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; Martin Katz 18k gold ring with white and yellow diamonds;
Photograph: Ari Michelson

Debra Messing is not one of those actresses who order a salad, no dressing, and then just pick at it.

“She eats like a dude,” says Max Mutchnick, cocreator and producer of Will & Grace (1998–2006), the sitcom that made her a household name. “My favorite meals were at the Golden Globes when Debra would sit there, more glamorous than anyone in the room. Then, the minute she didn’t hear her name, she’d tear into an entire box of chocolates.”

Messing, 44, laughs long and loudly when I tell her what Mutchnick said. Sitting in the window seat at a café near her Manhattan apartment, she points to the empty spot on her plate where only a few stray crumbs remain from a hamburger. “Look what I just ate. I love food,” she says.

And, yes, she did use that Godiva gift box handed out at the Globes as a consolation prize when, six years in a row, she was nominated for Will & Grace but failed to win (she did nab a Best Actress Emmy in 2003 and chalked up four additional Emmy nominations for the show). “I knew it would get a laugh [at our table], and I’m a sucker for a laugh,” she says. “I would just start shoveling chocolate in my face because I’d been eating brown rice and salmon for weeks trying to fit into a dress that was a sample size and now it didn’t matter if the zipper popped because, hey, I didn’t win. I became a very good loser.”

Dressed in jeans and a hip-length bright-purple cardigan, she has gathered her distinctive dark-red hair into a ponytail. Over a long lunch, she talks (and laughs a lot) about winning and losing, fame, fear and change and how she has learned to deal with all of them.

Messing is a mix of serious—she chooses her words carefully and makes sure she fully covers all aspects of a topic—and funny, often self-deprecatingly so. She’s also practical. When the meal is over, she happily totes home a doggie bag containing her unfinished order of guacamole.

Only days before, Messing wrapped production on the second season of Smash, her struggling NBC series about Broadway professionals putting on a musical based on Marilyn Monroe. In the show, which boasts Steven Spielberg as a producer, she plays feisty Julia Houston, a lyricist and playwright.

The series’ February 2012 debut marked the end of one major chapter in Messing’s life and the start of a new one. She had relocated from Los Angeles to New York for Smash. “Moving back here was terrifying,” she says. “I had to pull my son [Roman, now nine] out of school. I was disrupting our lives to the core to take a job that I felt I just could not say no to.” Shortly after moving, she split with her husband of more than a decade, writer Daniel Zelman, who cocreated and produced the TV series Damages. “We both wanted it to last forever, and it’s a sad thing that it wasn’t able to go the course,” she says. “Part of me will always contend with guilt that I wasn’t able to give my son the fantasy that my parents”—who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary—“were able to give me.”

First published in the June 2013 issue

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