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.”