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Photo courtesy of John Carroll Lynch.

How Steve Martin Influenced ‘Babes’ Star John Carroll Lynch’s Evolution as an Actor


John Carroll Lynch can play anything. He was Drew Carey’s cross-dressing big brother on The Drew Carey Show, Frances McDormand’s gentle, painter husband in Fargo, one of the McDonald brothers who started a fast food empire and had it taken away from them in The Founder, an evil killer clown in a season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story (actually, he did that more than once) and dozens more.

He is easily one of the most visible, respected character actors in the business, sought after for movies and TV shows alike. He’s even a talented director, having helmed the delightful little indie drama Lucky in 2017, which also happened to be the legendary Harry Dean Stanton’s final starring role. 

I met John at a Christmas party in 2012, and we’ve been friends ever since. The fact that someone so amiable can play characters so heinous and irredeemable speaks volumes about his talents, which you can see for yourself when the new comedy Babes hits theaters on May 17. He’s also a pretty fascinating guy, especially when he talks about acting. He’s currently involved in a workshop for a musical adaptation of the movie Silver Linings Playbook and spoke to us from the rehearsal space.

You’re pretty busy these days. Then again, you always seem to be busy and work a lot.

I’m having a great time. It’s been great to do play workshops and readings and things that I’ve been missing. I’m doing a musical workshop, which I’ve never done before. It’s just standing there and learning songs. I haven’t had this much fun in a long, long time. It’s returning to the reason why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. 

What did make you want to be an actor? 

Well, the primary thing that made me want to be an actor was watching my brother in a production of Camelot and believing that he was a knight from the Round Table. I was 13 years old and was like, “Why do I believe my brother is a knight of the Round Table?”

I found that fascinating, and the idea that I could become someone else for two hours sounded fantastic to me. I didn’t care for myself very much and it was a nice idea to maybe be somebody else for a while. And I loved being with the people that were doing that kind of thing. I loved the camaraderie of a set of a theater company and actors together of a cast. It also was a great opportunity to be around women. (Laughs)

What was it about yourself that you didn’t care for?

It was about family trauma and puberty. [I was] really not getting a lot of, let’s call it expert advice, in regards to how to handle that torrent of hormonal change, but also I think there was a genuine sense of self-hatred that has maintained itself to this day.

I don’t think it’s unusual to have self-doubt and self-hatred as a human being, but I’m more grateful, I’m more comfortable now than I’ve been ever in my life about who I am. As that desperate need to be somebody else to feel saved from the point of whatever was going on inside me happened, the work transformed for me into an exploration of storytelling and love of metaphor for meaning. Both in terms of on-camera or on-stage, or supporting writers, or writing work or even in the directing I’ve done that continues to maintain itself as the meaning that the work can have for people.

That’s what is exciting to me now. It sounds weird, but it’s less about me, more about other people people now.

I’m curious about that evolution. Can you trace it?

 

You know, in Steve Martin’s book, Born Standing Up, I just adore the sense of him kind of clumsily wandering around, trying to figure out what his act was. Then he finally realizes what it is, and he writes so beautifully about it.

I don’t want to paraphrase it, but it was a beautiful exploration of an artistic journey from unconscious creation to consciousness. I would say that that is how it has felt for me.

A series of small epiphanies that helped with the transformation. For example, I was working on a production of The Tempest at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It was a few years into my equity theater company days in that place, and one of the actors in the company, during a technical rehearsal, said, “Yeah, I learned this about my character today.”

I was shocked by that. Like, we’re into tech here. What are you learning about your character today? Didn’t you get that from reading it before you came into rehearsal? And I suddenly realized I was doing the entire process backward. I was using rehearsal as a proof of concept, as opposed to an exploration. I was judging how close to my conception I could get, as opposed to what could happen.

I started to open myself up to a process that allowed rehearsal to be explorational and surprising, as opposed to kind of combative and self-centered. That’s been kind of what I’ve been chasing mostly ever since, which is preparing to do the work and then seeing what happens.

That sort of plays into one of the things I’ve always admired about your career. Unlike most actors, even character actors, it’s impossible to pin you down. You play such an amazing variety of roles.

The joy of that comes from the debilitating part and challenging part of being an actor as a profession. You’re an interpretive artist, right? You don’t start most of the time with a blank slate, even if you’re starting with an improv film or improv theater piece where you’re given certain sets of circumstances. You create from there. You never are left to create from scratch.

I have been given opportunities to play a wide variety of parts. When I first started playing villains, my first villain was in a movie called Gothika, and I was saying to my agent then, my manager now, James Suskin, I said, “I gotta find a way to throw some elbows.” 

There are portions of my work, my need to express my experience of humanity, that embraces the truth that I am capable of the worst things that human beings are capable of. As much as I love playing [Fargo’s] Norm and love playing [The Drew Carey Show’s] Steve Carey —a terrifically fun character to play— people wouldn’t see me play villains because I didn’t have an edge. (Laughs) Which is hilarious now, because now it’s like, “Can he not kill someone in this? Is there a way for us to figure out a way for him not to kill someone?”

My fear now is that many of the pieces that are being made have a kind of nihilism about them that I’m not super interested in being a part of. I don’t mind playing the most depraved of experiences. I honestly don’t. I think that’s part of the full panoply of human experience that I’m capable of. If your point is that life is meaningless, okay, it’s a boring choice. Hope is much more complicated. Hope seems to be a more courageous choice to me. 

That feels like a really good way for me to get into asking about Lucky and your choice to direct.

Well, I wanted to do it for a while and I’d written a couple of pieces, but they had business model problems. They were too big for a first feature, they were a genre that wasn’t popular, it doesn’t do well, those kinds of things.

Then my friend Drago Sumonja, who co-wrote Lucky, asked me to be in it, then called me later and asked me if I would consider directing it, because they wanted an actor to direct the piece, and he knew that I was interested in directing. We got started producing it and, when your lead is 89 years old, people tend to say yes or no very quickly, because they know there’s not a lot of time left. And Harry [Dean Stanton] had a lot of friends, so most of it was that people came for Harry. 

Now you’re doing this musical workshop, something you’ve never done. Is there more you’ve never done that you want to do?

Being in a musical was something. I’d like to sing again. A few months ago, my first musical audition in 15 years came up, and I didn’t get the job, but then this came up. There’s no expectation of doing anything more than this. I’m perfectly happy to do this.

It’s ludicrously hard to make a good musical, but this feels like it has the possibility of being one, and I love the part. Hopefully I’ll be able to sing the part, which is a challenge. There’s going back to directing. I’d like to do that. Lately, doing a stage production of A Man for All Seasons has come up for me, too. The story is so important right now because the primary story is about the law and the importance of the rule of law. I feel like people need to hear that. And, it’s a great part. (Laughs) So, you know, there’s that, too.

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