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John Carroll Lynch lands juicy role in ‘American Horror Story’

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By Neal Justin

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

(MCT)

You’ve seen him as the duck-painting husband of Police Chief Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” Drew’s cross-dressing brother in “The Drew Carey Show” and the suspected serial killer Arthur Leigh Allen in “Zodiac.”

Now if only you could remember his name.

John Carroll Lynch attends the premiere screening of FX's "American Horror Story: Freak Show" at Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre on Oct. 5, 2014. Lynch plays the murderous Twisty the Clown in the show.

John Carroll Lynch attends the premiere screening of FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show” at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre on Oct. 5, 2014. Lynch plays the murderous Twisty the Clown in the show.

John Carroll Lynch’s relative anonymity might vanish with his latest endeavor, a juicy role as the main villain in “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (Wednesdays, FX). One problem: The part of the murderous Twisty the Clown requires heavy makeup, which makes him almost unrecognizable even to his co-stars.

Lynch recalls sharing lunch with Michael Chiklis during the shoot.

“I was telling a very pedestrian story when Michael interrupted and said, ‘Dude, do you have any idea what you look like right now?’?” Lynch, 51, said by phone last week.

It’s not the first time the actor has spent considerable time in the costume department. His first break in 1987 was in Chicago when he was cast as the monster in “Frankenstein — Playing With Fire,” as part of the touring company of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. A year later, he reprised the role on the Guthrie main stage, where he worked for eight seasons.

“Any artistic sensibility I have was forged there,” said Lynch, whose most recent appearance on the Guthrie stage was as the lead in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” in 2008. “I haven’t been able to do as much stage work these days, but it’s still the thing that dominates my imagination and work ethic.”

Stephen Yoakam, who acted with Lynch during his stint in Minnesota, recalls a well-prepared colleague who was always the smartest guy in the room.

“He was a voracious reader, so he had a lot of backup knowledge,” said Yoakam, whose only negative comments about his friend had to do with his hook shot on the basketball court. “During a break, if I had a question, I would always seek out his opinion.”

Lynch started to land movie roles near the end of his time in the Twin Cities. In addition to “Fargo,” he nabbed parts in the locally shot films “Grumpy Old Men,” “Beautiful Girls” and “Feeling Minnesota.”

When Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright left the theater in 1995, Lynch soon followed suit.

“It wasn’t an economic decision,” he said. “But being in a Coen brothers movie that got Oscar-nominated legitimized me as a film actor. I had an opportunity to go to a marketplace like Los Angeles, and I took it.”

The move paid off. Since 1997, he has appeared in nearly 30 TV series and 40 films, including “Shutter Island” and “Gran Torino.” In “Horror Story,” he’s acting alongside Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett, as members of a struggling circus that features a bearded lady, a young man with lobster hands and two sisters sharing the same body.

He’s used sparingly in the first two episodes, but his few scenes are by far the most grim, as his wordless, crudely painted clown tortures and kills victims with an attitude that borders on boredom.

“This is the most macabre of the psychopaths I’ve played,” Lynch said. “He’s also the most misunderstood.”

Despite the steady work, he’s not a household name. That’s not unusual for a character actor, said Lisa Peterson, who directed Lynch in the 2006 premiere of Beth Henley’s “Ridiculous Fraud” in Princeton, N.J.

“Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of a handful of character actors that turned their talent into stardom,” she said. “At the same time, John gets to work all the time and play really interesting parts. For my money, I’d rather watch a great character actor than a leading man.”

Not that Lynch is opposed to being front and center.

He was cast as Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant coach convicted of child molestation, in HBO’s “Happy Valley,” with Al Pacino set to play coach Joe Paterno and Brian De Palma directing. But the network suspended pre-production work last month, citing budget issues.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Lynch, when asked if he thinks the movie will ever be made. “I believe it’s still alive. I think it’ll get done. It’s the perfect part for Al, and the script is excellent.”

A project even closer to Lynch’s heart is “Crew,” a film he’s co-written about the 1987 University of Minnesota rowing team, which rose out of obscurity to become a national contender. But money is once again an issue as Lynch has struggled to find financial backers.

“Movies today either have a budget of $300 million and it’s Marvel, or it’s $50,000 from my Uncle Steve,” said Lynch, who hopes to shoot the film in the Twin Cities. “We’re working on it. It’s like a little baby. It walks for a couple seconds and then it falls down. If it’s going to get done, it’s going to need people to stand up and be counted.”

While he has no immediate plans to return to the stage in Minneapolis, there might be a way to change his mind.

“If I can manage a play while the State Fair is on, I’m in like Flynn,” he said. “Going to the Dairy Barn and doing Shakespeare, that’s ideal.”

©2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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John Carroll Lynch lands juicy role in ‘American Horror Story’