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Debra Messing Reflects on Roles From ‘Angels in America’ to ‘Will & Grace’

Debra Messing was 3 years old when her parents first noticed her singing and dancing around their Rhode Island home. She was about 7 years old when she saw her first Broadway play — “Annie” — and explicitly told her parents she wanted to perform, too. (“I remember it just blowing my mind,” Messing says.) And on Oct. 6, she will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Messing is arguably best known for her role as designer Grace Adler on NBC’s “Will & Grace,” which is now seeing a revival on the Peacock, but beyond that sitcom, she has starred on stage and screens big and small in a 2½-decade career.

“I always think that everything starts with the writing. I always pick my parts because of the writing,” she says.

Messing reunites with “Will & Grace” co-stars Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes for the sitcom’s 2017 revival.

After seeing “Annie,” Messing says her childhood, which often included playing by the pond and watching horses being born at the farm next door, became much more “single-minded.” She attended a performing arts camp, took part in all of her high school plays and then went on to Brandeis University and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, the latter where she earned her master’s degree in acting.

“We studied all of the classics,” Messing fondly recalls of her early training in Shakespeare, Pinter and Ibsen. “And then we did ‘Angels in America.’ At the time it was a five-hour play, and Tony Kushner wanted to use our class to workshop it before he brought it to Broadway.”

It was 1993, and Messing got the role of Harper in “Perestroika” as an agoraphobe who returns to reality after part one’s drug-fueled fantasies. She caught the eye of a talent agent who saw her performance and signed her before she even graduated from the program.

“At that point, my goal became to work in all of the best regional theaters in the country and play all of the great female roles,” she says.

Messing did set out to fulfill that dream — her first job out of grad school was playing debutante Cecily in “The Importance of Being Earnest” in Seattle — but very quickly realized the lifestyle that came from living out of a suitcase was not truly for her.

“I told my agents I wasn’t going to audition for anything that’s out of town, and they were kind of shocked because 99% of the work is out of New York,” Messing recalls.

But she ended up not having to wait long before a local acting job came her way. Just two months later she was cast as Polly Draper’s understudy in John Patrick Shanley’s Off Broadway version of “Four Dogs and a Bone.” Opposite Draper in the other female lead role was Mary-Louise Parker, and both women were busy juggling multiple projects, so it wasn’t long before the call came for the understudy. Not only did Messing end up going on for Draper, but also for Parker, whose own understudy abruptly quit. Messing went back and forth playing those very different roles — one was a 30-something woman and one a teenager — for seven months before moving onto Paul Rudnick’s “The Naked Truth,” and simultaneously, her first film role, “A Walk in the Clouds.”

In addition to that performance of “Annie” when Messing was still in elementary school, television comedies and their leading ladies had a big influence on her youth.

“I grew up watching ‘I Love Lucy’ and Carol Burnett and Madeline Kahn and Mary Tyler Moore. These women really shaped me,” Messing says.

So when thinking about committing more time to television in her career that is what Messing gravitated toward.

Sean Hayes, Messing’s long-time co-star on “Will & Grace,” considers her a “tour de force” within any genre and has not been surprised to see her jump effortlessly between them, in multiple media, through the years. “Let’s face it, when you have as much talent as Debra Messing, you can pretty much shine in anything you do,” Hayes says.

“When you have as much talent as Debra Messing, you can pretty much shine in anything you do.”
Sean Hayes

With Hollywood officially calling, Messing began to expand her resume, nabbing her first primetime television guest spot on “NYPD Blue,” which led to a general meeting at Fox. Execs there had a script for which she felt she was perfect: a relationship sitcom in the vein of “Mad About You.”

The show was “Ned and Stacey,” about a marriage of convenience whose titular couple falls in love after the fact, and Messing had already auditioned, but initially series executive producer Michael J. Weithorn told her she wasn’t right for it.

“He said, ‘I’m looking for a neurotic Jew from New York. I did not see that in your audition,’” Messing remembers. “So I asked him to let me try it again and said, ‘If you don’t like it, I will leave, and you will never see me again, and no one will call you again to make you see me. But just give me one chance to do something different.’”

After Messing did a chemistry read with Thomas Haden Church, there were no questions that she was the one for the role, though, Church says. “We met on a Sunday afternoon, and Debra and I rehearsed for a few hours at least. I just remember that million-watt smile,” he says.

Church was also struck by Messing’s confidence and ability, considering he had never seen her do comedy before. “Debra was so dedicated to creating a unique character. She managed to carve out what her journey was going to be as an actor, and it was never going to be any zany homage to the comedy actresses she was being compared to. What I really loved was she was not at all afraid to challenge traditional four-camera comedy or idea of that character. She knew who she was, and she knew her ideas should at least be heard.”

Although Messing found a comfortable groove in the sitcom schedule — and although she was already telling her agents she wanted to work with James Burrows on such a show for NBC — she didn’t want to give up on her love of theater. “Ned and Stacey” ended after only two years in the mid-1990s and she took another play (Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories”) and then joined the cast of ABC’s short-lived sci-fi drama, “Prey.”

“Prey” was Messing’s first full-time foray into the single-camera schedule, which proved to be very different from what she had experienced thus far. So when her agent called with the script for “Will & Grace,” the NBC sitcom that was going to be directed by Burrows — exactly what Messing told them she wanted — she initially turned them down. “I told them I was going to sleep for three months and to call me then,” Messing laughs.

Messing credits her agents Lindsay Porter and Leslie Siebert for their insistence that she meet with “Will & Grace” creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan.

“My first concern at the time was that they’d portray the gay characters in a way that was different, but then the second thing was that I didn’t just want to be the pretty girl who sets up the funny guys,” Messing admits. She told them: “The way I can service this, and what I can bring to the mix, is physical comedy.”

They agreed, and Messing then met with Eric McCormack, who remembers how she laughed at the things he was saying even before they started read ing the scene. “We immediately hit it off, and we all said, ‘That’s what the show is.’ It doesn’t matter what we write, we have to have that ingredient,” McCormack says.

Messing and McCormack honed a sibling-like chemistry to reach sitcom success.

One of McCormack’s favorite memories from working with Messing is still the fifth season premiere of “Will & Grace” in which their characters get in an argument over the fact that they had agreed to have a baby together, but then she backs out.

“I’ll never forget feeling the audience’s hearts tighten as we started to yell at each other. There were no mistakes. It was a perfect, raw scene that ends with us telling each other to go to hell,” McCormack says. “And there was this standing ovation that you don’t often get on a sitcom, and we knew that was the result of honing our relationship.”

“Will & Grace” was eight years of “explosive fun and joy and laughter and yes, a lot of hard physical work,” Messing acknowledges. During those years, though, Messing also dabbled in film roles (like “The Wedding Date”) when on hiatus from the hit sitcom.

“As actors, we’re really not built to play the same role for years on end. The reason why we became actors was because we loved telling different stories and transforming into different characters,” Messing points out.

When “Will & Grace” came to an end, therefore, she was ready to flex a slightly different muscle with the dramedy miniseries “The Starter Wife” in 2007 that then turned into a full television series in 2008, on which she also served as a producer.

“The Starter Wife” only lasted one season as a series, and Messing ended up taking a short break from acting to be a full-time mom and figure out what she wanted to do next for the place she felt she was at creatively in her life.

“I wasn’t reading comedy pilots that were as funny as the pilot I read for ‘Will & Grace,’” she says. “But the next thing that perked me up was ‘Smash.’ That pilot was the best I’d read, and that was the only thing that I felt strongly enough that I would move for.”

Theresa Rebeck’s 2012 dramatic send-up of the theater community that gave Messing her start saw her taking on the role of a Broadway playwright working on a new script about Marilyn Monroe.

“I thought it was great to see her take her Debra-ness and adapt that, for sure,” McCormack says of watching Messing on “Smash.” “I think it’s great because people do see someone like Debra who can be like Lucille Ball and so fun then turn it off to play serious, play wounded, play angry, and it’s exciting because that’s what an actor’s supposed to do. That kind of range is what we’re supposed to bring to the table.”

“Smash” was cancelled after two seasons on NBC, which “saddened” Messing but allowed her to get back to her theater roots again with the Broadway play “Outside Mullingar” in 2014 before going back to NBC with the detective drama “The Mysteries of Laura” later that year.

“And now here we are back at ‘Will & Grace,’” Messing laughs. “I never would have conceived that was possible, but I’m so glad it has been. I grew up out in the woods, and so TV was really the thing that made me happy. I just loved stories and I loved laughing. To be able to do this for so long has been a dream.”

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