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 über-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.