For more than 20 years, Eric McCormack has been best known for his portrayal of level-headed Manhattan lawyer Will Truman in the hit sitcom ‘Will And Grace’.
Here, he discusses how his character is just as much fun as the rest of the madcap cast, opens up about the impact of the sitcom on young LGBT+ people and explains why he’s not a fan of the “dumb” debate about whether straight actors should be playing gay characters on screen...
It’s been more than a decade since the original run of ‘Will And Grace’, did you have any conditions or stipulations about your character before you signed up for the reboot?
The guy that created the show, Max Mutchnick, w as so on top of this, and I so trust him with these characters.
The one thing we all agreed on was that Will and Grace shouldn’t have the children that they had in the last [episode], just like… let’s go back, let’s do it the way we love doing it best.
Other than that, part of the freedom of being on a series where you trust the people that run it is not knowing what’s going to come the characters’ way, just as the character doesn’t.
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What’s great about the new series is seeing two gay men who are slightly older than gay characters we’re used to seeing portrayed on screen. Is that something you’re particularly proud of?
Absolutely. Will as a character was a kind of a new gay man for America back then [in 1998]. He wasn’t outrageously camp, he was looking for love, he was looking for a relationship, he was looking for stability. And that hasn’t changed! What’s nice is that the stable part, which could be its own show - Will and Vince together - happened off camera, it happened over those 10 years.
So now, we get to see a gay man who is 50 and single, but he’s not upset about it, necessarily. He’s trying to figure out what he wants, but he’s not desperate. He earns a great living and he likes who he is, and in the second episode with Ben Platt we see him teaching a younger gay man - ‘don’t forget, some of us suffered to get you the rights that you have, and the ease that you have in society now’. And I love that.
I know that when Max was talking about the new series that was one thing he said: ‘I have a speech for you, that you’re going to be doing, that I’ve been dying to do for 10 years’.
The new series does feel much more issue-driven and political this time around, what do you think of that?
You know, we used to do 22 episodes a year, for eight years, so eventually some of them are just going to be fun and dopey. And now it’s like, we don’t want to squander the time we have.
So certainly there’s some outrageous [moments], but there’s not one episode that didn’t have something of substance that is if it’s not political, then at least it’s culturally important to talk about.
You mentioned culturally important conversations, and there’s a lot of debate right now about straight and cisgender actors playing LGBT+ characters. As a straight actor who’s played a gay character for years, what’s your take on that?
If anybody had a problem with me playing Will, I’d just say, ’go back and watch 200 episodes and tell me if you still have a problem. And then go and watch every episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ where Neil Patrick Harris plays a straight guy’. I think it’s a dumb conversation.
I think it’s different for transgender [characters], I think that’s just... different. It is as important as a black man should play a black man and an Indian woman should play an Indian woman, that we start to give transgender people a chance to play themselves. Because it’s new… just as Will and Jack were kind of new for a lot of America back then, so is the idea of what a transgender person is and can be, and so I think it’s important they have their voice.
But in the meantime, if I can’t play a gay man… then why should I play a dentist? Because I’m not a dentist, either.
Of the show’s four central characters, Will is by far the most level-headed, do you ever get jealous of the others’ more outrageous moments when you have to be the sensible one?
You know what, no, because again, I think it’s an old trope. I tell people, ‘go back, there’s hundreds of episodes and I have lots of fun stuff to do’.
I think the only time Will was really just boring and straight as a character was the first season, I think that Will’s neuroses by season two could be equally hysterical, and some of the stuff I’ve had to do this season was as funny as anything I’ve ever done. But I’m not trying to compete with Jack and Karen... that’s Cirque du Soleil!
You mentioned Will and Vince earlier, their relationship was a favourite among fans, but later in season nine we see that Vince is now married to somebody else. Were you disappointed to see that the Will and Vince story was over?
It’s one of those things where I’m really torn. Intellectually I want Will to have what he wants, which is a relationship with somebody great. But I also want the show to be the show, and I love the show being essentially the four of us.
As soon as we introduced Harry Connick Jr and he got married to Deb’s character years ago, as soon as we introduced Vince, as soon as we start having relationships that last… I mean, there’s a reason we haven’t seen Stan, because Karen can be married to a guy, but we don’t ever have to have him on screen. And so I want to explore what relationships would be like, but also I don’t want to be tied down to a storyline that takes me away from Debra, takes me away from Sean.
So… Bobby Cannavale as Vince? Brilliant. And I love our thing together and I hope he can come back - certainly, we couldn’t afford to have him back for a whole season! - but also that [would have been] a different show. That’s ‘Will And Vince’ and I don’t think that that’s ‘Will And Grace’.
On that note, how do the events of season nine compare to what you thought Will would be doing in 2018?
It actually lines up, because I was thinking, you know, at this point he should be practically running his law firm, he should be doing very well, but at the same time, we have this episode where he goes, ‘what am I doing? I don’t even want this’.
And so he teams up [professionally] with Grace, which I thought was a brilliant idea. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, but it’s a great thing to explore, working with your best friend.
And I know there’s actually a plan for next season that is going to take Will in a different direction. It won’t take him away from Jack and Grace as characters, but it will give him new inspiration job-wise, rather than just being a lawyer. And so, that excites me.
As a fan of the show, as well as one of its stars, what would you like to see happen to Will in the next season?
Well, like I say, I can’t hint at what he does, but he’s going to change jobs, and that’s going to introduce him to a lot of other characters that don’t have to become permanent parts of the show, but that can be really funny for a scene or two. And younger, that’s all I can say.
But I love that, because the characters need inspiration, but they don’t necessarily need an entirely new situation permanently, because then the show becomes four different stories.
As often happens, by seasons seven and eight of the first series, we were often not in the same scene. I was off having a scene with some guest star, and Megan [Mullally] had her whole thing with John Cleese, and it was great, but then all of a sudden we’d have one episode where we’d be back together and we’d go, ‘oh yeah, this is good’. So, whatever happens to Will, I just hope we can keep the integrity of the show in tact.
Almost 20 years on from the first season of ‘Will And Grace’, what aspect of the show makes you the most proud?
For sure, it is that several years into the show I started to get young men coming up to me and saying, ‘I was able to come out to my mom because she loves your show’. And I thought, ‘that was great, that existed for a little while, and now it’s over’.
But it turns out that it wasn’t over, because in the 10 years since the show was on, another generation of gay men were coming out to their mothers, and it’s happening again now, so when I have an 18-year-old guy come up to me and say, ‘I just came out to my folks and it was really easy because they love Will And Grace’, it’s like, ‘you’re 18! How do you even know [about Will And Grace]?’ But the show had a life that I wasn’t aware of.
And so I think the thing I’m really proud of now with the return of the show is that it’s multi-generational. That three generations can sit there and enjoy the show and, because of the internet, 10-year-olds are watching it and going, “I get all those jokes, I understand… I know what a top is” *laughs* It’s incredible, but it’s a very different world than 20 years ago.
And what is it about ‘Will And Grace’ that you think makes it so accessible to different generations?
Comedy unites people, for sure. And I think smart comedy is the icing on the cake. I sat with my dad and watched ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘All In The Family’ and these shows that, for the 1970s, pushed a lot of envelopes, they weren’t just the dopey sitcoms of the 60s. And I think that matters, and I think kids today are, because of the internet, are just so smart, so savvy, maybe too much for their own good!
But it means that they can watch a show like ‘Will And Grace’ and go back to, I don’t know, sixth grade and be able to show some empathy to the kids that are already coming out. I mean, a young person I know just came out and they were, like, so young, and that just didn’t used to happen, you didn’t have that knowledge let alone that comfort. And I think that’s why this show can be a really good bonding experience, not just between the sexes but the ages.
‘Will And Grace’ airs on Friday nights at 10pm on Channel 5.