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Debra Messing never expected to be a TV star, forever identified with a character like Grace Adler. When Will and Grace ended its eight year run last May, she would have been happy to do the occasional movie, even return to theater. With a husband and son at home in New York, unemployment even seemed enticing.

Of course, maintaining unemployment after a successful sitcom is a lot harder than it was back in the day. “I got several nice phone calls from people with offers for TV shows and scripts,” recalled Messing. “I felt like saying, ‘Where were you guys 10 years ago?’ But there really wasn’t any conflict for me because after eight years of having such a structured life, I just knew and still know that I just need some time to be a gypsy. And as much as I absolutely loved being Grace and having that job, I really am enjoying being able to wake up in the morning and not have to be anywhere and not have to be anything. I’m speaking to you from New York and tomorrow I could be in California. Having that freedom is really wonderful and it’s revitalizing for me right now.”

Her agents were on strict orders to let her rest. However, when an offer came for a six-part miniseries version of Gigi Levangie’s novel The Starter Wife, the Hollywood hustlers didn’t want their leading lady to miss out.

”The six hour tome was delivered to my house and it took about four days to read. By the end of it, I just felt like ‘Sign me up.’ I thought that it was smart and sophisticated and the comedy was subversive, a little perverse, a little mocking of the Hollywood culture. But yet I felt there was something very universal about what Molly is going through.”

Never heard of a starter wife? Starter house, maybe, but have we really gotten so cynical about marriage that we can assume the first time won’t be the last? In the novel and miniseries, Molly Kagan (Messing) finds herself exiled from Hollywood when her studio exec husband dumps her.

”[It was] incredibly painful, seeing a woman who is so ‘successful’ in her life as a partner and wife to this incredibly successful man, and everything she contributed to him as a success to be just discarded, and to have all of the respect that had shrouded her because of him sort of walk away with him. All the issues of identity and what are the choices I’ve made and where am I going and am I going to have the chance to do it again, those are big, big questions.”

The story posits that once successful executive Kenny Kagan (Peter Jacobson) achieved his success, he no longer needed the woman who was there to support him through all those rough years. Sadly, this is a true phenomenon.

”All you have to do is walk down Rodeo Drive on any given day. It’s not an exaggeration. That world is very real and there are rules about how you behave and how you dress and how you’re supposed to look. Even though the starter wives aren’t paid, they have a very, very important job and it takes a lot of work and a lot of time. I would see a lot of them at luncheons, charity luncheons, so we would definitely cross paths.”

Though she never became a starter wife, her time in Los Angeles clued Messing into a world that was dangerously accessible, should her self-image suffer only slightly. “I was in culture shock. I immediately keyed into the fact that what is considered beautiful in Hollywood and California was a woman who was much thinner than you would see in New York City. Because the sun is always out, you’re always wearing clothing that is showing skin. So there is, I think, much more attention paid to your body and what you look like, your breast size and how shiny your hair is and the fact that I didn’t even know before I moved to Beverly Hills that there was such a thing as an eyebrow waxing guru. Like literally, that’s all she does. Oprah flies in from Chicago to have her eyebrows done by Anastasia. So the fact that entire careers and celebrity can be made from helping you groom, I think is very specific.”

Through the miniseries, Messing got to play all of the trials and tribulation that she thankfully does not face in real life. “She [Molly] went through so much and what Gigi established in the book was a tone that it was very important for me, that we be true to that, in the adaptation. I thought that that would be a really fun world to inhabit. And I also loved playing a woman who stands on a scale and says, ‘I wonder how much an appendix weighs.’ Finally saying out loud, in a funny way, what women, whether or not you live in Hollywood or if you live in Middle America, what we go through. To be able to see this character in a salon having everything dyed and plucked and polished, you see that it’s like a boot camp. It’s not glamorous. Then stripping everything away and just being as raw as possible. Those were the things that initially drew me to the part.”

Addressing these issues in a comedy was only one of the appeals of The Starter Wife. The six-hour format offered Messing new professional challenges that another sitcom or two hour film would not.

”It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I’m also extraordinarily proud of it. We shot this like a movie. We shot it out of sequence so a typical day would be coming in and shooting a scene from hour five and then a scene from hour one and then a scene from hour six and then a scene from hour two. It really just depended on the location and trying to be efficient with the time. What that meant for me was really, really being so diligent and focused on where the character was emotionally at every turn over those six hours and being able to jump to them and have a point of view.”

That meant no time for socializing during a four month shoot. “I had a cast member making fun of me because in the four months we were there, I went out to dinner once. That was because I was very studious. I would work all day and then come home at night and sit on the bed with my six notebooks for the six hours and I would try and do my homework and get ready for the next day, but also catch up so that it wouldn’t be so daunting. I think that it was emotionally exhausting, it was intellectually exhausting, but it was probably the most gratifying creative experience I’ve had. When I say it was all so hard, in four months of working days I had one day off, because I’m in every scene but three I think. So there’s a lot of responsibility that I’d never really had before in a project.”

Even 100+ hours of Grace don’t offer the same sort of nuances. “Oh, it’s completely different. It’s like apples and pomegranates.”

Filming in Australia, (though Starter Wife is supposedly set in Los Angeles and Malibu), four months away from home was personally tough too. Luckily, her husband, actor Daniel Zelman, understands the thespian’s life. “I take it one day at a time. I do exactly what every other working actor does, and that is try and do the best I can every day to keep things on an even keel. As an actor, you can’t determine when you’re going to get a job, where it’s going to be, so you have to learn how to be flexible. And the people in your life, your friends, your family, your spouses, they understand that that’s who you are and that’s what you do. So there’s a lot of compromise and there’s a lot of sacrifice.”

As for keeping that certain spark alive across the ocean, that may be a little too personal for Messing to reveal. “No comment,” she laughed nervously. Perhaps we could infer that taking care of little Roman helps maintain the parents’ bond. “We’re both madly in love with our son so that’s a daily joy.”

At least with six hours of story to perform, Messing had more subtle opportunities than she might in a streamlined film or a sitcom episode. “I realized that I was doing scenes that were exploring just colors of relationships, little nuances of character, and those are the scenes that are the first ones that are cut when you are making a two hour film. The committee says it’s not moving the film forward, we don’t need it. And in this case, we had six hours and as an actress, it was a thrill and a luxury to be able to do what you’re supposed to do in a six hour project and to not rush things. I felt like I experienced the characters in a deeper way and I think we were able to have much larger comic moments because we had more time. We knew we would get the story and so because we had that time, we were able to do a six page scene.”

Having conquered the sitcom and the miniseries, television still keeps calling. Should Messing just do a one hour drama, thus covering the whole spectrum, go back to her sitcom wheelhouse, or stick to film or theater?

”I would never limit myself to any genre or any medium. Again, for me it’s just about a good story and especially in the landscape of television, it’s just constantly changing. So who knows what will be in vogue if and when that time comes that I want to return. But I think for me, the first consideration would be the character and the creative team because you’re not signing on to do something for four months, you’re signing on to do something for potentially six years plus, so there are different things to consider. And part of the consideration would also be the impact on my family. So I don’t think I would ever consider being the sole leading woman on an hour drama.”

The fruits of Messing’s four months on location in Australia will be on display as The Starter Wife begins airing on Thursday, May 31 at 9 pm ET/PT and continues on Thursdays until July 5, 2007.

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 70 - September 2017
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