As “Will and Grace” wrapped its eighth and final season last year, Debra Messing promised herself a break from acting, for at least six months. Weeks later, when a thick script for “The Starter Wife” arrived at her house, she knew she’d say no. Then she gave it a read and reconsidered.
Adapted from the novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, the story of Molly Kagen, a frank, 40-ish woman dumped by her studio boss husband, appealed to Messing. The challenge of carrying a miniseries on her shoulders held equal attraction.
“The six-hour format intrigued me because you have time for the little scenes that reveal important nuanced information about characters, the scenes that usually get cut,” Messing says.
Producers wooed Messing aggressively, offering her cast and director approval straight away. It was Messing who suggested actress Judy Davis, who was eventually cast in the supporting role of Joan McAllister.
Messing appreciated director Jon Avnet’s interpretation of the script’s tone as a complex mix of light and dark.
“We needed someone of Jon’s talent,” Messing explains. “It so easily could have been made into a sort of fun, frothy soap opera. That would have been fun … but that’s not what I was interested in doing. The darkness is the thing I was really drawn to.”
Shooting for four months in Australia, Messing worked 16-hour days, six days a week. At night she made notes for later scenes. On her day off, she often rehearsed with Avnet.
Two months into filming, the actress felt a surprising personal connection to the divorcee character.
“In retrospect I can say subconsciously why I took the part,” Messing says. “Molly’s journey and what I was going through were absolutely parallel. ‘Will and Grace’ was like my marriage. … For eight years I was contracted to the show. When it ended, all of a sudden I was free to do anything I wanted and be anything I wanted to be, and I felt paralyzed. Eventually, I was working my way through, just as Molly was, to the place where fear turns into thrill and excitement.”