Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac (Screenshot: Zodiac), Twisty The Clown (Screenshot: American Horror Story), and his normal Hawaiian-clad shirt self in 2017 (Photo: Robby Klein/Getty Images Portrait). Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.

John Carroll Lynch on playing the president, a killer clown, and the Coen brothers' warmest character

John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac (Screenshot: Zodiac), Twisty The Clown (Screenshot: American Horror Story), and his normal Hawaiian-clad shirt self in 2017 (Photo: Robby Klein/Getty Images Portrait). Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Over two decades of big- and small-screen work, John Carroll Lynch has become one of Hollywood’s consummate “that guy” character actors, capable of punching up the margins of whatever he’s in. Theatrically trained, the Colorado native made his first big impression as eternally supportive husband Norm Gunderson in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo, before scoring a reoccurring role as crossdressing older brother Steve on The Drew Carey Show. Since then, he’s carved out an eclectic body of film and television supporting performances, playing his imposing stature for both paternal, Gundersonian decency (such as during a moving one-episode appearance on The Walking Dead) and for supreme, skin-crawling creepiness (like in Zodiac or The Invitation). Lynch has also worked with several major directors, from Martin Scorsese to Clint Eastwood to John Woo. Recently, he’s picked up the filmmaking bug himself; his directorial debut Lucky, starring the late Harry Dean Stanton in one of his final roles, opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, before expanding into further markets.

Jackie (2016)— “Lyndon B. Johnson”

Photo: Fox Searchlight
Photo: Fox Searchlight

John Carroll Lynch: I fell in love with Beth Grant. That was one thing that was great. It was great she got a chance to do this movie. It was great to work with her again. [Director] Pablo Larraín is an interesting host for a movie, because he’s tremendously fluid in the way he works, and he wants you to be, too. And he wants to go away from anything that feels planned. He really tries to search for raw moments, and the movie reflects that passion and desire.

The A.V. Club: Did you study footage of Johnson?

JCL: I studied footage. I’d done a little bit of reading. And playing Johnson was incredibly intimidating, especially given the circumstances. The other thing is that the movie is essentially Jackie’s impression of everything. So it’s also playing LBJ through her lens.

AVC: Right, because the whole film is subjective.

JCL: It’s subjective truth, so Johnson is a subjective character. But you also have to honor the iconic nature of the person, because he’s quite specific. It was funny to play LBJ in the same year as Woody Harrelson and Bryan Cranston. I will say another thing about that. My dad was an aid to a senator from Colorado named John Carroll. That’s why I’m named John Carroll. And he worked on his staff while Johnson was the majority leader of the Senate, and while they were passing those civil rights legislations. So my father knew LBJ. I mean, not well, obviously. But he’d been in several circumstances when he was with him. And as he said recently, “You know you’re an old fart when your youngest son is playing LBJ.”

AVC: No kidding! So what did he think of your interpretation?

JCL: He seemed pretty happy with it. And he’s pretty straightforward.

AVC: He wasn’t giving you notes?

JCL: No, no, he wasn’t giving me notes. But I always hear about the movies of mine that my dad likes, and I always hear about the movies that he doesn’t like.

AVC: What was something he didn’t like?

JCL: There was something recently that he didn’t like. “I didn’t really care for that.” He’s said it several times. [Thinking.] You know he didn’t like me on The Drew Carey Show much. It wasn’t anything other that it just wasn’t his cup of tea.

The Drew Carey Show (1997-2004)—“Steve Carey”

AVC: You were on that show for seven years.

JCL: Yeah, on and off for seven years. I described myself as an irregular. It was a terrific group of people to work with. We laughed a lot. I really enjoyed doing the show.

I’d been playing the character crossdressing for about three years, and there was an episode where I had a line that was… this is how much the world has changed since I played that part. The first time I went in to do that part, they did a makeup and hair test and costume fitting. So I had the wig on, and the heels, and the dress, and I was 7 feet tall. And Clay Graham was one of the executive producers, and I overhear him talking to the costume designer, going “I feel like the shoulder pads make him just too big.” So I hear it and I turn around and go back to him and say, “No, if you take those shoulder pads off, I lose the A-line to the waist. My shoulders become round, they become very masculine. I lose that hourglass thing that we’re going for.” Because without it, I don’t have any feminine line at all. And while I’m talking about this with him, very intently, I see him kind of lean back, and I realize that I’m kind of looming over him. I’m 7 feet tall in the heels, he’s 5-foot, 8-inches leaning back and going, “Okay, then we’ll keep it I guess.” So I turn around and I walk away and I’m about 5 feet away and with great comedy-writer timing, he says “You’re way too into this.”

Anyway, so in the third season I had this joke that I loved. Me, Kathy Kinney, and Drew are arguing and I say, “I hope I’m not wearing the panties of the woman who’s going to behave like that all night.” Loved that line. Killed in every rehearsal. It was great. We get to the show night, we get to that scene, and I say that line, and the audience goes [Big groan.]. It was like they did not want to see that image. Jump forward to 30 Rock. What is that, 20 years? Will Forte is dressed as Jane Krakowski and he has an I’m-wearing-your-panties joke. And everyone is okay with it. That’s the difference.

AVC: It’s a big change.

JCL: Huge change.

AVC: I’m going mainly by memory, having watched the show growing up, but I remember it being fairly progressive about that element.

JCL: Oh, the attempt of it was nothing but progressive. But what happened after that episode was, they did some testing and the Drew Carey audience really didn’t like me in the dresses.

AVC: So that’s why the crossdressing element was basically dropped, right?

JCL: They got a very clear message from their audience. “Thank you, but no thank you.”

Zodiac (2007)— “Arthur Leigh Allen”

AVC: First thing’s first. Is Arthur Leigh Allen the Zodiac Killer?

JCL: No, and the reason I don’t think so is twofold. First, in performing the role, David Fincher asked me to play it as an innocent man. [Pauses.] Until the end. [Laughs.]

AVC: Until that last scene with Robert Graysmith. 

JCL: And then the other thing was… and this is going to sound like a weird defense, but… Arthur Leigh Allen was a pedophile. To get to be a pedophile, to really choose to do that, consciously in your life, it’s my belief that you have to run through some really severe walls of societal norms and morals. It has to be a mania, an obsession, of such grand proportions for you to ignore the health and safety of children to do it—I don’t see how you go, “I want to sleep with children and kill people.” The only way I can think of it not being that way is if he molested children—[Aside.] this is a horrible answer—and he realized that wasn’t it. He just thought it was. But I find that hard to believe. Now, that’s a terrible defense of Arthur Leigh Allen. He wasn’t the Zodiac Killer, he wasn’t a serial killer, because he was a pedophile. But I will say that the circumstantial evidence that Graysmith presented, and that David Fincher expanded upon during the making of the movie, is pretty overwhelming.

AVC: But there have been so many suspects over the years. People have made these iron, convincing cases against several people.

JCL: Sure. That’s what the movie’s about, isn’t it? I think that movie is about the virus of obsession. And I don’t think that’s stopped. The Zodiac isn’t the first one to do that, obviously. The first one I can think of us is the guy here [in Chicago]. The Devil In The White City.

AVC: Oh, right, with the death hotel. Holmes?

JCL: Yes, H.H. Holmes. That guy may be the first recorded one. Although Jack The Ripper was before that. But it’s like the myth of vampirism. There’s just something attractive to people about these men who see themselves as above humanity. To be released from the constraints of moral society. We might be seeing that play out in other ways.

AVC: David Fincher has this reputation as an intense perfectionist, sometimes demanding 50 takes to get a scene right.

JCL: As a person who came from the theater, I love that. It doesn’t bother me at all. The fact that he wanted to do it again was perfectly fine with me. I was also aware of it, so I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t think, “I suck now” because we were on 50. I think if you get to 50 with Clint Eastwood, you’re doing something wrong. [Laughs.] But Fincher is meticulous. He’s like the other masters I’ve worked with. They understand filmmaking to a degree that I could only dream of. And they are following their passion. This is a poor analogy, but Picasso was a cubist and went through a wide variety of movements in his career. He could have drawn figures better than anyone if he wanted to. He didn’t want to. So that’s what it’s like working with David Fincher. He’s after something. And it takes him 50 takes to get it.

AVC: He knows what he wants.

JCL: He knows what he’s looking for, and he know how to get it. I also think he likes the performances of exhausted actors. He finds something interesting about that.

Gran Torino (2008)—“Barber Martin”

AVC: Clint Eastwood has kind of the opposite reputation. People say he likes to get a take and then move on. Is that accurate?

JCL: Yeah. It’s accurate, because, again, he could do it the other way. It’s not that he doesn’t know he’s doing it differently from the way other people do it. He’s capturing what he wants to capture. This is just my impression. I worked with him for five days, what do I know? But in my impression, he’s a jazz musician. He wants it loose. Bee Vang, one of the film’s young stars, was worried. He was on his second or third day of acting. He was intimidated in a lot of different ways. He was going, “Am I doing okay?” And Clint was across the room and heard him talking to me, and he turned around and walked straight over and goes “What are you guys talking about?” Bee says, “I just want to know if I’m doing okay.” And Clint looks him straight in the eye and says “Tell the truth, you’ll be fine.” And I think that’s how he wants to do it. He’s not interested in making a movie where every frame is exactly right. He wants alive.

AVC: Did you learn anything from him as a filmmaker? 

JCL: I loved his trust of the people he’s worked with for 50 years. Lucky is a homage to the same period of movies that Clint Eastwood learned to make movies in. He was in the formative years of his directing career in the ’70s. So this movie is an homage to those movies, and also moving into the ’80s, to films by Jim Jarmusch and Peter Bogdanovich. So [Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja] wrote a movie that really wanted to capture that feeling, because they loved those movies. And it’s really where Harry [Dean Stanton] lives. He lives in that world.

There’s a shot [in Gran Torino]. We’re in the barbershop and I was going to cut [Clint’s] hair right before he goes off to confront the bad guys, and he’s going to get a shave. And we were setting it up for one shot, and the camera operator, [cinematographer] Tom Stern’s first, came over and said, “You know, Clint, if we put the camera here, and you’re in the mirror and he’s in the mirror, we can do this in one.” And he said, “Yeah.” If he can shoot it in one, he’ll shoot it in one. Now, people can say whatever they want, but he’s not doing because he doesn’t know there’s another way to do it.

The Walking Dead, “Here’s Not Here” (2015)—“Eastman”

AVC: When you’re coming on for a one-off appearance on a television show, do you study the tone of the acting in the overall series beforehand?

JCL: Well, I had the good fortune of already enjoying The Walking Dead. I can’t say that I watched every episode, but I really liked the acting on the show. I think it’s underrated. I think they’ve come up with a way in which the company, the ensemble, lives in that world. And I think it comes from the top. It’s Andrew Lincoln and it’s Lennie James, who I worked with. Norman Reedus, too. They have a truth to them. But the real thing about that episode is [writer] Scott Gimple had worked hard on it. He had planned that episode for over a year. He had put Easter eggs into Morgan’s journey that were all going to pay off in that episode. He would call Lennie and say, “Hey, you know this run of lines here? That’s in reference to the thing we’re going to do next year.” And he would tell him what’s going to happen. He would say, “When you put that rabbit’s foot on the church altar, that’s from this episode that we’re going to do next year.” That’s how deep he was into it.

AVC: It’s a great episode.

JCL: Yeah, it’s beautiful. And it was great to play. And it was really terrific to say things that I believe. Which is that we are not built to kill. That’s important to say more often. Because I think we forget it. We’re predators. We have predator eyes and predator brains. All you have to do is watch Tom Brady and you know we’ll chew through a stomach to win. That’s who he is, that’s who we are. But there’s another part of us, too. It needs to be honored just as much.

Face/Off (1997)—“Prison Guard Walton”

JCL: I was very new to Hollywood. It was maybe my second big feature? And it was amazing to be in that movie. John Woo did storyboards for the whole movie and never referred to them. Because in order to greenlight the movie, they wanted to see what he’d do. So he drew the movie and they just sat in the first assistant director’s trailer. [Laughs]

AVC: Oh, so he didn’t use the storyboards at all?

JCL: No! He didn’t need to! He had it in his head. And there were times where he’d stand in the room—and this was just in the prison scenes, god knows what it was like when he was shooting the action scenes. But he’d stand in the room and everybody would go quiet, and he’d call out three camera angles, three focal lines, and three film speeds, and they’d set the camera up. And he could cross-shoot and not have the lenses catch each other. It was insane to see someone have that kind of three-dimensional understanding of what he was doing. Incredible. And also, I have to say that Nic Cage and John Travolta did terrific impressions of each other.

AVC: Yes! It’s one of the amazing things about the movie. They’re impersonating each other! It’s this incredible acting showcase tucked into this big action movie.

JCL: It really is.

AVC: You don’t get to see that often.

JCL: No, never! I mean, how often do you get to wear someone else’s face?

Fargo (1996)—“Norm Gunderson”

AVC: This is probably where a lot of people first saw you.

JCL: It was the first big part I had. I’d done three movies up until then, and they were all in Minnesota, including Fargo. I was cast in Fargo from Minnesota, as were two-thirds of the actors in it. It started my career. I’m eternally grateful.

I was cast in the movie, and I went out to lunch with Fran [McDormand], and we talked a lot about how Norm and Marge met, and maybe he was on the force. So we worked out the backstory. And then we got on set for the first scene, which was in the police office, and I’m listening to her police work, as a former policeman would. And Joel and Ethan [Coen] looked at each other after the take and didn’t speak and Joel walked over and said, “He doesn’t care about any of this. He’s just waiting for her to be done.”

AVC: So you had a different idea of what that scene was about?

JCL: Totally. And I was like, “Oh. Okay.” And I played it not interested from there. Because you have to abandon what you’ve done a lot of times. One of the things I recognized more fully when I was directing was how late actors come into the conversation. That being said, I then followed their lead in a lot of different ways. Then we did the scene where the prowler needs a jump, where I made her breakfast. It’s a beautiful, gorgeous Roger Deakins [the cinematographer] shot of the prowler through the window and the two of them at this warm breakfast nook, and this warm, rich light and also the freezing cold blue outside the window. So she says, “I’ve gotta go, hon.” And she leaves. And when we got there, the prop people had laid out breakfast. And I said, “Oh, I’m not eating.” So Joel and Ethan come up and say, “You don’t want any breakfast?” And I say, “No, I’m making her breakfast.” And Fran goes, “Yeah, he’s making me breakfast.” And I go, “Then, when she leaves, I eat her breakfast.” And they look at each other and go “Do that.” I just felt it was the right feeling for that.

What I discovered when I watched the movie is how important it is that Norm doesn’t care about her work, because that allowed her to have a safe haven where she never had to think about it or talk about it or relive it. She was safe in her house with a duck painter after seeing a guy’s leg in a woodchipper. And she could go back and care for her baby, because she knew she’d never have to look at that again. And that’s why [the Coens] are so good at what they do. Because they knew that about the material.

AVC: That last scene with you and Frances is probably the warmest moment in their entire filmography.

JCL: You know, Fran can’t really be cold. [Laughs.] That’s first and foremost. And Norm is such a beautiful, idealized version of what a husband could be. He is a husband I’ve aspired to be and failed to be most of the time.

Shutter Island (2010)—“Deputy Warden McPherson”

JCL: Talk about a juxtaposition. I did Shutter Island and Gran Torino the same summer. So I went from Martin Scorsese to Clint Eastwood. And it was like the alpha and omega of the way to do things, because Scorsese is nothing if not meticulous. It was great to work with him, but it was intimidating. For about three days, I was freaked out. “Oh, I shouldn’t be here.” But finally, on the third day, I said, “Okay. That’s it. I’m okay. I’m going to just do this.” So for the first two days, I knew exactly where Scorsese was at all times. I’d be like, “He’s right behind me, over my right shoulder.” Like that sore in your mouth that you’re constantly monitoring. So on the third day he said “John” to me and I didn’t know where he was, so I was like, “Good! I’m just working on a movie now.”

So I had a split day, and we were going to work on the first part of the scene, then on the second. And one was day and one was night. I had about four hours in between. And I come back on set and he calls me over and goes, “John! Listen, [cinematographer] Bob Richardson is going to be in your driver’s seat, we’re going to tow the car, you’re going to be sitting here on a microphone, you’ll see them on the monitor, and you’re going to act with Mark [Ruffalo] and Leo [DiCaprio], and they’ll just be looking at a piece of paper. That’s the way we have to do it. You can’t be in the car.” So I’m just sitting there next to him, waiting for Mark and Leo to get into the car, and I look over, and onto the set comes Max Von Sydow. And now I’m like, “Aww shit. There he is. Just right over there, getting his makeup on. There’s Pelle The Conqueror.” And I was freaking out. And Scorsese sees me and goes, [Does Scorsese impression.] “I know, what do you say to the guy?”

Ace Ventura video game (1996)—“Additional voices”
Turn (2016-2017)—“James Rivington”

JCL: I played, like, three different characters. Not that [voice work] isn’t the Wild West now, but it was the Wild, Wild West then. It wasn’t even handled by the union at that point. There was no union jurisdiction. There still isn’t, really, but they’re trying now. There was nothing then. My cousin was working for a video game company. He was an actor and then he transitioned into helping to build video games. He went on to a very successful career running internet companies and tech companies. So he called me, during the first three months that I was in L.A., and he was like, “What are you doing on such and such a day, we have three sessions of voice work, if you wanna come over and earn a couple bucks.” So I went and did that, and what was so great about it—and I wish I could do more of it, I haven’t been able to crack that market—is you’re free from this. [Gestures to face.] So I got to do a German accent, and an Australian character, and an old man or something. I was just free to run around in my voice.

AVC: Do you feel like you’re good with accents?

JCL: Yeah. I have a good ear and I love doing them. That’s one of the reasons I love doing Turn. I had this wonderful character on Turn for the past three years. The character’s named James Rivington, and he’s a real person. [Creator] Craig Silverstein and the writers have done a great job of using him to create this jaundiced, lying, terrible… he’s fake news. He is the definition of fake news. He’s just making it up. And it’s all editorially against the Americans. He’s a Brit expatriate, which he really was, living in New York, running the Gazette, changing it to the Royal Gazette. He’s such a fun character, and it was so great to play someone with a British accent. I love doing accents, absolutely. It’s one reason I loved doing Shutter Island.

American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014-2015, 2017)—“Twisty The Clown”

AVC: How many hours of makeup did you have every day to become Twisty?

JCL: The first time, it took about two hours. Then, with two people working on me, we got it down to about 50, 55 minutes. I think that was about the shortest we could do it. The days that were hard were the ones where I went back and forth between two different looks—where we would go back to the flashback version of Joe, then on to the present version of Joe. But it was a great learning experience as an actor to have to rely so much on what the camera is capturing to relay things. And it was really helpful in terms of going to a place of directing, because you had to understand the shot, what Alfonso [Gomez-Rejon] or the other directors were doing with the shot. And it also became freer and freer, and funnier and funnier to me.

AVC: Were people afraid of you on set?

JCL: Yeah.

AVC: You’re very scary-looking in that role.

JCL: It’s funny. At one point in the show, everyone in the freak show is hacking up a body. And they were all there, you know, stabbing a fake body, pulling out entrails. And I was standing maybe 40 feet away, at 4 in the morning, in that outfit. And there’s a great Steadicam shot that passes over the others and goes right to the clown. So I’m standing over there while they’re setting it all up. And then we finish the shot and then I walk back, and one of the other actors says, “Man, you were really freaky over there.” And I’m like, “You guys are hacking up a body!”