Actor and activist Debra Messing was already a recognizable performer by the time Will & Grace premiered. She starred as Stacey Colbert in the Fox comedy Ned & Stacey for two seasons and had the lead role in the short-lived ABC drama, Prey.
The NBC sitcom Will & Grace turned Messing into a household name. The series, which premiered in 1998 and ended its original run in 2006, followed two best friends living together in New York — a gay lawyer named Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and a straight interior designer named Grace Adler (Messing). The show broke ground for network sitcoms, featuring two gay characters in its main cast but not making their sexuality the explicit focus of the show. The series was a hit with critics and audiences alike and ran for eight seasons.
Will & Grace returned to television in 2017, with Messing reprising the role of Grace Adler. After three additional seasons, the show will see its (second) series finale in April 2020. The show will end with a total of eleven seasons and 246 episodes.
Recorded remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton talk to Messing about getting the role of Grace Adler in Will & Grace and how a brief Will & Grace reunion video turned into a three-season reboot. Later, Messing plays a trivia game about the life and career of actor Lucille Ball.
On Her Experience In The Coronavirus Pandemic
"It's been intense. No one has been prepared for this, and I think the hardest thing is not knowing when it's gonna end and not being able to reassure your children about when it will end. If there has ever been a test for being zen, I think this is probably it."
On Getting Fired From Her Job As A Coat Checker
"The very first day that I worked, I was fired. The first day. I signed up for a catering company and they sent me to Sotheby's, they said, 'Okay, you're very amicable and charming. Really, all you have to do is take their fur coats and their briefcases and hold onto them and then give them back." ...At the end of the night I realized I didn't understand the number system. So I said, 'Which one's yours? Just point to the mink coat that's yours.' I just started handing out mink coats and briefcases. So yeah, they fired me."
On Auditioning For Will & Grace
"I had been doing this drama on ABC...I finished, and I wrote to my agents and said, 'Don't call me for three months, I'm going to sleep. They wrote me back and said, we have this script that's really special, you have to read it. So I read it and, of course, I was like, 'Oh my god, this is unlike anything I've ever read before.'"
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
We have an amazing special guest. She was, of course, supposed to join us at The Bell House in Brooklyn for a live show. And then everything changed. But, luckily, she was into it - joining us now from her home or a secret location - I don't know, it's possible - you know her as Grace Adler from "Will & Grace." Debra Messing, hello.
DEBRA MESSING: Hello.
EISENBERG: I said secret location or your house.
MESSING: (Laughter) Both. Both would be true.
EISENBERG: And so you have been in shelter-in-place or whatever we're calling it for a couple of weeks.
MESSING: Yes. Yeah. It's been intense. And, you know, I - no one has been prepared for this.
MESSING: And I think the hardest thing is just not knowing when it's going to end and not being able to reassure your children, you know, about when it will end. And so, I mean, if there has ever been, like, a test for being Zen...
JONATHAN COULTON: Yeah.
MESSING: ...I think this is probably it.
EISENBERG: So what are you doing to stay sane?
MESSING: ...Which - if you knew me, that would basically tell you that hell has frozen over.
MESSING: Yep. I downloaded a life-time membership to Babbel to learn Spanish fluently.
EISENBERG: Oh, you are - you're going to expand yourself.
MESSING: Oh, I...
EISENBERG: Your brain.
MESSING: I'm just downloading things. I haven't done any of it yet.
EISENBERG: So I'm going to - I would love to talk to you about your life.
EISENBERG: So I love learning about people's first jobs. And I read that you were a coat check person at - for Sotheby's, the art auction house...
EISENBERG: ...And were fired.
MESSING: I was. The very first day that I worked, I was fired.
EISENBERG: The first day?
MESSING: The first day.
MESSING: Yes. I signed up for a catering company. And they sent me to Sotheby's, and they said, OK, you know, you are very, you know, amicable and charming. And so really, all you have to do is take their fur coats and their briefcases and hold onto them and then give them back. And I was like, this is perfect. So I was having a lovely night. And then at the end of the night, I realized I didn't really understand the number system.
COULTON: Oh no.
MESSING: So I said, which one's yours? Just point.
MESSING: Just point to the mink coat that's yours. And I just started handing out mink coats and briefcases. So yeah, so they fired me.
EISENBERG: I would just like to mention that, you know, you are lying on a white pillow that looks like a bed as we are talking.
MESSING: (Laughter) I'm absolutely on the bed.
COULTON: You're doing it right, Debra. That's exactly - we should all be in our bed.
MESSING: It's my favorite place. It's my favorite place in the world.
EISENBERG: So, of course, we know you from "Will & Grace" as the great Grace Adler. The series ran from 1998 to 2006. Eleven years pass.
EISENBERG: And there is this idea that you're going to do a reboot.
MESSING: There was no discussion of a reboot when we first - when the email first went out to us.
EISENBERG: OK, what was it?
MESSING: It was a one-time thing for the election to help Hillary Clinton. We got an e-mail from Max Mutchnick. And so he sent out this email. And he said, I know you guys are, you know, all over the world. You have your lives, but would you consider coming back to do one video, seven minutes long, that we would put on YouTube? And it would basically be Grace and Will - Democrats. And, of course, Karen is a Republican. And then Jack would be a disaffected - you know, a voter who doesn't think his vote counts.
MESSING: And then we shot it.
MESSING: And then we all cried and said this was such a gift. It's amazing. You know, this is it. We had one more day of "Will & Grace." And within a week, YouTube had 7 1/2 million views.
EISENBERG: (Laughter). So you're like, huh.
MESSING: I didn't.
COULTON: No, you're like, I got to get back to bed immediately.
EISENBERG: Like, see you...
MESSING: The president of the network went, huh.
EISENBERG: Right. So one of the final episodes of "Will & Grace" will be a special "I Love Lucy"-themed episode. And Lucille Ball is one of your heroes. I mean, it makes perfect sense.
EISENBERG: The hero.
MESSING: The hero for me. Yes.
EISENBERG: So now I imagine in the "I Love Lucy"-themed episode, that you portray Lucy.
MESSING: I portray Lucy in two of the scenes. I play Fred in one scene.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Awesome.
MESSING: And I play Ethel in another scene.
MESSING: You did not expect that.
EISENBERG: I love that. So for the scene when you are portraying Lucy, did you watch it again? Like, her...
MESSING: Oh, yes.
EISENBERG: ...And study it?
MESSING: I mean we replicated every seconds of the scenes that were chosen. They were iconic scenes. So I did the Vitameatavegamin scene.
EISENBERG: The best.
COULTON: Oh, nice.
MESSING: And then I - and then Sean and I did the Chocolate Factory one where he was Lucy. I was Ethel.
EISENBERG: All right. Debra Messing, based on that, we have a very fun quiz for you.
EISENBERG: It's a multiple choice quiz about Lucille Ball.
MESSING: Oh goodness, OK.
EISENBERG: All right. Here's your first one. Lucille Ball's unofficial nickname was queen of the bees. Why? Was it, a, because she starred in the 1940s in a string of second-tier films, known as B-movies? B, her side hustle was as the CEO of a free-range honey company called I Love Loose Bees...
EISENBERG: ...Or C, because her bust was not so big but not so small?
MESSING: It is A.
EISENBERG: It is A. That's right. That's right. Some of the titles are amazing, like "Du Barry Was A Lady" and "A Girl, A Guy, And A Gob." They sound insane.
COULTON: OK. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz formed an independent studio called Desilu Productions.
COULTON: When Gene Roddenberry pitched her the idea for "Star Trek," she greenlit the original pilot. But allegedly, she misunderstood the concept of the show and thought that "Star Trek" was about, A, traveling USO entertainers during World War II; B, hiking with celebrities; or C, Russian cosmonauts who fall in love on a spacewalk?
MESSING: I'm going to guess C.
COULTON: Russian cosmonauts...
MESSING: But I think...
COULTON: ...Who fall in love on a spaceship.
COULTON: That is incorrect. It is actually A.
MESSING: It is A.
EISENBERG: Weird, right?
MESSING: That was my first guess.
MESSING: But I was, like, no, there has to be some space element. That's amazing. So I want to know, like, that moment when they were, like, honey, no. There's no singing.
COULTON: (Laughter) Yeah, right. I would love to know how that conversation went to...
COULTON: ...Leave her with that misapprehension. It's a very...
MESSING: And also to be, like, you still want - do you still want to produce it?
COULTON: Right. It's actually a very different show...
COULTON: ...From the one you knew.
EISENBERG: Like, how long were they into it before...
EISENBERG: ...She's, like, what? It's not?
EISENBERG: Like, oh, no. No. No. We've produced everything. We spent all your money.
COULTON: OK. This is your last clue. In 2016 in Lucille Ball's hometown, a statue of her was replaced with a different statue of her after locals protested it on Facebook. Why? A, it depicted Lucy as a brunette and not as a redhead; B, it was dubbed Scary Lucy for its uncanny lack of likeness to the real Lucy; or C, it kept tipping over due to shoddy workmanship.
COULTON: That is a fine guess. It was actually B. They didn't really nail it, and so they ended up with a kind of weird...
MESSING: They called it Scary Lucy?
EISENBERG: Scary Lucy.
COULTON: The New York Times described the statue as a grimacing, glaring hulk that would be unrecognizable were it not for a bottle of Vitameatavegamin in her hand.
MESSING: Oh, my God. That's awful.
COULTON: And the sculptor, Dave Poulin, said in a letter to the Hollywood Reporter that he considered the original Lucy to be by far his most unsettling sculpture.
MESSING: So he didn't stand by it.
COULTON: No, he was, like...
EISENBERG: He knew it.
COULTON: ...Yeah, I didn't get this one right. I did a bad job with it.
COULTON: And they actually left...
MESSING: With Lucille Ball...
COULTON: Right - with Lucille Ball.
MESSING: ...Of all people.
EISENBERG: Of all people, of course.
COULTON: And they left the Scary Lucy - they left the bad one in the park. It's about 75 yards down the path from the new Lucy...
COULTON: ...So you can go and compare the two (laughter).
EISENBERG: I mean, but talk about, like - you know, we paid for that. We're going to keep it up.
EISENBERG: We'll just have the right one (laughter). Thank you so much for joining us, Debra. Thank you.
MESSING: This was a ball. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.