Emmy-winning actress Debra Messing, 50, was born in Brooklyn and raised in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. She attended Brandeis University, from which she graduated summa cum laude, and then studied in the graduate acting program at New York University. Best known for being one of the title characters on the hit sitcom Will & Grace, she reprised her role last year after an 11-year hiatus, garnering a Golden Globe nomination this year. She’s also starred in TV shows such as Ned and Stacey, Smash and The Mysteries of Laura, while her film work includes The Mothman Prophecies, The Wedding Date and this year’s Searching. She divides her time between New York and Los Angeles.
Jonathan Soroff: First of all, do redheads have more fun?
Debra Messing: Oh, no question. Redheads are sexy and fiery and unpredictable. They’re a genetic anomaly, and I’m a genetic anomaly, because I was not born a redhead.
So what’s your natural hair color? [Laughs.] That’s a good question, because I’ve been coloring it for so long. When I was born, I had chocolate brown hair. In third grade, I had strawberry blond hair. In college, I had medium auburn hair. I think that’s what it is, but it’s definitely not the fiery red that it is now. That comes from a bottle. But I do think my personality is that of a genetic redhead.
Anything you’d erase from your resume? Yes. McHale’s Navy. [Laughs.] It’s horrible. It’s really dreadful. I mean, embarrassingly dreadful. And I thought at the time that it was going to make me a superstar. That’s the cosmic joke. When that movie came to me, Tom Arnold had just finished True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was a huge hit. All of a sudden, everybody was like, “Tom Arnold is it.” And that movie was his first leading role, so I was like, “I’m in! I’m the next Julia Roberts!” Then we went to Mexico and shot. Everyone got really sick. Then I saw the movie, and I said, “I think I’m gonna go back on unemployment.”
Speaking of which, when was the point you went, “Aha! I’m a big star now.” Well, I think it was when I was in a public bathroom, and somebody crawled on the floor and stuck their head under the stall and said, “Oh, my God! You’re Stacey from Ned and Stacey!” And I was like, “Excuse me, but you’re currently looking at my hoo-ha, and can you please go away?”
Was that your most bizarre fan encounter? It depends on your definition of bizarre. One of my favorites was walking down the sidewalk in New York and someone screamed from across the street, “Oh my God! I love you, Reba!” They thought I was Reba McEntire.
Can you sing and dance? I can! Haha! I’m not a triple threat, but I’m like a two-and-a-half threat. I can dance. I can move. I was a dancer first. I started when I was 3. I did tap dancing. I was Purity in Anything Goes in summer stock. I did jazz. I can do jazz hands. And I loved singing. I did musicals throughout my childhood and college. I studied singing through graduate school, and it was really my dream to be in a Broadway musical. I was actually cast in the revival of Guys and Dolls as Adelaide. And because of my schedule, I couldn’t take the part.
So is a Broadway musical in your future? Y’know, I can’t fathom doing it because my neuroses are so overblown that I don’t think I could function. The idea of having to have my voice be good eight shows a week? I would be that person walking around New York City with seven scarves around my neck and a chalkboard saying, “I’m on vocal rest.” I would be impossible to live with. But I did sing in the remake of Dirty Dancing, and I loved it.
Debra Messing on the cover of the Luxury issue
Way in which you’re most like Grace? I’m klutzy. If there’s a way to fall down, I’ll find it. If there’s a way to bump into a doorway, I’ll do it. It’s a special skill of mine. I should probably have it on my resume under special skills.
Does it bug you when people ask you to be Grace? People don’t ask me to “do” Grace because I think that when they see me, they see Grace. When I play Grace, it’s my voice. But what I do get is complete strangers coming up and hugging me, without asking permission. I was actually tackled on the street a few winters ago. I was walking down Broadway, and it was freezing. I had a hat completely covering my head, a big puffy jacket and a backpack and, all of a sudden, I heard two women scream, and I felt my backpack being pulled. I landed on the sidewalk, with both the women on top of me, screaming, “Oh my God! Grace Adler!” I thought I was being assaulted.
Well, you were. Thank you! So they were saying, “Oh, we love you. Can we have a picture?” after literally tackling me on the sidewalk. Stuff like that is disconcerting. If I’m going to an event where I know I’ll be recognized, if people come up and want to talk about anything, I’m open to it. It’s lovely. I just don’t really enjoy being accosted.
Who’s a better kisser: Eric McCormack or Dermot Mulroney? Oh, I can’t compare them. When I kissed Eric, he’s playing a gay guy, so the quality of the kiss wasn’t really sexual, whereas with Dermot, it was. But they were both very, very enjoyable.
Funniest person you know? Sean Hayes. No question.
Who would you rather be compared to: Lucille Ball or Rita Hayworth? Lucille Ball. That’s just such a flattering comparison.
One role you were up for but didn’t get? Well, I read the script for a project and I got close enough to meet with the director, Ron Howard, on it. But it was A Beautiful Mind, and Jennifer Connelly got the part [and an Oscar]. Bet you didn’t see that coming, right? [Laughs.]
Historical character you’d love to play? Well, I was really interested in Hedy Lamarr. She was an inventor and a scientist. I read about her, and I just thought that would be a role that would be really amazing to play.
Social media: useful tool or destructive force? Both. Watch the movie Searching. I was in it, and that’s what it was about. I think social media is a helpful tool, and I learn a lot from people who are much smarter than me, and I’m grateful for that. But it also is a very scary thing, because you’re anonymous. You can’t really be sure who you’re talking to on certain platforms. There’s access to a lot of really dark stuff that I’m always nervous about children seeing. It’s very powerful.
Is your apartment in New York as nice as the set of Will & Grace? I think it’s nicer. But it’s not as big.
Worst job you ever had as a struggling actor? I think it was when I was the coat check girl, for one night, at Christie’s Auction House. [Laughs.] I didn’t understand the system, so all the numbers and tags, I just kind of didn’t really pay attention to them. When people came up, they’d be like, “Here’s my tag,” and I was like, “Well, which one’s yours?” They’d say, “The black mink down there,” and literally, it’s Christie’s, so it’s all mink coats and briefcases of really important people, and I was like, “Just come in. Just take your coat.” I was summarily fired.
Speaking of which, what’s the biggest lie you ever had on your acting resume? Y’know what? I’m a good girl in that way. I’ve never lied on my resume.
Where do you keep your Emmy? My Emmy is currently on a cocktail cart in my living room.
So, more importantly: You have five “crown” awards from Super-Hair.net Do you insure your hair? What?!? Five? Well, where the hell are my trophies?
I will spearhead the effort to get them for you. Yes, please do some research on that. Thank you. But no, I do not insure my hair, but now that I realize it’s so famous, I’m having second thoughts that maybe I need to get my hair its own security detail or something.
Yes. First, get it its own publicist, and then call Lloyd’s of London. That’s my advice. On it. Immediately.
You were Junior Miss Rhode Island. How does that jibe with your outspoken feminism? Well, the America’s Junior Miss program—which I think they have since renamed—is not really a pageant. It was a scholastic achievement award that looked like a pageant. The winner got $25,000 to go toward tuition. There was a talent portion, and an interview that involved politics and current events. And then they had the part they called poise and appearance, where you wore a gown and did a little dance to Up Where we Belong. I think that it’s a little anachronistic. And I would be much more interested in seeing those programs evolve and involve more social consciousness, giving back, philanthropy, furthering education and human rights. Pageants just being about beauty doesn’t feel like it makes sense anymore.
In terms of process, was Smash an accurate depiction of the development of a Broadway show? Yes. However, it’s a television show, so everything happens at warp speed. The process of someone coming up with an idea, then getting a producer to sign on and say, “Yes, I want to back it.” And then the audition process. All of that can take years, and in Smash time it happened in like two episodes. But yeah, I think the different components that go into the soup of making a Broadway show were there.
What does your kid think of what you do? Well, I’m not sure what he thinks right now. When he was growing up, he was just like, “Oh, that’s what mommy does. She becomes other people and tells stories and then she comes home and she’s my mom.” Now, he’s aware and kids in school know who his mom is, so it’s a different dynamic. I think he thinks it’s cool. He does stand-up comedy, which is something you couldn’t pay me enough to try. So he’s a performer, and I think he likes it.
New York or LA? No question. New York. ◆
Photographer: Dennis Golonka; Photo Assistant: Jesse Dreyfus; Digital Technician: Niki Asti; Hair Stylist: Peter Butler using Leonor Greyl / Tracey Mattingly Agency; Makeup artist: Gita Bass / The Wall Group; Stylist: Cannon / The Only Agency; Stylist’s Market Editor: Alexandra Lynn Gramp / The Cannon Media Group; Stylist Assistants: Jean Marie Sanchez, Shuyang Wang and Elana Williams; Location: Milk Studios in New York; Wardrobe: Lucia Rodriguez Dress and Jacob & Co. jewelry; Wardrobe on the cover: Christian Siriano jacket and Jacob & Co. earrings