'Will & Grace' Star Debra Messing on Shifting the Conversation With Powerful #MeToo Episode

"The specificity of Grace's story mirrors many people out there. It made them feel seen," Messing tells The Hollywood Reporter about the episode of the NBC revival that revealed Grace Adler (Messing) had been sexually assaulted.
Chris Haston/NBC
Debra Messing on 'Will & Grace' (left, with Robert Klein)

After 10 seasons of filming Will & Grace, something happened for the first time when Debra Messing wrapped her scenes for Grace Adler's #MeToo episode: The audience gave her a crying ovation.

"I went into my dressing room and I cried afterwards, because the entire audience stood up on its feet to give a standing ovation, and 25 percent of them were crying," Messing tells The Hollywood Reporter. "That had never happened in 20 years. So we all felt in our cells that the story we were telling was really important."

The emotional episode that saw Grace (Messing) come forward with her #MeToo story was titled "Grace's Secret" and aired on Nov. 1, five episodes into the second season of the NBC revival's celebrated run. Inspired by the deluge of women who have shared their specific stories of sexual assault in the #MeToo era — from the accusers of Bill Cosby to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford breaking her silence on a national stage — Will & Grace creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan realized that Grace "probably had a #MeToo moment" and decided to give her the sitcom's platform.

"It felt instantaneously right and very organic to Grace Adler. One in three women experience sexual assault, so of course it makes sense that Grace would be one of them," says Messing about when the co-creators initially approached her with the plan to shade in this pivotal and life-altering chapter in Grace's history. "Especially in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings, it became painfully clear that there is a long way to go toward understanding the catastrophic damage done by sexual assault and the silencing of survivors."

The episode was written by Suzanne Martin and, according to Messing, the detailed, emotionally honest and, at times, graphic A-plot of the episode — where Grace details her assault to her father Martin Adler (Robert Klein) during a meal together at a diner — is the result of the cumulative life experiences of the women in the Will & Grace writers room. Grace shares that, at age 15, she was sexually assaulted by her employer, her father's best friend Harry who has since passed away. At the end of a hot day, Harry called Grace into his office, shut the door, closed the blinds and pushed her up against the wall. Grace tried to scream but he quieted her. "Then he started kissing me and touching me and then he pulled down my pants and put his fingers up —" says Grace, before her father interrupts her.

"The women writers on our staff are really invested in Grace as a character — it was rich, specific and powerful," Messing explains of the script and "empowering" monologue for Grace. On the day of filming, Messing says she came in focused. As a result, most of what made it to air was filmed in the first take. "She nailed it. I’m more in awe of her these days than I really have ever been," co-creator Mutchnick raved of his star's performance. "I loved that it wasn't a moment about breaking down crying and then reliving it," says Messing. "Instead, it was in an effort to break through this narrative of 'Oh, you misremembered.' Or 'Harry was a good guy' or 'It was another time.' Grace was able to very surgically and cleanly just account what happened, and that was enough to shift everything."

The initial accusation from her father that Grace was perhaps misremembering the event was a line that was added in the aftermath of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. "This narrative that Dr. Ford was misremembering was so disgusting," says Messing, who has been a vocal activist in the Time's Up movement since it began. "That was particularly painful and enraging after the fact. It really reverberated and has stuck with the people I have spoken to. So I was so grateful that the writers put that in the center of the conversation with Grace and her father."

As the woman who has embodied Grace for 20 years, Messing also had her own ideas about the scene, suggesting tweaks like making the buildup to Grace's confession "a little longer and messier" to add authenticity to when something unplanned finally comes to the surface. What surprised her most, however, was Grace's second reveal that she had only told one person in her life about the assault: her late mother, Bobbi Adler (played by the late Debbie Reynolds).

"What I found interesting and moving is that we learn at the end that she never told Will, the person who is essentially her soulmate," says Messing of the other half of Will & Grace, Will Truman (Eric McCormack). "The fact that she didn’t even share this with him I felt was particularly potent."

All of those reveals during the scene are the reason Messing says her social media has been flooded with statements of gratitude. "When I got the script, I felt a huge responsibility because I knew that many survivors would be watching," she says. "We all know that survivors are silenced, and that there are thousands and thousands of people out there who have been traumatized, and yet, in getting this influx of responses from survivors, it’s still shocking to me the number of people who have said, 'This exact thing happened to me' and, 'I never got to talk to my father about it because he died before I had the courage to tell him.' The specificity of Grace’s story mirrors many, many people out there. It made them feel seen and known."

The explosion of the #MeToo movement last fall is what spurred Messing to speak out about the sexual harassment she realized she had experienced throughout her 25-year career. "It’s only in the last two years that I realized I had been sexually harassed and had very inappropriate things happen on sets, and I didn’t even realize it," she says. "Somehow, I had accepted these moments or interactions as unfortunate parts of the culture of Hollywood. It was only from the #MeToo movement becoming globally discussed that I was really given the space and the time to reflect on my life and say, 'Oh my God. If that happened today and I spoke up about it, that person would be fired.'"

For all of the people who watch "Grace's Secret" and have a similar reaction, Messing hopes the episode will give them the strength to speak up in the moment and say, "No, this is unacceptable," though she acknowledges that "is an incredibly hard thing to do." For everyone else, she hopes the discussions that are finally being had at national and international levels will result in both men and women in positions of power taking more responsibility, becoming "watchdogs, for lack of a better word," she says.

As for how this moment will impact Grace moving forward, Messing says that whether or not the reveal manifests in overt ways as the 18-episode season continues, viewers will know that it happened, and so will she. She also imagines that, at some point in the future, Grace will be ready to speak her truth to Will. "Having told her father and having him really hear it, accept it and believe her was a seismic shift in her life. I will know and I will feel it. And I think because viewers saw that episode, perhaps they will see something shift," she says. One shift, perhaps, could be how serious the relationship gets between her and Noah, the "Westside Curmudgeon" played by David Schwimmer, who Grace found herself opening up about when visiting her mother's final resting place at the end of the episode. "There’s no wedding in Grace’s immediate future, I can assure you of that," she laughs. "They don't tell me how things are going to end, but this relationship is unlike anything that we’ve seen Grace in before. It’s messy and complicated and he’s not the perfect guy, and yet he’s a great guy for her."

"Grace's Secret" marked the second episode in a row that Will & Grace revisited its past in order to tell a story crucial to the present. In the episode prior, "Who's Sorry Now?", Grace unearthed a letter Will had written her after coming out in 1985 and breaking her heart (the pair were then dating), where he revealed that he contemplated hurting himself and wished he was "normal" instead of being gay.

Both episodes, says Messing, are storylines they would not have been able to do during the show's original run, which began in the late '90s. "I have found coming back 11 and a half years later to be really gratifying, because we've come so far in what we talk about honestly. Being able to reunite with Grace as a more mature woman and to see her have the strength and courage to speak her truth, both this episode and 'Who's Sorry Now?' are examples of the writers having these characters confronting things about themselves that are not charming and are in need of awareness and consideration," she says. "It’s only because we've had the luxury of choosing to come back on our terms and not feel the pressure of a normal television run, which is generally about ratings, that it feels like we’re able to dig deeper into the characters in a way that is really gratifying."

Another gratifying part of the Will & Grace revival has been using their platform for good, like through the growing Will & Grace revival charity initiative, and when it comes to telling the show's weekly millions of viewers to get out and vote in the midterm elections on Nov. 6. "Twenty years ago when Will & Grace began, we were giving voice to a large percentage of humanity that had never been given a voice or representation on primetime television before, and to see the effect that had socially and politically is one of the things I’m most proud of in my life," says Messing. "Being part of a show that was able to make people feel seen and for equality to be fought for and for steps to be taken toward reaching that."

So, on Nov. 6, Messing says: Own your vote. "Celebrate the fact that you have a vote, and cast it. Make your voice heard. Because if you don’t, other people are going to be making their voices heard, and it might not align with the things that are important to you. Your entire future could be determined by the voices that are heard on Tuesday, so be a part of the collective and participate. That’s my main message." [Editor's note: This interview took place before NBC ran and pulled President Trump's migrant caravan ad.]

Will & Grace airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.