Debra Messing Remembers Being "Starstruck" by Debbie Reynolds on 'Will & Grace' Set

Courtesy of Photofest
Debra Messing and Debbie Reynolds

The late actress played Messing's mother on the sitcom.

I'm a hugger and so is Debbie Reynolds. The first time I met her was on the set of Will & Grace in the hair and makeup room. I remember being so starstruck and shocked that Debbie Reynolds would be playing my mom. I jumped on her and was probably inappropriately touchy. She was nothing but receptive to my demonstrativeness toward her. Debbie was very tender, yet bigger than life. She's effervescent, playful, boisterous, and really an old-school dame. Like an old broad in the best sense of the term, but also very serious about her work.

She had this level of old-school professionalism that is not the norm these days. It was very gratifying to see. My first view into her work ethic came when she was having discussions about her wig as she wanted to confer with the hair designer on the show to make sure that she got the right color of red to match my red. She didn't want it to be off and that was very important to her. That's who she was and that's who she chose to remain. It was yet another thing that increased my admiration for her.

On set, she really would go from performance mode — a time when she knew people were watching her — to personal mode, opening up about being on the road and dancing. She joked that she had to work because her ex-husband stole all of her money — hoofing it around the country to make money and she was never going to stop. Suddenly, she'd start dancing right in front of everybody on the way to the craft service table. She knew that she was bringing joy to the people on set — that was her little gift to people who might be too shy to talk to her.

Other times, she would get her food and sit down and we would talk. She would talk about the difficulties of being a woman in this industry. We talked about being mothers as I was a new mom at the time. She loved Carrie so much and worried about her constantly. We talked about how regardless of anything else, you're a mother first and you can't ever turn that off. There were certainly times when I felt like it was really impossible to have a full career and also be a very present and hands-on mother, perceptive to the changes that my child would be going through naturally and developmentally. She was very generous of spirit and her view was always optimistic and practical. She would just say, "You have to work, this is what you were born to do. This is your mission. You don't have a choice. You have to do this. You also have to be a mom. We do the best we can every single day." 

I went on to shoot a pilot with Carrie for ABC called Wright vs. Wrong. She played my literary agent. I spent two weeks with her and she definitely didn't fall from the tree. She was hilarious in a different way; acerbic and dry and she liked to be shocking and dark. She thanked me for keeping her mom busy. "Thanks for taking her off my hands," she said, clearly as a joke but an acknowledgment of the time we spent together. She had deep feelings for her mother.

When I heard that Debbie passed the next day after Carrie, I was absolutely devastated but at the same time, it made complete sense to me. Everything Debbie did was for Carrie, and she would not stop because she always wanted to know that Carrie was OK. Then Carrie left so brutally quickly and unexpectedly. In my heart, I felt like now Debbie knows where Carrie is and she doesn't have to worry about taking care of her. She went to be with her. It seemed to be the very dramatic and appropriate way for them to move on to the next realm. I can't stop thinking about Billie and Todd. The shock of all of it.

Each one of them was a trailblazer. Each one of them was underestimated, in their lives and in their careers. They're both legends. Independent of one another, they were extraordinary talents but also very willful with very, very strong feelings about what it meant to be a woman. They were always asserting themselves as equals, and constantly striving for that. Debbie was fiercely independent. She was philanthropic and got behind mental health, a cause she stood behind for more than 50 years. She was in the forefront of the LGBT community — that was very important to her. Carrie is any feminist's hero. The way she wrote, the way she spoke; she was unguarded and unapologetic — brazen in her honesty and demands of respect.

Without them, the world is a less funny place … and a less provocative place.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.