Eric McCormack (‘Will and Grace’): ‘I feel very strong’ in playing Will Truman [Complete Interview Transcript]

Eric McCormack returned to “Will and Grace” 11 years later in 2017 without missing a step as uptight gay lawyer Will Truman. An Emmy winner for the show in 2001, McCormack reunited with fellow Emmy winners Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally for a highly successful 16-episode revival season that is now eligible for this year’s Emmys.

McCormack recently chatted with Gold Derby contributor Tony Ruiz about stepping into Will’s shoes again a decade later, his highlights from this revival season and what it was like to win an Emmy. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Eric McCormack, coming back to “Will & Grace” after 11 years, did you have any hesitation or was it at all different the second time around, or did it just feel exactly like no time had passed?

Eric McCormack: We got the privilege and the benefit of an out-of-town tryout in the 10-minute video we did, the surprise video we did for Hillary Clinton. So doing that was a no-brainer. When he said come together for these reasons, just 10 minutes, we’ll do it in top secret, but we got to see, as did NBC, that it really worked, that we could still do it, that we could make it look the same. So coming back once the show was offered to us, it was a no-brainer for everybody. We knew we could make it happen. Without that little tryout, there would’ve been a lot of nervousness.

GD: But even you probably couldn’t have imagined when you first signed on for the revival that it would automatically be picked up for two longer seasons going forward.

EM: No, not at all. We did well, but that’s really a tribute to Bob Greenblatt and the fact that he believed in the show, he loved the show and he has plans for it on the network. That meant a lot to us. That kind of vote of confidence that didn’t rely on, “Let’s see what happens next week. Let’s see what happens next week.” It came early and it came with very few caveats.

GD: So jumping back into it, this is a character you know, you’ve lived in for so long. So did you have any, I wouldn’t say requests, but were there things you wanted to explore with Will this time around?

EM: I knew that this was a big one for Max Mutchnick, he wanted to explore what’s it like for a man in his late ‘40s, perhaps early ‘50s, who knows, we don’t say, and single again and living with your best friend again. Rather than looking at that as some sort of pathetic thing, I think we both wanted to explore it from a point of strength. Rather than apologizing, he went off, he had love, it didn’t work out, but this is his strong suit. I loved that. I feel very strong in him, and I also loved that when we finished the show I was under that pressure to go out and play dangerous guys and be straight and convince people that I could be straight again and not be in a sitcom. It’s kind of like giving up your favorite food for a while to lose a little weight but at some point you get to have your favorite food again, and to go back to Will is something I did with no trepidation, with just joy.

GD: And one of my favorite things that you’ve said throughout your career is that you saw Don Adams in “Get Smart” and that was really a catalyst for you wanting to not just be an actor but specifically be on a sitcom. What was it about that performance that struck such a chord with you?

EM: That was a show that I never saw when it first aired. I saw it in reruns in the early ‘70s, probably ’72 or 3, with my friend, Bill. We immediately were gravitated. We didn’t understand all the jokes as you don’t when you’re 10, but we knew he was funny. We knew the mix. There was a mix there that I recognized even if I couldn’t put it into the words, of the sophisticated and the completely insane and silly. That was a real building block for me, I think, moving from “Looney Tunes” to “Get Smart” and then the next year or so I was watching “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family” with my dad. Don Adams was so committed. He was so committed. The silly was always really funny because of how serious he took it. And I think that’s something that, particularly on “Will & Grace,” plays out for all four of us.

GD: The sitcom, the format has evolved over time and there’s almost this hunger for the multi-camera sitcom, which was seen as not in vogue for a while. And I also noticed that at the beginning of every episode now you guys are always saying, “This was recorded in front of a live studio audience.” Would you have come back if this was a single-camera comedy?

EM: People have said for years, “Why isn’t there a movie?” Because these characters exist on the stage. They exist in that apartment. I don’t think we would’ve. I think it’s a particular animal that is a sophisticated version of that animal. it’s not one of the video-shot ones from the ‘80s or ‘90s. It looks great. Our designers always made the show look like a million bucks. We need those laughs. We need that audience there. But what I didn’t realize after all these years, a lot of people, big fans, didn’t understand that there was an audience there. And I always remember hearing Ted Danson’s voice going, “‘Cheers’ is shot before a live studio audience.” I remember that mattering to me. So I was the one that suggested to Max, “Let’s make those recordings. All four of us should make those recordings. Let’s play it before every episode. I want people to understand this is a particular art form that they didn’t do on ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ that they don’t do on ’30 Rock.’ This is in front of an audience.”

GD: Those studio audiences, I’ve been to several tapings, both in the original run and this current run. Is the audience different now?

EM: I think there’s a sophistication. They’ve got another 10 years of the “30 Rocks” and of the single cams, but there’s also a wider age range. It’s not just the people that used to love the show and now they’re going to get tickets in California. It’s a very young audience. People are showing up and it’s knocking us out that they’re in college, they’re in high school and they’re freaking out. I think grandmothers are bringing their grandkids. It really spans gender and race and age.

GD: So I want to talk about some of the highlights for Will this season, because you alluded earlier to seeing him as a single man as a certain age and you guys didn’t even sidestep it. You guys jumped right into it, particularly in the Ben Platt episode and Sean in that ridiculous magnetic suit. And of course Ben Platt was at the top of his game, having just come off “Dear Evan Hansen.” Whose idea was it to cast him? How did he become involved in this?

EM: That was entirely Max Munchnick, to my knowledge, but I had already seen “Evan Hansen.” On paper, I think I might’ve read a first draft, or maybe just a first draft of that speech. Max had said to me early on before we had seen the first script that in the second episode you’re gonna give a speech I’ve always wanted to give to a younger man about what they don’t appreciate about what we’ve done for them. And I said, “Great, that sounds awesome.” Then when he told me it was Ben I was gonna talk to, I freaked, because I’m a huge fan. He’s a great actor, and he also brought a couple things to it that were entirely him. That little autotune thing, that was hysterical. It made us laugh every single rehearsal. But that meant a lot to me. That I could start strong, because we didn’t always get a chance. We did 22 episodes a year but we didn’t always have a chance to say something a certain way. I think each of us this season got one really good opportunity. Certainly Sean did with “Grandpa Jack” and this one, I got an opportunity to speak to America, not just to gay men about what they don’t appreciate, but to America about what’s happened, what’s changed in the last 40 years.

GD: Well you also mentioned the “Grandpa Jack” episode, which has that really hilarious scene with Andrew Rannells and Jane Lynch at the conversion camp. How did you keep a straight face? Were you watching those two singing those songs? Were those songs improvised?

EM: They were not improvised but they’re both so brilliant that you’d think. I loved the two of them together. I think Rannells, his response to Jane, every time he tries to push himself up, is hysterical. And the kiss that Andrew Rannells and I had was really funny because there was no discussion. Often on a set like this If there’s a sex scene, we’ll talk about it, “How are we gonna handle this? Where will my hand go?” We were just in rehearsal, there it is, it comes up, I just planted one on him and he hadn’t shaved, so one of the first times in a while I’ve come home with razor burn. So the next day he shaved quite nicely but I didn’t. And after I rehearsed the big kiss scene I said, “Ha. Gotcha. Serves you right.” I loved that scene and again, I loved how daring that was. Particularly at the time, Mike Pence had just been revealed as someone who supported these things and it just felt so current, so in the moment.

GD: I’m still stuck on you saying it was the first time in a long while that you came how with razor burn, but we’ll move past that.

EM: Back in the day! Will had some pretty hot boyfriends back in the day, Taye Diggs, come on.

GD: Speaking of which, I was in the audience for the wedding episode with Bobby Cannavale, and I remember the roar that went up from the studio audience because the people I was sitting with, they didn’t know he was there, so when he showed up there was this audible gasp. That episode really touched on a lot of things but it really was Will examining himself and trying to figure out why this relationship hadn’t worked and you have that really emotional monologue during the toast and that’s not something we necessarily often see on the show. Talk about that episode. What was it like? What did you feel like when you got that script?

EM: Well, one thing I said for years when were doing the first eight seasons, people would say, “When’s Will gonna get a boyfriend?” And I always said, “Be careful what you wish for,” because if he gets a boyfriend or if she marries Harry Connick, whatever it is, the show shifts and it becomes a different show, as it did and now she lives in Brooklyn and I’m visiting. So I was always careful about who we introduced, maybe he’s just for a few episodes and he goes away. But when Bobby Cannavale showed up, I think something really clicked where the fastidiousness and the Type A with Will met its match in a gentle, funny soul that of course is outrageously handsome. That roar that the audience let out was because they recognized someone that Will should be with. We can’t afford him. He’s the most expensive television boyfriend of all time. He’s too busy. But, that was real roar of approval. So to get to the end of that, where not only do they feel that way but I feel that way, and have to say goodbye after only an episode, what I loved about it is it was earned. It was earned from this last couple of seasons, previous administration, and then this season. When we got that episode, Will needed to see him and he needed to say goodbye.

GD: Speaking of shifting characters, the season left us on this amazing cliffhanger of Will and Grace potentially becoming step-siblings. I remember, “What?” What was your reaction?

EM: Jim Burrows always told our writers, “Paint yourself into a corner. End the season on something.” And I just loved that ‘cause I thought to myself, “You know what’s great about that? To them, it’s horrific. To the outside world it’s like, you’re practically brother and sister now. Who cares?” So I love the idea that it doesn’t change the show but it changes something enough for them that it gives us new ammunition, new stuff to talk about. I don’t even know what Max and David [Kohan] are gonna do with it yet, but I thought, “What a great way to end.” Also just the fact that we needed to get our parents back. I love Blythe Danner so much. I love what happens to Will when his mother is around and the history that they have, so the fact that they had sex, they had more sex than Will and Grace have had in the whole first season. I  loved that. And I think it’s gonna just launch us into something fun and new.

GD: So when do you start production on the next season?

EM: I’m here in the “Travelers” production office. I finish that on July 6th and I am at the table five days later. So it’s from straight to gay in 60 seconds. It’s quite amazing. But I love that. I love that I get to balance these two things. Like I said, with Will it’s like putting on a very comfortable pair of shoes and diving back in with that group. Pretty easy.

GD: Something that the show often does, and I love it when it does it, is when it pairs you off in different groupings, like you and Megan. Oftentimes I think those are some of the more interesting interactions because these two people have a contentious relationship at best, but during the quinceañera episode, Rosario’s funeral, and you just put your arm around her, and she goes to push you away and then pulls you back, do you ask the writers to pair you guys off in different ways or do you just go with the flow of it?

EM: We know that they’re gonna do that. Certainly Sean and I have great storylines together that I love just as much as the Deb and I storylines. We know that Megan and I is a rare one, so when they come up it’s like dessert, ‘cause it also means that Deb and Sean get to play together. But what I love about that particular one, the quinceañera episode, was people say, “do you guys every improvise?” And it’s like, “No, we don’t. This is written. This is beautiful.” But the particulars of that moment, of me being behind her rather than facing her, my arm is going around her, of me pulling away and then me pulling back in, happened in rehearsal very naturally in the moment and those are the things that I treasure. I really do.

GD: We can’t talk about this show without talking about its awards history. I know you know it backwards and forwards, but that you guys are one of only three shows where all of you won Emmys. Your Emmy win in the third season, that was such a unique ceremony because it was the delayed ceremony after 9/11. Take us through that moment when you won your Emmy.

EM: I thought to myself when I first read the pilot, I thought, “If I’m ever gonna win an Emmy, it’s probably gonna be a flashback episode to when I come out to Grace.” And sure enough that’s what Jeff Greenstein wrote. It’s such a special episode to me. But we shot it moments after, probably even before. We probably shot that episode just before 9/11. So it threw the whole show out of wack as it threw the whole country. In our case we were a New York show and the question came up, do we deal with it? The decision was made, no. “In this crazy fun gay world we’re not gonna try to preach to America, bring America together other than the way we do it.” We thought it would be trite if we tried. So there we are living with this stuff, the Emmys don’t happen and then they happen in November, no one was allowed to wear anything too nice or say anything too self-involved. But to get up there, Kim Cattrall said my name, fellow Canadian, and I got up, it’s one of my proudest moments for sure. I sat back down, I had my first cellphone, it was 2001, and I called my parents to say, “Did you see it?” And Dad said, “The cable went out about 20 minutes ago.” From what I learned my mother threw a fit and smashed things. So they didn’t get to see that. There was no party. There was a governor’s ball or whatever but we didn’t have a special “Will & Grace” party as we usually did because it was not appropriate. It was a very different year. It was not a year of celebration as much as it was just private gratitude.

GD: I’ve always wondered, because when you are standing on the stage with the Emmy, somebody yells out, “You go, girl.” Was that Max?

EM: (Laughs.) I think there’s a really good chance that was Max, yes. I think it was. The year before, the show had won, Sean and Megan had won, then I won by myself, then Deb won the next year. It was always kind of spread out, but it’s certainly a love that we felt. Nowadays, there’s gonna be very few network shows even nominated, so to be back on a network, particularly a network that has given us a lot of support, we’ll see what happens. We’re making a show that I’m as proud of or more proud of than 10 years ago.

GD: Well Eric McCormack, thank you so much. Congrats on both “Will & Grace” and the third season of “Travelers.” When does the third season of “Travelers” come out?

EM: We finish in a month. It’ll drop worldwide on Netflix end of December.

GD: So exciting. Thank you so much, Eric.

EM: Thank you, my friend. Take care, Tony.

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