Back in Time
Eric McCormack on ‘Will & Grace’ Revival Rumors, the State of Gay TV & Time-Traveling Spies
While promoting his new show, Travelers, the Will & Grace star confirms revival talks and explains why, after years of trying to move on, he’s ready to revisit Will Truman now.
Let’s get it out of the way.
“We’re talking,” Eric McCormack says when I bring up the Will & Grace revival.
Following the viral jolt of nostalgia fired up by an election-themed sketch starring the Emmy-winning cast 10 years after the comedy went off air, it was reported that a 10-episode limited series revival was also in the works at NBC.
“The four of us are into it, and so is Max Mutchnick, who created the show,” McCormack, who played gay lawyer Will Truman for eight seasons on the series, elaborates. “It’s about bigger forces right now. That’s all I can say.”
The typical industry gag order on such plans puts McCormack in a bit of an uncomfortable situation—mum’s the word, save for “we’d love to!” It’s one made slightly more uncomfortable by the fact that, like Will & Grace co-star Megan Mullally, who has given similar updates on the revival while promoting her new comedy Why Him?, he is on a press tour for an entirely different series.
It just happens to be a press tour in the age of Will & Grace revival rumors.
McCormack is visiting The Daily Beast’s headquarters in New York to discuss his addictive new Netflix series, Travelers. From Stargate creator Brad Wright and centered on spies from the future, it’s the kind of a show that Will and Grace might have made fun of, but is actually quite clever and engrossing. When he arrives at the Beast’s office, staff members gawk at the actor who himself appears as if he just stepped off a time machine.
In a grey sweater and tight jeans, McCormack looks as if he’s walked directly out of one of the Will & Grace reruns we have saved on our DVR, so much so that when he casually drops his age in midst of our conversation—he’s 53—we’re tempted to Jack McFarland-style dramatically fall of our chair.
The reason that’s worth bringing up is not to titillate one gay millennial’s forever unrequited crush on a TV character, but because everything that contributes to stirring up Will & Grace nostalgia is, simply, wonderful.
It’s wonderful because of what that show meant, and continues to mean, to the gay community. It’s wonderful because of how the show changed television and, as Joe Biden famously said, the minds of the American people. It’s wonderful because the show was just damn funny.
But it’s wonderful because—and this is hard to believe—Will & Grace was the last successful series on broadcast television to be about gayness, and it went off air 10 years ago.
There have been series that lasted for one season or less, and, sure there is Mitch and Cam on Modern Family. Ellen’s bravery can’t be undersold. But Will & Grace is the last time a television series on one of the Big Four networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) for which being gay was the point—and people still watched.
“It is astonishing,” McCormack tells me. “And, as you say, for it to be the point—that’s going to be really hard now post November 8th for people to do that as a whole show,” referring to an election that signaled a retreat backward in terms of equality.
He notices it most starkly in the ages of people who come up to him to say that the show helped them come out to their parents, or accept themselves. They were teenagers in 1998 when the show began, and, thanks to reruns and few other options for visibility, they’re teenagers today.
And so here is one of those teenagers from 1998, thanks to the prospect of a Will & Grace reunion, monopolizing an actor’s press time talking about one of his old shows. McCormack, to his credit, doesn’t seem to mind.
“It’s kind of great,” he says, when asked what it’s like working the talk show circuit to talk about Travelers, knowing he’s going to be asked about the character he said goodbye to a decade ago.
In the time since, he has fronted the TNT crime drama Perception, in which he played a neuropsychiatrist with schizophrenia, for three seasons. He starred opposite James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, and Angela Lansbury on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. There was A&E’s Emmy-winning contagion thriller The Andromeda Strain before that, and stints on everything from The New Adventures of Old Christine to a Lifetime movie in between.
Hasn’t he earned the right to shed the ghost of Will Truman?
“Here’s why it’s great,” he continues. “Because the big deal a year, two years, three years after Will & Grace was having to prove myself. ‘I have to prove myself.’ But because I had three years on Perception, I think I succeeded in showing I can do other things and I can create a different audience, even from people who loved Will & Grace.”
“I have less anxiety from that,” he continues. “So the idea that I could see a character like Grant MacLaren on Travelers at the same time people are saying, ‘And we want to see you as Will,’ is great.”
Back when McCormack was launching Perception, he gave a quote saying, “Will Truman will be on my epitaph, but as an actor, I have to challenge myself.” Having a bit of proof that he’s done that gives an actor the kind of peace required to return to something that, at one point, could have been considered defining and limiting.
“I feel like Travelers is something I can legitimately say, ‘You’re going to love this,’” he says. “I think then people will accept me as a different thing. And if they don’t, it’s fun trying.”
On Travelers, McCormack plays Grant MacLaren, one of a team of spies sent from the future in order to keep the human race from destroying itself.
“I know,” McCormack says. “When Brad wrote the show over a year ago, he couldn’t possibly have known about the election.”
“I’ll be doing talk shows later today and I’ll be talking about people from the future coming back to rescue us, and there’ll be a groan from the audience,” he continues. “It’s suddenly a reality.”
He calls the series half an espionage series and half a domestic drama. “It’s closer to The Americans, I think, than any time travel show,” he says. “We’re spies from the future instead of another country.”
We both crack a smile at the absurdity of sci-fi plot descriptions like “spies from the future.”
“As that phrase comes out of my mouth…” he laughs.
But thanks to his wife, who’s a big fan of the genre—they recently watched Westworld together—he’s earned an appreciation of the limitless possibility the genre can offer, and the ways in which, through its imaginativeness, it can actually reflect back a haunting reality.
We don’t find out in the first season of Travelers what destroyed the human race, leaving your mind to wander: Did we do it to each other? Was it climate change? The whims of a certain tangerine president-elect?
Even the ways in which the travelers from the future learn about people in the present day is fascinating. It’s largely through social media, which, years from now, will be our actual written history.
“If you look right now at what our president-elect is writing on Twitter, that will be the record of note for the future,” he says. “It’s terrifying!”
“You can write your own history,” he continues. “The old adage was that history was written by the winners. Now history is written by everybody: The losers, the winners, the people who never leave their mother’s basement.”
It’s actually those people who never leave their mothers’ basements that takes us back, briefly, to Will & Grace. Because the show predated the rise of social media, McCormack never had to deal with their 140-character bigotry, which was rampant when its stars reunited this fall for the election sketch.
He learned a lot watching how co-star Debra Messing, who is famously politically active on Twitter, confronted the response, but found quickly that it was something he had a hard time dealing with. At the same time, he can’t help but think of the the positive effects the sitcom could have had if there was social media then for the stars to be on, too.
One thing, too, that might have been different given the mores of 2016: the reception to McCormack, who is straight, playing a gay character.
“I faced very little of the kind of the anger, ‘Why is the straight guy playing the gay role,’” he says. “Which I actually took as a compliment that they bought it. Or, as Max Muchnick said to me in my audition, ‘Just so you know, you never have to be gayer than that.’”
He laughs remembering his response: “OK… Thank you?”
And now, maybe, the actor once perennially mistaken for a gay lawyer might now find respite in being confused for a spy from the future. And if not, no hard feelings. “I will never resent what Will Truman has done for my life,” he continues. “I love the show. But I definitely, as an actor, need variety.”