Born August 15, 1968, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Brian (a sales executive) and Sandy Messing; married Daniel Zelman (a screenwriter and actor), September 3, 2000; children: Roman Walker Zelman. Education: Earned undergraduate degree from Brandeis University; received M.F.A. from New York University.
Office —NBC, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112.
Actress in television, including: NYPD Blue, 1994 and 1995; Seinfeld, 1996 and 1997; Ned and Stacey, 1995–97; Prey, 1997–98; Will and Grace, 1998—; Jesus (movie), 1999; King of the Hill (voice), 2002. Film appearances include: A Walk in the Clouds, 1995; McHale's Navy, 1997; Celebrity, 1998; The Mothman Prophecies, 2002; Hollywood Ending, 2002; Along Came Polly, 2004; Garfield (voice), 2004; Something Borrowed, 2004. Stage appearances include: Off Broadway theater productions, early 1990s; Collected Stories, Manhattan Theater Club, 1997.
TV Guide award for actress of the year in a comedy series, for Will & Grace, 2001; Golden Satellite award for best performance by an actress in a series, comedy or musical, International Press Academy, for Will & Grace, 2002; Golden Satellite award for best performance by an actress in a series, comedy or musical, International Press Academy, for Will & Grace, 2003; Emmy award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for Will & Grace, 2003.
In 2003, Debra Messing finally won the Emmy for television's best comic actress after five seasons on Will & Grace. It was the fourth nomination for Messing's role as the slightly daft but immensely likable interior designer Grace Adler Markus on the top–rated NBC sitcom. Tom Carson, writing in Esquire, compared Messing to actresses Julie Christie and Lucille Ball, calling her "unique and something splendidly unprecedented on TV."
Born in 1968, Messing spent the first three years of her life in Brooklyn, New York, before settling with her parents and brother in a small Rhode Island town. She gravitated toward the performing arts at an early age, taking dance classes and appearing in local youth–theater productions. By her teens, she was competing in beauty pageants, and in 1986, the year she turned 18, she won the crown of Rhode Island's Junior Miss. Still, Messing loved comedy, and had spent countless hours in front of the television watching actresses like Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, each of whom had eponymous shows that ruled prime–time TV during the 1970s. She was also fascinated by reruns of I Love Lucy, the Lucille Ball–Desi Arnaz classic that was one of the most–watched series of the 1950s. "I knew every line from their shows," Messing recalled in an interview with Cosmopolitan writer Robert Abele. "I would watch the repeats over and over and over again, because these women just inspired my comedic sensibilities. I felt somehow like I knew them, and they were teaching me something."
Messing also loved the television show Fame, an hour–long drama that aired in the early 1980s after a hit movie of the same name, and had pleaded—unsuccessfully—with her parents to let her attend New York City's High School for the Performing Arts, the school that inspired the show. Her parents also nixed her plans to major in theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, but did strike a bargain with her: if she completed a liberal arts education there, they would foot the bill for graduate school if she still wanted to pursue a drama degree. Messing was able to spend part of her junior year in London, England, in a program for aspiring theater hopefuls, which intensified her ambitions, and she moved to New York City immediately following graduation.
Messing had landed a coveted spot in the graduate theater program at New York University, which accepted just 15 or so new students each year. In her class was future film star Billy Crudup, and she also met her future husband, Daniel Zelman, in the program. For a time, she worked as a nanny to support herself, but began landing theater parts in off–Broadway and Broadway productions. Her big break came with a 1995 film, A Walk in the Clouds. The film's director was Alfonso Arau, coming off the success of his Like Water for Chocolate, and it featured Keanu Reeves as a returning World War II veteran who falls in love with a young woman from a conservative Mexican family with roots in Napa Valley's wine country. Messing had a small role as Betty, the promiscuous wife of Reeves' character.
From there, Messing won a recurring role as Dana Abandando, the sister of an NYPD Blue character, and then the Fox Network offered her a lead role in a new sitcom opposite Thomas Haden Church, who had been a regular on the hit NBC series Wings. The show was Ned and Stacey, and debuted as one of the more promising new series of the 1995 fall season. Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker described it as "conceived in cynicism and redeemed by talent" for its premise: Ned is a scheming advertising executive who suddenly believes he needs to have a wife to further his career prospects; Stacey is the left–leaning flake—a writer of airline–magazine articles—who still lives with her parents and agrees to the marital arrangement. Critics loved the dialogue, with Time 's Ginia Bellafante terming it "the rare modern TV comedy that has been bold enough to create a not very feminist–minded imbalance between romantic sparring partners. Stacey is an empty–headed liberal prone to statements like, 'I'm not interested in things that are frivolous and superficial!'"
Ned and Stacey was canceled after its second season, and Messing had to decide whether or not to return to New York permanently. Then two competing offers came: a lead in a new off–Broadway play by acclaimed playwright Donald Margulies back in New York, or another lead on a network sitcom. "One was going to afford me money and fame," she recalled in an interview with Cosmopolitan writer Jennifer Kasle Furmaniak. "The other would take me back to the reason I'm an actor—the theater—and I'd be paid next to nothing." She agreed to do the play, Collected Stories, and earned impressive reviews for her performance in the two–person show when it opened in May of 1997 at the Manhattan Theater Club. She played Lisa, a Columbia University student who finds an unlikely mentor in Ruth (Maria Tucci), a celebrated writer of short stories. Over the next six years, Lisa moves from naïve hopeful to savvy publishing success, but her fame comes after she uses a confidential and painful episode of Ruth's life for literary inspiration. "Messing is good at rendering goofy callowness with a reflexive edge of self–interest," asserted the theater critic for the New York Times, Ben Brantley.
Messing later said that accepting the Collected Stories role "was the most important decision I've ever made in my professional life," she told Furmaniak in Cosmopolitan. "It was about risk taking and not looking back." During the play's run, she was offered a starring role in a sci–fi television series for ABC, Prey, which aired in 1997 as a mid–season replacement. She played scientist Sloan Parker, whose colleague and friend has been murdered. Parker continues the other bioanthropologist's research in secret, which seems to point to a new super–species created by global warning. The New York theater gig also led to a part for Messing in a Woody Allen film, Celebrity.
When Prey finished a shooting schedule that had stretched to 18–hour days, Messing informed her agent that she was exhausted and planned to take a few weeks off before auditioning for any new roles. The next day, she was informed that a production team for a new network comedy wanted her to read for a starring role. The show was Will & Grace, and its director, James Burrows, was a sitcom veteran with a string of successes behind him, among them Taxi, Cheers, and Frasier. Her role was a New York City single with a history of failed relationships, who moves in with her old college flame in the pilot episode. Will is an attentive, attractive Manhattan lawyer who has since come to terms with his sexual orientation. The heterosexual actor playing him, Eric McCormack, was cast as the first openly gay leading male character in a network sitcom. Burrows and the show's creators, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, came to Messing's home personally to plead their case. They brought vodka and asked her what would seal the deal for her. "So I told them, 'I need to meet Eric and work with him. Actually sit in a room and read with him and make sure it's there. Because you may think he is the perfect Will and I am the perfect Grace, but this show will not work unless there is real chemistry between the two of us—you can't fake it.'"
The principals agreed with her, and McCormack and Messing found their footing with one another immediately after a read–through. When it debuted in September of 1998, Will & Grace was a hit with viewers and critics alike. Messing's character was appealing from several standpoints: she ran her own successful interior design firm in SoHo, but had to endure an abrasive socialite assistant to help her land new clients. Exotically attractive and warm–hearted, Grace has nothing but war stories from the dating zone. The friendship with Will provides much–needed support and stability in her life. Both Messing and McCormick earned high marks for their on–screen repartee, while their two outrageous sidekicks—Grace's assistant, Karen (Megan Mullally), and Will's Broadway–bound friend, Jack (Sean Hayes)—provided additional comic fodder.
Critics wrote enthusiastically of Will & Grace 's charms. Reviewing it for the Nation, television critic Alyssa Katz commended the show's "winningly smart writing that makes a friendship between a gay man and a straight woman feel more fully realized than most TV relationships." Messing was also singled out by Esquire 's Carson for her talents. "No matter how smug Will & Grace can be about its own sophistication in making homosexuality safe for prime–time laughs," he noted, "Messing's presence keeps reminding you that sitcoms have barely tackled female heterosexuality yet. In her erotic scheming and frustration, she's a miniature Scarlett O'Hara. Without her, Will & Grace would be as disposable as it is clever."
Grace's dating travails over the next six seasons included a doomed romance with a boorish neighbor (Woody Harrelson), and marriage to the man of her dreams—a nice Jewish doctor played by heartthrob singer/pianist Harry Connick Jr. The show's success inspired an all–star roster of supporting characters and guest stars, from John Cleese to Madonna. It regularly scored in the Top 20 of television ratings each week, and McCormick, Mullally, and Hayes had all won Emmy awards. Messing herself had been nominated three times and lost to competitors like Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond, but won in September of 2003 on her fourth go–round. "I was dumbstruck," she told Houston Chronicle writer David Kronke. "I was as relaxed as I've ever been at one of those events—they're pretty nerve–racking—because I was absolutely convinced that they would not be calling my name."
Not long afterward, Messing was forced to take an unscheduled hiatus from the last few episodes of Season Six when her pregnancy became too obvious to conceal, and her doctor ordered bed rest. She and Zelman, an actor and screenwriter, had married in September of 2000, and the show's writers had actually toyed with the idea of writing a possible pregnancy into the plot, with Grace carrying Will's child via artificial insemination. That plotline was thrown off by her wedding to Connick's do–gooder doctor, and Messing could not even appear in a special hour–long finale in April of 2004 that featured Karen's Las Vegas wedding and guest star Jennifer Lopez.
Messing has taken the occasional film role after her A Walk in the Clouds debut. They include a bit part as Richard Gere's wife in The Mothman Prophecies, a 2002 thriller, and a larger comic role in another Woody Allen film, Hollywood Ending, that same year. In the latter, she was cast as the dimwit actress/girlfriend of Allen's haughty auteur film–director character. Early in 2004 she appeared in Along Came Polly as Ben Stiller's wife, and later that year was slated to take on her first lead role in a film with Something Borrowed. The feature paired her with Dermot Mulroney in the story of a single woman whose desperation to take a date to her sister's London wedding inspires her to hire a male escort.
Will & Grace is filmed in Studio City, California, and Messing and Zelman make their home in the Hollywood Hills. She recalled in the interview with Cosmopolitan 's Abele that their early days as struggling Greenwich Village graduate students did not seem that far distant. "We lived in small studios with Murphy beds," she said. "We used to go out in the East Village and have soy–burger dinners for $2.95, and that would be our big splurge."
Cosmopolitan, May 2000, p. 218; February 2001, p. 194.
Daily Variety, September 22, 2003, p. 49.
Entertainment Weekly, September 8, 1995, p. 61; October 23, 1998, p. 24; May 14, 1999, p. 58; December 10, 1999, p. 87; October 13, 2000, p. 38; May 18, 2001, p. 64.
Esquire, October 2000, p. 170.
Houston Chronicle, February 26, 2004, p. 4.
Marie Claire, December 2002, p. 94.
Nation, November 2, 1998, p. 32.
Newsweek, January 28, 2002, p. 61; April 19, 2004, p. 71.
New York Times, November 21, 1996, p. C20; April 24, 1997; May 21, 1997; August 14, 1998.
People, May 13, 2002, p. 170; January 19, 2004, p. 24; April 19, 2004, p. 62.
Time, December 2, 1996, p. 92; April 19, 2004, p. 103.
Variety, April 29, 2002, p. 23.
— Carol Brennan