| February 27, 2012 | People
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“You know, the last person I interviewed was Elizabeth Taylor.”
Michael Kors thus greets Debra Messing in his office atop his eponymous label’s 42nd Street headquarters, partly to note he’s not a novice in the journalism arena; that is to say, when it comes to lobbing the questions, she can rest assured he’s got game to an icon degree. But ever the comedienne, Messing knows the next line, accompanied by the perfect look of mock horror: “Or it means I’m going to be dead soon.”
It’s easy to envision Messing and Kors as fast friends, sharing a love of fashion (you’ll see her in the front row of his shows most seasons), of New York, and most especially of theater—a cultural passion they both share. The latter plays a central role in Messing’s life as she embarks on her latest career move, starring in Smash, NBC’s Broadway-themed musical drama. The show brought the Brooklyn-born actress back to New York from Los Angeles, where she vaulted into the pop-culture stratosphere during eight seasons playing one half of the drollmeets- neurotic duo that was Will & Grace. Despite the December announcement that she and husband Daniel Zelman were divorcing after 10 years, Messing seems energized about what lies ahead, both for her work in a show that galvanizes her passion for the stage, as well as the new life she’s building for herself and her seven-year-old son, Roman.
MICHAEL KORS: We’re so excited about Smash, your new show. How did the conversations start?
DEBRA MESSING: My agent—I’ve been with her forever, and she knows I hate everything. It’s basically that I don’t want to work, so I have to love something to want to work. She called me and said, “I read a script I know you’re going to love; I’m sending it over.” The second I read it I called her up and said, “I have to be a part of this.” When I got the call that said I was offered the part, I shrieked, and all hell broke loose.
MK: You get sent things all the time. What was it about this particular one that made it that attractive?
DM: I was the first one cast. I knew it was an original idea from Steven Spielberg—he has a pretty good track record. I was told that some of the producing partners were responsible for the film Chicago, and I thought, that’s good. Theresa Rebeck was [a finalist] for the Pulitzer Prize for playwriting, and she wrote the pilot [and is a creator and an executive producer]; and then Michael Mayer, who directed Spring Awakening on Broadway, was directing the pilot.
MK: So it all was working.
DM: It all felt like bashert [destiny]. I thought, here’s a creative team, everyone is at the top of their game, and I’m going to learn something every day working with these people. I’m going to be pushed and challenged, and it seemed really exciting. And then of course, the fact that it was about the world of Broadway musicals. That was my first love, that’s what I wanted to do.
MK: [laughs] No, really?
DM: [belting out into the room] “Another opening…” I wanted to be a hoofer, I wanted to be a musical-theater girl. My journey went a different way, but it’s come full circle. The fact that I can act in a TV show that’s entirely of that world, I literally could not have written a dream project for myself, concept-wise, more exciting than this one.
MK: It’s kismet. Who’s your character?
DM: It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Broadway musical, which is written by [my character, Julia Houston]. I’m the lyricist, and my partner, Tom, is the composer.
MK: So you’re the modern-day Betty Comden.
MK: That’s divine. I love that.
DM: And [my character is] married, has a 15-year-old son, and we live in Brooklyn. You find out I’ve committed to my husband that I would stop working for a year, because we want to adopt a child. So in the pilot I come up with the idea of doing a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and all of a sudden it’s something I cannot let go of, and everything breaks loose from there. Then you meet the Broadway producer, who’s played by Anjelica Huston, and you get to see her life. She’s going through a divorce…
MK: So you’re seeing all of your lives plus what goes into making this musical.
DM: Absolutely. You see the musical being written each episode. We have a Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote Hairspray; every episode they write an original song. And then you meet the actresses auditioning to play Marilyn; you see their lives out in New York, being a waitress and wanting to get their big break.
MK: It’s like Project Runway. Honestly, a lot of people who watch the show don’t even really care about fashion. They’re just fascinated by the process. So now we’ve got American Idol, we’ve got The Voice, and in Smash, you’ve got Katharine McPhee’s character, who’s “discovered.” There’s something oldschool, Stage Door about that.
DM: It’s brilliant because it’s life imitating art. Katharine McPhee was discovered literally before America’s eyes on American Idol. You rooted for her; I voted for her. Every week you got emotionally invested in her success. In a way, this is her entrée into a whole new world as well because it’s television. And there are real Broadway stars in our cast. Christian Borle, who plays Tom, my composer partner, was nominated for a Tony for Legally Blonde. Brian d’Arcy James [Shrek the Musical, Sweet Smell of Success] plays my husband; Megan Hilty starred in Wicked.
MK: You see people in the theater now who are brilliantly talented, like Sutton Foster—she’s a showstopper every night, and in another era she would have been Mary Martin. In today’s world, theater could be myopic, but you guys are pulling the curtain back.
DM: We’re also trying to incorporate people from the real world. Michael Riedel, the [New York Post theater] critic, he came on our show, and Bernadette Peters. We’re really trying to utilize shooting in New York, where Broadway is right outside our door.
MK: It’s kind of full circle for you. You started on off-Broadway, didn’t you?
DM: I did. I was born in Brooklyn, my mother was born in Brooklyn. She was a singer, part of a quartet in the ’60s called the BrookTones, and she played Funny Girl when I was three; I knew the words to “I’m the Greatest Star” before “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I came back here for my master’s degree from NYU, and then did off-Broadway theater until I was pulled out to LA to do Ned and Stacey.
MK: Are the wheels turning to hit the stage again?
DM: I’ve been ready since I finished graduate school. Theater was always my first love.
MK: In the right thing, we’re going to see Debra sing and dance.
DM: You’ll see me sing on Smash. We’ve already shot it.
MK: Love it. So let’s have our theater tête-à-tête. Now that you’ve been in New York, what have you seen that pushed your buttons?
DM: War Horse.
DM: The first 10 minutes, seeing the colt come to life—that was one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen. Follies…
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MK: We went twice.
DM: It blew my mind.
MK: I saw it in Washington; we flew to DC, and Bernadette said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I came to see you. Who could miss this?” Have you seen Venus in Fur?
MK: Go see it. Nina Arianda shoots across the stage and blows your mind. She’s a broad, a real dame, like a Barbara Stanwyck.
DM: We saw Billy Elliot for the second time, before it closed.
MK: I saw it three times.
DM: My son can sing it with the accent: “Electrici-taaay.”
MK: That’s amazing. Why do you feel, with everything that’s happening in your life, that this new project is perfect for you?
DM: Partly because it feels like I’m returning to my first love. I’m returning to authenticity and the purity of the theater, the thing that made me want to be an actress and feel like I had no choice. To be able to enter this world again, in a way it’s strangely comforting. To be in New York; we’ve been trying to get back to New York for so long…
MK: You’re an East Coast girl.
DM: And now we’re in a place in which New York is shooting more and more shows, thank God. Every time a new show comes along, it’s like it’s a new chapter in my life, and I try to just embrace that.
MK: I always tell people, in fashion it’s crazy, we have no choice but to reinvent four times a year. I can’t say, wear last year’s clothes, I’m taking a break.
DM: [points to her shearling coat on a nearby chair] Hey, I have something of yours from 10 years ago sitting right over there.
MK: The first time you wore Michael Kors, it was a little striped jersey crop top in the [Will & Grace] promo that Patrick Demarchelier shot. And I met you quickly for a second up in Patrick’s office; I think you stopped up when his place was over in Chelsea, and you took the picture. But we really met [in 2002] when you hosted [the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards].
DM: We met, and I was wearing your chocolate suede pants with the jacket.
MK: You talk like a fashion person because you use your hands to describe the jacket, which is what all fashion people do. But I also remember, after we met, you wore a jersey dress of ours to the Emmys that had no beads, no stuff, really plunging, laced up the front, very ’70s, which I think is so you, super-sexy ’70s. I always think you would have been the full matte-jersey disco girl, on the sofa at 54.
DM: That was the first time I was nominated.
MK: I loved that you so automatically knew what worked for you. It wasn’t the traditional gown that someone would wear on the red carpet.
DM: I know myself, but you’re still teaching me who I am. The last Emmys I went to, when I wore the red dress. Do you remember that fitting? I came in, and it was a ball on the floor. I came in with a directive: simple, simple, simple. And there’s this cherry-red, sequined-jersey thing, full glamour, and I was like, There’s Las Vegas, right there on the floor.
MK: I said, “Put that on,” and you didn’t want to go there at first.
DM: I was like, I can’t pull that off. I’m not cool enough.
MK: You needed a push, but the minute you put it on, you knew yourself well enough to say, “This is it.” A lot of women don’t.
DM: That’s sad.
MK: A lot of actresses take an endless amount of time—it’s labored ridiculousness— when they’re getting ready for an event. But you’re not really that. You might need a push, but then it’s, this is it, I’m ready, I’m going.
DM: I know what I want to wear, and I commit to it in advance.
MK: You’re not one of these people who is deciding two minutes before the car comes.
DM: Are you kidding? I’m so neurotic as it is. This whole thing about actresses having two or three gowns, and they have it all lined up…
MK: With the shoes and the jewelry…
DM: And it’s, I’ll see how I feel in the morning? I don’t know how I’m going to feel in the morning except nervous. The first thing I do each time is think, How do I want to feel this time? What aspect of Debra do I want to show? And from that I narrow it down, I find the dress, and then it’s about the accessories. I’m such a jewelry-crazed woman.
MK: I love having you at our show; when I walk out at the end, it’s so great to see you. Fashion people sit through a zillion shows, and they look like [imitates a bored face]. And you’re clapping and you have such joy. But at this point in your life, day to day, do you think about clothes?
DM: It’s a fun, special-occasion thing. If I’m going out to a charity event or hosting something, or even a personal night that’s special, I want to be fabulous. And I relax often by looking at images from fashion. It’s inspiring to me, and then it’s also wearable art. On those days when I have the excuse to put in a lot of time to play, I go for it.
MK: I always tell everyone, my job is to take a confident person and make her even more confident, and take an insecure person and make her confident. But confidence is knowing what works and what you like and who you want to be. When you said, “Which part of me do I want to show, or what do I want to say?” That’s what clothes do. It says so much about you. And you can have different moods. Do you have anything else on the horizon, or is your plate just full?
DM: No, this is everything right now. I’ve gone all in on this one. My temperament is not suited well for what I do for a living. I don’t like change…
MK: We’re Leos, we like what we like.
DM: We do not like change. So the move was really traumatic. I’m still unpacking boxes, still going to the school, to all the meetings…
MK: Wait, I have to ask you the ultimate New York question! School…
DM: It nearly killed me.
MK: It’s war out there, New York schools.
DM: Thank god my son is absolutely brilliant. They were asking me about ERB’s, and I was like, What’s an ERB? And they were like, “You haven’t been having him practice for the last year?”
MK: Debra, in New York three-year-olds speak Mandarin.
DM: They have that at his school.
MK: Of course they do. And then in New York the other crazy thing is, what do you wear to school? Because if you’re too dressed up, the other mothers don’t like you, and if you’re too dressed down, you didn’t make any effort.
DM: I can’t be bothered with that. It’s the Christmas assembly, and Roman’s singing in the chorus, and I’m in sweatpants with a scrunchie in my hair because I’m going to go into makeup and hair, but I’m there clapping for my kid.
MK: She’s a juggler. Alright, so now we’re going to get a little Proust-y. Quick responses. What’s your life motto?
DM: [exhales, then laughs] That was it. Breathe. [Thinks for a moment] Begin again.
MK: I like that. I’ll get you a needlepoint pillow.
DM: Please don’t.
MK: What’s your biggest fear?
DM: Disappointing people.
MK: Earliest memory?
DM: Singing, dancing, holding onto a corner table as a little, little girl with Broadway musicals blaring in the background. I think it might have been Funny Girl.
MK: What’s your favorite word?
MK: What’s your best fashion moment?
DM: I think it was that black dress from the Emmys because it was so consequential; I felt so comfortable and so beautiful. It was absolutely the perfect dress for me for that event. To me, it was a home run.
MK: Fabulous. I liked being part of your moment.
photography by brian bowen smith; Styling by Julie Matos for Ford Artists, NYC; Hair by Ted Gibson at TedGibsonBeauty.com; Makeup by Gita Bass for Exclusive Artists/Chanel; Manicure by Deborah Lippmann for deborahlippmann.com
May 16, 2016