The next “actors’ party in the actors’ house” — as the SAG Awards is fondly called — will have two new prominent producers.
Sean Hayes has been attending the Screen Actors Guild Awards as a nominee since 2001.
But he started watching the show when it debuted, six years earlier. “I remember being blown away that someone had the foresight to do this,” he says.
Kathy Connell was one of those someones. Back in 1995, she and her fellow Screen Actors Guild board members created the SAG Awards. The event is known for its collegial atmosphere, with actors sitting together at tables, a few of them starting off the evening with stories about their early days and ending with the catchphrase, “My name is... and I’m an actor.”
Connell, executive producer of awards and national programming for SAG–AFTRA, has been producing the show ever since.
Over those years, Hayes has been nominated for 13 SAG Awards and has won four (all but one of those nominations has been for his lovable, loony Jack on NBC’s Will & Grace). But he’s been just as successful offscreen.
In 2003, Hayes and his college buddy Todd Milliner started their production company, Hazy Mills, and have since created a wide range of shows, including the sitcom Hot in Cleveland, the fantasy drama Grimm, the docu-series The History of Comedy and the celebrity game show Hollywood Game Night.
Now the dynamic Hazy duo has teamed up with Connell and the producers for SAG–AFTRA (in partnership with producers Gloria Fujita O’Brien, Benn Fleishman and Jon Brockett of Avalon Harbor Entertainment) to produce the show’s 26th iteration, airing live January 19 on TNT and TBS.
Hayes, Milliner and Connell spoke with emmy’s Lisa Rosen about this new collaboration, while remaining careful to preserve the surprises they have in store.
Kathy, let’s start with some background about the show.
Kathy Connell: SAG was interested in having an awards show, but one of the things that was important to the union was that it never cost the members any money. They would not use any dues on it, so we had to have a deal with a television show.
Once that opportunity came, they assigned a few of us to try to figure out what that meant. What categories were we going to have? How was the voting going to work? So five of us spent 14 months putting it together.
Two weeks out, we were terrified because we had sent out invitations and didn’t know if anybody was going to come. Of course, what we didn’t know was, nobody RSVPs until a week before. Everybody came.
And you came up with the idea for the ensemble categories, which are fantastic.
KC: Well, I’m a second-generation actor. To me, actors never work alone in television and film. It’s about chemistry — what matters is what they create together in a limited amount of time. The ensemble categories also represented the union of actors, working together, so it seemed like a natural fit.
The show is very straightforward — no filler, no musical numbers. Was that a mandate from the beginning?
KC: We had two hours. You can only fit so much into two hours.
How did this new team come about?
KC: We got very excited because Bob Greenblatt is now with Turner [as chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment]. Bob was always a fan of the show, and he loves these guys. We were talking about new ideas for the show, and he said, “What do you think of Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner?”
I didn’t know Todd, but Sean had won our SAG Awards a couple of… [turning to Hayes] how many times?
Sean Hayes: Four times, but nobody’s counting. [Laughter] We were flattered to be asked — it’s a unique opportunity. Of course, on every awards show you try to figure out what you can do differently than the year before, to shake it up and keep it interesting for viewers. But it’s been a blast so far, working with Kathy and the whole team to come up with whatever that is going to be.
Are you allowed to tell me anything about whatever that is going to be?
Todd Milliner: No.
Well then let’s talk about your producing. Sean, you’re a known entity, but you, Todd, are less well-known to the public.
TM: Well, for now, until this comes out! This’ll be the thing that launches my career. [Laughter] Sean and I went to college together, so as most college friends do, we started a production company. We’re going into the ninth year of our deal at Universal Television, and that’s pretty much how we know Bob.
We produced the Tony Awards when Sean hosted [in 2010; Hayes received an Emmy the following year when the show won for Outstanding Special Class Program]. So this is the logical progression in our producing career —
SH: — in the event space.
TM: We were super excited because we get to tackle something we’ve never done before at this level.
How do you guys work together?
SH: We’ve known each other since we were 18, so there’s a nice shorthand there. It’s wonderful to go into business with a person you’ve known that long.
TM: We’re both from Second City [the famed improv troupe] in Chicago. I was a performer until I realized I wasn’t good, and Sean kept going. We have like minds. We produce only what we’d watch, and luckily we watch a lot of the same things.
So how did you three start collaborating on the show?
SH: We had a meeting of the minds a couple months ago, just to feel each other out and exchange ideas.
KC: It was with the whole team. We have an awards committee — JoBeth Williams, Jason George, Woody Schultz, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Daryl Anderson, all actors and producers for SAG–AFTRA. They just loved you guys.
TM: We were a little hesitant. When you go in somewhere, and somebody’s been doing it really well for a lot of years, you think, What are we doing here? We didn’t even know how to park here!
Okay, so what are you doing here? If it ain’t broke ...
KC: But you want to keep things fresh.
TM: And also, wouldn’t it be interesting in the world if we tried to get out ahead of things breaking? How about, we look at what works and what we could improve on. Why wait until the last couple of seasons to introduce the seventh Brady kid? Why don’t we get way out ahead of it and ask, how can we make something that’s great even better?
That’s what we loved about this: this is already working. This isn’t our core business — this is something we enjoy. We’re looking forward to branching out into this, but it’s nice to be part of a team that’s already successful.
You can’t tell me what you’re changing, but how about what you’re keeping?
SH: We’re keeping two hours. [Laughter]
KC: You want to come up with something that keeps the feel of the room, which is always important to us. Because what we always say is, it’s the actors’ party in the actors’ house. Sean feels that way, having been there and been nominated.
SH: For sure. But it’s nice to come in and talk with Kathy and the team about the experience from this [acting] side as well. I think we’ve all benefited from those conversations.
Sean, tell me more about your perspective, having been in that room so often.
SH: I don’t want to go into detail, because we don’t want to give anything away, but I think what I’ve offered to the conversations is the emotion behind the evening: what really goes through an actor’s mind — not just about being nominated and being there and thinking about what you’re going to say if you win — but all of the crazy nerves that go with it.
From the second you get out of the car and start down the red carpet until the end of the evening — what does that feel like emotionally? I love that I can help with that.
That experience must have changed for you over the years.
SH: The nerves never change. If you’re nominated, you’re a wreck from the moment you show up till the moment you leave, whether you win or lose. But it’s always a thrilling evening to be included in. I think I can speak for every actor who’s been through the SAG Awards that it’s such an incredible honor to be recognized by your peers and to be part of an awards show that does that.
And you even get to sit with your peers.
SH: There’s no feeling of competitiveness in that room. It’s all love and support.
KC: The room is very cool. Part of it has to do with seating. Right from the beginning, we sat all the actors together and put the suits in the back. Everybody kind of went, “What?” And we were like, “We’re seating the casts together. If we can fit a director or producer at the table, we’ll do that, but this is not their night.”
So everybody looks around. You’re looking at Meryl Streep, or Kiefer Sutherland…. Your favorite actor — whom you may have worked with or may never have worked with — could be sitting right next to you.
SH: And everybody is a fan of each other.
KC: …Can I ask a question of Sean?
KC: The first time you found out you’d been nominated, how did that feel?
SH: It’s such an incredible feeling of inclusiveness and the biggest pat on the back you could ever receive, knowing that the work you’re doing is actually being watched and appreciated by other actors. It feels like an achievement beyond your wildest imagination.
KC: I think that’s because nobody can truly understand what an actor does, except another actor.
SH: That’s so true. People can be sensitive to it, but they don’t really understand it.
You two produce in a wide range of genres. What’s the through line?
TM: We make sure that everybody who’s a part of our productions — a cast or crew member or a guest on Game Night — is treated with kindness and respect. It’s just so much harder when people are mean or a pain in the ass. It’s so much easier to be nice. And we have fun!
KC: I think that’s one of the reasons we loved them when they came in, because that is what our team has always been like. Many of our people have been with the show for decades, and they want to come back. In this freelance business, to come back year after year means a lot.
TM: And plus [when we see JoBeth Williams] we’re like, “That’s the mom from Poltergeist! She’s been through a lot. Let’s give her respect.”
Since it is a show that you already love, that adds a little bit of pressure, doesn’t it?
SH: Of course, there’s always pressure. But I think it’s healthy to feel that, because it pushes you to do the best work you can.
TM: My coach used to say, “Okay, Milliner, you’re in! Don’t fuck it up.”
SAG Award nominations will be announced December 11; this interview was edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2019
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