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March / april 2006:

Lady of Grace
Actress Debra Messing speaks candidly on motherhood, her Judaism, and saying farewell to Will & Grace.

Story by Gerri Miller | Photography by George Lange

It feels like our home, Debra Messing says as she glances around at the comfortably furnished apartment that has rows of lights where its ceiling should be and just three walls, its fourth opened to an audience's view. “We come in and we play every day and we do little shows that people come and watch. But it’s our place.”

Well, not for much longer. On May 18th, Will & Grace will bid farewell to its viewers after eight years on NBC, and the soundstage in Studio City, California that has been its home. Those familiar furnishings will go into storage. Before then, Messing plans to snag a few souvenirs, among them the door to her office bearing the name of her lovably neurotic character, Grace Adler. “I just want to put it in my house like art, just lean it up against the wall,” she tells me during a tour of the set.

Even though the decision was made a year ago to end the series, Messing and co-stars Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes feel wistful, their day-to-day routine of work marked by moments of realization that the end is near. “You think, ‘this might be the last time we trip over a couch,’” says Messing, who has done more than her share of such pratfalls as the endearingly klutzy Ms. Adler.

Later, chatting in the living room set, she confides that she’ll miss those scenes the most. “The physical comedy, being able to do that every single day, is really fun but I’ll also miss Grace’s cheapness and slovenly ‘male’ characteristics, the not flushing the toilet, the leaving food under my bed.” Not to mention Grace’s off-key attempts to sing.

“To me, the bad singing, no pun intended, takes the grace off her,” quips Messing, who insisted as a condition of signing on for the role that she’d be allowed to make Grace “funny and unusual in a way that tickled me and surprised me. I didn’t want to be the pretty straight woman. I knew I wouldn’t be happy. I grew up watching Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett with curtain rods in her arms, falling down stairs. To me, that’s funny.”

Not surprisingly, Messing was frustrated when she was pregnant and restricted from using her physical comedy gifts. “It was depressing, but fascinating because it was a test for the writers and for me. They had to make me funny in a more verbal way. It was tricky and when it worked it was incredibly satisfying.”

It was also a test for the prop department to devise ways of hiding the pregnancy, which wasn’t part of the storyline. Messing, who gave birth to son Roman in April 2004, laughs heartily at the memory. “There was an ever-growing bowl of fruit, and it just kept getting stacked higher and higher until finally the fruit wasn't going to cut it anymore. So they put this shrub in a pot on the table and all you saw was my neck up, and we shot it that way.”

But another real-life aspect of Messing has been an integral part of Grace, much to the actress's delight. “They made Grace Jewish and I love that. I loved the Jewish jokes,” she says. “There just hadn't been a Jewish leading lady. I wanted to be really upfront about it, enjoy it, and not hide it. It's hard to quantify how much was the writing staff and how much was Debra,” she muses. ”Aunt Honey is [co-creator] Max Mutchnick's actual aunt, and [co-creator David Kohan's sister] Jenji Kohan went to Camp Ramah. I came in with stories about my bat mitzvah or whatever. I thank them for adding that color.”

She's disappointed, however, that two particular story ideas never materialized. “I thought it would be really funny if we did a Passover seder at my mother's, with the non-Jews, and Elijah coming to the door and climbing under the table to steal the afikomen. So little of the country really would understand what they were watching but it could have been hilarious. The other idea was celebrating Cranukkah -- Christmas and Hanukkah. I wanted us to have a big Christmas tree and my mother unexpectedly shows up and we have to hide the tree because she would disown me if there was a tree in the apartment. So we'd be moving it all over the place, out on the balcony -- very Noel Coward-esque.”


Messing credits her comic timing to years as “a student of television.” Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised near Providence, Rhode Island, she grew up watching Ball and Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Tracey Ullman, Madeline Kahn, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “These are women who shaped my comic sensibility. My mother was a recording artist so there was music in the family. We’d go to New York to visit family and see plays and musicals. From a very early age I knew this was something I wanted to do.”

She was Rhode Island’s Junior Miss in 1986 and after graduating summa cum laude from Brandeis University, she got her masters degree from New York University, where three years of hard work “helped me hone my skills,” preparing her for roles on the New York stage. TV audiences first noticed her in a recurring role on NYPD Blue and got to know her on a weekly basis in the sitcom Ned and Stacy, opposite Thomas Haden Church. Other memorable roles followed as a guest star on Seinfeld, in the short-lived science fiction series Prey, and — oddly enough — as Mary Magdalene in the miniseries Jesus.

Now, as Will & Grace’s run winds down, Messing reflects on the show that earned her an Emmy and broke new ground for TV sitcoms. “As much as this is an extraordinary premise because two of the four main characters were gay and we’d never seen this before, it was really a universal theme and that was friendship. It’s a show about friends, and two of them happen to be gay. I’m very proud to be in the very small number of shows that have had this kind of longevity. We are going out exactly as I had hoped: uncompromisingly and under our terms. We’ve had a year to map out the best way to bid adieu to the characters and to this world in a way we’ll all feel proud of and will feel celebratory.”

Not about to spoil the farewell fun, Messing will not discuss details of the one-hour Will & Grace finale, which will be preceded by an hour-long retrospective. “All I really want for Grace is peace,” she says thoughtfully. “She doesn’t have to be married, she doesn’t have to be a mother, there are no specifics that I require. I just want her to be in a really good place.”

For Messing, that good place is her family. “My husband and child have always been number one far and above anything else. My husband is my partner in life and every decision is made with him as a couple to decide what is best for us,” she says, aware that there are now many options to discuss with Daniel Zelman, the screenwriter and actor she married in September 2000.


One topic sure to be on their agenda: How does one follow up a role that undoubtedly raised the bar for what comes next? Not with another sitcom, Messing assures. While she’s a fan of shows like The Office and My Name is Earl, “I don’t feel hungry to dive into the same genre right away, what I really want to do is what I was trained to do — go from character to character and change genres and mediums as often as I can. I’m attached to do the film remake of The Women with Meg Ryan and Angelica Huston, and I’m in talks about doing a Broadway play in the fall. And I’d love to guest star on Law & Order: SVU or ER.”

Messing will also add to a film résumé that includes roles in The Mothman Prophecies, Along Came Polly, and The Wedding Date. She used her weeks off from Will & Grace last Thanksgiving and Christmas to work on the romantic comedy Purple Violets, opposite writer-director-star Edward Burns.

“It’s the quintessential New York story,” Messing relates. “It’s about four friends who graduated from NYU 12 years earlier with aspirations of being the next great writer/artist and they have achieved varying degrees of success. It’s about art and commerce and selling out and it’s very smart and very funny. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had doing a film.”

This April, Messing will be seen as Eric Bana’s lover in Lucky You, co-starring Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall. “It’s the world of Vegas and gambling and familial struggles and competition,” she describes. She’ll also be heard this fall in the animated movie Open Season as a forest ranger who searches for her domesticated bear pal (Martin Lawrence) when he and a deer (Ashton Kutcher) get lost in the woods during hunting season.

Being able to record her part in casual clothes, sans makeup, was a welcome change from the usual primping time necessary to prepare for on camera roles. “I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life!’” laughs Messing, who, for all her red carpet glamour, habitually arrives at work wearing jeans or sweatpants, sneakers or Uggs, “a sweater or sweatshirt because I’m always cold, maybe a hat that I’ve knit, and not a stitch of makeup.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t like playing the fashion plate on occasion. “I think I’m a good Barbie doll. I like to play dress up. I like for people to say ‘put this on.’ I have very strong opinions about what I like and I enjoy the process,” says Messing, her trim curves accentuated by a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress.

While pregnant with Roman, she missed being able to wear stylish clothes and high heels, but was happy to live in comfortable sweatpants and tees, especially when complications confined her to bed for most of her final trimester and caused her to miss four episodes of the 2004 season.

After three months of no exercise while caring for her infant, Messing began dropping the pregnancy poundage with yoga, walking, and Pilates. Today, she says her favorite workout is “running after my son.”

The dressing room next to hers was converted into a nursery so that Messing could bring Roman to work, and the show’s taping schedule has made it relatively easy for her to balance career and motherhood. Working six months a year with a week off each month gave her the chance to have a life. “I can get the laundry done and the dry cleaning and I can play mom and go to the park and go to different classes. I can go out on a date with my husband. A sitcom is the most humane schedule an actor can be in.”

Now that she’s saying goodbye to that character, she’s excited about the possibilities ahead but wants to savor her freedom. “Right now, I want to rest and travel a little bit,” she confides. “My dream is to go on a safari, to Africa. This is the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life,” she says, smiling with anticipation. “For the first time in eight years I won’t know where I am at 3:00 on a Tuesday eight months from now and that’s sort of thrilling. Everything is open.”

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