One of the things that Sean Hayes loves about Los Angeles's Marino Ristorante, the old-school Italian restaurant he picked as the setting for this interview, is the music. "They play the craziest renditions of Frank Sinatra," he says. "Stuff I've never heard. Like he sings 'Close to You' by the Carpenters."
Sure enough, not 10 minutes later, Sinatra is crooning, "Why do birds suddenly appear..."
"That song! So romantic for our interview!" Hayes exclaims.
It's not the first gay hint the actor has dropped since our lunch began, nor is it the last. When I order the same dish he does--rigatoni with tomato sauce and chicken--he proclaims, "It must be a gay thing: the pasta with chicken. It's all the craze!"
And when he laments that he has to look good for the next day's Advocate photo shoot, he says, "I'm so fucking fat right now. I'm not even kidding."
Sizing up the handsome, salt-and-pepper-goateed man across from me, I offer a sincere reply: "Oh, please. You look great. You don't need to worry."
His response: "You haven't seen me naked." And with a Jack McFarland-like, high-pitched flourish, he adds, "Yet!"
If the guy who spent eight years playing uber-gay Jack on Will & Grace had his way, coy suggestions that he is of a certain proclivity (wink, wink) would be all he ever shared publicly on the topic of his sexuality. But nearly four years since the long-running sitcom ended, the 39-year-old not only is preparing to make his Broadway debut in the first revival of the 1968 musical Promises, Promises but also has agreed to his first interview with The Advocate.
Still, we should be clear on one thing: He's not happy about sitting down with the magazine. And to understand why, let's get a little backstory.
The youngest of five kids raised by their divorced mother in a Chicago suburb, Hayes played classical piano ("I think I learned every sonata by Mozart") and, like all his siblings, started auditioning for commercials at age 5 or 6 ("Looking back, it was probably for some extra money").
After a few years studying piano at Illinois State University and a few more honing his improv comedy skills at Second City in Chicago, Hayes moved to Los Angeles in 1995. He promptly landed a string of high-profile TV commercials in which he played the husband, boyfriend, or potential hookup to any number of attractive women, all in the name of hawking Doritos, Pepsi, and even Tidy Cats.
Hayes went on to play the charming and sexy title character in the frisky gay romantic comedy Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, which premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Buzz led to an art-house release, and Hayes had his first brush with the gay press, to whom he did not reveal anything about his sexual orientation.
"Little did we know," says Tommy O'Haver, the film's director, "it was history in the making for gay television." Some TV executives caught Hayes's performance at the festival and contacted him to audition for Will & Grace. "He and I actually roomed together at Sundance," O'Haver says. "I remember when he got the call. It all happened very quickly."
Indeed, just a few months later--a year after Ellen DeGeneres came out--Will & Grace hit the air, riding a mini wave of gay man-straight woman friendship tales, including 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding and As Good as It Gets and 1998's The Object of My Affection. Will, you'll recall, was the well-adjusted gay man; Grace, his straight female best friend and roommate; and Jack was their outlandish next-door neighbor who was everything Will was not: extroverted, irresponsible, narcissistic, and--at least compared to every other man on TV--flamboyant.
The show met with rave reviews but not a little controversy. Out characters had been so rare on network TV that the media seized on two points: "Jack is too gay!" and "Will isn't gay enough!"
To Hayes, it was all unfair and inaccurate: "The [press] wrote, 'The flamboyantly feminine over-the-top gay guy Jack...' But if you didn't apply 'gay' to Jack, he would just be the crazy next-door neighbor who had girls in the revolving [door]."
Suddenly everyone wanted to know if Hayes himself was gay and how he felt about playing a gay character. Faced with the very real prospect of jeopardizing his chance at landing straight roles down the road, he started reciting stock answers, variations on what he told the Detroit Free Press early on: "When I play a gay character I want to be as believable as possible. And when I'm playing a straight character I also want to be as believable as possible. So the less that people know about my personal life, the more believable I can be as a character." And Hayes never pretended to be something he wasn't; he never walked some pretty woman down the red carpet or faked a straight relationship.
For a long time a "don't ask, don't tell" strategy served him well. He won an Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series (he was nominated six more times and six times for a Golden Globe). "The first time I sat down at the Golden Globes, I looked at all these people--Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, I mean everybody was there--and the first thing I thought was, I can't believe we're all so lucky."
But Hayes was so good at playing the character that America came to believe he really was "just Jack!" And once Hollywood pegs you as a type, you can pretty much forget about breaking out of it. "This town'll do that to you," he complains. "It'll just keep you in that box until you have no choice but to be the thing that they want you to be."
A handful of projects showed some of Hayes's range. There was 2002's Martin and Lewis, a surprisingly serious TV biopic in which he played comedian Jerry Lewis; 2003's indie gem Pieces of April, in which he was an impish neighbor (that again!); and more recently, a turn as Jack Nicholson's assistant in 2007's The Bucket List. But the kind of leading man roles that he hoped he would get to play--the straight guys his commercial career suggested he could carry--never materialized.
Hayes tries to sound Zen about it. "There were like 50 commercials where I was the husband or the nerdy boy or whatever, and then I became famous for playing this gay guy," he says. "It's funny. But that's how it goes. It's not up to you. None of this is up to anybody. It's what the suits decide for you."
Clearly, though, he's been hardened by the business. "I was so naive to think that someone from a network actually cared about me personally. I was like, But they're so nice!"
And there's the press. To this day he feels burned by a story that ran in this magazine in anticipation of the series finale of Will & Grace. Titled "Sean Hayes: The Interview He Never Gave," the one-page "Q&A" was a clip job of quotes he'd given to other publications through the years that made him look rather silly for pretending no one knows he's gay. Hayes's sexuality had become an open secret in Hollywood, but he'd refused repeated offers to be interviewed by the magazine, and the then-editors of The Advocate felt entitled to the real story. Understandably, that didn't sit well with Hayes. "Really? You're gonna shoot the gay guy down? I never have had a problem saying who I am," he states.
"I am who I am. I was never in, as they say. Never," he insists.
"People have the right to make personal decisions, and I think for him to deal with it now is exceedingly courageous," says Howard Bragman, a public relations pro who specializes in advising high-profile clients who are coming out, as he did recently with Meredith Baxter. Bragman has not advised Hayes. "The research says if somebody knows a gay person, they're going to be more in favor of our civil rights," Bragman says. "And tens of millions of people know Sean and love him. This is an old friend telling us he's gay, and it's going to resonate."
"He is a private person," his Promises, Promises costar Kristin Chenoweth says in her friend's defense. "Just because we're performers doesn't mean we are that person. He's known for his character on Will & Grace, but that's not who he is. So I'm glad that he feels free to talk [now], but let me tell you something: Sean has never hidden anything. I don't think he was ever pretending to be anything he wasn't. And that's what to respect."
"I believe that nobody owes anything to anybody," Hayes says, so worked up that he repeats the line. "Nobody owes anything to anybody. You are your authentic self to whom and when you choose to be, and if you don't know somebody, then why would you explain to them how you live your life?"
Finally, Hayes gets to his true point: "I feel like I've contributed monumentally to the success of the gay movement in America, and if anyone wants to argue that, I'm open to it. You're welcome, Advocate."
That sarcasm and anger cover up years of genuinely hurt feelings. "Why would you go down that path with somebody who's done so much to contribute to the gay community?" he asks. "That was my beef about it. What more do you want me to do? Do you want me to stand on a float? And then what? It's never enough.
"That's the thing about celebrity: It sets you up to fail because the expectation is so high of what's needed, what's wanted from you that the second you don't [meet it], you disappoint people."
Since our interview, the guy who had never been to New York City before landing his life-changing role on Will & Grace has up and moved to the Big Apple. He's getting ready for his Broadway debut in the musical Promises, Promises, which hasn't been revived since its original run from 1968 to 1972.
Promises, Promises is based on Billy Wilder's classic 1960 black comedy film The Apartment. The musical adaptation follows Chuck (Hayes), a young executive in NYC who secures his corporate ascent by lending the keys to his bachelor pad to his higher-ups for their extramarital dalliances. Chuck falls for Fran (Chenoweth), an elevator operator in their office building and the mistress of one of his bosses. Sadness and romance ensue.
The Burt Bacharach musical was groundbreaking in its day for bringing pop music to the stage. The score is filled with melancholy gems like "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and the title song, both of which became hits for Dionne Warwick. With the blessing of Bacharach, this production has the added oomph of the composer's feel-good anthem "I Say a Little Prayer" being sung by Chenoweth. Still, Hayes had to be convinced to sign on.
"Sean always has to be talked into everything," says Promises, Promises producer Craig Zadan, who, with producing partner Neil Meron, also worked with Hayes on Martin and Lewis and The Bucket List. "He's very deliberate. I think that he just wants to be sure. He's very careful about career moves, and he's very hesitant about taking on something that he's not going to do perfectly."
Plus, Hayes says he's nervous about "standing in front of 2,000 people!" But he plans to turn to Chenoweth, the stage veteran, for support: "I'm going to be in her dressing room every day saying, 'What do I do now?'" As for his qualifications: "I can carry a tune," Hayes says modestly, explaining that he's "just keeping everybody's expectations as low as possible. Mr. Mediocre, that's me." And it seems like he means it.
Zadan, for one, isn't holding back praise. "Nobody had really heard him sing before," he says. But then at a 2008 reading for backers, Zadan recounts, Neil Simon, the legendary playwright behind the book to Promises, Promises, called him over to rave, "Do you know why this show hasn't been revived in 40 years? Because it took 40 years to find Sean Hayes."
"My feeling is, if Promises is as big a hit as I hope it will be, it's a career-changing performance," Zadan says. "Everybody knows [that Sean is] talented, but this shows the enormity of what he can do. What it leads to in terms of future roles I think is huge."
The few years since Will & Grace have allowed Hayes to reevaluate things. "I was anxious to get back to my life before Will & Grace," he says. "You do need that time to find who you are again. Who am I without this? With fame you can't help but lose yourself. You want to be the one who says I'll always remain the same, but it is humanly impossible to disallow fame to change you."
Hayes explains that fame has made him wary of people's agendas, citing a date he went on during the run of the show: "At the end of the lunch he left a script for me. That was hard."
And now he has the freedom to do work that he wants, like videos with his friends that they post on YouTube or Funny or Die. "That's 'successful' to me," he explains. "Doing a sitcom, it's a machine, it's a factory. There's nothing creative about it for an actor. There's nothing new I'm going to discover for a character in episode 185. It's just a pure punch-in, punch-out factory day job--and it's a wonderful factory day job--but creatively it's stifling."
As for putting himself out there for roles, Hayes says, "They know where I am if they want me. And if they don't, that's fine too."
Hayes has taken what he's learned from his sitcom "factory job" and put it into action with his own production company. It's called Hazy Mills--a play on his last name and that of his producing partner Todd Milliner ("It's not about Hayley Mills. Why do all the gays ask that?")--and it develops TV shows, like Bravo's 2005 reality show Situation: Comedy, and recently sold a pilot to TV Land for a half-hour comedy called Hot in Cleveland, set to star sitcom vets Valerie Bertinelli and Betty White.
Oh, and if you happen to run into Hayes, here's some advice. Don't ask if he still hangs out with the old Will & Grace gang. "Every day. Every day we sleep together, every day, we live in the same house," he says with manic enthusiasm. "We're just like the cast of Friends. We all love each other and we all get along, America. Everybody can sleep now!"
Then he calms down and gives a serious, if brief, answer: "I do love all those guys and I do miss them very much. I talk to Megan a lot and I e-mail with Deb and Eric sometimes."
No doubt the best thing that's happened to Hayes since Will & Grace is the change in his personal life. At last, Hayes opens up to reveal the tiniest bit about it. "I spend time with a special someone in my life," he says. But after years of being burned, he won't say another word about him or the quiet life they lead. "That's it. That's all I need," he says. "I don't need events. I don't do a lot. I live my life like an 85-year-old man. I'm just quiet. It's fantastic."