Debra Messing: No Fear of Failure

For Debra Messing, winning and losing are both valuable tools for learning. With a new home, a new boyfriend and new career choices, the star of Smash and Will Grace talks about taking risks and learning to love “the gift of change”

by Leah Rozen
debra messing image
Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers tuxedo shirt and silk tie; brooksbrothers .com. Ralph Lauren Collection suede heels; ralphlauren.com. Martin Katz 18k gold ring with white and yellow diamonds; martinkatz.com.
Photograph: Ari Michelson

The fledgling actress returned to New York and told her brand-new agents to go to Plan B: no more regional theater; only the Big Apple. “Their mouths dropped,” she says. Those same mouths closed once she began working steadily Off Broadway. Smaller roles in movies and TV followed, and by 1995 she was in Los Angeles, showing off her comic chops as a title character opposite Thomas Haden Church in Ned and Stacey, a little-seen Fox sitcom that eked out two seasons (1995–97).

Messing then turned down, repeatedly, the role that put her on Hollywood’s A-list: Grace Adler, the hilariously vain interior designer whose best friend and roommate, Will, is a gay man. “I didn’t want to be, for lack of a better word, a fag hag. And I didn’t want to be just the pretty, straight girl in the corner while the guys did all the funny stuff,” she says. She also worried that the gay characters would become buffoonish, as they often did on TV shows of the past. Cocreators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick descended on her house with a bottle of vodka and a lime and spent three increasingly sloshed hours persuading her. “So I took the leap and said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” she recalls, “and it ended up the greatest thing to be a part of, a gift.”

Mutchnick says Messing brought much more to her character than was on paper. “Debra made Grace into an amazingly lovable person,” he says. “You felt bad she was hung up on a gay guy, using up so much emotional space on him, and she just seemed to play all that but without seeming pathetic.”

Messing also brought an endearing touch of klutz to Grace. “She has a lot in common with Lucille Ball: the ability to be this great leading lady but also brilliant with the physical comedy,” says Kohan.

She has never been an actress who simply learns her lines and says them. She’s too inquisitive for that. (Her third-grade teacher, Messing recalls, limited her to three questions a day in class, to give other kids a chance.) On the set, that proclivity for asking pointed questions has sometimes led to her being labeled difficult, but the actress contends that over the years she has become more diplomatic in quizzing colleagues. “I don’t need to be right,” she says, “but I do need to have a voice.”

The perils of celebrity became clear when W&G hit big. Messing developed an intense fear of the paparazzi, who congregated outside her house in L.A. Once, when a photographer jumped out from behind a car with a long lens, she mistook it for a gun and dived to the ground.

She eventually got a grip on that panic and also learned how to use her fame for the greater good. In 2009, Messing began working with YouthAIDS, an education and health initiative dedicated to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. That same year, she traveled to Zimbabwe as an ambassador of the organization. “It was the first time I was going away from my son for any significant amount of time,” she recalls, “so I explained to him that we were trying to help people who were sick or didn’t have money for food or clothes and I needed his help. We went through his closet, and he filled two duffel bags with sneakers and clothes.”

In Africa, Messing gave those duffel bags to a community of sex workers who were trying to find another way to support themselves and their children by selling used clothing. “To say thank you, they gave me dried ants, which were their only source of protein,” she says. Gamely, she ate them—“They tasted like popcorn”—but more than anything, Messing remembers it as “a very powerful and moving moment.”

First published in the June 2013 issue

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