John Carroll Lynch's long and Twisty road to the Telluride Horror Show

John Carroll Lynch as Twisty.
On the right, Boulder native John Carroll Lynch is pictured as Twisty on an episode of “American Horror Story.” On the left, former Denver actor Jeremy Palmer models the Twisty mask he found on sale at a Los Angeles Hot Topic.  

On John Carroll Lynch’s first day on the set of the FX Network’s American Horror Story: Freak Show, series creator Ryan Murphy said to the new guy, ‘Are you ready to have everybody dress up as you for Halloween?”

I was like, “Um … I guess,” Lynch responded dumbly.

He was preparing to play the misunderstood, murderous clown Twisty, a killer who was literally dropped on his head as a baby.

A few months later, Lynch’s nephew wore a homemade Twisty costume for Halloween. And a year after that, with Halloween 2015 approaching, creepily life-like Twisty masks are being sold around the nation at Hot Topic. And they look so much like Lynch as he portrays his Twisty character, you might think you’re looking directly into the sad eyes of a freak Murphy himself calls “the most terrifying clown ever.”

Lynch has seen the mask. “It literally looks like me … and that’s really weird,” he said. “Really weird.”

Now, if you had told Lynch years ago when he was a student at Denver’s Regis Jesuit High School that one day his likeness would be a hot item at Hot Topic, one of the trendiest pop-culture retail outlets in America, his response, he says as dryly as the desert, would have been: “Is there a cut in it for me?”

Sorry, Twisty. Your only cuts are the ones you swung with a knife in your four seriously disturbing episodes.

Lynch is an enduring actor whose roots in the theatre lead back to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and run through the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where he was a resident actor and was discovered there by the Coen Brothers. Lynch broke through in a string of Minneapolis-based films, but it was his appearance as Norm “Son of a” Gunderson, the postage-stamp water-color artist who kept pregnant Frances McDormand fed throughout Fargo that led to … well, everything that has happened since.

Lynch’s IMDB profile just surpassed 100 TV and film credits, The list includes perhaps most memorably his playing Jake Gyllenhaal’s tormenter in Zodiac (and his father in Bubble Boy!). He played prison guards in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and John Woo’s Face/Off, spewed oblivious racist trash while shaving Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, punched Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love and for seven seasons played Drew Carey’s cross-dressing older brother on TV’s The Drew Carey Show.

Lynch is back in Colorado this weekend to make an appearance at the sixth annual Telluride Horror Show, Colorado’s longest-running horror film festival. He’s not coming to talk Twisty but rather his latest film, The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama (Æon Flux, Jennifer’s Body and Girlfight) and written by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay (Clash of the Titans). It also features Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones), Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) and Terry Blanchard (Into the Woods).

The movie’s official description: “While attending a dinner party at his former home, a man thinks his ex-wife and her new husband have sinister intentions for their guests.”

Lynch describes The Invitation as “a great, tense thriller” that takes place all in one night in the Hollywood Hills.

John Carroll Lynch in 'The Invitation.' Photo courtesy GameChanger Films.

“The story is inspired by 1970s thriller horror like Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now and those more psychological, slow-burn kind of thrillers,” he said. “It’s a story about faith and grief and the dangers of not properly grieving one’s losses. It was an amazing script, and it’s filled with a cast of wonderful actors.”

The Invitation will be screened at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (Oct. 17) at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride. A public conversation with Lynch follows that will be moderated by Devin Faraci, editor of the web site Birth.Movies.Death.

Here are more excerpts from Lynch’s conversation with DCPA Arts Journalist (and former Regis Jesuit High School classmate) John Moore:

John Moore: This is not your first film with Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay.

John Carroll Lynch: No. I was in a film of theirs that they directed called Bug.  That was a beautiful little film that has no connection to the stage play by Tracy Letts. They are longtime cinefiles and wonderful writers. The Invitation is directed by Karyn Kusama, who is married to Phil. Her first directorial feature was Girlfight, which is a spectacularly good movie.

John Moore: What did you like about The Invitation when you first read the script?

John Carroll Lynch: It’s very offbeat in terms of its rhythm and the way in which the story unfolds. It reads more like a play in terms of its structure, and Karyn did a beautiful job turning it into a movie. There is a patience and a tension asked for in the script that was going to be tough for any director to get, and Karyn nailed it. It’s amazing.

John Moore: So tell us more about the story, and your place in it.

John Carroll Lynch: It begins on a night when these old friends are coming back together for the first time after sharing a tragedy a couple of years before. They were the circle of friends around a marriage between the characters Tammy and Logan play. They are now both married to other people. And suddenly everyone has been invited to a dinner party at the house this married couple once shared, but now is hers. And so everyone goes into it with a lot of trepidation. I play a character who knows Tammy and her new husband, who is played by Michiel. What I love is that from the beginning of the movie, the audience is not sure whether or not you are seeing things as Logan’s character is seeing them, or whether you are seeing things as they are really happening. That’s what our director keeps going so beautifully throughout the film. We keep coming in and out of this man’s head, and so you are not quite sure if what you are seeing is really happening.   

John Moore: So I know your appearance at the Telluride Horror Show is more about The Invitation than American Horror Story, correct?

John Carroll Lynch: Yes. I am going for The Invitation.

John Moore: Do you mind a few more Twisty questions anyway?

John Carroll Lynch: Ask away.

John Moore: So you have been a busy working actor for many years now. But American Horror Story has been a game-changer. In just four episodes, Twisty made an indelible impact on the pop-culture landscape.

John Carroll Lynch: Yes. And I attribute that to Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and everybody else who writes on that show … but particularly Ryan. The stranglehold that Ryan Murphy has on the zeitgeist right now is shocking. He just knows that if he’s freaked out by something, other people will be, too. He has a sensibility all his own. He can put elements together that shouldn’t work together that work together beautifully And I think Twisty is a representation of that. His spirit and artistic chutzpah are all over that.

John Moore: So the horror genre has never gone away. It has evolved through the psychological through the campy though the vampires and through the grotesque. So why is it that Twisty is capturing people’s imaginations at this level?

John Carroll Lynch: One of the ways Twisty has changed my life in the past year is that I have been invited to attend many horror conventions. And I would say that I got the most understandable reason for Twisty’s imprint from one of these horror-show promoters. This man told me, “You know, horror lets us get really scared of death. We rev death up and keep it away from us in our culture, and we don’t spend a lot of time in the horror of death. It’s been in some ways cleaned up in our society. And it’s pretty gruesome.” I think this promoter was onto something. You know, 75 or 100 years ago, people would have wakes in their houses, and the body of the loved one would be sitting out there in the open for a couple of days. Now think about all that that entails: The smell, the visual, everything about it. I think people want to be put in touch with the mentality that people do die, and there is both a fear and a thrill in that. But there is also a lesson – a sense of the preciousness of life. Of what? We don’t know. Because that’s always what horror is about – what we don’t know.

John Moore: So will the world ever see Twisty again?

John Carroll Lynch: Twisty is dead. There is no doubt about that. What I can tell you is this: When people ask if I am on American Horror Story anymore, the answer is that I serve at the pleasure of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and the FX Network. If they ask me back and I am available, I would be more than happy to be back. But they have told me and everyone else on that show very specifically to tell no one whether you are being asked back.

John Moore: OK, so as an audience member, what are your thoughts on this new season? I read that the season premiere drew the highest ratings in series history to date, but people are also talking about it as one of the most grotesque episodes in non-cable TV history.

John Carroll Lynch: I am really happy for everybody involved that it got such good ratings. It makes clear, again, that Ryan Murphy has a stranglehold on the zeitgeist in a way that is really impressive. There are only a couple of people who can say, “Oh, I think this will be cool!” and all of a sudden everybody goes, “Yeah, that would be cool.” J.J. Abrams is another.

John Moore: What else do you have in the works? 

John Carroll Lynch:

  • I am attached to direct my first feature film, called Lucky. It’s going to star Harry Dean Stanton and Ed Begley Jr. We are raising the money for it now, so if you know of anybody who is a Harry Dean Stanton fan and has a million dollars, have them call me. It’s a really beautiful script. It’s about a man who at age 89 suddenly realizes, maybe for the first time, that this isn’t going to last forever.
  • Along with that, I am going to be working with Matt Bomer, who is an American Horror Story guy, on an upcoming film called Anything, based on a play by Tim McNeil. (The play’s description: What happens about a grief-stricken widower from a small town in Mississippi falls in love with a woman who is beautiful, exotic and all backstreet Hollywood?)
  • Along with that, I have a movie called Miracles from Heaven that will come out in March. It’s starring Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah. I play Pastor Scott. (The description: A young girl suffering from a rare digestive disorder finds herself miraculously cured after surviving a terrible accident.)
  • And then I am in a movie called The Founder, the biopic about McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc starring Michael KeatonNick Offerman, Laura Dern and myself. I play Mac McDonald. That comes out in November of 2016. 

Telluride Horror Show
Friday through Sunday, Oct. 16-18
Boulder native John Lynch speaks after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday screening of The Invitation
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