The actor hopes portraying Will's struggles "opens up compassion"

Credit: Mark Levine/ABC

Nashville star Chris Carmack realized the importance of his character Will Lexington while sitting in a Music City honky-tonk.

“I definitely have conversations with people in the real world about this character and what he’s going through,” the actor tells PEOPLE of playing Lexington, a rising country star who is struggling with his identity as a gay man.

“I’ve had people come up to me in a bar here in Nashville and say, ‘So, what’s that like man, having to play the gay guy?’ Then I talk to them a little bit about the character and what he’s going through. And I’ve gotten some real flabbergasted responses of people going, ‘Wow. I never thought about it that way.’ It’s humbling to play a role and realize maybe that person came away thinking about things a little different.”

That’s the power of Lexington’s story, Carmack, 34, says.

“It’s not just about gay or straight; it’s a very universal theme about a guy who feels like he has to sacrifice happiness in order to achieve his dream,” he continues. “I hope it exposes an audience that may feel uncomfortable with the subject to a really great story that opens up dialogue. I know it has for me. I don’t have any expectations that this character will change the world, but for those people for whom it opens up a little compassion and understanding, I think it’s a very important role.”

Nashville airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.