“It’s the per­fect time to be back”

When it first aired 19 years ago, Will & Grace al­tered the TV land­scape – and chal­lenged peo­ple’s views. Now, as the hit com­edy re­turns, ac­tor De­bra Mess­ing tells Stel­lar the show still plans to push bound­aries.

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - In­ter­view by NI­CHOLAS FONSECA

De­bra Mess­ing is wide awake – and she has not had even a sip of cof­fee. It’s the morn­ing af­ter a long week­end and the 49-year-old is only too happy to re­gale Stel­lar with the de­tails of how she spent her much-cov­eted day off.

“I ended up sleep­ing!” she says, a boast­ful tinge to her voice. “One day – it felt like a week. I slept re­ally late, then went out­side and lay in the sun. I had a quiet day to my­self.”

Eleven years af­ter the show that made her a star dis­ap­peared from TV screens, quiet days (and sleep) have once again been in short sup­ply for Mess­ing. As she talks to Stel­lar from her LA home for an ex­clu­sive Aus­tralian in­ter­view, she is amp­ing up for the re­turn of Will & Grace – the much-loved com­edy that ran from 1998 to 2006 – in which she plays in­te­rior de­signer Grace Adler, a neu­rotic straight woman who lives with her gay best friend, up­tight lawyer Will Tru­man (Eric Mccor­mack).

Not only did the series make Mess­ing a house­hold name, earn­ing her an Emmy along the way, it’s widely cred­ited with chang­ing per­cep­tions of the gay and les­bian com­mu­nity. Even now, as it con­tin­ues to per­me­ate the pub­lic con­scious­ness courtesy of in­ces­sant re-runs, fans and crit­ics alike agree its hu­mour man­aged to be both time­less and ahead of its time.

Mess­ing – along with Mccor­mack and their side­kicks Sean Hayes and Me­gan Mul­lally (who be­came break­out stars in their own right as Jack Mcfarland, a strug­gling ac­tor prone to scream­ing “Just Jack!” and Karen Walker, a boozy Park Av­enue so­cialite) – ad­mits she and her cast mates are once again in the midst of a public­ity bo­nanza that none of their

sub­se­quent projects came close to at­tract­ing. “We’re in our sweats,” she says, “in re­hearsal mode, and sud­denly it’s, ‘OK, time to get glammed up for a photo shoot! Oh, by the way, you have an in­ter­view with a newspaper and then you’re go­ing to talk to this per­son…’ Days like that are very in­tense.”

And while the show gar­nered its share of head­lines and mag­a­zine cov­ers back in its orig­i­nal run, the me­dia hype in the lead-up to its en­core has proven far more fer­vid than any­thing that sur­rounded the show’s cast even in its hey­day. “It feels dif­fer­ent – be­cause we’re go­ing from zero to 60 this time,” says Mess­ing. “We haven’t done any­thing to­gether in 11 years, and even at the height of Will & Grace, [the at­ten­tion] was in­cre­men­tal. The show hasn’t even aired yet, but there’s a lot of good­will out there for us. We’re just ex­cited to get on the air.”

The first episode of Will & Grace aired just 61 days af­ter cred­its for the last episode of Ellen rolled. That sit­com made his­tory when Ellen De­generes’s ti­tle char­ac­ter in­fa­mously came out as gay; it then promptly ran aground when sub­se­quent sto­ry­lines grew point­edly po­lit­i­cal. In con­trast,

“We es­tab­lished our­selves as a show that makes you laugh. But very close be­hind that, we were be­ing provoca­tive”

the ar­rival of Will & Grace felt gen­tler – al­beit with its of­ten mer­ci­less di­a­logue, not nec­es­sar­ily kin­der. “We es­tab­lished our­selves as a show that, first and fore­most, makes you laugh,” says Mess­ing. “But very close be­hind that, we were be­ing provoca­tive, shin­ing a light on hypocrisy, and show­ing how you can have a di­a­logue about pop cul­ture and pol­i­tics at the same time.” An en­dur­ing hall­mark of the show, she adds, is that the char­ac­ters “were able to be sassy and say things you re­ally shouldn’t on prime-time tele­vi­sion. Our writ­ers found that fine bal­ance.”

The ge­n­e­sis of Will & Grace’s un­likely 2017 re­boot was a 9½-minute Youtube video that was up­loaded last Septem­ber. Sud­denly, there were Mess­ing and her co-stars, back in char­ac­ter, trad­ing barbs and dis­cussing the then-up­com­ing US elec­tion in what was meant as a ral­ly­ing ef­fort for Amer­i­cans to vote. Within days, the clip had earned mil­lions of views and fans were clam­our­ing for more. Ul­ti­mately the quar­tet – who had all agreed, in less than 40 min­utes, to make the video af­ter co-cre­ator Max Mutch­nick con­tacted them with the idea – de­cided to give it an­other go.

The show re­turns in the midst of height­ened so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ten­sions world­wide, and in the era of Don­ald Trump. Mess­ing, who was one of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s most vo­cal sup­port­ers dur­ing her pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, be­lieves “it feels like the best pos­si­ble time” to make a come­back. “There is such a cli­mate of chaos and di­vi­sive­ness and anti-dif­fer­ence in every form. It is so loud and so present. Peo­ple al­ready know what the show is, so we just in­tend to do what we al­ready did: look at is­sues at the fore­front of cul­ture – and be per­fectly can­did about them.”

Mess­ing ad­mits, how­ever, that be­ing can­did has some­times landed her in trou­ble. On her Twit­ter feed, where she shares news ar­ti­cles and en­gages with peo­ple about pol­i­tics, she refers to her­self as, among other things, a big mouth. “Mmm-hmm,” ad­mits Mess­ing, let­ting out a sly laugh. “My fam­ily would tell you I have al­ways been a big mouth. I have al­ways ex­pressed how I felt, and luck­ily grew up in a fam­ily where it was good to be vo­cal. We were al­lowed to ex­press our opin­ions.”

But her sup­port for Clin­ton ex­posed Mess­ing to in­tense crit­i­cism. “I cam­paigned for her, I flew around the coun­try for her – try­ing to hope­fully get her elected as the first fe­male pres­i­dent. And that was when I re­ally be­came a big mouth on Twit­ter. My mouth was re­ally, re­ally big.”

At first, says Mess­ing, she spoke up as an act of sim­ple self-de­fence given that her pub­lic sup­port of Clin­ton re­sulted in “a lot of peo­ple com­ing at me… So I had a choice to make: get off Twit­ter or let peo­ple ex­press their hate for me and let it roll off. It was a year of learn­ing.”

One ex­change – a fiery clash with ac­tor Su­san Saran­don, a staunch Bernie San­ders sup­porter – set off a firestorm and soon be­came one of the most closely watched celebrity feuds of the year. Both women stood their ground. Gos­sip wags had a field day. In the end, prob­a­bly no-one – Mess­ing, Saran­don or their com­bined 970,000 fol­low­ers – changed their mind.

Asked now if she re­grets the stoush, Mess­ing de­murs. “It is what it is. It doesn’t re­ally de­serve any more time spent on

“I have given up all the fun things… but I have more en­ergy than when I was 30”

it, be­cause of where we are now – every day there is some­thing else that is in­fu­ri­at­ing or cat­a­strophic in the news. I would much rather talk about how to keep [my] coun­try uni­fied.”

When Will & Grace re­turns, a few fa­mil­iar faces will be miss­ing. Among them: Deb­bie Reynolds, the late Hol­ly­wood le­gend who played Mess­ing’s on­screen mother. The old-school work ethic Mess­ing shared with Reynolds kept her work­ing steadily in the post- Will & Grace years; in fact, her first job af­ter it wrapped brought her to Queens­land, where she filmed the 2007 mini-series The Starter Wife in Bris­bane and on the Gold Coast. “I can’t be­lieve it’s a decade ago and I still haven’t been back,” Mess­ing says. “I loved it and re­mem­ber think­ing ‘I could live here’ in about two sec­onds. Aus­tralians still stand out to me as the kind­est and most open peo­ple I have met.”

Pro­ducer Neil Meron ( Hair­spray) re­calls Mess­ing re­quest­ing a meet­ing with him and business part­ner Craig Zadan dur­ing her run on Will & Grace. “She wanted to do a mu­si­cal,” Meron tells Stel­lar. “We met at the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel and had a great time. At the end of our meet­ing, she in­vited Craig and my­self into her car, I be­lieve a Porsche, so we could hear her sing to a track she had pre­pared. You could tell she had mu­si­cal abil­ity.”

Years later, the trio would join forces on the TV drama Smash, which took place in the world of Broad­way mu­si­cals. The series was short-lived, but it re­tains a cult fol­low­ing. “I loved Smash,” says Mess­ing. “A lot of peo­ple still ask me about it. The cast was in­cred­i­ble. Then they changed showrun­ners and… ul­ti­mately, it was like, ‘What Smash is this?!’”

It was on the set of Smash that Mess­ing fell for co-star Will Chase (they split in 2014); prior to that, she was mar­ried for more than a decade to Daniel Zel­man, her univer­sity sweet­heart and fa­ther to son Ro­man, who is now 13.

Mess­ing ad­mits jug­gling work and moth­er­hood is never easy. “Once school starts, that’s go­ing to be the chal­lenge,” she says. “But luck­ily, I have an in­cred­i­ble co-par­ent in his dad. We are com­pletely aligned in ev­ery­thing that has to do with Ro­man… We’re go­ing to be fine.”

Next year, Mess­ing turns 50. “I’m wel­com­ing that mile­stone,” she says. “It doesn’t scare me, it doesn’t de­press me. I know so many sexy, vi­brant, mag­nif­i­cent women in their 50s, 60s, 70s… too many role mod­els that in­spire me to feel that way.”

To those won­der­ing how she ap­pears not to have aged at all in the decade since Will & Grace wrapped up, Mess­ing cred­its her diet. “I have given up all the fun things,” she ad­mits. “No cof­fee, no fast food, no wheat, no grain, no sugar. But I have more en­ergy than I did when I was 30. So that’s the gift.”

AROUND THE SAME time as Will & Grace re­turns to our screens, Aus­tralians will be in the midst of fill­ing out a postal sur­vey to de­ter­mine whether the Mar­riage Act should be al­tered to in­clude same-sex unions. Given for­mer US vice-pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den once ob­served that “Will & Grace did more to ed­u­cate the Amer­i­can pub­lic [about gay rights] than al­most any­thing any­body has done so far,” does Mess­ing be­lieve it might have a sim­i­lar im­pact here? “Hope­fully,” she says. “I hope your coun­try fol­lows through, and re­alises that love is love is love. Sex, gen­der, iden­tity – they don’t mat­ter.”

Back when Will & Grace was in its sec­ond year, Mess­ing re­calls, she was ap­proached by a woman while wait­ing at an air­port in the US. “You’re great. I love your show!” the woman ex­claimed, be­fore adding, “but my hus­band hates gays.”

“I just stood there, dumb­founded,” Mess­ing says. But the woman con­tin­ued. When she first be­gan watch­ing the show, she ex­plained, her hus­band wouldn’t even sit in the same room. Even­tu­ally, he gave in – but would sit scowl­ing, read­ing the pa­per and re­fus­ing to look up. “And now,” the woman told Mess­ing, “my hus­band is go­ing around the house yelling, ‘Just Jack!’ and throw­ing his hands in the air.”

“It was such a glo­ri­ous story,” Mess­ing says. “This per­son made progress. His heart opened up in a way that it wasn’t will­ing to be­fore. That was never our show’s in­tent, but even­tu­ally it be­came clear: we were im­por­tant to peo­ple. We had a duty to peo­ple. It has been such a priv­i­lege for me.”

AMAZ­ING(clock­wise from GRACE above) Be­fore she was Grace Adler, De­bra Mess­ing played Jerry Se­in­feld’s girl­friend in two episodes of Se­in­feld in 1997; the ac­tor is proud of the im­pact Will & Grace had on chang­ing pub­lic per­cep­tions of the gay and les­bian com­mu­nity; Mess­ing with cast mates Eric Mccor­mack (left), Sean Hayes and Me­gan Mul­lally this year; the gang in their ’90s-era hey­day; with her son Ro­man last month; at a cam­paign rally for Hil­lary Clin­ton in June 2016; in Smash with Chris­tian Borle.

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