Debra Messing

Biography of Debra Messing

"I think Debra Messing is almost our modern day Audrey Hepburn. There's always something magical about the way she looks," Merle Ginsberg, the entertainment editor of Women's Wear Daily, told an interviewer for Entertainment Tonight (December 21, 2001, on-line). A classically trained stage, television, and film actress, Messing is best known for her portrayal of the interior designer Grace Adler on NBC's award-winning sitcom Will & Grace, which debuted in 1998 and completed eight successful seasons. In one of her most prominent movie roles to date, Messing played opposite Woody Allen in Hollywood Ending (2002). "Smart, well-spoken, down-to-earth. She comes to work without makeup. She orders McDonald's more than she should. She listens. She is the least flaky actress I know," Eric McCormack, Messing's co-star on Will & Grace, has said, as quoted on the Web site Woody Allen described Messing to Jeannie Williams for USA Today (April 3, 2002, on-line) as a "natural comic talent... beautiful, very, very gifted. She lights up everything she does."

Debra Messing was born into a Jewish family in the New York City borough of Brooklyn on August 15, 1968. When she was three she moved with her parent and her older brother, Brett, to a quiet town outside Providence, Rhode Island. Her father, Brian Messing, is a sales executive for a jewelry manufacturer; her mother, Sandy Messing, has worked as a professional singer, banker, travel agent, and real-estate agent. As a youngster Messing took lessons in dance, singing, and acting. "I remember watching the television show Fame and wanting to dance on top of a taxi," Messing told Jennifer Kasle Furmaniak for Cosmopolitan (February 2001). She recalled to Roz Brooks for Complete Woman (September 1999), "I was always singing and dancing for my mother when I wasn't glued to the television watching I Love Lucy or the Carol Burnett Show." While Messing's parents encouraged her dream of becoming an actress, they also urged her to get a standard liberal-arts education before deciding on acting as a career. Heeding their advice, she attended Brandeis University, in Walsham, Massachusetts. During her junior year she studied theater at the prestigious British European Studio Group of London program, in England, an experience that fueled her desire to act. After graduating summa cum laude from Braneis, in 1990, with a bachelor's degree in theater arts, Messing gained admission to the elite Graduate Acting Program at New York University (NYU), which accepts only about 15 new students annually. Three years later she earned a master's degree in fine arts from NYU.

Later in 1993 Messing won praise for her acting in the pre-Broadway workshop production of Tony Kushner's much-lauded play Angels in America: Perestroika. Before long she broke into television, playing the part of Dana Abandando - the conniving sister of one of the main characters - in three episodes of the award-winning television series NYPD Blue; those installments aired in late 1994 and early 1995. In 1995 Messing made her film debut, in the director Alfonso Arau's love story A Walk in the Clouds, in which she had a small role as the wife of a World War II veteren (Keanu Reeves). This exposure led the Fox network to make her the co-star of the television sitcom Ned and Stacey; the series, about a young man and young woman who marry for reasons other than love after knowing each other for only a week, lasted for two seasons (1995-97). "I had no idea what I was doing," Messing told David Martindale for Biography (May 2001). "I was thrown into the fire and learning on my feet in front of millions of viewers. I hardly even remember the first six months, because I was terrified. I feel so much more at home [acting in a prime-time show] now." Messing appeared as Jerry Seinfeld's date in two episodes of the hit television show Seinfeld: "The Wait Out," in 1996, and "The Yada Yada," in 1997. The actress turned down a starring role in another television sitcom to appear in Donald Margulies's two-character play Collected Stories, which opened at the Manhattan Theater Club, an Off-Broadway venue, in 1997. Messing portrayed the protégé - and, ultimately, literary betrayer - of a famous short-story writer (Maria Tucci). Speaking of her rejection of the TV role in favor of acting on the stage, she told Furmaniak, "One was going to afford me money and fame. The other would take me back to the reason I'm an actor - the theater.... It was the most important decision I've ever made in my professional life. It was about risk taking and not looking back." But Messing also acknowledged to Brooks, "I love the theater, but if I wanted to pay off my bills, I had to be open to film and television."

In 1998 Messing had a lead role as the bioanthropologist Sloan Parker on ABC's dramatic science-fiction television series Prey, about a vicious new species of humans, spawned by global warming, who are determined to kill off all other humans. Although the show developed something of a cult following, Prey was canceled after one season. Meanwhile, Messing's agent had approached the actress with the pilot script for the television show Will & Grace, in which a heterosexual woman lives with a gay man who is also her best friend. Feeling tired after her stint on Prey, Messing was inclined to take some time off, but the pilot for Will & Grace intrigued her. In a conversation with Ian Williams for P.O.V. (November 1999), Messing described the visit to her apartment by the producers of Will & Grace one night; armed with a bottle of vodka and some limes, they tried to persuade her to join the show, which would pose a professional risk for everyone involved, because Will was to be depicted as openly gay. "I had to be assured by the producers that the very first priority, always, would be to make people laugh," Messing said to Williams. "Not to be critical. Not to proselytize. To make people laugh. People come home from work and they're tired and they want distraction; they want to laugh. And now, much to my shock, there hasn't been a right-wing revolt or picketing or exposes about how we're ruining America. Because the show is funny first."

Will, played by Eric McCormack (who is not himself homosexual), is a gay lawyer living in New York City with Grace (Messing), an endearingly clumsy and spirited interior designer who has been Will's friend since college. The story line revolves around the roommates' search for love and romance. Other characters are Will's hilarious gay friend Jack (Sean Hayes), and Karen, Grace's pampered secretary (Megan Mullally). In portraying Grace, Messing has often been described as a beautiful woman who is not afraid to act like a clown; Grace is known for her pratfalls and facial contortions.. According to Ian Williams, "[Will & Grace]... owes much to Messing's ricochet-like comic timing and rat-a-tat-tat delivery." Tom Carson wrote for Esquire (October 2000), "What makes Grace the perfect sitcom heroine for these excessively briefed, motivationally addled times is that she keeps deciding to be impetuous - usually as a last resort and one that never works any better than her other instant stratagems for coping. It just turns her disasters into a form of self-expression.... [Messing] is unique and something splendidly unprecedented on TV."

Directed by James Burrows, who also directed Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, and Friends, and created by Max Mutchnik and David Kohan, Will & Grace was an instant success. Messing has attributed its popularity in part to the earlier airing of Ellen, a sitcom about a bookstore owner who, in the course of the series (1994-98), realizes that she is a lesbian. That show was written by and starred the well-known comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who announced publicly during the show's third season that she herself is homosexual. After that revelation, Ellen lost viewers, and a year later ABC canceled the series, after its fourth season. "There's never been a leading man on TV who is gay," Messing said to Furmaniak. "Ellen broke the door down, and we were able to walk through." "Men relationships are very different," John Catania, a producer for PBS's In the Life, a television news magazine series that focuses on gays and lesbians, said to Patricia Brennan for the Washington Post (February 14, 1999) in an attempt to explain how Will & Grace has escaped the backlash that Ellen suffered. "[Will & Grace] is as out there as Ellen was, exploring the issues, so either the public has matured, which i don't think it has, or there's something else."

"I come from the New York theatre world, and I have a lot of gay male friends, so this friendship of Will and Grace's isn't such a stretch," Messing told Brooks. She said to David Martindale, "It's a show about friendship. That's what drew me to it, just the fact that these two characters know each other so well that they can practically read each other's minds." Since its premiere, in September 1998, Will & Grace has been one of the most-watched shows on television. In 1999 Will & Grace won the People's Choice Award (whose recipient is determined through a Gallup poll of the public) for favorite new comedy series, and in 2000 it won an Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series. For her work on Will & Grace, Messing won the 2001 TV Guide Award for actress of the year in a comedy series; a 2001 Screen Actors Guild Award as a member of the show's ensemble cast; and a Golden Satellite Award in 2002 and 2003, from the International Press Academy, among other honors. She was nominated for an Emmy Award as outstanding lead actress in a comedy series 2000-02 and 2006, won the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series in 2003, received Golden Globe Award nominations 2000-05, and has been nominated several times for an American Comedy Award. After the show's successful first year, the producers gave a Porsche Boxer sports car to each of the sitcom's four principal actors.

After eight years with Will & Grace, Messing was ready for a break from television. "Three months later. My agents sent me the script [to The Starter Wife] and said, 'Just read it.' was so smart and funny, I was compelled to do it." Messing said to Liz Welch of Redbook (June 2007). The miniseries based on the novel premiered on USA on May 31, 2007 landing Debra as Molly Kagen an Emmy nomination for outsanding lead actress in a miniseries or movie, a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a miniseries or television film among others. USA approved the miniseries for 10 episodes as a TV series the following season with Messing again as Molly Kagan and Messing as a producer. Although Messing was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a television series musical or comedy, The Starter Wife was cancelled by USA in February 2009.

Messing was hand-picked by Woody Allen for a small role in his movie Celebrity (1998). When she learned that she had won the prominent role of Allen's girlfriend in his film Hollywood Ending (2002), a huge scream "erupted" from her, as she put it to Jeannie Williams. "it was as if I went blind for a minute with joy and shock," she told Williams. She recalled to Williams that she then told her agent, "Yes, yes, yes - say no to everything else, this is it, this is a dream come true. I grew up watching [Allen's] films. They defined for me what comedy in American cinema is." Hollywood Ending is about a washed-up director named Val (Allen), who tries to make a comeback. Messing's character, Lori, is an aspiring actress who is "convinced she's destined to be the next Julia Roberts," Messing said to Stephen Schaefer for the Boston Herald (May 6, 2002, on-line). "There is no doubt in her mind that is her destiny and she will either do it being 'discovered' on the street walking, like Michelle Pfeiffer was going to the grocery store, or she will do it with the help of Val.... She's someone who wants to take the easy road." In an interview with the on-line entertainment magazine UniverCity (May 23, 2002), Messing described the method Allen used to enable her to discover the essence of her character - one that resulted in nerve-racking uncertainty for the actress, who during her first four days on the set got no feedback from Allen. After he offered his first words of guidance, on the fifth day, Messing felt herself undergoing a transformation. As she recalled to the UniverCity interviewer: "My voice starts to change and my body starts to do something different. And [Allen] was like: 'You just found the character'.... And I thought, 'Okay, this is going to be the greatest lesson of my life; I'm going to sit back [and] trust this genius because, you know, he's earned trust'.... And from that point on, it was heaven. Because I knew exactly what he needed." Reviews of the movie and of Messing's performance in it were mixed.

Messing's big-screen roles also include Edie Cohen in the The Women (2008); Sarah Rodriguez in Nothing Like the Holidays (2008); Suzanne Offer in Lucky You (2007); Kate Scott in Purple Violets (2007); the voice of Beth in the animated film Open Season (2006); a starring role as Kat Ellis in The Wedding Date (2005) opposite Durmot Mulroney; a happily married but ill-fated wife in the supernatural thriller The Mothman Prophecies (2002), which stars Richard Gere; Lieutenant Penelope Carpenter in the inconsequential remake of the military comedy McHale's Navy (1997); and Mary Magdalene in CBS's biblical television movie Jesus (1999). Her stage work includes a stint as an understudy to Mary Louise Parker and Polly Draper in the Off-Broadway production of Four Dogs and a Bone (1993) and a co-starring role in Paul Rudnick's play The Naked Truth (1994). In the early 1990s she also had a role in a Seattle production of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest.

With her recognized talent for physical comedy and her luxurious head of curly auburn hair (which is sometimes described as red and has brought her jobs as a spokesperson for hair-care products), Messing has drawn comparisons to the legendary redheaded comedic television actress Lucille Ball. Cosmopolitan (February 2001) named Messing the magazine's Fun Fearless Female of the Year. "I love to do glamorous things, like wear Valentino," the photogenic Messing told Furmaniak, referring to the celebrated Italian fashion designer. "That's a part of me that will never go away, playing dress up in my mom's closet and looking at pictures of old Hollywood stars." Messing is a supporter of the charities AmFAR, an organization that combats AIDS; the Gay Men's Health Crisis; and Best Friend's Animal Sanctuary.

Messing met her future husband, Daniel Zelman, an actor and screenwriter, on their first day as graduate students at NYU. "He was different from anyone I'd been interested in before. I'm so right out on the table. But he was quiet and introspective. I couldn't stop wondering about him," Messing recalled in an article that appeared in Entertainment Tonight (February 12, 2002, on-line). She and Zelman, who were married on September 3, 2000, live in Los Angelas. Weighing in at 5lbs 14oz, Debra gave birth to her son, Roman Walker Zelman on April 7, 2004. "For the first two months, I did nothing but breast-feed and spend day and night gazing into my son's eyes.... Motherhood is wonderful. I'm madly in love," Messing said to Steve Gidlow of Red (December 2004). And despite the problems that arose with her first pregnancy, in another interview with Red (November 2006), Messing tells Francesca Babb "I think if I were to have more, it would only be one. We would have five more and love every one of them, but it's just a matter of wanting there to be a manageable amount of chaos." Messing told Carol Mithers of Town & Country (September 2008), "Today the family leads a quiet life. The biggest challenge is the ambivalence I feel whenever I spend time with my son and realize how much he grows and changes every day. Work isn't about me anymore or whether or not I'm 'creatively fulfilled.' I want to spend every extra minute I have with my son."

- From Current Biography (August 2002)
Editing, photos and information from 2002-present added by
Mozus Media