With so many exciting things on the horizon including the premiere of Dirty Dancing and the long-awaited return of Will and Grace, Debra sat down for a conversation about her illustrious career, her passions outside of the entertainment world and what her hopes are for the future.
STORY AND INTERVIEW BY ERICA FIRST
Imagista: What do you think made you stand out and ultimately get accepted to the elite graduate acting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts?
Debra Messing: I think they saw how hungry I was. I think they saw determination, focus, intention and commitment in the few minutes they watched me do two monologues. I like to think that they saw something indescribable in my interpretation of the monologues that struck them as unique and special. Maybe it’s just as simple as potential. I remember waiting to go into that room and all these other people lining the hallway trying to stay calm, focusing with headphones on, pacing. Perhaps I was able to overcome my nerves a little better than some other people.
Imagista: Did you have anxiety performing in front of people when you first started?
Debra Messing: I started out fearless. From the time I can remember, I was dancing and singing and dreaming about performing in front of people but I was a perfectionist and I had an idea in my head of how it should be. When I got to grad school, one of my teachers, Paul Walker, taught us that it was impossible to be wrong in his class and he would spout out nonsense as if he were an Elizabethan protagonist, “Though hast eyes that spaghetti sauce would sing to if but for a fox’s tail.” l didn’t believe I could be messy and creative in that way, but he stuck by me and slowly I started to take risks and failed miserably in front of the class. And then I tried again. And I survived. So I just kept doing it. I think getting over the fear of failure is the most important lesson any of us could learn regardless of what profession we are in.
Imagista: Who was the first person to give you a chance in Hollywood?
Debra Messing: My first big break was from Steven Bochco. I got an audition to play Gail O’Grady’s sister on NYPD Blue. That same day I got an opportunity to do a reading with Robert Deniro. NYPD Blue was uptown and the reading with DeNiro was down in Tribeca. I couldn’t believe both things were the same day. So I did the reading and then took a cab (which I never did at that time because it was so expensive) and I ran into the casting director’s office panting. I went in, auditioned and got a call back. They wanted me to meet them at the set where they were shooting. I had never seen a TV production or a trailer. It was all very exciting and glamorous. There wasn’t a lot of space to work so we did the audition in the honey wagon, a tiny “wanna be” trailer. I was waiting in the trailer and heard a knock on the door. Stephen walked in and sat on the only chair and I sat on the toilet bowl and auditioned. Then he went back to shooting and I found out that I got the job. It was the most exciting, surprising, validating thing that had happened to me.
Imagista: What was the best advice you got from someone in the business that stayed with you?
Debra Messing: It was Elaine Stritch. Elaine came to see me in “Collected Stories,” an Off- Broadway play by Donald Margulies. Afterwards, she basically complimented me and it really blew me away. She said, “You’re like me. You can do anything. People aren’t gonna believe it. You’re special. But you must never forget it.”
Imagista: Do you remember the first time you were recognized?
Debra Messing: I believe the first time I was recognized was in a changing room at a sample sale in Los Angeles. It felt like a Filene’s Basement where everyone changes in the same room. While I was changing, this woman was staring at me and I thought she must know me because of the way she was looking at me. Then finally she said very tentatively, “Are you on that show Ned and Stacey?” And I just remember being shocked and kind of paralyzed for a second because it was such a foreign moment for me. I realized at the time it was an important moment for me but I also knew I was half naked.
Imagista: Do you have anything in common with Grace?
Debra Messing: Yes. Like Grace I am creative and dedicated and passionate about my work. I think I’m a good friend. I was married when I played Grace, so in terms of her chaotic love life we were not similar at all. I’m excited to see what the state of Grace’s love life is now that we are about to start again after 11 years.
Imagista: Who have you not worked with yet that you would like to work with?
Debra Messing: Meryl Streep, she says without even a nano-second passing by. Yes.
Imagista: Have you ever been star struck?
Debra Messing: Oh, many times, but the first time I really lost it was Dustin Hoffman. Kramer vs Kramer was the movie that made me want to be an actress and I was obsessed with Dustin and Meryl. When I studied abroad in London, I went to see Dustin Hoffman in “The Merchant of Venice” and I came up with a scheme to try and meet him. After the show, I went to the stage door. I saw that every time the door opened, it closed slowly, so after watching this a few times, I ran through the door and snuck in backstage. Of course I was stopped. I had made up an elaborate story that my father directed Dustin in “The Marathon Man” and that he was expecting me. I was literally hyperventilating from excitement and fear. They went and checked and I was convinced that they would call me a fraud and call the police but before I knew it, someone came up and said, “Wait here. He will be right down.” He walked down and I couldn’t speak. Finally, I asked him to sign my playbill and the pen didn’t work so he tried again and again and I started to cry because I didn’t have another pen. He saw me starting to melt down and said, “I will make it work,” and he did. The amazing thing was years later, I was at the American Comedy Awards and we were both backstage together once again so I told him the story. He of course didn’t remember me but we laughed about it and I was star struck again.
Imagista: How would you feel if your son went into show business?
Debra Messing: I guess the knee jerk reaction would be that it wouldn’t be ideal only because I know how hard it is emotionally to navigate the rejection, the frustrations and the really big highs and ultimately having no control. It can be painful at times, but I would be a hypocrite if I weren’t fully supportive of him following his passion. His mom is an actress and his father is a writer. It’s in his genes. So if that is the path he chooses to take I will cheer him on and be there as a stabilizing force as much as I can be. That’s what my mom did for me.
Imagista: What charity are you involved with and why is it so important to you?
Debra Messing: For the last decade, I have been involved with PSI, a global health organization that helps tackle important issues like Malaria, water purification and child mortality but what is specifically important to me is HIV and figuring out how to treat it, prevent it and ultimately eradicate it. I had a teacher in grad school who passed away from complications associated with AIDS in 1993 and that really changed me. He was only 41 and was very dear to me. My son is named after him so I always have him in the back of my mind whenever I am doing this work. I call it my soul work.
Imagista: What is one goal you have yet to achieve?
Debra Messing: I would like to be a jewelry designer. It’s a real passion of mine. My father was in the jewelry business my entire life. His company made the Elsa Peretti heart for Tiffany. My first job was doing piecework in his jewelry factory in Providence, Rhode Island. It was right out of the famous scene in “I Love Lucy” when they’re doing the piecework with the chocolate. I always say it’s in my blood because of what my father did.
Imagista: What is the one thing you wish you knew when you were younger?
Debra Messing: That I was enough.
Imagista: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Debra Messing: Dishonesty.
Imagista: What do you do to unwind? Is there a vacation spot you’ve been to recently that was really special?
Debra Messing: I really need my solitude. I love my work. It feeds me, it thrills me, it challenges me but it also depletes me. There’s always 50-100 people around when you’re working on a set so when I need to try and get back to neutral and revitalize myself I like to go somewhere near the ocean where I can be quiet, read and do spa treatments – I really fell in love with the Belmond Maroma in the Mayan Riviera because it had a spiritual, culturally authentic element that I found particularly powerful and beautiful.