If you get a chance to talk to Jenn Lyon, talk to Jenn Lyon. She’s bold, she’s funny, and you better believe she’s damn confident. But make no mistake: the North Carolina-born actress and daughter of a pastor (the Rev. Ken Lyon, a former pastor of First United Methodist Church in High Point) recognizes where she comes from and what she gets to do, and she doesn’t take any of it for granted.
“My dad’s a preacher, so I was always in church plays, and I was usually the really loud angel,” Lyon explains with a laugh. “I loved fart jokes and falling, anything to make my family laugh … I caught the bug pretty easily. And we moved a lot, so I think being the new kid so many times over also sort of led to an element of performance, because you have to make people like you.”
Lyon channeled her enthusiasm and talent through high school theater, and then made plans to go off to college. But she soon discovered that acting, not academics, was her strong suit, and eventually ended up leaving school altogether. Lyon may not have wanted to be back in school, but her family didn’t let her off so easily. “My parents, they just really tough-loved me really hard,” she admits. “They said, ‘If you’re gonna live in this house, you’re going to work and save money and get into another school.’ And after about a year of working at Applebee’s and doing odd jobs and attending community college, I got into the University of North Carolina School of the Arts [UNCSA].”
Lyon was 21 by the time she began her training, but being on the older end turned out to be a gift—Lyon gained a deep appreciation of everything she learned, from Chekov to improv. She moved to New York shortly after graduation, quickly finding out that for a Southern girl, figuring out how to pay rent was easy in comparison to figuring out how to live in the Big Apple.
“I couldn’t understand why everyone was living on top of each other, or that social discrepancy and inequality,” says Lyon, recounting her frazzled first months of adjusting to the world as a New Yorker, which involved calling her agent constantly. “I could not figure out the subway. I got lost constantly. I didn’t know how to navigate this world!” And while she’s never truly lived in LA, she still would pick Manhattan over the City of Angels—but not because she finally figured out how to get around. “I loved being on the train in the city because you were surrounded by so many different people,” says Lyon. “When you go to LA, you end up being surrounded by actors. And that’s fine, there’s nothing bad about that, but there’s a beauty in sitting next to someone you don’t know and just being surrounded by so many different stories.”
Being in New York caused Lyon to re-discover her intense love for theater. Her talents were quickly recognized and she landed an agent almost immediately after moving to the city, kicking off roughly a decade of stage work—including her Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia (the most Tony-winning play in history), A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn, Kenneth Lonergan’s Hold On To Me Darling (starring alongside future Justified co-star Timothy Olyphant), and John Guare’s Are You There, McPhee? (she originated the role of Elsie in the show’s world premiere). “Theatre is a whole other beast,” claims Lyon, who becomes thoughtful when reflecting on the difference between theater and television. “It’s amazing how different it is. You have a camera in your face and things are difficult and weird, but there’s something about being in front of people in a dark room for a couple of hours … the people that do that eight times a week, I really have a lot of respect for them.” Her most recent stint on Broadway was when she returned to star in Larry David’s hit Fish in the Dark in 2015—would she go back again, after having the glitz and glamour of the television sets and craft services? “That’s my first love, so yes, absolutely,” Lyon says emphatically. “For me, theater is where the friendships happen, where the craft gets sharpened. It’s magical and so fun.”
Our conversation turns to travel (we’re talking for our Travel Issue, after all), and I ask if she’s had any formative experiences abroad or otherwise. “I have never been anywhere except maybe Canada on a bus,” Lyon assures me with a laugh, before launching into a story about an acting teacher from Turkey, who taught Lyon during her years at UNCSA. “She invited people to live with her in Turkey for the summer, and it really changed my life,” says Lyon. “It was eye-opening. It helped me become independent and less concerned with beating everyone all the time. Like, oh, the world is full of people who listen and respond in different ways. When you’re Southern, you’re just constantly nodding and affirming.”
It’s that sense of independence that she credits when she talks about Justified, which was also her first big break. After a stint of stand-out guest starring roles on other FX shows like Louie and Army Wives, Lyon was cast in the recurring role of Lindsey Salazar, the love interest of Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens. For two seasons she commandeered the screen as a bartender with a mean shotgun aim, and it was a role that put her on the map in Hollywood.
“It was my first everything—my first sex scene,” Lyon proclaims proudly. “And I was really scared. I didn’t know s**t about cameras, I didn’t know cameras on the dolly were delivering stuff to this camera over here or that camera over there, I didn’t know I would have to create my own character … you get shot out of a cannon. And I was just trying to keep my pants on, and I was so terrified. But Timothy was such a gem and he was so patient. If I did a bunch of stupid stuff, he would just reassure me. I learned everything because I learned watching him and other people on the show.”
Following her work on Justified, Lyon landed a role as Cheryl Hines’ sister on the long-running ABC series Suburgatory and starred opposite George Lopez in another FX series, the short-lived Saint George. Now, she’s appearing on television weekly in TNT’s Claws, a show about five manicurists in Florida who find themselves in the world of organized crime when they start laundering money. It’s a classic good-girls-gone-bad story set against the gritty parts of the Sunshine State, and Lyon plays Jennifer, the best friend of salon owner Desna (Niecy Nash).
On the surface, it doesn’t seem there’s a lot that you could learn in terms of life lessons from Lyon’s Claws character. But don’t be fooled by appearances (or nail tips). Like Jennifer, Lyon shows depth and smarts when explaining how she finds her character parallels her everyday life, and her life in general.
“Be bold,” Lyon says confidently. “Be bold and just f**k the noise, because there’s so much noise. I’ve learned to be bold in my choices, and who cares if you get this job or who likes you? There’s so much better stuff for you to focus on.” Lyon goes on to add that if she could give her younger self advice, it would be to start volunteering. “If you start community service, it really puts things in perspective. It kind of helps you zone out. So what if I didn’t get that audition? There’s other things that matter. It puts things in focus.”
As someone lucky enough to have already run the gamut when it comes to working with talented co-stars and on acclaimed series, Lyon knows she’s been able to act among some pretty great company. But, as with everyone in the industry, there are always those “reach for the stars” dreams, no matter how famous you are—and Lyon is far from settling down when it comes to working, so she definitely has her wish list. “I’d love to work with Laurie Metcalf,” she reveals. “I think Catherine O’Hara is just the most brilliant, funny, ridiculously great actress. And Donald Glover! I think the stuff he’s doing is just so brilliant.”
As our conversation wraps up, and as we turn to chatter about our own personal and professional goals, I ask Lyon to name something she thinks she’s good at. I’ve caught her off guard and she pauses, and I swear I can see her smiling on the other end of the phone line as she thinks about what to say.
“I’m really good at fake running into door jams. Or falling into a potted plant.”
Hollywood, take note: Jenn Lyon can do it all, but you can’t take the comedy out of the girl!