Debra Messing – Starting Over Again
Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
Starting Over Again
by Jay S. Jacobs
Debra Messing has a problem that most actresses would kill for. When you are known indelibly for a role which hits the pop-culture jackpot, sometimes it’s not easy to get the public to see you as anyone else.
Messing spent eight years playing Grace Adler on Will and Grace – a kooky, slightly neurotic but funny interior decorator with a gay best friend – who was one of the best-known sitcom characters of the decade.
After dabbling in films (The Wedding Date, Along Came Polly, Lucky You), in 2007 Messing took the lead role in a surprisingly popular miniseries, The Starter Wife. Messing played Molly, a Hollywood spouse dealing with the break-up of her marriage – trying to juggle motherhood, romance and the aspiration to become a writer. The miniseries was not only a huge hit, it also won eleven Emmy Awards.
Success like that can’t be ignored; therefore, a year later, The Starter Wife has been transformed into a series. With most of the original cast returning (and this time actually filming in Los Angeles, rather than the Australian sets of the miniseries), the new series casts a jaded eye over the ridiculousness of the Hollywood lifestyle at the same time as it gives us a heartfelt look at Molly’s attempts to find friendship, love, respect and the perfect boots.
Recently Messing sat down with us – as well as some other websites – in a conference call to discuss her career and her experiences on The Starter Wife.
Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
What about your role challenges you?
Oh, everything about Molly challenges me and that’s why I love playing her so much. Everything that’s going on in her life is new and uncharted territory for her. Her life is starting over at 40, everything from the dynamic between her new ex-husband, having to negotiate that new relationship with shared custody, to dating for the first time in over ten years, which is awkward and funny and scary, to having to discover an occupation that will support she and her daughter, and negotiating living in the same community that has ostracized her. Everywhere she goes, she is an outsider, or she is trying to get her footing. It’s incredibly challenging.
With (series creators) Josie (McGibbon) and Sara (Parriott) doing the writing, the same writers who did the miniseries, it’s just — every day is a ride, everything from high comedy to very poignant still simple, accessible emotional moments.
How long can you see yourself playing this role?
Oh, gosh, as long as they’ll let me. We just finished our first season, like two weeks ago and I was sobbing the last day, and that’s unusual for me and I think it was a clear sign that it’s a special show. It’s a special group of people and it’s really touched my heart and has inspired me creatively and has turned out to be a much more fulfilling experience than I ever imagined it could be.
I also think you don’t have to have seen the miniseries in order to start watching the series because everything is new. Starting over at 40, it can go anywhere. And especially in the world of Hollywood in which we do social satire and we have a lot of fun poking fun at the values and priorities that are askew there, I think that there will be fodder for comedy in that world forever.
Molly is a complicated character, which is why I love playing her. Nothing is clean and simple. Her relationship with her ex-husband is messy. She still is kind of taking care of him, even though he’s hurt her. Nothing is easy, so I think that especially with the team of writers and the group of actors we have I think that we could go until Molly is in the old home in Beverly Hills.
When you were filming the miniseries did you have any thought or maybe even any inclination that this might eventually go to series or was it after?
Absolutely none. No, absolutely none. It was adapted from a novel and it was finite and we finished the novel. I think that what happened was that when the miniseries got ten Emmy nominations it just shocked everybody, including myself. USA called and said I think we’ve touched a nerve. I think that there’s something here that is modern and relevant and has not been explored in TV or film before. At least that’s what all the people who stop me on the street, the people who say, “That’s me. I’m a starter wife,” or “I’m a starter husband,” that’s what I’ve been hearing the most is like that’s me and you’ve never seen anything on TV that really shows my life and my struggles.
I think that all bets were off after those ten Emmy’s and we sat down and said, “Okay, can this be a long running series?” Once we realized that all the things that worked from the miniseries would be maintained, and that we just wanted to build on that and expand the world of The Starter Wife and add new characters and have fun with the storylines, we realized that it could have a long life as a series. I’m so grateful to USA that they did that.
Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
The Starter Wife uses a lot of fantasy scenes from movies. Which one was your favorite?
Oh, goodness. It’s so hard to pick a favorite because they just kept getting better and better. Right off the top of my head, I’d have to say the Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, which is in the last episode of the series, and playing Carol Channing singing, instead of “Hello, Molly” singing “Hello, Dolly.” Singing and dancing and doing a big song and dance number – that was a highlight for me.
Which one have you not done yet that you would like to do, do you think?
There’s a whole laundry list of ones I’d like to do. One of them is Gone with the Wind, just because where we shoot in Los Angeles is where Gone with the Wind was shot, and I think sort of an homage to our location would be fun. I also would love to do a silent movie with subtitles. I think that would be really fun.
What really interests me, …. you already touched on this a little bit, but I actually am a writer that started over as a writer at 40, so it kind of really interests me what you’re doing with this character of Molly, so I’m wondering how it’s going to work out. Is there anything you can tell us, if she does become successful as a writer eventually or can you lead us into that a little bit or tell us one of her struggles that she might come up with in this season that you ….
Well, what I will say is that her writings in her journal have been sort of a social commentary, a comic social commentary of her own and that gets stolen and from that experience attention is brought to Molly and some unusual professional opportunities arise. It will certainly test Molly in terms of what’s important to her and ethics and sort of being thrown into the middle of the whole Hollywood game. She’s going to have to be dealing with her ex-husband in the professional world for the first time. So, there are some fun, new dynamics that are explored.
Let’s just put it this way, her life is not going to become a fairy tale within ten episodes. Even if she gets a job it’s not going to be the answer to everything or she’s not going to be catapulted to stardom.
I’m imagining then that that’s what you would want. You wouldn’t want a character that would have it all figured out in one season.
No, no, that’s what I respond to about Molly is that she doesn’t have it figured out and that she is written in a way that she’s a fighter and she’s a survivor, but she’s constantly butting up against obstacles, and to me that’s real life. I love the juxtaposition of the fantasy world of Hollywood and the Utopia that is presumed in that world and the very real and accessible daily struggles in every aspect of the protagonist’s life, of Molly.
Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
How did it come about that you’re also now executive producing the show?
Well, during the miniseries I was lucky enough to be invited in to be a collaborator, a creative collaborator. So, I had a lot of say in terms of the rewrites and the look of the show and the casting, so it was a natural progression because it’s the same writers that are running the show, and the three of us we just got on like gangbusters and respect each other and love each other very much.
In addition to it being a natural progression, though, honestly, I think it just made it easier for me to sign on for potentially another 6.5 years onto a series, knowing that the title executive producer does add some certain creative protections for me, in that, as executive producer my opinions and my voice will be at least considered if I feel like something is changing in the show as time is going on that is important to me or that I feel like is essential to the show or if they want to take it in a direction that I’m not comfortable with. Just knowing that I have that protection allows me just to dive in with 100% excitement and commitment and energy into the entire experience.
Finally, it’s turned out to be something that I actually am good at. When you’re an actor you’re just focusing on yourself all the time on the set, working 14-hour days and thinking about your character and as executive producer I have to look at the whole and not just at my stuff. It’s sort of right brain, left brain work and it’s exhausting, but I find it really, really just stimulating and gratifying.
What did you guys all find as producers and actors and crew to be the biggest hurdles to transferring from a miniseries to series?
I didn’t feel many hurdles. I’m an executive producer who is focused on just keeping the creative aspects of it pure. I could care less about the money and if things are too expensive, I’m just like, but, we want that actor. I’m always just keeping focused on let’s just keep elevating the show in every way possible. I’m sure the money ended up being the biggest hurdle because shooting in Australia was significantly less expensive than shooting in Los Angeles. I knew that if we were going to be making this a series that it would have to stay in Los Angeles, so it’s prohibitive. Ninety percent of the TV shows nowadays don’t shoot in Los Angeles because it’s expensive, so I would imagine that was it, but I didn’t feel that. That never really trickled down to me.
It was really just trying to get, figure out how many of the cast members we could get back because it was a full year later. Peter Jacobson, who played my ex-husband, Kenny, was already contracted on House, so he wasn’t able to come back. So, it was like okay, now we have to do a search of finding one other person who can actually do the role of Kenny, which I think is the hardest role in the whole show, and we found him with David Alan Basche. He’s incredible.
Judy Davis and Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
The character of Grace was so much fun, whereas your role as Molly is more deliberate in tone and speech. But the visual quirks that Grace had also seem to be taking subtle residence with Molly as we progress, so I’m wondering is it a little crossover character trait that cannot be avoided, perhaps, or perhaps they’re Debra quirks just oozing to the surface as you get older.
That’s a good question. When I first got off of Will and Grace and we were doing the miniseries, I took the director aside and said, “If you see Grace sneaking in, I want you tell me because I’ve been doing it for eight years. I’m sure that I don’t even realize it a lot of the time.” It turned out in the miniseries not to be an issue, but what I have found is that the writers like to put my character into situations that elicit physical responses, I think in large part because they’ve seen me do that before and they know that I have fun with it and I have an affinity for it.
So, I like to feel that Molly is experienced by viewers as it is experienced by me as a completely different character, but Debra is also the actress who’s playing these characters and I have a certain, I guess, aesthetic when it comes to comedy and what I think is funny. That might sort of keep the thread throughout much of my work. I don’t think that Debra is very much like Grace and I don’t think Debra is very much like Molly, but I think Debra is in both of them and perhaps it’s in that way.
I can see that. I think you said you had the same writers for this series. Now are they game for writing a projected series now, it still is in the key adult demos, of course, that were 18 to 49 and such like that, which is a great span of demographic? And have they ever mentioned, perhaps, that your diary could one day be a real life general public sale diary in a bookstore for Christmas or something?
Oh, my goodness, what a brilliant idea. No, that hasn’t been discussed, but I’m sure after today it will be.
David Alan Basche and Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
I’d like royalties sent down the line.
And you will deserve them. In terms of diving into a series, Sara Parriott and Josie McGibbon are brilliant and they were the ones who said to me, “We can do this. We want to do this.” And we sat down, and we thought about long term, whether or not there was enough there to expand into a full series. We all were unhesitant. We all felt absolutely there was. They’ve proven to be really great at it. They’re just prolific. They write incredibly quickly, and we were never behind the eight ball in terms of our scripts.
It’s been an effortless transition for them because I don’t know if you notice, but they had done mostly films prior to the miniseries. They wrote Runaway Bride for Julia Roberts. So, this is a new medium for them, but I think when you’re a talented writer you’re a talented writer.
All the other actors on the show always have the most wonderful things to say about you, so how does everyone maintain such a good chemistry on set?
Well, it’s nice to hear that people have nice things to say about me. I love our cast and I was in every audition, every final thing. In addition to, our first priority was finding the best actors for that particular role, but at the same time we were very much aware that we were going to be spending fourteen, sixteen hours a day with these cast members. And it was important to feel like, that we were getting together a good group of people, good human beings who are respectful and have a good work ethic and are passionate about what they’re doing and have a great sense of humor.
We were able to do that and then you put us all together and there just happened to be great chemistry, which you can’t predict. We were just lucky enough that it happened. So, we get along incredibly well, and we laugh a lot. The hours are hard and there are challenges with working that hard, and it’s wonderful to know that everywhere you look, there are people who have your back and who are there to give you the emotional support that you need or to get you to say, okay, you’re falling asleep on your feet. Okay, do I have to do a little jig to make you laugh, or whatever needs to be done. So yes, it’s a really great group of people.
Hart Bochner and Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
I’m sure it’s great when everything can fit together like that. Do you have a favorite on-set moment so far?
Oh goodness, I have a memorable moment. I don’t know that it was a favorite. It was doing the Basic Instinct fantasy where I was Sharon Stone with the famous uncrossing of the legs interrogation scene. This was the last episode and we were doing it, I was doing it in front of all the male cast members and I could just tell that everyone, including all the crew, were kind of tense because they didn’t know what was going to happen. Obviously, I wasn’t going to go the full mile and not wear underwear while I was doing the scene. But I did know that given the nature of the scene, that everyone was going to have to be staring at my crotch for ten hours and that people were going to be shy and embarrassed because everyone is like family now.
So, I decided to do a practical joke to try and break the tension and to make everyone relax. So, I had white panties made up with these big block pink letters that said “Say please,” hoping that when I uncrossed my legs and the cast and crew saw, that they would break up laughing, that it would ruin the take, everyone would just acknowledge how sort of weird and funny this whole thing is and then we would be able to go on and for me to say, “Okay, I’m wearing a bathing suit bottom. We can all enjoy this.”
But the thing was it happened and literally nobody laughed. It was probably one of the most embarrassing moments I’ve ever had in my life. It didn’t work and afterwards I had to stand up and I’m like, “Did you not read? Did you not see it?” All of a sudden everyone started to exhale and laugh. They didn’t know if was supposed to be a joke. They were just so shocked and stunned. And then once that I assured them that it was a joke, then everyone laughed and had good fun with it and the rest of the night was comfortable.
Molly wouldn’t be Molly if she wasn’t a mother. What has it been like working with the young actress who plays Molly’s daughter?
I can’t say enough about Brielle, the little girl who plays my daughter in the series now. She is just so down to earth and kind and playful and she’s a great actress. It’s really inspiring and amazing to watch her work. I’ve never really worked with a lot of child actresses before or actors before and she’s crept into my heart and I love her dearly.
Brielle Barbusca and Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
If Molly were your close friend in real life, what advice would you give to her to help her achieve her goals after the divorce?
The first thing I would say to her is don’t fear change. I think that I’m someone who doesn’t respond well to change. Obviously, the character of Molly is going through a million changes all at the same time and it could be daunting. I think that I would say look at starting over as an opportunity to rewrite your life and fill it with everything that’s been missing.
I know that you slightly touched on this before. I know that Will and Grace was filmed in LA, but it had a strong New York vibe. The Starter Wife on the other hand is very much an LA type of show. Was that something that appealed to you, the opportunity to sort of enjoy and parody the Hollywood lifestyle?
Absolutely. It was just another thing that was completely new for me. I’m in New York right now. I have a deeper attachment or affinity or what have you with New York City than I do with Los Angeles. Will and Grace and my prior sitcom, Ned and Stacy were both set in New York City. So, it has just a complete, it is a completely different world out in Los Angeles.
The thing that I loved the most about it being set in Los Angeles was the discovery of the satirical tone of the comedy coming from the social satire of making fun of this place that’s supposed to be Utopia and shining a light on some of the uglier sides or shocking sides or sad sides of the culture that is Hollywood and to get a laugh out of it. It’s just a completely different kind of approach comedy wise than I’ve ever had before.
I noticed in the episodes that I saw that you guys were shooting a lot on location as well. How does working in real places add to the energy of a scene to you as an actress? I know you’ve done mostly sound stage work in your previous series.
A lot. It affects it tremendously. We shoot four days on our set and four days on location. It just adds to the authenticity of the show. We feel like we’re shooting a film and it adds life and flavor and colors. And I think as much as you can actually photograph the real city, the better it is for the series.
Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
I’d like to ask a question regarding Lou Manahan (played by Joe Mantegna). I like that romance that they had in the miniseries and I’m sure it was tempting for Molly to take the easy way and marry him and have all the riches and fame. I’m wondering if there’s new potential that they will get back together in the series.
Well, he comes back. He does several episodes and I think that’s all I’m allowed to tell you.
Okay. Fair enough. And my next question is in looking at your bio, I see that you were encouraged to get a liberal arts education before you went into acting and you went on to get a Master’s degree. For new actors coming up today, is this still advice that you—if someone is coming up, would you still advise them to get their college education before starting their acting career?
Absolutely, absolutely. I just feel like acting is about putting yourself in the shoes of other people who are different from you. The more you can learn about the world, about different disciplines, it all just feeds into making you a better actor. I also think that’s a very important time in anyone’s life, 18 to 21, and 17 to 22, you are literally becoming an adult and discovering your point of view and your perspective and what you value and what’s important to you. So, I just think giving yourself a little cocoon that is intellectually stimulating and socially stimulating before you have to go out and get pounded by rejection is a good thing.
Debra Messing in “The Starter Wife.”
I’ve noticed you seem driven to strong female projects like this series and also the recent film The Women, which I really enjoyed. I was wondering is this conscious choice or is it just like a happy coincidence?
I guess it’s both. I wanted to be in The Women seven years ago. That project, as you know, was around for like twelve years before it finally got financing. I wanted to be involved because it was this iconic play and an iconic film and that it was all women, and that with an awareness that given the business in modern day, that movie would never be made with no man in it unless it had that precedent from the original film. So, I knew it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Beyond that, I do feel like we have a responsibility to help highlight and support the really, really talented women in our community because it is so imbalanced. Josie and Sara happen to be women and they happen to be brilliant writers and that’s why I wanted to continue to work with them was because of their talent.
But it has extended into our directing. We have our directors. We had a higher than normal percentage of female directors this season. So, I think across the board there is an awareness that where things are equal, if we can give an opportunity, then it’s our responsibility.
Congratulations on producing. I’ve been a fan of yours since even Lost in the Clouds and also the Woody Allen film you did was hilarious. I wanted to ask, do you have any future plans for producing beyond The Starter Wife?
You know, not at this point. I never really had plans to become a producer to begin with. It just evolved naturally and now it’s something that I’m really enjoying. My husband is a writer, he created the TV show, Damages, and we have talked for years and years and years about working together and maybe starting a production company. So, I imagine at some point, only if a project arises that I’m incredibly passionate about, will I go on to do something else.
In Pamela Paul’s book, The Starter Marriage, she said that people got married to be a power couple, to move out of their parents’ houses or they were just fascinated with weddings. Which do you think best fits Molly and Kenny?
Oh goodness. I’ve never heard of that book before, so I’m still back on that. Can you give me the three options again?
To be a power couple, to move out of their parents’ houses, or just fascinated with the idea of weddings.