While his classmates left the Illinois State campus with the generic plan to get a job, Sean Hayes was much more specific in stating his aspirations.
Beyond efforts to take care of his mother and be nicer to people in general, Hayes departed the College of Fine Arts aiming to become a household name within five years. He wanted to guest star on a television show. Ultimately, he was after an invitation to The David Letterman Show and a billboard on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. The list was rather ambitious for a 24-year-old who couldn’t pay his rent. And yet, as Hayes told an audience of Illinois State students from the School of Theatre earlier this semester, he captured each dream.
Today Hayes is an award-winning actor, singer, musician, and producer who has garnered myriad accolades for his work across mediums. He gained fame and an Emmy for his role as the flighty gay friend on the NBC series Will & Grace, which ran for eight seasons.
On the Broadway stage, Hayes captured a Tony nomination for his leading role in Promises, Promises. A movie star as well, he has appeared in several films, including The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. His most recent film, The Three Stooges, was released in April of this year. The cast includes fellow ISU alum, Jane Lynch ’82.
Hayes is now an executive producer of two television shows: Grimm and Hot in Cleveland. The first is a fantasy crime series based on the idea that the characters in Grimm’s Fairy Tales actually exist.
The second is a sitcom centered on three Los Angeles women at home in Cleveland with a snarky caretaker played by Betty White. Not a bad resume for a guy who openly recalls the poverty of his childhood.
“I remember the heat being turned off and my family being close to evicted,” said Hayes, who came to Illinois State from the Chicago area as an incredibly talented pianist. He studied voice and acting, and in 1988 was involved in starting the college’s still popular Theatre of Ted.
“For me, theatre was my safe place, my safe haven. I could fail miserably and not be judged,” Hayes said. He thanked former professors Gellert Modos and Peter Schuetz, and praised the University’s program overall.
“This is an awesome school, probably the best theatre school in the country,” Hayes said, noting the skills he learned at ISU prepared him for the challenges of performing on the set and stage. His appreciation compelled Hayes to return and share his experience, with the hope students could avoid pitfalls as they break into the difficult world of show business.
Hayes revealed that his own journey began with his return to Chicago. He worked as a music director at a local theatre, playing piano and taking a part in some plays. “It’s what I knew and what I wanted to do,” Hayes said.
He sought commercial jobs, willingly driving two to three hours north to Wisconsin for an audition. The effort resulted in a reel of work, which he packed up with his possessions when he moved to Los Angeles at 24. Once there he started off making just $10 a show for performances done by a comedy group he formed called the Malcontents.
Hayes explained the effort of finding an agent, preparing for auditions, and the fact that he feels lucky. His part on Will & Grace, for example, evolved from a chance meeting at the Sundance Festival.
“A casting director sat behind me and said I’d be perfect for the part of Will. But I couldn’t afford to change my flight or get a second ticket,” Hayes said. By the time he made it to Hollywood, the lead was taken. He has no regrets about being cast in the supporting role.
His success since that series has put Hayes in a world with the rich and famous—a reality that hit him during his first Golden Globes awards. Meryl Streep stopped by his table to say she is a fan. The endorsement in a room full of stellar stars left him feeling blessed, as he noted hundreds of actors have exceptional talent.
That reality keeps Hayes humble, as does the rejection that is inevitable in the business. The secret to rebounding is to remember that each actor is “a vessel to deliver words on a page.”
“The reality check that I wish someone had told me is to be whatever you are, and then be that 1,000 times more. Know who you are in Hollywood. I am a product. I know who I am and what I have to offer,” he said, explaining that he realizes his role is not that of a burly fireman. “I must be my most authentic self.”
He encouraged students by saying their Hollywood dreams are within reach if they are willing to beat the pavement and build a network.
“You can’t be lazy,” he said, noting the one thing no school can teach is ambition. Those who succeed must be ready for an often grueling schedule, as he recalled 14-hour days while shooting The Bucket List. The Broadway production was the most intense and exhausting experience, taking over his life for nearly a year.
Now as a producer, Hayes has a broader perspective and is enjoying the challenge of being responsible for an entire show versus one character. No longer intimidated by Hollywood, he pins his success on the fact he trained well, worked hard, and had articulated his goals at the start of his journey.
“It all starts with this: What do you want? Whatever you want, you can get,” Hayes said, emphasizing the key to success is “finding out who you are.”