two children.
"It's of course very normal and natural for me to talk about because it's, you know, my life," she says. "But it does strike me when I'm on the red carpet and Billy Bush says, 'Oh, how's your wife?' "
Photographed at Avi Brosh's Palihouse in West Hollywood, Calif., on October 5, 2012