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Sean Hayes talks about ‘Will & Grace’ and playing Oscar Levant in new play

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/25/2022 Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
Sean Hayes, who stars as pianist Oscar Levant in playwright Doug Wright's "Goodnight, Oscar" at Goodman Theatre, on Thursday, March 17, 2022, in Chicago. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS Sean Hayes, who stars as pianist Oscar Levant in playwright Doug Wright's "Goodnight, Oscar" at Goodman Theatre, on Thursday, March 17, 2022, in Chicago.

CHICAGO — Sean Hayes, the star of “Will & Grace” and a co-host with Jason Bateman and Will Arnett of the podcast “SmartLess,” is now appearing in the hit play “Good Night, Oscar” at the Goodman Theatre. Hayes, who grew up in Glen Ellyn and started his career at the Pheasant Run resort in St. Charles, plays the actor, musician and raconteur Oscar Levant, here seen as a controversial guest on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar.

Hayes spoke in a rehearsal room at the Goodman Theatre. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You started your career playing piano in Chicago.

A: When I was a kid in Glen Ellyn, a piano teacher moved in across the street and my mom said, “do you want to take piano lessons?,” and I said, “sure, what else am I doing?” I studied for about 20 years and thought I was going to be a composer and a musical director and just live forever in the music world. Then I got the gig at Pheasant Run, sitting in the pit, playing for all the shows — classics like “West Side Story” and “Evita.” I enjoyed it but I also thought it seemed like it would be more fun up on the stage. So I started auditioning and booking commercials and I did a play at the Organic Theater. I got the bug and thought, well, I’m young, I should try L.A. So I drove out there and found a friend to be a roommate with. ... In 1998, I got “Will & Grace.”

Q: How many seasons?

A: Eight, and then three in the reboot.

Q: How fast did it change your life?

A: Well, it was on at 9 p.m. on Mondays, or something like that. It built an audience over the first season but it was not that big. And then the same thing happened to us that first summer as what happened to “Friends.” Remember the days when they used to air reruns? That’s when “Will & Grace” blew up.

Q: Did you like the fame?

A: Anyone who is pursuing a career to be a working actor wants a little bit of that. It’s part of the gig. But as you know, this business comes in waves. Other things come in and become popular.

Q: “Will & Grace” is often regarded as seminal, groundbreaking.

A: I was an actor looking for a job and it became this thing. At the time, I don’t think I absorbed the impact it had on the gay community. I’ve said this in many interviews: I don’t have the DNA to be a spokesperson for a community. Other people are so much better at that than me. ... But the most rewarding experience that comes from doing the show is all the people who come to me on the street and say I helped them, and made it easier for them to come out, to have a dialogue in their family where there was no opportunity before to even have a dialogue.

Q: Now people talk a lot about your podcast.

A: Jason (Bateman) and I were hanging out at a friend’s house, thinking we should do a podcast. And then we thought, why don’t we just call Will (Arnett) who already had a podcast and schnorr in on his. We decided, let’s just do it. It’s the pandemic and we were sitting in our pajamas. We did two episodes. Then five. Then 10. Then 100. And we thought, this is a riot, this is fun. .... Everybody needs a purpose. It’s like doing this play. ... That’s a segue for you.

Q: Right. Oscar Levant. What’s the back story?

A: I was doing “Promises, Promises” in New York, sorry you didn’t like it, and Beth Williams was one of the producers and she asked what we should do next. And I said I’d been told many, many times throughout my life that I should play Oscar Levant. ... He had anxiety, depression, he was very witty and addicted to pills. I wasn’t addicted to pills but there still was a lot of things I had in common with him. ... I had found out Steven Spielberg was getting ready to direct a movie about George Gershwin (a close friend of Levant’s) so I called my agent in L.A. and he said Oscar was all over the script. So I sent him, and then Steven’s people, a hair and makeup test I had done with me as Oscar Levant. The word I got back was that Steven would love me to do it, but in the end, the film did not get made.

So when Beth and I were developing the play, I had lunch with the writer Doug Wright and he said, “you know who wrote that script? I did.” So that is how it happened.

Q: So it was your idea. Why the obsession with playing him?

A: I was just drawn to the fear, and the utter challenge, of playing someone who was so opposite from me in terms of physicality, voice and demeanor. And yet there were so many similarities in terms of performing piano and in terms of never feeling good enough. You know, all the actor insecurities. And he was an actor, too, even though he really wanted to be a classical musician.

Q: Oscar’s relationship with George Gershwin was complicated.

A: Love-hate. It was ... Salieri-Mozart. Oscar revered Gershwin. Funny, you say Oscar but you say Gershwin. That says it all right there. George was very proud of his own success. I think, in his own eyes, Oscar was not blessed by God like Gershwin. ... But as a piano performer, Oscar excelled. Very few could match him. His recording of the “Rhapsody in Blue” is still the most famous recording of that piece. And he was a great songwriter. “Blame It On My Youth” is a great song. But nobody knows he wrote it.

Q: The Salieris usually make better stories than the Mozarts.

A: I actually feel I would have been good friends with Oscar.

Q: He would have been on your podcast.

A: Over and over again.


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