Even though he’s sheltering in place with his husband Scott Icenogle, this April is going to be a very busy month for award-winning actor Sean Hayes.
He’s starring as the lead female character in “Lazy Susan,” a movie he also co-wrote and co-produced, which drops on VOD and streaming channels on April 3.
Then on April 23, Hayes’s role as the exuberant Jack McFarland on “Will & Grace” comes to an end when the long-running NBC series broadcasts its final episode.
The press tours for these projects have been cancelled, but Hayes is promoting the projects from the comfort and safety of his own home. “Luckily,” the multi-talented star says, “we can do interviews over the phone to get the word out about shows that you can watch at home, so this whole process adheres to the rules of this horrible virus.”
When he’s not promoting his latest projects, Hayes has been watching some of his favorite movies and shows with his husband. “I’m a big sci-fi fantasy nerd,” he says. “I like all the classics like ‘Star Wars,’ ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Stranger Things,’ but I’m always on the lookout for great new shows.
He also admits that he’s a big fan of “This Old House.”
Hayes and Icenogle, a music producer, have been together for almost 14 years and have been married since 2014. He says the secret to their relationship, and to surviving social distancing together, is respect. “You have to fall in respect with somebody, not in love. Love will happen if there’s respect.”
Hayes’s latest project, “Lazy Susan,” has its roots in his career as a stand-up comedian (he’s an alumnus of Chicago’s famed Second City improvisational theatre troupe). “When I was 21 years old and living in Chicago,” he recalls, “I got a call from my agent for an audition to replace ‘the white guy’ on the sketch show ‘In Living Color.’”
“They were talking about Jim Carrey,” he adds.
“I went in with a bunch of character ideas and voices and wigs and things like that. One of the characters was Susan, who was just a girl who couldn’t get her life together. She always had excuses and she was never really happy. She dreams about having it all, but she does nothing to get it.”
“Decades later,” he continues, “a friend of mine suggested that I resurrect the character because we had so much fun with her. She came up with the name ‘Lazy Susan,’ and I thought ‘what a genius title.’”
Hayes developed the script with two old friends, Carrie Aizley and Darlene Hunt, both of whom also appear in the movie. Aizley plays Corrin, Susan’s long-suffering bandmate, and Hunt, who created the Showtime series “The Big C” and appears as Maggie in Apple TV’s “Dickinson,” plays Wendy.
The image of the kitchen turntable helped Hayes and his co-writers turn the character sketch into a full-length movie script. “We loved the built-in metaphor of a ‘lazy Susan,’” Hayes says, “of someone spinning around in circles, who can’t get their life together.” Hayes notes that alert viewers can spot lots of spinning motifs in the film, like when Susan and her friend Corrin are in the playground.
As the script took shape, Susan became Susan O’Connell who idly spends her days stealing magazines from her neighbors to create elaborate collages of her dream life while borrowing money from her mother to pay her rent. She’s looking for someone to take care of her, but when her world starts to crash around her, she finally finds a job and starts to take care of herself.
Working closely with director Nick Peet (“Grimm”), Hayes decided to play the character straight. Usually, when a man puts on a dress to play a female character, it’s played for laughs. Hayes and his colleagues wanted the comedy to come from the character and her outrageous life, not from the fact that he was wearing a skirt. “I always enjoy an acting challenge,” he says. “I like finding new voices. I wanted the challenge of playing a woman, not a guy in drag, not a transgender person. I wanted to play her as a real person, and not get laughs just because I was a man dressed as a woman.”
In addition to Aizley and Hunt, Hayes was able to recruit his dream cast for the movie. “It never, ever happens that the people you have in mind when you are writing the script say yes to being in the movie,” he says. “But we were very lucky to get the cast we wanted.”
The cast includes Allison Janney as Susan’s nemesis Velvet (“she is brilliant in everything she’s in,” gushes Hayes) and Margo Martindale as Susan’s mother (“who is such a funny, wonderful person”), as well as Jim Rash, who won an Oscar for “The Descendants” as Susan’s love interest and Matthew Broderick as Susan’s landlord.
Hayes thinks that audiences will be drawn to the off-beat movie and that the time is right for a movie that’s just trying to entertain. “I’m very proud of “Lazy Susan,” he says, “and very proud of everyone involved. I think it’s super fun and quirky and odd and a little creepy and hilarious. For me, it’s a throwback to the old independent movies of the ’90s like ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ and ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ that I’m such a fan of.”
He could also add his first full-length film, the delightful “Billy’s First Hollywood Screen Kiss” (1998) to that list.
While Hayes was working on “Lazy Susan,” he was also filming the final episodes of the groundbreaking NBC sitcom “Will & Grace.” Hayes originated the award-winning role of Jack when the series was initially released in 1998 (months after the premiere of “Billy”) and recreated the role when the series was revived in 2017.
The actor is proud of the legacy the show leaves in its wake. “I think it had a very positive impact,” he says. “It opened up a dialogue in America about LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance. A lot can be accomplished through the power of comedy. We succeeded in educating Americans without them even knowing it.”
Looking back over the experience, Hayes says, “I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to play Jack and especially for the audience’s desire to see the show come back. That’s the only reason we did it, but now it feels like it’s time. I think the timing is perfect.”
The energetic star is working on two exciting new projects. Through his production company Mills Hazy, he’s developing an animated series for Netflix. “It’s about a spy who happens to be gay,” he says, “the gay James Bond. There’s a great cast involved, but I can’t say anything about it yet.”
He’s also in the midst of casting for a new play by out playwright Doug Wright called “Good Night Oscar.” Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for his one man-show “I Am My Own Wife;” he also wrote the books for the musicals “Grey Gardens” and “War Paint” and the play “Quills,” which premiered at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The play will be helmed by out director Leigh Silverman.
Drawing on his own experience as a talk-show host and classical pianist, Hayes will play composer and raconteur Oscar Levant. Known for his rapier wit and encyclopedic recall, Levant was a regular on quiz shows and variety hours on both television and radio; he also had featured roles in classic Hollywood musicals like “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris” and “The Band Wagon.”
The production was slated to premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in January 2021, with an anticipated transfer to Broadway, but plans are currently on hold. The unplanned break gives Hayes extra time to practice Levant’s quips, including the infamous line, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
Hayes has an impressive theatrical resume. He played Mr. Applegate (the Devil) in Encores! Concert production of “Damn Yankees” and appeared as God on Broadway in the play “An Act of God” and with Kristin Chenoweth in the Burt Bacharach musical “Promises, Promises.” Hayes also hosted the Tony Awards in 2010.
In the meantime, fans can also enjoy “viral music video masters” Sean Hayes and Scott Icenogle on their official YouTube channel “The Kitchen Sync,” where they perform a hysterical mix of lip-sync and parody videos.