Sean Hayes, suburban pal team up for TV success
It takes quite a lot to excite your jaded, cynical Suburbs to Showbiz news team these days, but the prospect of interviewing best friends and business partners Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner did it.
Hayes, of course, is the Glenbard West High School (in Glen Ellyn) graduate famous for playing gay unemployed actor Jack McFarland in the barrier-busting sitcom "Will and Grace."
So, Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner, partners in the L.A. company Hazy Mills Productions, what's the difference between being performers and being producers? "In performance, there's a sense you're free-falling," Milliner said. "There's a fearlessness required, like in bungee jumping. Whether you're doing a scene in front of an audience, either in a theater or on a sitcom, you can't have any fear. But your mind shifts more analytically when you're producing. When you're performing, that analytical side has to be curbed a little bit, so you can be more free to improvise or perform."
Milliner graduated from Conant High School in Hoffman Estates in 1986 before heading off to Chicago's Second City, first as an improv student, then as an instructor.
The two officially joined forces in 2004 when they created Hazy Mills Productions that now boasts three shows up and, not just running, but sprinting.
• "Hot in Cleveland" — starring Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick, Jane Leeves and Betty White — is now in its fourth season. It airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on TV Land.
• "Grimm" resumes its new season March 8 at 8 p.m. Fridays on NBC.
• "Soul Man," starring Cedric the Entertainer, has been renewed for a second season on TV Land.
Though Hayes and Milliner both hail from the Northwest suburbs, they didn't meet until they headed off to Illinois State University, where Hayes will receive an honorary doctorate Feb. 21.
Q. Do you remember first meeting each other?
SH: It was at one of those meetings with a bunch of theater people at Illinois State. The B-52's "Love Shack" had just come out, and I remember this guy singing along to it. And I'm thinking, "Oh, no! Who's this guy singing along to 'Love Shack'?"
TM: Really? I don't remember that.
SH: I absolutely remember that. I thought, this guy has got it going on! We became friends and then we would hang out all the time.
Q. So what brought you together?
SH: Todd is one of the smartest people I've ever met, if not the smartest person I've ever known. Whatever cliché you want to insert here, it's all true. Whether it's personal or business, you have to find someone you're simpatico with.
TM: I don't think I could have dreamt of a partner who had the same tastes I do when it comes to both humor and drama. I mean "Hot in Cleveland" and "Grimm" couldn't be two more different shows. To find two people who are equally passionate about those kinds of diverse ideas is difficult out here.
We'd much rather spend time with people we like and make us laugh, than with people who may have a bit more success but they're mean. We'd rather have fun at our jobs. We work in Hollywood ...
SH: Ha, ha!
TM: I take working in Hollywood on television as a blessing. Sean feels exactly the same way I do. If we're not laughing every day, we're doing something wrong.
Q. So can you identify what makes Northwest suburbanites different from others?
SH: There must be something in the water in the Midwest that makes you want to get out, not of a bad situation, but out of a rut that seems to be perpetuated in the suburbs.
TM: I think there's something in the water that makes for good people and good pizza! I was in Chicago a lot longer than Sean. The biggest thing I learned was that everybody I came in contact with was scrappy. You know?
You have to do a lot of things pretty well to make something happen in Chicago. You have to balance a lot of plates in the air. That kind of work ethic, where you're managing everything yourself, completely made me the producer that I am.
Now, I'm scrappy! I get places on time. And I want everyone to be comfortable, respected and welcome. I want to feel grateful that everyone has come into whatever it is we're working on.
SH: And hands down, you won't find a funnier group of people than in Chicago.
Q. What advice do you have for younger would-be performers and producers?
TM: I think the biggest mistake that people make before they get into this business is that they get scared they might not have the skill set. You just need to be kinda smart enough, kinda funny enough and be able get to places on time! If you've got those skill sets, I think you can do it.
Q. Both of you started out as performers before you shifted into production.
TM: Sean was much more of a scripted performer. I'm much more of an improviser. I was a (lousy) actor! You can put that in the paper. I was better at being myself than pretending to be other people.
SH: Yeah, I hate me. That's why I like becoming other people!
Q. Mr. Milliner, is it true you came up with the premise for "Grimm" while taking a shower?
TM: It's true. It's not like a huge story you tell on press day. But I was in the shower and I thought, "What if the (creatures from) Grimm's fairy tales were true, and our lead character was the only one who could see them and stop them?" We're always trying to think of things that are different, and also in the public domain. If it wasn't going to be divorce cases in Las Vegas, why not Grimm's fairy tales?
Q. What was the toughest challenge in getting "Hot in Cleveland" up and going?
TM: I would say that the biggest challenge was getting these four ladies all to say yes at the same time. We wanted all four of them equally. We were running all over town telling them, "Trust us. This show will be special."
Q. So who was the toughest nut to crack?
SH: Hmmm. I would have to say Wendie (Malick).
TM: Yeah, Wendie was the toughest. She had already been on "Just Shoot Me." She said no at first. Thankfully, she called us back and said she had a change of heart over the Christmas holidays. Now, I can't imagine anyone else in these four parts. I know everyone says that, but it's still true.
Q. What's the big deal about being a TV producer? What do you get out of it besides the paycheck?
SH: When you work very hard with a group of people to get something accomplished. And then one day it's ready. That's very addicting. Very fulfilling.
TM: When everything comes together. You see the final product up there on the screen. There's no feeling better than that!
SH: It's like being a proud parent.
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are looking for suburbanites working in showbiz. If you know someone who'd make a great column, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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