Sean Hayes had to say goodbye to Jack McFarland for the second time as the “Will and Grace” reboot concluded earlier this year. He played the character for a total of 11 seasons between the original show and the revival and won an Emmy in the process.
Hayes spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Tony Ruiz recently about having another ending to “Will and Grace,” working closely with Brian Jordan Alvarez and his favorite memories which each of his castmates. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Sean, it’s very rare a show is successful, has a successful run, comes back, has another successful run. So I guess I wanna know first, does this ending feel different from the last ending?
Sean Hayes: For me it does a little bit, only because it really is final. There was always a tiny little sense that this wasn’t done before, and now that I’m older, a little bit older, and hopefully knock on wood a little wiser — I try to be — that I feel the gratitude much more. Not that I wasn’t grateful before but at this juncture of my life, it’s like, “Wow, what a special thing to be a part of.” I’m just more sensitive to the self-awareness that I have so I’m very grateful to the fans. It was a little deeper this time.
GD: When this show came back, I think for a lot of us that have been fans of the show, we all wanted to see where the characters had come… when you came back into it, was there something specific, a certain place that you wanted to go with Jack that maybe you didn’t get to explore in the first series?
SH: Yeah, for sure. I wanted Jack to mature (laughs). Because I wasn’t 25, 26-whatever years old anymore. The first day of rehearsal for the reboot, I was like, “Oh wow, this requires a lot of energy. I forgot about that.” So I wanted him to be a little bit older and have a little more responsibility and with that, I always suggested he get married and have some kind of evolution to his maturity, so that seemed logical and natural, so we did that.
GD: Which brings me to this amazing pairing with you and Brian Jordan Alvarez, who plays Estefan Gloria, one of the most amazing names for a character ever. Was that chemistry between you two just instantaneous? Because you could believe that these two, as wacky as they are, are just so connected to each other. Talk about your working relationship with Brian.
SH: Yeah, when I found out it was Brian Jordan Alvarez, first of all, I have to say truly I think he’s a genius. I think he is a comedy genius. I am so impressed by his timing and when you see somebody as talented as him you think, “Boy, they were really born to do this,” and he really is. But I saw his audition tape for “Saturday Night Live” and I was blown away. I’m like, “How is this guy not on ‘Saturday Night Live?’” Every character he did and he does is so unbelievably different and I hadn’t seen that since Mike Myers or Dana Carvey or some of those brilliant cast members from long ago. We went out to dinner and we immediately hit it off before we started working together just to say hi and get to know each other. I looked forward to every single time we had a scene together and every time I knew he was gonna be in an episode. I just love him and I think he’s just incredible.
GD: Do you have a favorite Estefan-Jack moment?
SH: Oh gosh. Yes, I do. He made me laugh so hard when he said… let me see if I can remember the line. “Then why do I hear the sound of my beloved cuckoo clock?” The way he does it, “Why do I hear the sound of my beloved cuckoo clock,” just the musicality of the way he said that line made me laugh so hard every time. And the commitment in his eyes is so intense, it’s so funny.
GD: I assumed you were either going to say that one or maybe the Ryan Phillippe episode, and Ryan Phillippe is just genius in that episode. The three of you in that airplane bathroom, which must be the bathroom of dreams, because, not for the reason you think… what airplane bathroom is that big?
SH: I thought you meant ‘cause of the mile high club, but go ahead.
GD: (Laughs.) With those types of scenes, I always wonder how do you keep a straight face? Is it easier? Is it harder? Now that you’ve been playing it for a long time is it easier? How do you do it?
SH: The answer is you don’t. There are outtakes, I think, from that. I couldn’t breathe I was laughing so hard. With Brian Jordan Alvarez’s face that close to mine, I know it looks like a big bathroom on the TV screen, but the proximity of the actual bathroom set was so tiny and you have me and Brian and Ryan, it was hilarious. We couldn’t get through three takes in a row we were laughing so hard.
GD: With this show, you’re in the unique position of having the same director for every single episode. I cannot go through an interview with one of you without asking you about Jim Burrows. In the times that I’ve been on set and watched tapings, the way he prowls in the background, he’s almost never watching a monitor, I’ve seen him kick the camera two inches to change a shot and I’m like, “How does he do that?” What’s been the relationship over the last couple of decades working with Jim Burrows?
SH: He’s like the dad I never had. He’s everything to me. I love him so much. Everything I know, I learned from him. Every single thing I know now. Sure I went in with my comedy 101 that I learned from college or whatever, but he taught me everything I know. When he’s walking around not watching a scene, he’s listening to the rhythm of the lines to make sure that the comedy is there and if you are about to screw up a line, he can anticipate. He’s so in your head that he can actually anticipate you screwing up a line before you know you’re gonna screw up a line and he stops you, so you don’t ruin the joke for the audience, so they don’t hear it garbled, that they hear it clean for the first time so that the laugh is there. It’s like a science. There’s no other way to describe his work or how he does what he does without having to be there. You have to see it to believe it. He’s just a master.
GD: You talk about the audience and I’ve been in tapings before and you guys really do seem to feed off of that audience energy and you’re very interactive with the audience even during the show. In this time where it seems like multi-camera sitcoms are not necessarily as common as they once were, what do you think that art form has that you can’t achieve in any other type of television?
SH: It’s theater. That’s all it is. It’s a live show in front of a live audience and the only thing that’s in between you and the audience are those cameras to capture what’s happening. It’s no different than theater and the thing that the four of us have in common on the show, the four actors, is that we all have a theater background, so we understand the beats and the music and the rhythm and the feeling and the sensibility of playing to a live audience, which is what you’re doing. I don’t think sitcoms are dead, I just think good ones are. We’re gonna keep trying to make good ones and if everybody knew what made a hit show, every show would be a hit. It’s all constantly experimenting and trying really hard. That’s what I associate the show with, is theater.
GD: And theater has really been something that you’ve constantly gone back to and you hosted the Tony Awards, you won an Emmy for hosting the Tony Awards. The flexibility that you have now, are you drawn to projects based on the type of project it is whether it’s television or theater or do you just go for the material first?
SH: Yeah, for sure. I think I’m at a point in my life where I just wanna make things that I’m proud of and that I wanna do. Before it’s all about doing anything and everything just to work and get a job and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on a hit show where I’m not scraping pennies as much as I was, so I develop a lot of things for myself because I don’t think what people know what to do with me when all they know is the character of Jack. I’m doing a play, pending the pandemic we’re in the middle of, I’m supposed to do a play where I play Oscar Levant, which is George Gershwin’s best friend, and a couple other things that’s pretty cool, a Netflix series called “Q-Force,” which is basically gay James Bond, so yeah. I do things that come from my company Hazy Mills Productions mostly. Not that I’m not open to getting offers or anything but it doesn’t really happen, so I have to write my own thing or develop my own thing.
GD: I remember when you won your Emmy one of the first things you said in your acceptance speech is they don’t give you a book on how to do this. If you could write the book for how to accept an Emmy that you could give to your younger self, what would be in it?
SH: One sentence: Write something. Because when I got up there to accept the award, and to this day, I don’t know if you’ve seen it but my speech, I’ll never forget it because it’s such a horrible sentence, because I was so nervous when you get up there. I said, “Thanks to the writers for putting funny things in our mouths,” and I left out the words, “To say.” For putting funny things in our mouths to say (laughs). It would wash over very quickly so I think a lot of people recognized my mistake. I would say write something beforehand. Even if you’re not gonna win, just have something in mind of what you’re gonna say ‘cause I didn’t and it was a mess.
GD: Well, I don’t think it was a mess, quite frankly. I thought you were very gracious talking about your mom and thanking David Hyde Pierce for nominating you the year before. Did you and David Hyde Pierce ever talk about that?
SH: Oh yeah. He’s such a nice, kind man. I remember sitting on the couch watching the Emmys in my pajamas or sweats and a T-shirt or something and he said in his acceptance speech, “Sean Hayes should be standing here.” It’s such a crazy sensation to be watching that at home and hearing your name in somebody else’s speech. I thought that was so kind of him and there I was a year later. I have to think that had something to do with it and I’ll always be grateful to him. Yes, we’ve spoken about it many times. He’s a good man.
GD: So, with the landscape of television changing, what do you as a fan just really enjoy watching? What’s on your queue? And I won’t say one network or the other.
SH: Oh gosh. We watch a lot of movies. We don’t really watch a lot of TV. I don’t know if that’s because I make TV shows. I produce TV shows as well so we make them and I’m not a TV junkie like I was when I was a kid, but that said, I like documentaries. What am I watching? Everybody asks me that and I have such a hard time coming up with an answer. I watch a lot of “This Old House” on PBS. I have since I was a kid. I love that show. there’s something so comforting about it. We watched “Making the Cut,” the new Heidi Klum-Tim Gunn thing. We’re big fans of those guys. I just watched “Breaking Bad” last year. That was amazing. Newsflash.
GD: Can’t believe I’m saying this, but catch up, Sean!
SH: I know, I know. I’m so bad. I’m so behind on so many things. If I told you the names of the shows that I’ve never seen, it would shock you. It shocks me.
GD: That’s a conversation for another time.
SH: Or never!
GD: Or never. At least not on these airwaves. Looking back now, of course we’re in this very troubled time, but “Will and Grace” really has been a harbinger of a lot of movement in the LGBTQ community and I just wonder, now that you have some distance from this version of it, do you think that that legacy has changed? Do you think that legacy has strengthened? What do you think about that?
SH: The legacy is the legacy, whether we did 1,000 more episodes or one more episode. It accomplished what it did and needed to the first go around, I believe. That said, I think there always needs to be a voice out there constantly reminding people that the LGBTQ community are just as human as any other human being, so whether that’s us doing a reboot or not or whether it’s “Modern Family” with the gay couple there or whoever or wherever it is, I think we constantly need that to educate America about the normalcy of being human. So I can’t wait to see who does it next. There’s other things that are doing it now like “Pose” and whatever so I can’t wait. I get excited every single time something new comes out that represents the LGBTQ community in a positive light.
GD: Last question, what is your favorite Jack moment? Do you have one? Is that even possible?
SH: Probably the one called “Coffee and Commitment” where I had to memorize a two-page monologue and come in when I was high on caffeine and I rattled on so quickly this whole monologue and then later in the episode, Megan [Mullally] as Karen — I had to give up caffeine, she had to give up alcohol — we were both going crazy and we ended up slapping each other. I think that was one of the first times we had an extended slap fight, which then became a signature of the show. That first time, I watch that clip now and it still makes me laugh. Also, one of the hardest times I’ve laughed with Debra [Messing] is an outtake where I have to play her mother and I flick her in the chin and we’re role-playing so she can confront her mother. Me and Debra laughed so hard that day. Eric [McCormack] and I laugh constantly at work and outside of work. It’s such a joy. I’m the luckiest person alive and believe me, I’m well aware of it and I think about it almost every day.