She’s got an Emmy, acclaim for her eight years as the unsinkable Grace Adler on Will & Grace, the devotion of theater people everywhere for her role as lyricist Julia Houston on Smash and a swell Broadway beau. What else does Debra Messing need? How about a chance to show off her acting chops and impeccable comic timing in her Broadway debut as the lovelorn Rosemary in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. The actress chatted with Broadway.com about finding her inner lass, going bananas for Annie and the deal with the schmattas.
What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in Ireland?
Doing her best to pretend she’s an Irish lass who’s a farmer. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it put a lot of anxiety in me that everyone in the cast is Irish—except me—including the playwright, the director and the designers. I mean everybody is Irish.
What makes you the most anxious?
I felt a bit of trepidation and nerves primarily about the accent. Brian O’Byrne was born right down the street from Mullingar. I am also a huge fan of his, so there’s that on top of everything else. I just want to blend in in the best possible way and to be in the same world as everyone else on stage dialect-wise.
At least you already had the red hair.
This is a reunion for you and John Patrick Shanley. What do you remember from the first time you worked with him [in Four Dogs and a Bone 20 years ago]?
It was very heady. When I was in acting school and studying theater in college, we studied John Patrick Shanley’s plays as part of our curriculum. I remember walking in and meeting him when I was cast as the understudy in Four Dogs and a Bone. I couldn’t speak at first. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I had just graduated from NYU and my first job in New York, there I was, working with him on a new play. He validated me; he chose me. He saw something in me. It was an incredibly important moment for me.
Can you pinpoint when you knew you wanted to be a performer?
When I saw Andrea McArdle in Annie on Broadway when I was a kid. I nearly jumped out of my seat. I remember turning to my parents and saying, “I want to do that.” It never wavered. It was always, “ I want to do theater! I want to be a working actor.” That was my prayer and my goal. Theater is my first and abiding love.
With that in mind, how did you feel about stepping on a Broadway stage for the first time?
The first time I walked on the stage was before our set was even brought in. I walked on stage, and I was breathless. Tears came to my eyes. I just stood there and looked out at this beautiful theater that was illuminated. It’s a particularly beautiful, comforting space. Standing on that stage and looking out—that moment that I had always dreamt about was happening. It was very emotional for me.
You posted a picture on Instagram of how close the front row is.
Very close! You know what I didn’t realize is that even though it’s close, you really can’t see people’s faces very well because the lights are so strong during curtain call. I had assumed that when you came out to bow, you’d be able to see everybody. Even though you can’t see everyone, you can certainly feel the love.
What else surprised you about Broadway?
It's been 15 years since I’ve done a play—the last one was Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories at Manhattan Theatre Club—and going out on stage in front of the first audience, as adrenaline-filled and nervous as I was, it felt like coming home. It was surprising and wonderful to feel happy and comfortable back on the stage.
We have to talk about Smash.
I love Smash!
Can we talk about the scarves?
Oh, the scarves! I thought it was funny that people were so focused on it. I actually endorsed the wearing of it. I thought it was authentic. She’s a creative woman living in Brooklyn. You know, you wear layers! It made sense to me because she’s a mom and it’s practical. So [the online chatter about the costumes] didn’t bother me, but I guess at some point it bothered the network because when the second season came back, they said no more scarves.
Did Smash make you want to come to Broadway?
There’s no question Smash whet my appetite. To get to sit there behind a table and watch the likes of Bernadette Peters and Megan Hilty singing their faces off—it was a thrill for me every single day. I definitely think it paved the way for me to have the courage to say, “OK, I’m ready to try and take a stab at being back on stage after all of these years.”
You are the last of the four Will & Grace leads to come to Broadway. Have you been in contact with them [Eric McCormack, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally] about it?
Eric wrote me the day of my first preview. He was just wonderful telling me I’d “kill it.” I wrote back, “You’re an old pro, but it’s my first time and I’m just trying to breathe.” He’s going to come out here and see it at some point. He’s been so great about it.
People who expect to see Grace Adler in Outside Mullingar are going to find a quirky, yearning Irish woman instead.
When I read this play, I had never encountered characters like this. Ever. There’s something incredibly original and unique about them. They’re very quirky, but they’re also honest and pure and passionate. There’s no cynicism. John Shanley creates a language of his own every time he writes a new play, and I was just drawn in and mesmerized by his lyricism and poetry. And yet it’s not a sentimental piece. You feel like it’s going to be one thing, and it ends up being something else.
See Messing in Outside Mullingar, opening January 23 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.