Turns out there was some validity to 1999’s onslaught of end-of-the-millennium prophecies. True, we didn’t go “kaboom,” but 2000 did see “Cats” close on Broadway and Brad Pitt’s goodbye to bachelorhood, and after four sold-out concerts, Barbra Streisand won’t be singing us love songs anymore.
And as if that weren’t wrenching enough, Celine Dion was nowhere to be found. How do we cope? “Trust me,” assures “Will & Grace’s” flamboyantly fierce, fabulously fictitious Jack McFarland. “Our hearts will go on.”
If only we all could view the year’s events through Jack’s mauve-colored specs. While copies of People magazine and US Weekly flew off newsstands promising exclusive details on the glam weddings of Pitt and Jennifer Aniston and, more recently, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jack kicked back on his sofa submerged in the latest issue of Out. “Snore,” he says of celeb couplings. “Call me when Ben Affleck marries Matt Damon.”
It’s no secret that Jack adores Cher and will always hold a special place in his heart for “the Creek’s” James Van Der Beek, but the guy is not all about pop culture. Not completely in the closet when it comes to matters of politics, Jack says he draws “inspiration” from Hillary Clinton’s election to Congress (“The woman has almost single-handedly brought back the muted-toned power suit”) and dreads the thought of four more years with a Bush in the White House: “I’m riding Alec Baldwin to France,” he quips.
Jack’s take on life? So honest. So tell-it-as-it-is. So completely . . . gay! Jack’s not just openly gay--he’s open-24-hours-a-day gay. And we can’t imagine him as anything but, which is exactly the reason the man who plays him, Sean P. Hayes (“Can we put the P for Patrick in?”), doesn’t want us to know his own sexual preference--ever. Or at least for the duration of his acting career.
“If I play a character that is supposed to be in love with a woman, then hopefully you’ll believe that, and if I’m supposed to be in love with a man, then hopefully you’ll believe that,” Hayes babbles, just as he’s repeated ad nauseam in interviews again and again and again since 1998 when he was cast on “Will & Grace,” NBC’s hit sitcom about the friendships involving gay Will (Eric McCormack), straight Grace (Debra Messing), Jack and Karen (Megan Mullally).
So save yourself the trouble of scanning this article for sexual revelations or Ellen DeGeneresian politico statements. Ain’t gonna happen here, folks.
Hayes wants to alter America’s perception of him as “Just Jack,” his snappy, slightly bitter “halter"-ego. See the rough-around-the-edges lumberjack threads he sports: the plaid shirt and jeans. The unshaven face. The black tank-top rocker look he wore to the My VH1 Music Awards in November.
As for “Will & Grace,” a show he adores, Hayes can see himself sliding away from it should the series go beyond six or seven seasons--a near certainty judging by its current ratings and buzz. “Some days,” muses Hayes, “it seems like I could do it for 15 years. Then other days it seems I can only do it until next week.”
On this particular warm December day, the actor is clean-shaven, but that’s just because he had to play Jack the night before in a “Three’s Company"-like story line that airs during the February sweeps in which Jack and Karen find a letter misleading them to believe Grace is a bipolar personality prone to extreme violence. But his dress is notably different from his TV persona: a navy Georgetown baseball cap, worn khakis and an Abercrombie & Fitch Athletics T-shirt.
“Sean is really hunky, but he never shows it,” says “Will & Grace’s” McCormack. “He has a great body, and he hides it under big clothing: A, because we don’t want Jack to be too hunky, but B, because he does that in life--and I don’t know what that’s all about.” A gym enthusiast, Hayes says his producers have warned him against getting too buff, for fear of Jack losing his “twinkie” appeal.
Clearly his own harshest critic, Hayes says, “Looks-wise, I’m blessed by being an extremely average-looking guy. I think if you’re extremely chiseled, that breeds even more insecurity because you’re expected to look like that the rest of your life.”
Hayes may fall short of lumberjack status--and has himself said he’ll never play a cop or a firefighter--but his appetite is very much Midwest manly. In the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, he orders the hearty country meatloaf with sides of mashed potatoes and corn, boasting, “Thank God, I’m a country boy” to the waitress, who leaves the table giggling.
Like Jack, his humorous summations are constant, though more zany than catty. “I’m the funniest when I can just hang out with my friends and be funny--when there’s no pressure.” And aside from his nervous foot tapping, which lasts the duration of the interview, he does seem generally relaxed. He contrasts his current ease to the anxiety provoked by appearances on Leno and Letterman. “I can’t sleep for two weeks before I do them.” His fear: “That I’m going to bomb. Being the funny guy on the show, there’s always an expectation to be that--and that sucks a little because there’s always that pressure. Especially when you have this statue in your house for being the funniest guy on TV.”
That statue, this year’s Emmy for best supporting actor in comedy, is on display in Hayes’ 1920s apartment in the historic Hancock Park section of Los Angeles. He’s moved once since landing “Will & Grace.” In ’98, he was one of four residents in a “disgusting, rundown house in the Valley with a rat running around.” Because of his family’s early financial struggles, he remains protective of his newly acquired wealth. Though he received a new Porsche from NBC at the end of the first season, his primary transportation remains his Toyota Camry, and most all his earnings go straight into the bank, just in case his luck should change.
“How many ‘E! True Hollywood’ stories do you have to watch?” he says.
Reared a Catholic in the quiet though “gossipish” Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, the Irishman long ago separated from the church in which he was baptized, confirmed and ultimately turned off, calling it “extremely hypocritical.” Asked if he still considers himself a Catholic, Hayes says, “They wouldn’t consider me Catholic.”
The youngest of five siblings, Hayes sacked out with his three brothers (Dennis, Kevin and Mike) in twin bunk beds, while sister Tracey was quarantined in her own room. “You’d walk into her room and it was painted yellow with flowers and my dad painted a big mouse on the wall,” Hayes recalls of the bedroom he long coveted and ultimately assumed once Tracey went off to college. The yellow walls were painted white and plastered with posters of Hayes’ then-idol, Michael Jackson, to whom he built a shrine. “I saved every magazine he was in, went to the Victory tour, and then a year later I was over him. I was like, ‘Ewww.’ ”
Aside from Jackson, a major influence in Hayes’ young life was his father Ron, an alcoholic with whom he has not spoken in over a decade. If Hayes possesses any of Jack’s bitterness, it is toward this man, who abandoned the family when Hayes was 5, leaving mother Mary to raise her children without any financial support from him.
“Everybody comes from a dysfunctional family and mine was no different,” he says. “In a positive way, it’s affected me in that I know I don’t want to be like that.” His father’s absence, he believes, contributed to his desire for solitude. “I have this love/hate thing with needing people. I need to be around my friends, but then when I’m done, I need to be completely alone.” Which is how Hayes spent much of his teenage years.
Excelling in high school gymnastics and piano, Hayes admits he didn’t have much of a social life outside the classroom. Weekends were all about “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and “Saturday Night Live” (which he expects to host in February), counting Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, Billy Crystal’s Fernando Lamas and Martin Short’s Ed Grimley among his closest friends.
In his sophomore year, Hayes met new-girl-in-school Reyna Larson in the stands at a pep rally. “He was crazy,” remembers Larson, who now sings with a Chicago band. “He wasn’t the star of the football team, but he was very known--from the jocks to the geeks to the theater and music crowd to the cheerleaders--everybody enjoyed Sean.”
Though Hayes attended the senior prom with the “beautiful” Shereen Boury, he and Larson had a two-year romance stretching from high school into college, then years later briefly roomed together in Los Angeles. Today the two remain best friends. “I’m in love with Reyna,” declares Hayes. “I absolutely love her. I would die for her. That to me is love.”
It wasn’t until he attended Illinois State University, supporting himself as a classical pianist, that Hayes began to bloom. “The four years I spent in college were to date the best years of my life,” he recalls. “I relaxed into myself and found out who I was.” Hayes also fostered a solid base of friends, whom he describes as “a lot of [screwed-up] theater people who got my wacko sense of humor.”
Next to Reyna, his closest friends--his Will, Grace and Karen--include Mickey, Suzanne and Ashley, all friends from Chicago who moved with Hayes to L.A. roughly five years ago. All were on hand June 26 when Hayes celebrated his 30th birthday with 300 close personal friends and acquaintances at the Hollywood nightclub the Playroom.
Says Hayes, “I sat in this oversized highchair and watched my friends Reyna, Suzanne and Mickey get up on stage and sing, ‘This is Sean’s Party Song.’ It was hilarious.”
Larson believes the same quality in Hayes that made him likable to all cliques in high school translates to his newfound universal appeal--even to people who might not previously have accepted gay characters. “I see it when we go out in public,” Larson says. “People who you wouldn’t even think watch the show respond to him.”
Hayes’ agent at William Morris, Scott Henderson, now hopes to capitalize on the actor’s popularity by turning him into a movie star--or more specifically (get ready France): the next Jerry Lewis. “It’s a natural progression for somebody with his unique physical talents,” says Henderson. To that end, Hayes is looking at all the old films of Lewis, Peter Sellers and Don Knotts to see if there’s something worth remaking.
“I think that will happen for him,” says McCormack. “But I also think if you look at [Hayes’ 1998 indie film] ‘Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,’ there’s a serious actor in Sean too. Someone’s going to give that a chance one day and be very surprised.”
But for now, Hayes is struggling to break free from “Just Jack.” “It’s like, ‘We’ll give you this character of Jack on this show called “Will & Grace” if you want it.’ And you’re like, ‘OK, I’ll take it,’ because you’re not working. And then it becomes this weird thing where that’s what you’re associated with.
“I love Jack, but I became an actor to play a lot of parts. Not to play one part for the rest of my life. It’s a problem that a lot of break-out, funny characters have. But I’m confident I’ll conquer it one way or another.”