Before she was manicurist Jennifer on TNT’s new summer series Claws, before she was Lindsey Salazar on Justified or Mackenzie on Saint George, Jenn Lyon was working hard in theatre. A graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Lyon originated the role of Elsie in the world premiere of John Guare’s Are You There McPhee?. She’s worked with A.R. Gurney and Kenneth Lonergan, appearing in the latter’s Hold on to Me Darling, which was named one of the New York Times’ Best Plays of 2016. She made her Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard’s three-part extravaganza The Coast of Utopia, the most Tony-winning play in history, and returned to the Great White Way for Larry David’s sold-out hit Fish in the Dark in 2015.
Her years in theatre taught her bold choices are the best choices. “A strong choice is not arbitrary,” she says. “Human behavior is so wild and weird and you can incorporate that: choices that kick you out of the norm, like ‘Oh, what a weird thing to do,’ but also informs the text and reveals the content even more.”
Now, she brings that daring to Claws. A show about “good women caught in bad places with worse men,” her character is struggling to stay afloat. “She’s ten years sober, and we, as humans, go back again and again to these vices that sustain us or give us something,” says Lyon. “I just want [audiences] to know she’s fighting against it. It may look like she’s drowning, but she’s trying really hard to swim.”
What was your first professional acting job?
Jenn Lyon: My first professional gig, where I got my equity card, was a Polly Pen musical at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia called Embarrassment. I was right out of school. I’d done like outdoor drama in North Carolina as a non-Eq, and worth it. I remember that first union job and I remember walking into the apartment and being so excited that I cried.
What was the stage show that you saw, at any age, that has most influenced you as an actor?
Remember that I’m from a little small town in North Carolina. When I was in second grade they took us to see an opera version of Cinderella and it was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen. When I look back on it, it was kind of a restoration comedy—outfits, white faces, huge up-dos and moles and fans and I just had never seen a world like that before and I was so transported (and upset with my classmates for talking during the performance). Something clicked inside of me where I was like, “Man, I want to do something weird like this.” When I would go see shows and I would sit in that dark place full of people that were doing this ritual, I just felt so at home.
Is there a stage moment that stays with you?
[The Coast of Utopia] that’s like 25 of the best actors ever. I can remember being really floored in rehearsal watching a scene between Billy Crudup and David Harbour and I was just so stunned at both of them, and Dave’s commitment to the work; he’s just making these bold choices all the time and his seemingly effortless take on things. They both took up so much space and it really floored me. Also, watching Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton brings up the similar sense of wonderment. And, on the beginning of The Trip to Bountiful at South Coast Rep in California and watching Lynn Milgram be onstage in her walking chair and viewing just incredible poignant themes, I don’t know, it touches some chord inside of you that nothing else really does. Willem Dafoe said this thing about theatre being so magical because it evaporates—and it does. The record that exists of it is between you and the audience; that’s it. I think that whole nature of it makes it so special.
What has been the most rewarding onstage experience for you?
It might be some of the regional theatre that I’ve done. I’ve gotten to do Born Yesterday twice, and that I’ll never forget; I felt like I was walking in the footsteps of legends. All of New York’s just been fucking great, but some of the best things I’ve seen was in regional theatre.
Is there a particular collaborator, scene partner, director, or someone from theatre that made you better?
Warner Shook, he directed The Kentucky Cycle on Broadway, directed me in Crimes of the Heart and I feel like it opened a space inside of me that wasn’t open before. I also felt the same way about John Guare because his take on the world, like his eccentricity, is so profound and he is so prolific that getting to work with him and be with him, and shop with him at Trader Joe’s, it kind of changed my view of the world; seeing his view opened up mine. He’s like a magnet; when he starts to tell me a story, I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
What are you bringing from your theatre and stage knowledge into this series?
Going to the School of the Arts and doing theatre you learn how to break down a script. Fast. You learn how to pursue objectives, how to talk and listen, how to act with your whole body. I always check my own props. There’s a certain sense of self-government and independence that you get in the theatre because it’s so much scrappier than television. No one’s offering you bottles of water, you do your own makeup, you are dependent on you. The sense of self-government and fearlessness comes from theatre.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre?
Craft services. [Laughs] I cannot understand how glamorous it is. They have catered lunches; you go to lunch and there’s salmon and quinoa. I cannot believe it.