Audiences know Sean Hayes stars as the hilarious and confident gay man Jack McFarland on NBC’s Will & Grace. But he’s also known in Hollywood as a successful producer behind other shows, including Hot in Cleveland, Grimm and Hollywood Game Night.
Now, he’s back as Jack in NBC’s critically acclaimed revival of the beloved comedy. And the actor, 47, still remembers his first audition vividly, he tells PEOPLE’s Editor-in-Chief Jess Cagle in the latest episode of The Jess Cagle Interview (streaming now on People TV).
“You know when you’re sitting and somebody stands up, your eyes immediately go to their ass? As I was leaving, I go [to creator Max Mutchnick], ‘Mutchnick, I know you’re checking out my a–.’ And I slammed the door. He was like, ‘Well, that’s it.’”
In the sitcom’s second go-around, his character attempted to break out his gay grandson from conversion camp and coached the child on embracing his true self.
But growing up, Hayes didn’t always have that kind of support from his own family.
“I kept it hidden, the fact that I was in high school plays, from my brothers and my family because this is 1986, being gay then was different,” he says. “I kind of knew I was, but not quite yet. I associated, like society taught me, that theater was for gays, and it was for sissies, and things like that. Things that you were taught to be ashamed of.”
It wasn’t until Hayes was 18 that he told his family he’s gay.
“It was 1988 when I came out,” he recalls. “It’s so cliché that it was during Thanksgiving weekend. My mom said I needed to go see a therapist. She wrote me a 10-page letter, both sides on legal pad size paper. ‘This is not what God …’ You know, the whole uneducated view of it.”
But eventually, she came around. “She became educated and had friends who [were] gay people,” Hayes says. “She was like, ‘Oh I see. You’re just like me,’ and all that. It became fine and wonderful, and then she became so supportive and awesome.”
Now, Hayes — married to composer Scott Icenogle since 2014 — feels glad that LGBTQ youth can use his show as a frame of reference.
“If you don’t have the words to explain it to your family, you can say, ‘Like Will & Grace,’ or ‘Like Ellen DeGeneres,’ ” or whosever out in a public,” the Chicago native says. “There’s so many more examples now to help people and give them tools to communicate to kids and their families that being gay is as normal as being straight. There’s no difference.”
As for where Hayes wants to be in five years, he says, “I will pursue things that are close to my heart, and if they get made, great, and if they don’t, great. I’m happy being married and living a quiet life. So boring.”
Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.