“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.
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.