Before Modern Family depicted a legally married gay couple attempting to get their adopted daughter into an elite pre-school, there was another kind of gay family on TV—the chosen one formed by the characters on the Emmy-winning series Will & Grace.
The landmark sitcom that embraced gay characters and put LGBT culture front and center—whether America was ready or not in 1998—changed the lives of LGBT people across the world, including Sean Hayes, who played the unapologetically flamboyant Jack McFarland.
“I’ll never forget this one letter from this woman. She said, ‘I think the show is horrible. I think gay people should go to hell. I think what you’re doing is terrible, and by the way, it’s the funniest show on TV, and I never miss an episode,’” Hayes recalls.
In addition to that letter, there were also death threats and the pressure to “come out” publicly when he’d been living out-and-proud since his teens.
“I got Will & Grace, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is different. I don’t know how to handle this. I’m not bright enough, I’m not quick enough, I don’t have the DNA to be a spokesperson for any kind of group of people.’”
Hayes didn’t come out publicly to the press until 2010, four years after Will & Grace went off the air. “I had personal issues inside of myself that I regret,” he says. “I regret not coming out sooner and helping more people, and I regret not coming out during the show. Everybody in the gay community knew I was gay, but it was this fight I had with the press because they want you to come out on their terms, and other gay people want you to come out on their terms, and if you don’t come out on their terms you’re just an asshole, and you’re wrong. Well, each individual human being has a lot of stuff that nobody knows about. Nobody knows what anybody else is going through at any point in their lives.”
Complicating Hayes’ success was that his big hit came with strings attached: He was a gay actor playing a gay character at a time when Hollywood was—and in many ways, still is—a difficult industry for out LGBT actors who don’t want to be typecast.
“I did like 30 or 40 commercials before Will & Grace where I was the straight husband. I had two spots on the Super Bowl in 1998 where I was the straight dude. So I didn’t feel pressure to hide [my sexuality] as much as I thought it was the thing I was supposed to do.”
Hayes says he witnessed how the showbiz machine commended straight actors for playing gay characters on screen without potential threat to their career opportunities. The same move, however, could be career-ending for an out gay actor.
“[They] could play gay and be adored and worshipped for it, and I thought, ‘Oh. I’ll just do that. If I just do a good job, I’ll be accepted as an actor, and then I’ll just keep playing any role. But Hollywood doesn’t work that way, and audiences don’t work that way because there’s a stipulation that goes with audiences where if they see a gay person playing straight, they go ‘Yeah right.’”
Hayes should know. When he made his Broadway debut in the 2010 revival of Promises, Promises, he was maligned in a Newsweek article (penned by a gay journalist) that asserted that his sexuality made his performance as a straight man unbelievable.
“I think that article was more about him than it was anything else,” Hayes responds. “It was more about his personal issues.” Regardless of what Newsweek thought, the show was a solid sell, regularly grossing over $1 million at the box office each week.
“You build a fan base over time, and they will accept you as long as it’s good,” says Hayes. “Nothing matters as long as something’s good. If it’s bad, nobody will see it.”
Hayes, who says he’s thrilled to return to Broadway as the all-knowing and wisecracking deity in An Act of God, takes the criticism and praise in stride, noting that “baby steps” (and sometimes full-out Cher choreography on Will & Grace) help bring us collectively forward.
“We shouldn’t be fascinated that a straight man can play gay anymore. There’s nothing mind blowing about that anymore. It’s been done,” he says. “I’d like everyone to just be treated equally, to see people look at you and accept you for who you are as a human being and your spirit.
“When I ask gay men and women who have children, ‘Tell me how they’re growing up in the world and what they’re views are as far as gay culture?’ Their answer is, ‘It’s all they’ve ever known, so it’s completely normal to them.’ And could you imagine, if it was ‘All the world has ever known’? What a much better place we’d all be in.”