John Carroll Lynch has a habit of playing characters you wouldn’t want to invite to a dinner party. The actor, who first caught the public’s attention as Marge Gunderson’s milquetoast husband in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo and famously played the suspected killer in David Fincher’s Zodiac, stars in The Invitation, Karyn Kusama’s first film since Jennifer’s Body, as a mysterious guest at a party in the hills above Los Angeles. He cuts a chilling figure as Pruitt, as he did as Twisty the Clown on American Horror Story: Freak Show and then as John Wayne Gacy on American Horror Story: Hotel, whose final episodes largely revolved around the sort of dinner party that few would want to be invited to. But don’t let those intense performances fool you. The character actor’s range of ingenuity cannot be underestimated, as attested by his heartbreaking turn as an uncommunicative father in Jenée LaMarque’s The Pretty One and, more recently, the forensic psychologist who poignantly changes the life of Lennie James’s Morgan on the finest episode of The Walking Dead’s sixth season. Last week, Lynch chatted with me about The Invitation, his ideal dinner party, the fantasy of violence, and how he gets to the root of the memorable and often ominous characters he plays.
This interview contains spoilers about the film.
Both The Invitation and American Horror Story feature dinner parties. Can you describe your ideal dinner party?
I’ve had a couple of wonderful ones where I really had time to sit down and be with people I love. I like having dear, close friends over so I can drink and my wife can drink, and no one has to drive. We have terrifically comfortable dining chairs. Once you sit down, you don’t want to get up. We would have conversations that are interesting and passionate and about what is real in your life. You look down at your watch and its 1:30 a.m. and you can’t believe it. I had wonderful dinner parties with Karyn Kusama and her husband. Ironically, we had a dinner for The Invitation before we started filming. Most of the cast was there, and after the filming, someone said, “I’m never coming to your house for dinner again after the movie.” I, however, have been back since. Karen is a wonderful cook.
There’s a game the characters play at the party: “I want,” where the characters reveal their desires. What’s something you want as an actor with regard to your career?
I’m getting a want right now. I’m connected to a film called Anything which has been five years in the making. It’s a film I want to do. It’s about a man from Mississippi who, after losing his wife, and several suicide attempts, is brought to Los Angeles by his sister. It’s his journey from finding a tomb to falling in love. I love the message and I love the character. I’ve had so much good fortune as an actor, so I don’t have any real wants other than what I’m doing next. [pauses] Okay, I want to have the presence Benicio del Toro has in every single film in every one I ever make.
Pruitt’s monologue is transfixing, not just in terms of what it reveals, but how you say it. Can you talk about finding this character who has a past that would haunt, if not destroy, most people?
It’s interesting when your friends say they’ve written you a character they want you to do and then you read it and you say, “Why me?” The discovery of the character as you play it is different than reading it. Pruitt is probably the most well-balanced person I’ve ever played. He’s 100% certain in his faith. He’s 100% committed to what he believes. And he’s willing to go to any length to fulfill his destiny and the destiny of others. That’s an interesting place to be. I’m not certain most of the time, I’m mostly guessing, and I’m not sure what the world needs other than the fairly obvious things. That’s what I appreciated about Pruitt. That he’s settled in his journey and only near the end does he realize he might be terribly wrong.
Pruitt accepts “the invitation,” which helps him recover from a horrible past. He doesn’t grieve or feel guilty because he lets go and finds forgiveness. What are your thoughts on forgiveness?
I feel that if there isn’t forgiveness in the world, I’m cooked. I’ve got to have it. Beyond any other kind of belief. My fundamental belief is that whatever the most hideous things humans do to one another, they can find forgiveness. That doesn’t come without accepting responsibility, but it can come, and it can be [healing] to both the person who’s forgiving and the person being forgiven. I’ve experienced levels of forgiveness both in terms of what I’ve done to others and what others have done to me for most of my life. I’ve received forgiveness and I hope I’ve been cleared when giving forgiveness. But the hardest person to forgive—and it’s a cliché—is to forgive oneself for what one has done and take responsibility for what one’s done. I just saw a production of The Crucible and it’s about John Proctor not taking responsibility for committing adultery with a 14-year-old girl. He’s too late to save his community from destruction. The character who’s most forgiving in the play is Rebecca Nurse, who’s the most wronged person. She forgives him without effort. That is a powerful thing.
Do you think you might be susceptible to “the invitation” in real life? Are you curious, skeptical, or ignorant of the kinds of programs Pruitt is in?
Obviously the question of The Invitation is: To what length are you willing to address truth, and when are we addressing truth or deluding ourselves by what we think is true? Just watch the current election cycle. I’m susceptible. I’ve been deluded, just like everyone else. Thinking you’re not susceptible or “safe” in your tower of superiority is wrong. God’s primary sense of humor is irony. You don’t see it coming, but something will come along and take you down. I’ve seen it over and over again.
As The Invitation descends into chaos, Pruitt becomes violent. When you play characters like Pruitt, do you ever feel as if you’re acting out some fantasy?
I’m a big believer in reflecting who we are, whether it’s in a movie with fantastical elements, or realism, or a comedy. If you’re going to tell the Jesus story, someone has to play Judas. You can’t tell the story otherwise. If you’re going to express goodness, you have to express evil. You have to show it honestly. The part that’s tricky for me is when something is revealed about human nature and it’s not shown honestly, or for reflective purposes; then it’s spiritual pornography. Then all we’re doing is massaging the medulla oblongata and not engaging conscience. When someone does something horrible, it should be horrifying, and not just attractive. If it’s destruction with no meaning, it’s not really real.
I was in a film called Paul, and a house is blown up in it. The cast and crew were watching this a half a mile away. We saw the light, we felt the explosion, and the blast. Two hundred people were happy to see this house blow up. I enjoyed seeing the house blow up. But when you blow up a house in real life, there are consequences to that action. We need to have that sense. In comedies, when crazy things happen, there should be consequences, even if they are comedic.
You have a remarkable skill at playing villains. Do you fear being typecast?
There’s always a fear that one has that when you play a character that you will be offered some version of that for the remainder of your career. The fact that I could do Twisty the Clown in the same year as Hot Pursuit, or The Walking Dead...I’m grateful that I’m able to go do different genres and characters and that the audience accepts me in different circumstances without baggage. It’s nice to throw elbows in Zodiac and touch people’s fear in Freak Show and embody the characters that have great pathos and tragedy. I can engage fear as long as the audience sees the humanity—then I’m doing the right things. If I can reflect evil and people can think, “That’s a person I wouldn’t want to meet or be,” then my job is done. But I also hope people laugh and cry and are moved. The questions of grief in The Invitation, and how the characters handle it, or don’t, is what makes the film interesting.