Saturday, October 18, 2008

Film Intuition's Interview with Debra Messing

Debra Messing Discusses
USA Network's
The Starter Wife


In USA's brand new smash hit The Starter Wife, based on the ten-time Emmy nominated miniseries, Debra Messing proves there's life after wife (and Grace Adler). And in a recent hour long interview, the versatile and intelligent actress who’s also taken on the role of producer discussed the natural source for dramedy fodder in the show’s setting by noting that, “in the world of Hollywood,” Wife’s “social satire” allows for an endless well of opportunities to poke “fun at the values and priorities that are askew there.”

“Everybody has a story… [and] we get stories from every angle and essentially the more extreme, the funnier,” Messing shared, in admitting that the authenticity of the Los Angeles lifestyle does creep in, revealing that she knows others who “have been to five-year-old birthday parties with a tiger in the backyard.” And by starring as Molly Kagan, the ex-wife of a high profile producer who’s now “starting over at 40,” Messing shared that it’s this unique point-of-view that enables the show’s ability to “go anywhere,” especially considering that Molly is currently testing the waters in “new and uncharted territory,” while “having to discover an occupation that will support [her] and her daughter, and negotiating living in the same community that has ostracized her.” Additionally, Messing relishes in playing an outsider who is always “trying to get her footing.”

As the opening two-hour season premiere found Molly's private diary filled with “comic social commentary” of those she encounters on a daily basis stolen and posted online by a ruthless blogger, she's striving to make amends with the other Hollywood moms she sees at pick-up and drop-off at her daughter's school. In doing so, Messing reveals that from this “experience attention is brought to Molly and some unusual professional opportunities arise,” which will test Molly in terms of what's important to her and ethics and sort of [throw her] into the middle of the whole Hollywood game.”

She also admits that in keeping with real life, Molly's life “is not going to become a fairy tale within ten episodes,” since her character is not only a “fighter” and “survivor” but one “who doesn't have it figured out... constantly butting up against obstacles,” which helps endear her to audiences every week. Although the show opens with a fantasy sequence derived directly from popular Hollywood films including Elizabeth, Mission Impossible, The Blair Witch Project and (as Messing revealed) even Basic Instinct down the road-- above all she loves “the juxtaposition of the fantasy world of Hollywood and the Utopia that is presumed in that world and the very real and accessible daily struggles in every aspect of the protagonist's life.”

Adapted from Gigi Levangie Grazer’s bestselling novel, the miniseries covered the original source material in its entirety but after the Emmy nominations and positive reaction, USA called Messing and shared their belief that “we’ve touched a nerve.” Feeling that the show offers a unique look that’s “modern and relevant and has not been explored in TV or film before,” as Messing cites people who stop her in daily life and say, “‘That’s me. I’m a starter wife,’ or ‘I’m a starter husband,” she continued by sharing their gratitude as they’d “never seen anything on TV that really shows my life and my struggles.”

Once they brought the original writers--Josie McGibbon and Sara Parriott-- back onboard along with reuniting as much as the original cast as they could who were still available (and recasting others including David Alan Basche who currently plays Molly’s ex-husband Kenny) as well as making the decision to shoot the series in Los Angeles as opposed to the inexpensive Australia (where the mini was filmed), she said that becoming an executive producer allowed her “to dive in with 100% excitement and commitment and energy into the entire experience.”

Calling it “a natural progression,” since she and the writers had gotten “on like gangbusters and respect each other and love each other very much,” Messing felt that it was important to “add some certain creative protection for me, in that, as executive producer my opinions and my voice will be at least considered if I feel like something is changing in the show as time is going on that is important to me or that I feel like is essential to the show or if they want to take it in a direction that I’m not comfortable with.” Essentially noting that she’s “focused on just keeping the creative aspects of it pure… [or concerned with] elevating the show in every way possible,” despite the challenges of long fourteen to sixteen hour days, above all she wanted to ensure that “it was important to feel… that we were getting together a good group of people, good human beings who are respectful and have a good work ethic and are passionate about what they’re doing and have a great sense of humor.”

That sense of humor is what shines through within moments of hearing Messing discuss trying to keep her cast and crew in stitches on days when things are tense yet at the same time balancing out her genuine appreciation of what makes for great comedy with her natural compassion, respect and intelligence for the work she wants to create. Although her name and face has nearly become synonymous with the character and show that made her a superstar portraying Grace Adler in the Emmy award-winning and groundbreaking sitcom Will and Grace, Messing is careful to ensure that her former character doesn't seep into her new role as Molly Kagan. When asked about any overlapping traits, Debra Messing shares that above all, she does “not think that Debra is very much like Grace,” nor that “Debra is very much like Molly, but I think Debra is in both of them,” and as an actress, she assumes she may have “a certain...aesthetic when it comes to comedy and what I think is funny” which may keep the “thread throughout much of my work.” Whether it is pratfalls or witty verbal banter, she seems equally at ease with both.

And despite majoring in theater at Brandeis University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude or earning her M.F.A. from NYU's Graduate Acting Program upon advice from her parents to complete an education prior to becoming a professional actress earning raves on Broadway before her big break on Fox's sitcom Ned and Stacey, when it comes to Starter Wife, Messing gives much of the credit to her writers Parriott and McGibbon.

Seemingly driven to work that features strong female roles with women working behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera as evidenced with her recent turn in Diane English's remake of George Cukor's The Women, when I asked her if this was a conscious choice, she acknowledged that she does “feel like we have a responsibility to help highlight and support the really, really talented women in our community because it is so imbalanced.” Yet admitting that talent is what causes her to continue working alongside her two dedicated female scribes, she continued that this choice as well has extended into hiring a higher than normal percentage of female directors. Thus, using her power as executive producer as well as strength, loyalty, and wisdom as a woman and mother, she stated that, “I think across the board there is an awareness that where things are equal, if we can give an opportunity, then it's our responsibility.”

Truly a class act, Messing may be quite different from her USA network fictitious alter-ego in knowing exactly who she is and where she is going but still seems as fascinated by the learning opportunities each and every day brings as she was describing her belief in the importance of higher education that “the more you can learn about the world, about different disciplines, it all just feeds into making you a better actor.” And now with executive producer added onto her résumé, the sky is the limit as she reveals that while now her focus is strictly on Molly Kagan and The Starter Wife family, she has found another calling that she truly enjoys and may eventually move onto more of the same, including possibly starting a production company with her husband-- Damages creator and screenwriter Daniel Zelman if a project arises of which, “she's incredibly passionate about.”

Until then, you can tune in to watch Molly chart new terrain and discover more about living life without a road-map when you're single, forty, and female in Los Angeles and to those who are struggling to do the same, a great real-life example may be just beyond the television in the woman embodying Molly—namely, Ms. Debra Messing herself.

The Diverse Ms. Messing