Interview With Debra Messing of ‘The Starter Wife’
by Laura Tucker
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We know Debra Messing mostly for her comedic roles, but participating in a conference call chat with her recently as she promoted the new series on USA, The Starter Wife, I found there’s a lot more going on there than comedy. She talks with hesitations often, assumably interested in getting her true meaning across each time.
It was pointed out to Messing from another journalist on the conference call that her character of Grace in Will & Grace “was so much more deliberate in tone and speech,” yet those quirks seem to now be taking subtle hold with the character of Molly in The Starter Wife, bringing up the question of whether that was possibly just Debra herself coming to the surface of each character.
Messing replied that when Will & Grace first ended, she took the producer of The Starter Wife aside, asking to be told if Grace was finding her way into Molly. She’d played Grace for eight years and didn’t even realize she was doing it. What she has also found, though, is that the writers like to put her character “in situations that elicit physical responses.” Yet, Messing also realizes she likes that type of character interaction and has an affinity for it. She also likes to feel that Molly is experienced by viewers as how she is experienced by Messing herself.
While Messing doesn’t think as the actress she is like either Grace or Molly, she does believe she resides in both. She also admits to using every angle she can to come up with the character work she does with Molly, feeling the more extreme the funnier. While the character was originally created by Gigi Levangie Grazer in the novel of the same name, it was Messing and writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott that “filled her out and made her their own.”
Messing continues to be challenged by playing the character of Molly, as everything going on in her life is new and unchartered territory. She’s starting over at 40, going through everything from the dynamic between her and her ex and having to negotiate shared custody, to dating, and discovering an occupation that will support her and her daughter, as well as negotiating living in the same community that has ostracized her since her divorce. Every day is a ride from high comedy to very poignant, still accessible, emotional moments.
Asked if she is drawn to strong female projects such as The Starter Wife and the recent film The Women, Messing figures it to be both a conscious choice and a happy coincidence. She wanted to be in The Women up to seven years ago when they were still trying to get the project off the ground. It was such an iconic play and film, and she feels the film would have never been made in today’s world with no male parts unless it had been the precedent from the original film. She also feels a responsibility to help highlight and support the really talented women in the community, with this being the reason she wanted to continue to work with the brilliant writers of The Starter Wife.
When originally filming the mini series, Messing had no indication it would someday turn into a full series. Since it had been adapted from a novel, once they finished it, they assumed it was finite. Yet the mini series then got ten Emmy nominations, which shocked everyone, including Messing. USA then called and mentioned they may have a touched a nerve, as it was modern and relevant. What Messing hears out on the streets from fans is that nothing on TV has ever showed their life and their struggles.
There didn’t seem to be many hurdles as they moved from the mini series to the regular series. Messing was lucky to be invited to be a collaborative writer, as it allows her leeway as far as rewrites. Through a natural progression, she then became an executive producer, allowing her opinions to have more of a voice, to show what was important to her, and to be sure the show moved in a direction she felt comfortable with. She has found that producing is something she happens to be good at, and enjoys focusing on in the production as a whole, instead of just herself as an actor. It’s “exhausting, but stimulating and gratifying.”
As the executive producer, Messing has focused on keeping the creative aspects of The Starter Wife pure. She could care less about the money, as if it’s too expensive, she just thinks “Oh well, but we want that actor.” The mini series had been shot in Australia which was significantly less expensive than shooting in L.A., yet they knew if it was going to be a regular series, it would have to stay in L.A. It’s a completely different thing for Messing, as both of her prior sitcoms were set in New York City. She enjoys that the comedy is coming for the social situation of it all, as L.A. is supposed to be Utopia, and this is shinning a light on some of the uglier sides.
They also had to figure out how many of the cast members of the mini series they could get back. Peter Jacobson played her ex in the mini series, yet he was already contractually obligated on House on Fox, and was replaced in the series by David Alan Basche. Messing finds his portrayal incredible. Molly and Kenny’s daughter was replaced as well by Brielle Barbusca, and Messing feels she’s just so down to earth and kind and playful, as well as a great actress. She calls it inspiring to watch Barbusca work. She had never really worked with child actors before, yet this little girl has crept into her heart, and she loves her dearly.
It was explained to Messing by a journalist that all the other actors have had wonderful things to say about her, which she says is a good thing to know. She finds they have such great chemistry together because they are respectful, have a good work ethic, a great sense of humor, and are passionate. Yet still, even with all that, they were lucky that it happened that they all get along so incredibly well. It’s wonderful for her to know that “everywhere she looks, people are there that have her back.”
As a person who started over myself as a writer at 40 years old, Molly doing the same is extremely interesting to me. Knowing full well the struggles, I was hoping Messing could tell us if Molly will find success in her own writing career. Of course, she couldn’t tell us exactly what will happen, but she did let on that the writing that Molly does in her journal becomes “sort of a social commentary” of her own life. Once the journal gets stolen, unusual professional opportunities arise that will test Molly and her ethics. Her life does not become a fairy tale through this profession.
I asked if Molly struggling attracted Messing to the character, the chance to play a meatier role of someone who doesn’t have it all figure out. She replied it’s absolutely what she responds to about Molly, and that the character is written in a way that makes her a fighter and survivor, constantly butting up against obstacles. She feels that’s how real life plays out as well. Messing enjoys the juxtaposition of a fantasy world and the utopia that is presumed in that world, as it’s actually unaccessible in the daily struggles of the protagonist’s life.
Through this, Molly endures many fantasy scenes from movies, which Messing enjoyed filming, especially a takeoff of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct in the last episode. Messing had to spread her legs as Stone did, and tried to play a trick on the cast having her underwear say “Say Please” on it to break up the cast and crew, but no one laughed, as she recalls it now being one of the most embarrassing moments in her life. Asked if there were any fantasy movie scenes she’d like to do but hasn’t, Messing thought of a takeoff on Gone with the Wind, just because where they shoot the series is the same place that movie was shot, making it somewhat of an homage.
Messing’s plans for the future include playing Molly in The Starter Wife “as long as they’ll let me.” They just finished filming the first season, and she was sobbing thinking of it ending, which to her is a “clear sign that it’s a special show and a special group of people.” The show has touched her heart and inspired her creatively, becoming a much more fulfilling experience than she thought it could be. She sees that the series could go anywhere from here with the social satire of poking fun at values and people with their priorities askew. She feels she could almost go on playing Molly until she’s in an “old folks home in Beverly Hills.” I’m guessing she means Molly… and not Messing herself.
Laura Tucker is the webmaster of Reality Shack and its accompanying Reality Shack Blog, provides reviews at Viewpoints, and provides entertainment news pieces at Gather. She is also an Associate Instructor and 2nd dan black belt in tae kwon do with South Elgin Martial Arts. Laura can be reached at LauraBelle@realityshack.com.
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