Emmys 2012: Debra Messing Aims to Turn 'Smash' Into 'Must-See TV' (Video)

Television has been around for roughly 65 years, and, during most of that time, “star” was a title that a TV actor had to earn through hard work, peer recognition, and, yes, Nielsen ratings. Today, though, it seems as if it is applied to every person who appears in a pilot or on a reality show — certainly by their representatives, but also, less understandably, by journalists. The impact of this is that it has become considerably harder for the general public to single out the few individuals working today who would actually meet the old standards; in other words, to distinguish the true stars, if you will, from the wannabes. Some examples, though, are beyond dispute, including that of the actress whom I interviewed for about 40 minutes last week at her apartment in New York City.

Debra Messing is a TV star if ever there was one. She has been acting on TV pretty much non-stop for the past 17 years, first on Fox’s Ned and Stacey (1995-1997); then on ABC’s Prey (1998); then, most famously, on NBC’s Will & Grace (1998-2005); then on USA’s The Starter Wife (2008); and now on Smash, another “Peacock Network” production. Her work has garnered her five Emmy nominations for best actress in a TV comedy — more than anyone else in history save for Kirstie Alley, Bea Arthur, Candice Bergen, Patricia Heaton, Helen Hunt, Jane Kaczmarek, Mary Tyler Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker, Isabel Sanford, Jean Stapleton and Betty White — and one Emmy statuette, for her work on the 2002-2003 season of Will & Grace. (She could score another Emmy nomination this year in the best actress in a TV drama category for Smash.)

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And people like watching her: Will & Grace, which became a staple of NBC’s now-legendary Thursday night “Must See TV” lineup, was TV’s highest-rated sitcom among adults between the ages of 18 and 49 from 2001 through 2005, with individual episodes regularly ranking among the 10 highest-rated of the week (the season 2 episode “A Chorus Lie” attracted a series-high 25.3 million viewers) and four of its eight seasons finishing among their respective year’s top 20 highest-rated shows. Smash, meanwhile, was TV’s third highest-rated new drama this year, and first among all dramas that aired in the 10 p.m. hour, while also finishing atop the list of all NBC dramas among adults between the ages of 18 and 49. (To be sure, credit for both shows belongs not only to Messing, but it is also quite possible that neither show would have been greenlighted in the first place without Messing’s participation.)

But, at the end of the day, one doesn’t really need specific stats to understand why Messing is a star. One can see why by simply watching her, either through a television set or from across her living room table (as I did, and you can do by checking out the video at the top of this post). She’s funny. She’s smart. And, at the age of 43, TV’s most popular wide-eyed redhead since Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett is as attractive as ever.

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Messing was born in Brooklyn, New York, but, at the age of three, moved with her mother, a singer, and father, a sales executive, to East Greenwich, Rhode Island. They would frequently return to New York City, though, often to attend Broadway shows, which made a profound impact on the youngster. She laughs, “My first memory is seeing Annie — I think I was maybe seven or something — and just having my mind blown… I was just like, ‘I want to do that.’”

She first began taking acting seriously during high school, and was greatly encouraged by a drama teacher named Jim Metcalfe, who, she says, “really changed my life,” and with whom she remains in touch to this day. Metcalfe, she explains, “was the first person who was not my mom who actually took me seriously… I would say, ‘Oh, I want to be on Broadway,’ and he didn’t think it was quaint and charming, you know? He thought it was a noble thing to aspire to.” Messing specialized in musicals throughout her high school years. In fact, she scored her first major starring role in a production of Annie during her sophomore year. “To this day,” she laughs, “my brother likes to say that that was my peak.”

Having fallen in love with acting, Messing hoped to head straight to an acting conservatory after picking up her diploma. Her parents, however, insisted that she first get a liberal arts degree, which they felt would serve as a safeguard in case the acting path proved to be a dead-end. So, despite applying to and being accepted at Syracuse University’s musical theater program, she begrudgingly headed off to Brandeis University. There, she was impressed by the intellectual capability and curiosity of her peers — including Theresa Rebeck, who would later create Smash — but was frustrated by the its lack of acting opportunities for undergraduates at the time. She spent her junior year abroad in London, where she studied through the Royal Academy and the London Academy of Music, “two really wonderful experiences for me.”

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After she returned to the United States for her senior year, she decided to pursue acting more seriously, not by moving to New York to audition (“I don’t think that I had the inner strength and confidence to go straight to New York from college and just start auditioning”), but by auditioning to move to New York. With the help of Ted Kasanoff, the master acting teacher for Brandeis’ graduate theater program who also taught undergraduates (and who Messing describes as “the one who made me decide to do this for my life”), she recorded an audition for NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. Of the 1,200 others who did the same, only 18 were accepted, and she was one of them. “I just remember getting the call,” she recalls, “and feeling like, ‘Okay, now my life has officially begun.’”

Before Messing even completed the program at NYU, she had been offered a professional gig. She had auditioned for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in Seattle, got the part, and played it for a time. Then she came back to New York to resume auditioning there, and, before long, was cast as understudy for Mary-Louise Parker in John Patrick Shanley’s off-Broadway production of Four Dogs and a Bone; then a Clairol commercial; then as a guest star on NYPD Blue, which was a huge hit at the time; and then got offered Ned and Stacey, her first sitcom, which thrilled her, since her ambition had long been “to do something like Friends or Mad About You.” After that show came to an end, she was offered an opportunity to realize another lifelong dream — a chance to work with the legendary TV director Jim Burrows — but, to her great consternation, was forced to decline the offer in order to honor a prior commitment to do an off-Broadway play. That particular Burrows show failed to launch, but Messing, to her great relief, would soon get another chance to work with the master.

In 1998, Messing starred on Prey, an ABC sci-fi drama, as a bio-anthropologist who studies genetic variation in humans. Based on that description, it’s probably not that surprising that the show struggled to catch on and was canceled after 13 episodes. The actress, undoubtedly down about that and seeking a break after working a great deal over an extended period of time, instructed her agent not to bother her with scripts for the next few months so that she could recharge her batteries. Her request, however, was disregarded when one script came across his desk that seemed too good to be true: Will & Grace.

As Messing recalls, “I ended up in Jim Burrows’ home on a Sunday meeting with Eric McCormack.” She had been led to believe that she was the only actress who was being considered for the part of Grace Adler, the clumsy owner of an interior design firm whose best friend since college is gay; in fact, Nicolette Sheridan had also been tested opposite McCormack, but it was clear that Messing owned the day. The pieces for a hit show seemed to be in place — a great director (Burrows), a great script, and an undeniably great chemistry between McCormack and Messing — but Messing was still “so scared to commit.” Her initial commitment would have to be six years, which seemed like a long time to agree to work for someone who was craving a break. Burrows walked her out that afternoon and quietly said, “You’ve gotta take the job… You’re never going to find a script like this again ever.” As she thought about how many other times the man’s tastes had proven right — from Carol Burnett to Bob Newhart to Cheers to Frasier, and the list goes on — she thought, “I mean, he is the man…” A short time later, she took the job.

For eight seasons, the Will & Grace team churned out 22-minute episodes, shot with four cameras, in front of a live studio audience, with every single episode directed by Burrows. Messing notes that, at the outset, “We didn’t realize the rollercoaster that we were going on and the impact it would have.” She elaborates, “It was a pressure cooker. We worked for short amounts of time, but it was very intense, constantly, thinking, ‘Okay, how can we make this funnier?’” She always looked forward to Tuesday nights, though, when the show that she and her colleagues had been working on all week came to life before a live studio audience. “It was the closest thing that you could get to a theater experience in front of the camera, and, for someone who started in theater and theater is their first love, that was sort of a perfect marriage.”

The show “didn’t [become a hit] overnight, just like Seinfeld,” but showed enough promise to convince Warren Littlefield, who was then the president of NBC entertainment and a big believer in Messing, to move the show from Monday night to Thursday night, a time-block that became known internally at NBC — and promoted on the air — as “Must-See TV.” (That also happens to be the title of Littlefield’s fascinating new oral history of the era, which includes interviews with many of its principal figures.) As Messing explains, “‘Must-See TV’ was an era when, Thursday night, the block between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. was ultimately filled with the four most successful comedies on all of television.” Among those that aired in that timeslot during the 1980s and 1990s: Cheers; The Cosby Show; Seinfeld; Frasier; Family Ties; Wings; Mad About You, and Friends. Will & Grace became one of the last staples of the era.

Messing notes that Will & Grace “became a very important show, not only because it was part of ‘Must-See TV,’ but because it was the first time that [a show] had a male leading gay character who was portrayed with the same wants and desires and needs and flaws as any other leading man on any other TV show.”

The only thing that preceded it that did something remotely similar was Ellen, but that had recently been canceled, which only further contributed to the doubts that many at NBC harbored, at the outset of the show, that the American public was “ready” for a show of this nature. Fifteen years after the first episode aired, though, the world is a very different place, in no small part due to the popular reception of Will & Grace. Today, TV features a multitude of shows that include gay characters — Glee, Modern Family, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, and, yes, Smash — several of which mention their sexuality only in passing. And, as Vice President Joe Biden said during an interview on Meet the Press last month that prompted President Barack Obama’s announcement shortly thereafter that he now supports gay marriage, “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far.” Messing tells me, “Joe Biden referencing our show in that way, I think besides the birth of my son, was the proudest moment of my life.”

When Will & Grace came to an end in 2006, Messing again thought that she might into hibernation for a while, but that was not to be the case. She appeared in a bunch of movies, and did some of the best work of her career in The Starter Wife (2008), a USA Network series that had the misfortune of coming out just as the American economy began to tank. (Messing nevertheless received an Emmy nomination for best actress in a mini-series or movie.) But finding another show that excited her to the degree of Will & Grace was a tall order, and it wouldn’t happen until 2010. At that time, Messing learned about Smash, a show that looks behind-the-scenes at the making of a Broadway show, which was being developed by Showtime, the risk-taking premium cable network. Messing acknowledges that “a huge part of what made me desperate to do” the show — in which she would play Julia Houston, one half of the successful songwriting team that guides the show-within-the-show — was the fact that it was going to be on premium cable, which demands far less time (shorter and fewer episodes) and creative limitations (of what can be said and shown) than the broadcast networks. Moreover, Showtime, at that time, was run by Robert Greenblatt, Messing’s “boss” at Fox during Ned and Stacey, who had always impressed her as “an incredibly smart man.”

In January 2011, though, Greenblatt left Showtime for NBC to become the network’s chairman of entertainment, and took Smash with him. He still wanted Messing, but now for 26 44-minute episodes per season. Messing was left with a tough decision to make. She remembers, “When all of a sudden it moved to NBC, I started to panic and think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’” The scripts that had initially drawn her to the show only “had to be neutered a little bit” to accommodate NBC, she says, so that was not a major concern for her. (“We got away with it being a little spicier and edgier than perhaps it would’ve been if it was specifically written for the network,” she posits.) What was, however, was the amount of time that it would demand from her.

“I [had] promised myself that I would never do an hour-long drama again after Prey because of the hours,” she says — and that was before she gave birth to a son in 2004.  But, like Will & Grace, the story, the script, and her part in it had impressed her so much that she desperately wanted to find a way to make it work. Eventually, after network executives “reassured me that they would be mindful of my need to balance my home life and my work life, in terms of the scheduling,” she did.

Smash was picked up by NBC in May 2011, but the network opted to put off its release until February 2012 in order to have it follow its highly-rated reality competition series The Voice on the air. Because of the midseason start date for season one, Messing and her colleagues were expected to churn out only 13 episodes, rather than the usual 26, “so it felt like I was doing a cable show,” she says. Many independent observers initially assumed that Smash would simply be “another Glee” or “Glee for adults,” but, while singing is certainly integral to both shows, Messing, a fan of Glee, asserted early on — and was substantiated by airings of the show — that Smash exists in a much more “naturalistic world.” (Additionally, whereas Glee tends to cover already popular songs, Smash features far more original songs, thanks to the contributions of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the musical team behind Hairspray.)

Asked to compare her experience on Smash with her experience on Will & Grace, Messing emphasizes, “they’re as different as experiences can be.” For one thing, the episodes are twice as long, shot with more cameras, without an in-studio audience, frequently on-location and for a number of different directors. “Working on Smash is more vigorous… Smash is like filmmaking,” she says. “You are taking eight, nine days to tell the story, and you’re working 14 to 16 hours a day. And you might do the last scene of the story on the first day, and the big, dramatic explosion on the second day, and everything is completely out of order, which uses very different muscles and really challenges you creatively in a different way.”

The size and scope of her character, Julia, evolved considerably over the course of the first season, becoming, as she says, “meatier and meatier and meatier.” She deals with her stress and frustration and desire, both at home and at work, in ways that not even Messing initially foresaw. “There were many times this season on Smash when we would come in for the table read, and we would be reading out loud, and I would literally gasp and say, ‘Oh, my God!’ I have no idea about the trajectory of my character at all… At first, that was kind of unsettling and scary. And then it became the greatest rollercoaster ride of my life because it felt like” — she claps her hands —“okay, what’s next?!” She continues, “They really pushed me in the writing to do things that have never been asked of me before on television. And for that I’m incredibly grateful.”

NOTE: Smash was picked up for a second season in March, and will air again as a midseason replacement — this time with 15 episodes — starting next winter. Messing and company will resume production in July.