“Lazy Susan” actor on playing a cisgender woman, “Will & Grace” ending and his new show.
Under any other conditions, it might seem strange to tell Sean Hayes what I’m wearing. Given that Hayes slips into some sweats to play a do-nothing cisgender woman named Susan O’Connell — hence the movie’s name, “Lazy Susan” — it makes some sense that I tell the Emmy-winning “Will & Grace” star that I’m lounging in athleisure like a lazy Susan. (And, well, he did ask me if I was working from home — our new not-normal normal.)
Where do you go with Hayes from there? Everywhere: from developing Susan to why it was time to end “Will & Grace” (for real this time) and how his best lazy days involve his husband and Sigourney Weaver.
What’s a lazy day in your life like?
A lazy day in my life is usually Sundays. My husband Scotty and I don’t do anything, and we call it Cinema Sunday. We pick a movie out, and we just sit there on the couch and watch it, and we usually have the doors open to the backyard, and we take naps. Or I’ll put on “This Old House.” I love that show so much.
What was your last Cinema Sunday flick?
The original “Alien.” There’s nothing more relaxing than “Alien.” Nothing more relaxing than watching somebody’s stomach burst open.
I’ve read that Susan is based on a character you initially developed for an audition for a sketch show years ago. Is that true?
No — yes, of course! I just like to make things up! No, it was. I had a call from my agent when I was 21 years old living in Chicago to come in and audition to replace quote-unquote “the white guy” in “In Living Color,” which was Jim Carrey because I guess he was leaving the show. So I go into the audition with a bag full of wigs and props and just tons of stuff to do, tons of characters. One of those characters was Susan, and I did it, and that’s the story.
And so here we are decades later, at the suggestion of my very good friend Reyna Larson, who I went to high school and college with. She was like, “You should do something with that character you did but name her Lazy Susan.” I thought, “That’s such a great title,” and then I worked backward from the title and that character. I wrote a TV pilot in one day. It was awesome. It was so fun. It just came out of me.
Then, after I shared it with my friend Darlene Hunt, a prolific TV writer who created “The Big C” on Showtime, she was like, “Honey, I think this is a movie,” and I was like, “Really?” She goes, “Yeah, this script is the first act of the movie.” And I was like, “That’s really interesting.” And so there we go. Then I brought it to Carrie Aizley, who’s another good friend — they’re all good friends — and Carrie also read the pilot, and she came up with some really witty, amazing dialogue for the rest of the characters. So we all three sat down and wrote it together.
It’s good to know people; otherwise, Susan might’ve still been dormant.
I think she wakes up dormant!
But Darlene, I’ve known since I was 27 years old. I got her her first writing gig on “Will & Grace.” So I’ve known her for years and years. And Carrie too. I was a guest star on “Campus Ladies,” which she was a star of.
But back to Susan: I didn’t want the joke to be a man playing a woman, as we’ve seen so many times. I wanted it as an acting challenge. I thought it’d be really interesting to feel extremely uncomfortable in women’s clothes but acting like I’m not.
This character might’ve played differently 15, 20 years ago.
You mentioned not playing her gender as a joke, like it was in films like “Some Like It Hot,” “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” In those films, the joke was a man, or men, in a dress.
They were men playing a woman to reach a certain goal as a man. This is not that movie. This is a character that I’m playing, just like Jared Leto, who I think is a brilliant actor and who won an Oscar for playing a trans character. That’s why we’re actors. We like to play different parts, period.
How did Susan initially come to you? Is she based on anyone in particular?
Yes, but I can’t say who. [Laughs.] It’s based on a few people. By the way, men and women.
Maybe, maybe not.
Like Jack, she’s pretty self-absorbed. Do you see any similarities?
I don’t see them that similar at all. I think Jack is very put together, and when given a task very responsible, shows up, has a bunch of different jobs. Susan can’t even get out of bed.
What’s the message that you hope people take away from “Lazy Susan”?
You know, I haven’t thought of that. I hope people enjoy the film, period. You know, there’s a lot of movies with something deep to say and what I love about this film is, sure, if you connect with it and find something for yourself to pull from, great. But my intention was just to entertain.
It’s a Cinema Sunday flick.
It’s a Cinema Sunday film. I really, really have an incredible affinity for those films from the ’90s that were Sundance or independent films and film festival films.
You mean the ones we don’t really see anymore?
Right, exactly. And so the Oscars have become an independent film festival, that’s all. But I love “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” and I loved “Napoleon Dynamite,” and I loved all those films. Now it’s huge studio films that open these film festivals when it’s like, what about the little films that we all used to go to discover at independent film festivals? I wanted to make one of those. I mean, hopefully, we succeeded. I think we did. But those are close to my heart, probably because that’s what started my career too [Hayes starred in the 1998 gay-themed rom-com “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss”].
As far as “Will & Grace” goes, after its recent revival, it’s been said that it will absolutely not return, ever.
There will be no more. That is 100 percent for sure.
How did you and the rest of the cast decide to end it for good?
It’s time. We were supposed to come back for 10 episodes, and that’s it, and then because of the response, we just kept making season after season. I think we ended up making something like 52, 53 episodes, and it was so fun, and I’m so, so grateful and honored and privileged to have that experience again, but everybody knows when it’s time to move on. I thought eight seasons was long. Then here we are with three seasons. I mean, they weren’t quote-unquote “full” seasons like they used to be, but in the world we live in, three seasons seems to be plenty.
It had nothing to do with any cast member feuds on set? Because my heart was hurting when I read about that as a possibility for the show ending.
Yeah. Look at you. The hard-hitting-questions journalist getting in there.
No, no, no. I was just like, I hope it’s not true. I don’t want it to be true because I grew up with these characters.
No, no, no, no. It was a very mutual decision between the cast and the producers together.
I’ve grown up with all of you — you guys changed my life as a little gay boy.
I love that.
What boundaries are you proud of breaking with the “Will & Grace” revival?
I think our jobs are never done as a society and a gay culture to educate America. It’s never done. It’s never done to educate people about diversity and inclusion, so for that reason I’m sad the show is over, because somebody needs to do it, and somebody needs to do it in a big way for lots of eyeballs and ears to see and hear.
The last time we spoke, we talked about how much of “the slap” between you and Megan Mullally is really kind of a dance. How much of “Just Jack” was improv?
Well, the hand gestures were me. On paper it just says “Just Jack,” but we had the best writers in television ever on the show, in my opinion, and at the same time I had a director that’s the best director in television. He was the best for many reasons, one of which is letting me experiment with physical comedy. So that’s where some of that comes from — just experimenting.
You don’t count yourself as an activist, but do you think you’ll see a gay president in your lifetime?
I have to believe we will, yes. And I have to believe that he will be referred to as a president, not a gay president. That’s the other thing: I would never say you are a gay journalist, or I’m a gay actor. I’m an actor. You’re a journalist. Why do we have to preface every single title with our sexual orientation?
What’s next for you?
What I’ve been working on is the Netflix series “Q Force,” which is [laughs] … you know, OK, the short description is “gay James Bond.” [Laughs.]
But, Sean, we can’t preface it with “gay.”
I KNOW. That’s why I’m laughing because I just said that. But in that sense, you have to because it’s the person’s name, not the title: gay James Bond. I wouldn’t say gay spy or gay agent. That’s the short answer.
Gabe Liedman — he runs “PEN15,” which is such a funny show — is the creator and showrunner of “Q Force,” and Mike Schur is supervising producer. Mike Schur created “Parks and Rec” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Good Place” and wrote on “Saturday Night Live.” So we’re surrounded by incredible talent and then incredible writers, but it’s really … I can’t wait for people to see this show. It’s super, super fun. And it’s a great cast — but I can’t say who it is yet. But you, of all people, your mind will be blown.
You weren’t out during the first part of your career, and so much has changed just in the years since then. What do you appreciate most about this current moment for LGBTQ actors?
Just to clarify, the first part of my career, I was out. I just wasn’t out to the press. Had we met at a cafe, I’d be like, “Yeah, I’m out and proud!” But you can read all about my issues about that online.
Anyways, I think the tide continues to change in the favor of being historically on the right side, in that I think finally people in decision-making roles are becoming aware of the sensitivities that they should have had years prior. I mean, I’m a fan of “best actor gets the part,” no matter what. No matter what. No matter if you’re gay, straight, bi, lesbian, LGBTQ, Black, Asian, whatever.
So is it OK that someone like Scarlett Johansson plays a trans character?
[Hesitates.] I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean … I mean… I don’t know. It’s such a good question. What do you think?
I think that there aren’t enough roles for trans people and that there are plenty of trans actors who can play those roles, so until they’re being cast in those roles, I think no.
OK, then that’s what I think then.
I’m on the fence, you know. As an actor, we want to challenge ourselves, and we want to play different parts, and that’s why we’re actors. But on the other hand, there should be plenty of parts to challenge yourself that don’t take away jobs from people that are entitled to be given the opportunity.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.