Actress, writer, producer, and philanthropist, Jenn Lyon is far more than meets the eye. Flaunt had a chance to sit-down with the talented (and hilarious), multi-hyphenate to chat about her hit TV series coming to a close, why she’s devoted to being of service, her love of sketch comedy, and what’s to come to next…
Jenn currently stars as Jennifer in TNT’s beloved series CLAWS alongside Niecy Nash, Carrie Preston, Karrueche Tran, and Judy Reyes, which will premiere its final season this fall. With an unwavering passion for both activism and wigs—not to mention great nails—this fierce go-getter is not only here to entertain, but also here to use her voice and platform for the greater good.
Refusing to take no for an answer, Jenn has been through it all, even battling an eating disorder that almost took her life. Serving as an advocate for mental health, she has since become an advocate for NEDA, as well as the The Loveland Foundation which provides healing and opportunities to women and girls of color. And when she’s not acting or working, Jenn is seen working at a food pantry in Brooklyn a few days a week.
Aside from her work on camera, Jenn serves as a writer, producer, and co-founder of internet sketch group POYKPAC, who have acquired over 100 million views to date on YouTube. Flaunt caught up with Jenn via Zoom to discuss her roots in North Carolina, her biggest influences, her take on big breaks, shooting Justified, landing the role on CLAWS, and what to expect from the final season.
What was a young Jenn Lyon like growing up in North Carolina?
According to my mom, insufferable. My dad was a preacher, so we lived in lots of tiny towns. In the Methodist church, you move every 2 to 4 years. It’s like being an army brat, but for Jesus. We moved a lot—I loved North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Mountains are written in my bones. I love them.
Biggest influences coming up?
Madeline Kahn, Carole Lombard, Whoopi Goldberg, Phyllis Diller… lots of interesting comedians. I really loved Bill Cosby. I used to have his headshot hanging in my bathroom before all the crazy stuff happened. My brother and I memorized all his records. We were crazy for any comedy we could get our hands on.
When did you realize you could act?
God, I don’t even know if I have it. I did church plays, and I knew I’d rather be other people than myself. I knew I had a feel for impersonating people in the church. I could watch someone’s behavior for a while, then I’d want to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing. It lent itself to acting really.
Do you remember your first big break?
I think big breaks are a myth. You get something, then everybody thinks it’s this upward trajectory. You get something, then you’re unemployed. You get something again, then you’re unemployed again. It’s not linear like that. To me, getting cast in regional theater was a big break. I was from nowhere, I had no connections and I was getting to do this great theater all over the country. My first Broadway show was a really big break… Ethan Hawke was in it, and Martha Plimpton. I got to work with Tom Stoppard who’s our greatest living playwright… It was beyond.
Greatest memories from shooting Justified with Timothy?
So many memories, he’s so wonderful. It was my first bigger role—I had really done a lot of theater. I didn’t know how the cameras worked. I didn’t understand they could rewrite on the fly. I was also responsible for continuity, which is when you touch props at the same time every time you do something. Trying to keep track of that stuff in my head while also acting, it was a lot. I was really scared on the inside. He was very wonderful. Everybody on that show was so great, and was so welcoming. It was gorgeous.
How did you land the role on CLAWS?
I auditioned, like a dummy. [laughs] I was working at this pizza shop, I got the audition, I did the audition, then went back to the pizza shop. I got a call back to do a chemistry read with Niecy, so I flew to LA and I met Niecy. We had a great audition together, I loved her so much. Then I got it! I’d auditioned for Warner Brothers many times, but nothing ever stuck. But this one did.
The series revolves around 5 different women in a nail salon and their crimes. How do you relate to your character in your personal life?
I’m less rough around the edges than Jenn. She’ll get into a fight immediately, and I’ll at least try to talk it out before I snatch somebody up by the ponytail. I relate to her in the fact that she’s super loyal, which I am to my friends. She has attention for suffering. She will make her life more chaotic, then wonder why it’s so chaotic, but it’s her behavior that’s doing it. That’s something I’m trying to work on these days.
Talk about your love for nail art as well.
I love nail art. Don’t look at them right now, they’re just nubbins right now because I’ve been working at the food pantry. There’s no use doing your nails.
I love that you work at the food pantry, I respect that so much.
I love it. I’m a blue collar motherfucker. This quote has been attributed to a lot of people: “service is the rent you pay for being alive.” Shirley Chisholm, Muhammad Ali, also my dad said it. I believe that’s what we must do, we must help each other. I love doing it. I love the ladies that work there. We all are slinging giant bags of potatoes and onions, we’re getting bags together for the community. I worked at one here in my neighborhood before it closed down, then I found this one called Healing Hands Community over in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I love it. It’s brilliant. It serves so many people, you should see the lines. It’s astounding.
Why’s it important to use your platform and voice for a greater good?
What else are you supposed to do? It seems so crazy to me, what else am I going to use it for? Talk some tea that makes you shit your pants? I want people to be good to each other, I want them to understand each other. Selfishly, I get esteem by doing esteem-able acts. I don’t get it from having the best clothes or whatever. Fashion’s important, but I get it from being a part of the community. I can lay my head down at night a lot easier knowing I‘ve done something good for the world around me.
Can you touch your eating disorder journey?
I suffered for a long time. I never thought I’d be this far along in recovery, to be able to eat food and relate to food in a way that’s not guilt or shame-related, good or bad. My body’s my body no matter what weight it is, it’s worthy and strong. I thank it for all I put it through. I was anorexic in my teens. I’d gain a lot of weight, then I’d lose a lot of weight. I got super sick in my late 20’s. I couldn’t really book film and TV because I was a bigger girl, and I wondered how small I’d have to get to really be on film and TV.
It was incredibly small. I was a zero, I didn’t eat food. I ate celery and grilled chicken. Like many anorexics, you can only restrict for so long. The binge is always the flip side of restrictions. That’s why diets won’t work, I fucking hate diet culture. We’re teaching women not to listen to their bodies, are you kidding me? Imagine what we could do if we really listened to our bodies. Diet culture is not only personally terrible, but it usurps our collective momentum. We’re using our brain space to think about… bread? I became bulimic after I was anorexic for so long because your body wants to eat food so terribly. It got super bad. I was throwing up 16 times a day. I couldn’t stop doing it, it was a psychosis almost.
On the outside, people said “you’ve never looked better! You’ve dieted your way into a romantic lead. You’re not a character actress, look at you! It was hard to go into treatment. Everytime a women loses weight, we act like she won a fucking Nobel Peace Prize. We’re celebrating because her body got smaller, but I digress. I went to The Renfrew Center, which was fantastic. I thank them for saving my life. Recovery is not an arrival, it’s definitely up and down. I got out of recovery and I didn’t drink any alcohol for 8 years because of calories. They said “you’re going to start drinking a lot” or “you’ll start online shopping. You’ll do something to deal with the discomfort.” I did find myself drinking a lot. What are you going to do with that urge or emptiness we all have? Now it’s all balanced out. 5 years out of recovery, I’m finally at a place where it feels a little more stable.
What does it mean to be an activist for NEDA?
You definitely need to go to the website if you want information about eating disorders. A lot of people have binge eating disorders and that’s not really talked about because it’s not as glamorous. It’s a shame attack. There’s so much information on the website. They have walks to raise money for things. They can help you find a treatment center, they can help you find a therapist. They’re a one-stop resource to help you with your disorder.
Talk about your love for theater, I know you’ve done Broadway.
Yes, I’ve done broadway twice. I love off-Broadway, I love regional theater. There’s something really special about sitting in the dark with people and watching a story play out in front of you. It’s wonderful for laughs, it’s one of the last messages of non-exclusive ritual we have. For me, it’s church. Everybody’s welcomed. It’s important for us to watch the story play out.
What’re you most excited for with the world opening up?
Seeing the bottom half of everyone’s face, that seems exciting. I’m excited for people to get to touch each other. I’m such a touchy person. I don’t really laugh without grabbing the person next to me and jerking them around a little bit. I’m excited to be able to touch everybody. I feel a little nervous about it–I haven’t done a lot of social things. So here we are.
What can we expect from the final season of CLAWS?
Oh my gosh, so much craziness. You’ll appreciate how we wrap up the season. it’s wilder than ever. It’s explosive. [laughs]
Any goals for yourself at this point of you career?
Oh Jesus, always. Lately, I’ve been adopting bats for everyone’s birthday. I like to sponsor bats from the batworld conservatory. I’m really trying to know when people’s birthdays are so I can get them a bat. I’ve been trying to do a lot of yoga and meditation. I want to develop a way to be able to surf the waves of the emotional experience of life and not let things get to me so much. If your well-being is based on things going a certain way, you’re fucked. You gotta be able to take everything as it comes.
You can follow Jenn on IG and Twitter @TheJennLyon