The sitcom star on the value of Will & Grace now, and why the show could’ve backfired
Eric McCormack auditioned for the role of gay lawyer Will on Will & Grace without realizing the effect he’d have on closeted teenagers. “I was worried about network executives and what the gay community would think,” he says, “but when I was thinking of the gay community, I wasn’t thinking of 16-year olds.”
In 1998, when the sitcom touched down on NBC in a TV universe that was distinctly less gay, the show presented itself as farcical comedy. But by the time it ran its course, ending (or so we thought) in 2006, Will & Grace was, through sheer existence, a cultural landmark leading the way for LGBT inclusivity in entertainment, and in the broader world.
And those 1990s teenagers? “What has been revealed is that it was (them) sort of peeking over (their) parents’ shoulder going, ‘OK, I like this show, this show’s for me,’ and, ‘Hey, if my mom likes this show then I can do this,’” McCormack says.
Eleven years went by without Will, his roommate Grace (Debra Messing), his gay pal Jack (Sean Hayes) and Jack’s rollicking, boozed bestie, Karen (Megan Mullally). Marriage equality happened. More queer characters — trans, of color–happened. And in 2017, with Trump jabs and jokes scoffing at discriminatory cake bakers, Will & Grace returned to NBC with a new agenda for the queer-comedy revolution it once led.
Recently, McCormack, 55, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and this month, became the recipient of the Point Foundation’s Impact Award in recognition of his significant impact on the LGBT community. Here, the actor reflects on playing Will during a more conservative time in America, the episode NBC cut from reruns, and the significance of gay actors portraying his love interests.
When you first began playing Will, how much more attention did you get from gay men?
Eric McCormack: (Laughs) Well, I’m from the theater, so I was pretty much already gettin’ my share!
But this is national primetime television known to the world.
EM: (Laughs) I think that was the most interesting journey, because in the theater all through my 20s, when I first started doing television guest spots in Toronto and Vancouver, I did a bunch of gay roles. I was a bartender at the gay bar, and I was the guy in the office who the girl thought was coming onto her. But I say, “Honey, I’m gay.” These roles accumulated for me, and nobody else knew I was doing them. When Will finally landed for me, I didn’t have to go out and do a lot of research. My best friends were gay men; I grew up in the theater. So, it was a natural extension.
But when it suddenly, as you say became “national,” there was — yeah, you have to be careful with that (attention), though, because what happens automatically is NBC phones and says, “Hey, People magazine wants to do a thing on you,” and of course People magazine always features you and your wife in the kitchen making pasta, right? Or something dopey like that. (Laughs) So within two months it’s clear (I’m) married, but you don’t want it to look like you begged People magazine to show the world that you’re straight. It could’ve backfired, and that’s the thing I’m always grateful for: the LGBT community could’ve just said, “Eh, another one, no.” But they didn’t.
Representation has evolved and shifted in the last 20 years, and now there’s more criticism of straight actors taking on LGBT roles. Can you reflect on that era versus now as far as straight actors portraying LGBT characters?
EM: I think the pendulum swings, and I really do think it’s project to project. I think what we’re doing with the trans community — first of all, that wasn’t even an expression for most Americans five years ago, so it’s important how we handle that, because a lot of Americans will go, “Well, trans is like what? He puts on a dress?” A lot of people just don’t know. So, it’s important that, if there is a role that is specifically trans, we cast a trans actor so that we start to educate. The flipside to me is that whenever someone says you were straight playing gay, I say, “Well, yeah, Neil Patrick Harris played the biggest womanizer and he’s quite openly gay. So, I feel like it’s OK.” I think if there’s a balance, and if it happens in the right ways, if we make sure that people of color and women are represented, that we’re doing the right thing by all the communities that have needed it, then it’s great. But if we swing too far the other way, we’re starting to get to a point where I think we’re missing the forest for the trees.
Did you ever experience any pushback being a straight actor playing a gay character on TV?
EM: There was a little. I remember Larry Kramer, who of course was such an activist in the gay community, said something and I thought, does Larry Kramer even know what Will & Grace is? That was just amazing to me. So, I thought if anyone is gonna pushback, I guess it’d be him. But in terms of pushback from America, it didn’t really happen. There were no pickets. There were no letters to NBC. I think they were very wise and eased us into the weeks on Monday and then we eased onto Tuesday, and then the next thing you know it was Thursday and we were winning an Emmy and it was OK. America actually dealt with it very well.
Do you have any real-life examples of how Will and Jack spoke to the part of America that didn’t understand or weren’t accepting of LGBT people?
EM: The thing I always loved from the beginning: We were making a very right-down-the-middle, must-see-TV kind of show that just happened to have two gay characters. But they were not matching gay characters. And to have those two as best friends who support each other, but also occasionally criticize each other, I thought that was possibly the most educational piece for Americans who didn’t have a lot of gay friends.
To see how Jack would criticize Will for not being out there, for not being loud and proud, for not dating enough. And Will would — there was an episode (called “Will Works Out,” in season one) that was quite amazing. We were in the same gym and Jack was flouncing about. Will kind of mutters the “f” word under his breath — calls him a “fag” — and it’s something that when (Jack) says it to Grace, he’s like, “Will, what’s the matter with you?” And Will is like, “He’s embarrassing! He embarrasses me!” Will eventually apologies because it’s his own inability to be himself, but we tackle that. NBC stopped showing it in reruns for a while because it really was a big word to say, particularly from a character that we wanted you to love.
When the revival was announced, there were people who weren’t sure what to expect from a Will & Grace in 2017 because the community had made so much progress since the show’s first iteration. Were you guys hearing the noise, and if so, how were you responding to it behind the scenes?
EM: Most of the noise that we got came after everybody saw the piece we did for Hillary (Clinton), the 10 minutes on YouTube. Which just proved it was possible for us to do this again. People generally were excited about that. That’s what I heard. Mostly. Then, as we got closer, there were pundits saying, “How valuable can it be in 2017?” And my response is always: It only needs to be this valuable because it’s a sitcom. We’re not a parade that is marching in city hall and shouting. We’re a sitcom, and we shout in our own way.
Except you were a groundbreaking sitcom, so there’s a lot of social and political weight attached to the show.
EM: Yeah, so: Will we live up to that in that way? It’s like your queer uncle that was marching back in ’78: Maybe he doesn’t have the loud voice, maybe he can’t march as fast now, but he is still just as important. And, in fact, those older gay voices — I loved that episode where Will educates (a character played by) Ben Platt (in season nine). It’s like, “You young gays can’t take any of this for granted. This was fought for, and people were beat up and died to get here so that your father and your mother could throw you a wedding with your boyfriend.” This is the result of a revolution, and so were Will and Grace and Jack and Karen.
So, I think we kind of showed up, but we didn’t want to make it a victory lap, either. We wanted to make sure there was still currency. And I think the way in for that, particularly with Jack and Will, was: What’s life like when you’re almost 50 and you’re not the hottest guy on the block but you’re still living that life. You’re still in New York and you’ve loved and lost, as they both have? And what do you want out of life? That’s a cool, new storyline — and, again, nobody was telling exactly that story.
The show’s first revival season in 2017 tackled politics and other hot-button issues. What topic from this current season do you most appreciate the show working in?
EM: I think, obviously, the umbrella topic they’re using in the ads is the idea of marriage. Jack is going to get married, and so that’s great. We had episodes (before the revival) where I had the closest thing you could get to marriage back then with Taye Diggs, and then again with Bobby Cannavale.
I mean, to me, that’s one of my proudest moments on the show, that I actually had a commitment ceremony in Will’s apartment with Taye Diggs, a white man and a black man, a big, long kiss. Hall & Oates performed (laughs). And it was virtually not even spoken of. This is probably season six or seven, but it barely even made the press because people were so like, “whatever, who’s Will making out with this week?” But people don’t remember that always. They always wanna talk about, “Well, Will is a bit sterile.” It’s like, No, no; if you watch the show throughout, I had Patrick Dempsey, and I had Bobby Cannavale. I had lots of hot guys and married a couple of them.
And if anyone has forgotten, you get with Matt Bomer this season to remind people.
EM: Well, first of all, he’s the greatest guy. So freakin’ funny and gay. So it’s not like the old days where we get another straight guy to come in and we both act gay together. Now there’s a bit more authenticity to it. He was so great that I think we’ll see more of Matt.
Is the dynamic different for you when your love interest is played by a gay actor?
EM: When I think of last season, it’s three romantic moments I had, and all three were with men who are actually gay. And they were all Broadway guys, which was just great: Andrew Rannells, and Ben Platt, and Cheyenne Jackson. And yeah, for me I just loved that. It’s a step forward, and there will always be someone from the community saying, “Well, why aren’t they in bed?” And I’ll go, yeah, I know, but we still have the Ku Klux Klan. Let’s remember that this is a public network; it’s 9 o’clock, and we want young kids that haven’t been able to come out to their parents to watch the show, and have that parent love the show. The show was never about overtly pushing buttons. We were competing with Sex and the City where they could do anything they wanted because they were HBO. We had to do it more surreptitiously, more subtly.
I’ve seen some steamy stuff on primetime, though. I remember Desperate Housewives had a lot of bedroom scenes with that gardener.
EM: True, but there is a difference. We are actually a four-camera sitcom, so the way that we have to get under people’s skin, the way that we have to be shocking is different. We have to do it with a lot of care. We’re not callous about it. The jokes we choose, either politically or sexually, we play them throughout the week. We figure it out before we get in front of that audience, because we want to be around. And we want to continue to be a voice and an example.
Sometimes all it takes is one bad decision, one bad joke, one situation that turns people off and all of a sudden we’re not in the top 20 or 30. Everything is calculated so that we can stay around and continue to be us. It’s certainly changed in 20 years, but it’s still a country where people won’t get their cakes baked by a freakin’ baker, so it’s changed, but not as much as we’d like to hope.
Sean alluded to possibly seeing Jack and Will together, romantically, in the future. Do you see that as a possibility?
EM: In a gay way, that’s the Sam and Diane of it all. (Laughs) Early on, because that’s how conservative network television was, people were thinking, “Well, maybe Will and Grace will get together. Maybe she’ll fix him!” And as time went by, they started to realize that’s not what this show is. This is not the gay-conversion comedy. But Will and Jack — it’s my favorite stuff to play. When he and I are together, we have so much fun. But we have to be careful how much we tease that out, because you do that, and then that’s a different show.
You played gay at a time when some straight male actors were told not to for the sake of their career. As a straight man auditioning for a gay role, did you or your team have any concerns?
EM: I don’t remember that being a thing. I got two scenes into reading it and I just thought, “This is one of those shows. This is a Thursday night show. I bet they get Jim Burrows to direct it.” It just read like that. And that overpowered any fears. Plus, by that time, I’m 35, I’d been in the business a while, I’d been watching Seinfeld and Friends for years — that’s what I wanted.
And I think probably the opposite happened. I had played a number of gay roles — I’d done drag roles — so this not only didn’t scare me, but it made me think, “This is the one whose head will rise above the crowd because it’s not just Suddenly Susan or Caroline in the City, this is its own thing. There’s no other show like this at the moment.” And that’s what proved to happen.
But can you still walk in heels?
EM: (Laughs) You caught me on a good day — I’m breakin’ in a new pair of pumps.