It wasn't much of a stretch for Will & Grace's Debra Messing to act smitten with Richard Gere in their new movie The Mothman Prophecies (opening Jan. 25). "It was very difficult," jokes Messing, who plays Gere's wife in the thriller. "You really have to believe that the two of these people are madly, madly in love."

The 33-year-old actress may be laughing now, but on the first day of filming she was quaking in her boots. "Yes, I was nervous [about] meeting Richard," she recalls. "I mean, he was An Officer and a Gentleman to me. That was my first memory of seeing one of his films. C'mon, he was the sex symbol on the cover of People magazine — the Sexiest Man Alive. He's an icon who has been a superstar for decades."

So, what was their first encounter like? "The day I met him it was like, 'Hi. I'm playing your wife.' He was like, 'I know. Come over here,' and he gave me a big hug and immediately just put me at ease. He made me his peer, which was so amazingly generous."

Well, thanks to NBC's Emmy-winning hit Will & Grace, Messing — a Golden Globe nominee for best actress in a comedy series — is a pretty big star in her own right. But given its gay content, the show was hardly a sure thing when it debuted four years ago. Why does Messing think W&G has enjoyed such longevity while other same-sex sitcoms — most notably ABC's now-defunct Ellen — have not? "Ellen's show was extraordinary," she says. "I loved what she did and she's so talented. But I think with television, unlike anything else, people want consistency. They expect the same thing.

"I always use the example of Kramer on Seinfeld," she adds. "If all of a sudden he just walked in the door like a normal person, I would go, 'What are you talking about? I want that [wild and crazy] entrance because that's what I became accustomed to.' I think that because Will & Grace started from day one with two characters being gay and two being straight — and that has never changed — the audience has embraced us and stuck with us."