Call it a quest for Gracelessness. After eight years as the female half of the popular NBC sitcom Will & Grace, Debra Messing, 38, worried about involuntarily holding onto the traits that made her New York City-based interior decorator so ineffably lovable: the rapid-fire line delivery, the defiant tossing of her red mane and the aura of perpetual frazzle.
So before production began on USA Network's The Starter Wife — a six-hour miniseries based on the best-selling novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, in which Messing stars as jettisoned Hollywood spouse Molly Kagan — she went to executive producer and director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and put him on high alert. "I said, 'If there is anything you think is Grace that's slipping in, be honest,'" Messing says. "'Be on me. Say it.'"
The admonitions never came. Messing credits the high-priced look of the status-conscious Molly, whose story begins just before her creepily entitled film exec husband, Kenny (Peter Jacobson), files for divorce and she is abruptly exiled from Beverly Hills. "That transformation, wearing the Chanel suits, red lips and the tight bun — it really changes everything about you," says Messing, sitting on the wooden front porch of Starter Wife costar Joe Mantegna's modest Burbank, California, restaurant, Taste Chicago. "I felt like there was no Grace inside there."
What she found, however, was a true acting challenge. Because she appears in all but about three scenes of the miniseries, which will air on Thursdays through June, Messing spent four months on Australia's Gold Coast (an eerily realistic stand-in for California's exclusive, gated Malibu Colony).
She put in untold hours reciting dialogue memorized from a script so hefty that she had to organize it into nine binders and lug it to work in a wheeled suitcase. Says Messing's costar Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls), who plays a Malibu Colony security guard, "I'd get to the set and she was there. I'd leave and she was there. I would have a day off… and she was there."
Messing's greatest concern was how to make a tricky role sympathetic. Sure, it's humiliating for a woman to hit a certain age and be traded in by her husband for a Britney Spears-like pop star. But ultimately, Molly's kicked to a solid-gold curb. She regroups with a closetful of designer clothes, enough money to get by and a friend's luxurious oceanfront beach pad as her transitory digs.
According to Mantegna (who plays a movie studio boss), Messing is able to make Molly true to life thanks to her real personality. "I feel with Debra that what you see is what you get," he says. "Somebody who is approachable, a lot of fun, puts herself right out there. She makes [the story] universal — your husband dumps you for another woman. I don't care if you're a cleaning woman or the queen of England, that stuff can happen." If the gig doesn't sound formidable enough, throw into the mix that Messing and her 3-year-old son, Roman, were living Down Under while her writer-producer husband, Daniel Zelman, was in New York City working on his new FX series, Damages, starring Glenn Close.
"The timing was like Murphy's law — the greatest things happening simultaneously. So we were on opposite sides of the world," says Messing, whose ability to juggle the daily grind with temporary single motherhood did not go unnoticed. "That little boy would come bouncing on the set and she'd be worn out, but you could see her just light up," Rose says. "The moment he came up to her, she was energized."
In years to come, Roman might remember The Starter Wife for the times when a troop of kangaroos would occasionally ruin a take by hopping into the frame. Mommy, on the other hand, will recall the chance to stretch post-Will & Grace. She calls it "an all-encompassing endurance test" while waiting for a handful of cast and crew to show up for a Starter Wife pizza reunion. "We went through something huge down there, being away from our families in a different country," Messing says.
For now, a leisure stretch beckons. "To have the time to sit down and read a book? It's a different world," she says. "I just want more of it. It's exciting."
But would she someday find a return to series TV just as exciting? Says Messing, "Never say never."
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