Much of the entertainment industry has been put on pause during a period of social distancing — but not Sean Hayes.
“I kind of feel like I've been training my mind and body for quarantine my entire life,” the Will & Grace actor joked in a recent conversation with The Advocate.
He and his husband, Scott Icenogle, may be sheltering in place, but Hayes also has a packed schedule of voice acting — via phone — for the upcoming Netflix series Q-Force, an animated comedy about LGBTQ superspies. His week also includes several meetings with business partner Todd Millner for other projects from their production company, Hazy Mills.
Moreover, Hayes is promoting Lazy Susan, a film in which he stars as a “spectacularly unmotivated cisgender woman” named Susan. The production is directed by Nick Peet and is written by Hayes, Carrie Aizley, and Darlene Hunt. It features a dream cast that includes Carrie Aizley (Transparent), Margo Martindale (The Americans), Jim Rash (Community), Allison Janney (I, Tonya), and Matthew Broderick (The Producers).
The stars also happen to be friends of Hayes, who had cast this list of names in his head before even reaching out to gauge interest or availability. “It is extremely rare that you get the cast that you had in your head when you were writing it,” he marveled.
In particular, Janney's presence — she portrays a manager at Kmart and a frenemy of Susan — should be a major draw for LGBTQ audience members. Why does she hold such a queer appeal? “That's an easy answer. Because she's a strong, confident, fearless pioneer of an actress,” Hayes asserted.
“I'm so proud of that film and excited about it,” Hayes said. “It's an odd time for it to come out, since everybody's feeling a little bit like a lazy Susan."
In many ways, Lazy Susan is the type of film not seen as much in franchise-loving Hollywood anymore — small budget, quirky characters, nonglamorous locales. For Susan, her defining trait is her inertia. She lingers in her bedroom and living room making collages. Trips to the local Kmart require the use of a power wheelchair. Her romantic interest owns a trampoline center, where she and the rest of her small town literally jump in place. As for her performance in bed? Well, she pretty much just lies there.
Hayes is a huge fan of “true indie films” like Napoleon Dynamite and the oeuvre of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse). Lazy Susan is his “homage” to the productions that were once hailed as the “darlings of film festivals.”
“Even though Susan lives in the present day, there's still something stuck about her. She’s like stuck in time. And this whole little town is stuck. There’s a whole bunch of towns in the United States that are like this. And so I wanted to kind of celebrate that era of independent filmmaking," Hayes said.
And there are also the Susans of the world — Hayes has been there — who inspired the character and much of the film’s humor. Her journey from sloth to self-starter can also serve as an inspiration to others, Hayes hopes.
“I think we've all found ourselves stuck without figuring it out,” he said. “And you need to figure it in order to progress in life. And so for me, while that sounds tragic, and it isn't a lot of people's cases, I find humor in that darkness and in people who are who cannot kind of tragically get their life together for this particular role in this particular movie.”
“It's for anybody who needs a jolt to pull themselves out of their own quicksand and maybe, maybe take that first step in figuring out how to get unstuck,” Hayes said.
Lazy Susan is the first major project of Hayes's to come out as the revival of NBC’s Will & Grace comes to a close; the finale is April 23. Filming it was “bittersweet” for Hayes, who returned to the groundbreaking gay show in 2017 over a decade after the original run’s end, in part because fearful fans called out for it after the upset of the 2016 presidential election.
“This one was a little more intense for me because I was much more appreciative in my older age going back to something so special,” Hayes said. “Not that I didn't appreciate it before. But I just think the older you get, the more aware you are of your mortality and time on this earth. The goodbye was a little deeper for me personally. But at the same time, as grateful as I am for the opportunity — and the only reason we did it was for the fans — ultimately, we all decided it was time to go. So while it was sad to say goodbye, it was also time.”
“It was such a gift to come back,” Hayes reflected. “It really was. And such an honor to feel that we were welcomed back.”
His Will & Grace character, Jack, first came out on airwaves in 1998. However, the idea for Susan preceded even Jack. Hayes, now 49, was 21 when he debuted her at an audition to replace “the white guy on In Living Color,” a predominantly Black sketch series that also featured Jim Carrey.
Years later, a high school friend recalled to Hayes how funny the character was and added “lazy” in front of her name. It struck inspiration in Hayes, who outlined a potential pilot for a TV series in one day. “I love the built-in metaphor of someone spinning out of control,” Hayes remarked. He then sent the pilot to Hunt, the creator of Showtime’s The Big C. In it, she saw the makings of the first act of a film, which is what led to the production that came out today.
Hayes was extremely careful with how he phrased his portrayal of Susan, pushing back against the reporter’s classification of the film as a “cross-dressing comedy” akin to Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie. “I wouldn't call it cross-dressing. I wouldn't call it transgender. I wouldn't call it drag. I wouldn't call it anything other than, she is a woman, you know? Because I don't want to offend those people,” Hayes said.
“I've never seen this before, and it may be out there. I've just never seen it where a [cisgender] man plays a [cisgender] woman,” Hayes said.
The carefulness is warranted. In recent years, cisgender movie stars have received considerable backlash for taking trans roles — a practice pejoratively referred to as "transface," as a biased casting system has placed lesser-known transgender actors trying out for these roles at a disadvantage. Scarlett Johanssen ended up forfeiting a trans role in 2018 after sparking a sizable outcry from the community.
As to whether only transgender people should portray transgender roles, Hayes admitted that he is “probably the wrong person to ask.” He praised Jared Leto for doing “a phenomenal job” in portraying a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club but also recognized that the playing field isn’t even for marginalized people in Hollywood.
“I can see both sides. I can see embracing the idea that the reason people become actors is to practice the craft of creating characters, and as well, you also at the same time have to be sensitive to the fact that there are people left out of the mix of casting for sake of business, and that has to change,” Hayes said.
And what of the growing call for gay roles being reserved for gay actors? “I think whoever's right for the parts should get the role. But that said, and I hope you don't end my quote there because I want to finish. That said, I think the decision-makers have to be open,” Hayes said. “Because it's a catch-22, right? From a business standpoint, decision-makers, people who are writing the checks, want to make their money back. So they cast out of the fear and fear means you cast names, right? And if you work so hard your whole life to become a name, you should be considered.”
“But at the same time, the flip side of that, the people who want to make a name for themselves aren't going to ever be able to unless you give them a chance,” he continued, adding, “The easiest answer would be whoever is right for the role should get the part. And, and the studios and networks and decision-makers should be open to seeing all people.”
As for his own casting, Sean Hayes — an Emmy winner and Tony nominee — is set to return to the stage as Oscar Levant in Doug Wright’s Good Night, Oscar in January 2021 in Chicago. Of course, that all depends on the developments in the current health crisis, which has currently shuttered Broadway and performance spaces around the world.
For Hayes, the impact on the theater world and economy is heartbreaking.
“It's sad all around. It's not just Broadway. It's sad for the entire workforce of this country who has to cease work and not get paid, a lot of them, and get laid off," he said. "It’s a horrible, horrible time and a horrible situation. So we all have to be kind to our neighbors and help anybody that we can and do our parts as citizens.”
Hayes also has a message to his fans in this time of crisis: “Stay strong. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. And my God, you know, try to find the smallest joy in the simplest things now … even if it's one phone call or a FaceTime. Try to focus on the people in your life right now and the love that's there for you.”
Lazy Susan is out today in digital HD on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and more. It is also available on-demand on DirectTV, Spectrum, and AT&T U-verse, among other cable providers. Watch the trailer below.