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Sean Hayes on playing a cisgender woman in his new film 'Lazy Susan': 'It's why we're actors, to embody people that we aren't'

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We've seen several movies over the years featuring men posing as women (Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire) or women posing as men (Albert Nobbs, Mulan).

But the new comedy Lazy Susan enters virtually unchartered territory: Will and Grace star Sean Hayes plays a cisgender woman — the eponymous ne'er-do-well Wisconsinite who can't keep a job if her life depended on it and spends most of her days either collaging, playing the flute in her two-woman group ("Ukulady and the Tramp") or leeching off of her brother and mother.

"I thought, 'What an incredible challenge to play a woman.' Like how scary and weird would that be if I played a woman?," Hayes tells Yahoo Entertainment in a Skype interview this week (watch above). "I wanted to do it because it's why we're actors, to embody people that we aren't, and sometimes feel uncomfortable doing that. I like that kind of uncomfortableness of a challenge."

The endeavor did not come without reservations for Hayes, who previously broke ground for playing Jack McFarland, one of the first openly gay main characters in a network television show, when Will and Grace premiered on NBC in 1998.

"The whole week leading up to the first day of shooting I'm like, 'What the f*** did I say yes [to]?,'" Hayes laughs. "Which was another indication that it was good to do it. Because you should always do things that scare you."

Sean Hayes in 'Lazy Susan' (Shout Studios)
Sean Hayes in Lazy Susan. (Shout Studios)

The actor conceptualized the character in the early '90s, when he was a young twentysomething living in Chicago being offered the opportunity to audition for Fox's hit sketch show In Living Color, where he would potentially replace "the white guy," otherwise known as Jim Carrey. "So I went with my bag of wigs and accents and characters and all kinds of guys and girls I played. And one of them was Susan."

In more recent years, a friend suggested Hayes, 49, revisit the character. So he wrote a pilot for a television show, which eventually evolved into a feature script co-written Carrie Aizley and Darlene Hunt, tonally inspired by partly dark, partly quirky arthouse indies of Muriel's Wedding and Welcome to the Dollhouse, and directed by Nick Peet. Hayes, Aizley and Hunt wrote every character with specific actors in mind, and were able to land them all, including Allison Janney as Susan's arrogant Kmart managing frenemy, Jim Rash as an eccentric jumping gym proprietor who romances her, Margo Martindale as her ailing mother and Matthew Broderick as her landlord.

As progressive as Lazy Susan's main casting play feels, though, it also arrives at a time when Hollywood has seen heightened sensitivity around portrayals of gender. The welcome uptick in representation of transgender characters, for instance, has been counteracted by controversies like one that forced Scarlett Johansson to back out of a part where she was set to play a trans man.

"As actors, we want to play different parts," Hayes says. "That is why we're actors. We want to push ourselves and play people that we aren't. But on the other hand, I think the Hollywood system has to got to be open to giving others at least the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of roles that are defined by themselves.

"I understand the business part. You want to sell tickets so you have to hire names. But at the same time we also have to give people an opportunity to build a name for themselves."

Lazy Susan is now streaming on-demand.

Watch the trailer:

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