While meandering past an elementary school in L.A.'s Larchmont Village district on a pleasant October afternoon, Sean Hayes crosses paths with a boisterous contingent of fans. Although the hoopla of recess appears to be in full sway, a gaggle of Must-See-TV-reared tykes manages to spot the 32-year-old actor. They frantically point and whisper, ''It's Jack! It's Jack!''
Well, not quite. For starters, ''Will & Grace'''s resident drama queen, Jack McFarland, barges into a room without knocking and with jazz hands flaring; Sean Hayes arrives for lunch at a low-key Italian bistro with more of a languid shuffle. Jack flashes his 10,000-watt smile to escape countless messy situations; Hayes greets this reporter with a slightly morose puss, which he will later attribute to a recent flu shot. Jack hatches an astonishingly awful cabaret act called ''Just Jack'' to get attention; Hayes, his hands buried deep in the pockets of a corduroy coat and his head shrouded by a baseball cap, is in full-on ''Where's Waldo?'' mode.
''People think Jack's how I act 24 hours a day,'' says Hayes. ''But it's a complete character. Clearly.'' Megan Mullally sympathizes with her costar's exasperation: ''Sean went through a period where everybody he met was saying, 'Just Jack!' and holding their hands around their face. That gets a little old.'' Hayes, insists ''Grace'' coexecutive producer Max Mutchnick, is nothing like Jack: ''People assume that [Jack's] froth carries over to his personal life. You know, he doesn't drive down the road in his car singing show tunes.''
Probably not. But don't expect Hayes to tell you that. The actor, who rarely agrees to interviews, is wary of relinquishing his privacy. ''The second you reveal too much information about yourself, you're no longer an actor,'' he reasons. ''You're a personality.'' Especially if you're an actor best known as prime-time TV's outest, proudest resident -- a precarious position that can influence audiences and Hollywood execs against your ability to play it straight. ''It's very hard for movie studios to take a leap,'' says Emmy-nominated producer Craig Zadan. ''They say, 'Let's see...what do we have for Sean Hayes that's similar to the character he plays on ''Will & Grace?''''
On Nov. 24, Hayes will attempt to shatter those limitations. In a CBS biopic from Zadan and producing partner Neil Meron, the actor will star as Jerry Lewis, an equally wisecracking, if hetero, spaz. The movie follows the volatile relationship between the rubber-faced comedian and his too-cool other half, crooner Dean Martin (played by British actor Jeremy Northam). ''Martin and Lewis'' -- a make-or-break attempt to prove that he is a Real Actor -- is about to put Sean Hayes back under the microscope. But is he ready for this particular close-up?