Q & A: Sean Hayes Talks ‘Sean Saves the World’, Producing and His Time on Broadway
It’s been a while since Sean Hayes was a regular on a TV series. Since Will and Grace ended, he’s been in films, guest starred on TV shows and starred in the hit Broadway musical revival, Promises, Promises. So, it’s not like he was itching to get back into the full-time grind of series television. But, when asked why he decided to come back to TV in Sean Saves the World, he said that “everything is about timing.”
In the show, he plays a divorced dad who is struggling to balance his family – including his mom (Linda Lavin) and daughter (Samantha Isler) – and his career. The show also stars the wonderfully talented Megan Hilty.
I talked to Sean in a recent conference call where he talked about the show, working with the cast, his time on Broadway and more.
Sean Save The World premieres tonight at 9pm on NBC
Tell us a little bit about your character. We know he’s single from the pilot episode. Is he going to stay single? Is that what you would like to see or are we going to see him out there in the dating world?
Sean Hayes: He’s going to open a concubine and just, you know. He – no, of course the goal is for him to move forward and evolve as the show goes on and that includes more dating, and hopefully sooner than later, settling down with somebody and including that person into our family and mine and his.
Can you talk about landing Linda Lavin for the sitcom?
Sean Hayes: That was actually the title we had at first, Landing Linda. And then we just switched it to Sean Saves the World because that sounded too dirty.
Landing Linda is actually a great title. She is a living legend. She is – a lot of people don’t know her extensive success on stage and on Broadway. We’ve got a lot of theater folks on the show which I think is a huge factor in cultivating a hit sitcom. Sitcoms are multicams, I should say, are the closing things related to theater.
And so in that sense, we are so fortunate to get Linda onboard. Tony Award-winning Linda Lavin who you could give literally any line to and she would get a huge laugh.
So aside from being incredibly talented and gifted in zingers and playing the truth of scenes, she is also an incredibly warm, down-to-earth person and we’ve developed this wonderful working relationship where I actually do feel like it’s my real mom, you know. Of course, nobody can take the place of my real mom but she certainly comes close.
Are there musical numbers?
Sean Hayes: I mean my gosh, that would be fantastic. I always think it’s funny when people can’t sing, but if we ever do get the opportunity, it would be great to showcase all of this talent on the show that has more than one threat going on besides acting.
What is more exhausting to you? A full week’s worth of work on your new show or a week on Broadway?
Sean Hayes: Oh hands down Broadway. Yes, Broadway is the most difficult thing or it’s one of the most difficult things any actor can do. And if you haven’t tried it – it’s also the most rewarding and most enjoyable at that.
But if you haven’t tried it you should if you’re an actor. It’s grueling but it’s wonderful – it’ like going to the gym and how great you feel after.
Do you think you’re going to try it again?
Sean Hayes: Yes, I’m sure I will. I don’t know about a musical, but if the right one comes along and the timing is right like anything – never say never – but I would really like to do a play and I’m working on something now to possibly do next year.
Who are some people that inspire you?
Sean Hayes: Oh that’s such a great question. Well my comedy idols growing up were Marty Short and Steve Martin. And my music idols classically were Mozart, for sure.
And then in Pop music, Andy Bell which is a blast from the past. I just met him the other day and I was like, “Oh I forgot what an influence you were on me as a singer,” for like Broadway and stuff.
But as far as comedy goes, definitely Marty Short, and anybody funny; anybody hilarious. I loved Carol Burnett and Tim Conway, and I was a big fan of sketch comedy so any sketch artist I loved. Eddy Murphy, you know, when he was on S&L and all those guys.
What made this project the right thing to return to television with?
Sean Hayes: Well, everything is about timing. And I know a lot of friends and fans had been saying, “When are you coming back to TV? When are you coming back to TV?” which is a wonderful thing to hear.
And then the network asked, “When are you coming back to TV?” And like everything, it’s about timing, and so all these things just came in line.
And when I met with Victor Fresco, the creator of this show, we were tossing around ideas and we landed on this one. And I was like, “Yes, I’ve never seen that character on TV before, a single gay dad raising a family,” or raising his daughter actually.
And so to me, television is all about characters you haven’t seen and relationships you haven’t’ seen. And this one I haven’t seen yet so I thought that was interesting.
Your shows with Hazy Mills Productions are more along the lines of the traditional sitcoms. Do you find that that needs to return to television? Or like why do your shows have that great traditional sitcom feel?
Sean Hayes: I don’t know that we concentrate on what’s traditional or whatever the opposite of traditional is. I think if traditional means funny, then yes we focus on that. But I don’t think it ever matters how many cameras there are or what style the show is, it just has to be good and it has to be funny.
And one of our things we concentrate on at Hazy Mills Productions is does it fall under the umbrella of, A, it’s something we’d want to see, and B, everything has to have an undercurrent of comedy. Even in Grimm there are comedy moments just to kind of give it some breath between the scary moments. So everything we do has to have some kind of comedy to it.
But you know, I’d love to see multi – multicams are huge on CBS, that’s for sure. So they’ve never really gone away, it’s just the bad ones have gone away. The good ones stay for a long time. So hopefully – knock on wood – we can get into the good-ones-business.
Now that you’re a successful producer, when you’re reading scripts as an actor, has it changed your perspective in how you pick parts?
Sean Hayes: Oh, sure, sure sure; of course it helps. I think in order to be a better anything, you must be educated. So as an actor, to be a better actor, I think you should just know a little bit about as much as you can.
You know, if I knew a little bit about directing and acting and producing and writing and line producing and craft services and all of it, I think it makes you, first of all, appreciate how lucky you are and appreciate, more importantly, the people who work around you.
I think a lot of the times when you’re a young actor like I was, I was dumb and a lot of people still believe. And I should say maybe naive in that I was unaware of my surroundings and what made – what went in to making a machine of a show, because I believe every show is a machine that you build by hiring the right people and all the parts have to work together.
So I think I’m more self-aware now of what goes into making a good machine.
Why did you decide on the title for the show?
Sean Hayes: That was actually the first title that Victor came up with; Victor Fresco, the show runner.
I hate coming up with titles and he just though – he just loved the irony of my character thinking the weight of the world, quite literally, was on my shoulders, and balancing all of the crazy people in my life, in my own world, which feels like the entire world is on your shoulders.
So I just think that’s just the thought of it. And it’s kind of fun for my name to be in the title. And it just speaks to – it just seemed that the title fit the show perfectly for what my character goes through every week.
Is there room for improv in this role? It seems like there could definitely be.
Sean Hayes: Yes definitely, of course. We – seriously, you know, every person says this and in every interview you guys ask, we always say we have the best writing team. But we really, really do have the cream of the crop writers in town and they are of the highest caliber. So what they write is pretty close to genius and sometimes it is genius and most of the time it is genius.
But with that being said, they do – they are fine with us improvising us and having a good time and playing around on set to come up with fun new stuff just to add to the greatness that they’ve written. So it’s really fun and freeing to do that. And a lot of times it ends up in the show.
What do you find the most challenging about this show?
Sean Hayes: I have a little bit of a control factor going on, and for me to release the control is a big step for me and a very healthy step for me. So that was a challenge and I’ve overcome it all ready and so it’s great.
And the challenge is just – in addition to that it’s just – it’s being funny every week. I don’t know that people really get how hard it is – nor is it their job to get how hard it is. Their job is just to be entertained.
But it’s a lot of work to be funny, but it’s also enjoyable I must say.
What about the casting of Megan Hilty? What was it about her that made you want to have her on the show? And how much did your work with her in Smash influenced the decision to cast her?
Sean Hayes: Megan Hilty is phenomenal. Of course working with her on Smash was amazing and a wonderful fulfilling opportunity for me.
And I knew that she was hilarious. I don’t know that America knows that yet because Smash was a drama. So I’m excited that America gets to see Megan be funny and hilarious and a way they’ve never seen her be before.
So there was no really – you know, there was many talented girls that read for the part. But when she came in she just nailed it; she just was it. And as they often say, a lot of people don’t have it and she does.
Had you known her prior to Smash?
Sean Hayes: I did; in certain circles, social situations and a couple – she actually auditioned for me when I produced another show for the CW so I knew of her talent. But we didn’t know each other very well, but in-school friends, I would say. But now we’re out-of-school friends as well.
What was the show that she auditioned for on CW?
Sean Hayes: It was called Eight Days A Week and Anna Clumsky who is on Veep was in it. And I’ve known Anna since she was nine years old.
And who else was in it? Johnny Lewis – you remember that guy who killed his landlady? So sad, he was in it. And Christina Milian, and it get picked up by the CW and then we never heard back from them. But she came in and read and I made her sing popular in a voice of a chicken.
How does it feel to be back in a leading role on TV?
Sean Hayes: It feels great being in my first leading role on TV. But yes, it feels great. It feels familiar which I love, but yet it feels new and there’s forward movement in me as a person and me as an actor, and hopefully America will see that, you know.
It’s definitely a different character than I’ve played before. This is a real leading-man kind of role in that he’s a responsible grounded person with the voice of reason to the rest of the characters.
You are such a busy person, but what do you like to do for leisure? What do you do on a day off?
Sean Hayes: I never have a day off, which I love, and I don’t do a lot of leisure. I just hang out with friends and go out to dinner; it’s pretty boring.
I find tremendous joy in filling every hour of the day in the entertainment business in whatever that may be.
With Sami Isler, how did you cast her? What did you see in her and did no one ever tell you not to work with kids?
Sean Hayes: Well Sami Isler is fantastic, and she came in and read and right away we all agreed she’s the one.
She actually is so unbelievably talented and her instincts are huge. I don’t know where she learned them. I mean that’s why they’re called instincts I suppose. But it’s one of those uncanny things where she was born to do it.
And we saw so many girls over such a long time, and she was the only one that wasn’t very – that didn’t have that kind of expected Hollywood take on the character. She didn’t seem like a Hollywood young actress. She seems like a very, very real person.
And then when you meet her, she is gorgeous and funny and super smart and very well mannered and just really seems to have it all together. And kudos to her parents for doing such a great job.
And we laugh so hard, and we actually respect each other and ask each other, “Is this funny or is that funny?” And she gets it and she’s great.
And so when you say, “Did anybody ever tell me not to work with children?” I may have thought differently until I had Sami.
Is comedic timing always been something that came natural to you or have you had to work at it?
Sean Hayes: I think I watched a lot of TV growing up. I watched a lot of S&L and Carol Burnett and all those 70’s sitcoms; Three’s Company, Facts of Life, all those things. And then a lot of movies; Peter Sellers movies, a lot of Steve Martin movies, a lot of Marty Short stuff.
So I think I learned from observing, and I think I learned from – I’m the youngest of five kids in my family growing up so I think I was an observer more than anything.
And I studied music since I was five years old. And as you may or may not know, there are many similarities in music as there is in comedy. You have rhythm and beat and musicality in both music and comedy.
So I think that’s the very long answer to your short question.
You mentioned this is your first leading role as an actor in TV. How you mentally prepare for being a leading man as opposed to a supporting character?
Sean Hayes: I think it’s the same. I mean you definitely set a kind of tone, and I didn’t want to set any other tone being the lead on my show as I was a supporting character which is to come in and have fun, because if you have fun, everybody else will have fun. And if you have fun the audience will have fun.
And it’s almost like, you know, you’re hosting a party every week. If the host is upset or has anxiety or is nervous, then everybody else will feed off of that. but if the host is having a good time, then everybody else will.
You started producing just before you left Will & Grace, and I was wondering if part of the impetuous of that was that you thought maybe no one else would hire you after that job.
Sean Hayes: I think – no, I mean to be honest if I’m self-aware which I always try to be and sometimes to a fault. But I knew this faith of identifiable sitcom stars, you know, in identifiable roles that – I don’t want to say iconic. Other people are using that word, not me.
My role models are Woody Harrelson, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Will Smith, who all starred in iconic TV roles. So I guess I – you know, I’m friends with Tom Hanks and I saw what he did with Play Tone and I thought, “That would be really neat.” And I saw how he always had a Plan B.
And so I started, towards the end of Will & Grace, knowing all of this, I thought, “Hey, he’s a big influence on me, Tom, and why not try to emulate what he’s tried.” And you know, we’re still trying because they’re pretty fantastic, but we’re still a young company.
And so it was kind of my Plan B which has now turned into a Plan A-1, you know, just because I still love acting and I still love – and I love producing.
And I knew once the show was over, I needed to know what my place in this business was. How do I remain in this business?
And if you love anything, you’re in it for the long haul. So I wasn’t looking to get rich quick or be successful right away. I was in it for the long haul, so whatever that took to be a producer and produce what I love, then that’s what it’s going to take, you know.
Do you get something from producing that acting doesn’t give you?
Sean Hayes: Oh yes; definitely. I mean acting, you get the thrill of an audience, you know, reacting to you immediately. And you get the thrill – and if it’s in film, you get the thrill in immersing yourself into whatever role, you know, TV or film making.
But producing, there is a release that comes from not having to be the face of a success or failure. Producing also excites my brain in a way about having my hands in a lot of pots, and a lot of my opinions matter about creating a machine, you know, meaning a show.
And a lot of times acting doesn’t, you know, get that. So acting is more internal and producing is more external in a way.