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Any shrink will tell you that you should never change your job, your home, and your relationship at the same time. But Debra Messing just did it. After nearly two years out of the spotlight, she's back on TV, playing a Broadway writer with a dramatic personal life of her own in NBC's Smash. After 15 years in Los Angeles -- where she starred in the hit series Will & Grace -- she's moved to New York City, where Smash is filmed. And after a two-decade relationship (including a 10-year marriage) with producer Daniel Zelman, she's newly separated. So yeah, things are a little bit crazy right now. "It's hard to go through a change in your personal life as big as this anyway," says Messing. "But to do it when Smash is premiering, when I'm back at work after almost two years, is not ideal."
Her friends say if anyone can handle the pressure, it's Messing. "Some people would be tempted to go undercover and hide," says costar Anjelica Huston. "But Debra is an adventurous spirit. She takes things head-on." Messing, 43, certainly doesn't appear flustered as she arrives for lunch at a Manhattan café. Her trademark auburn hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she is knitting -- yes, knitting while walking. "Knitting relaxes me," she says, holding up the project, a hat, for her son, Roman, 8. "It makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something."
Knitting needles in hand, Messing settles in for a talk about everything from the birthday party she's planning for Roman (20 kids, bowling) to recent realizations she's had about herself to the tribulations of dropping a stitch. "For years I didn't know how to fix one," she says. "But I'm learning how to now. And I'm not giving up."
You've been through so much. Let's start with the move from L.A. to New York. How was it?
Completely traumatic. I had to find a school for my second-grader. We didn't have a home, we didn't have furniture. It was literally moving here with nothing but faith and hope.
Being famous doesn't guarantee your child a spot in a good school?
No. And believe me, I tried. For my son's education and happiness, I will play the celebrity card. Luckily, he did well enough to secure a place in the school where we really wanted to be.
You came to New York for Smash. What did you like about your character, Julia?
I related to how difficult it is to maintain balance on a daily basis. Some days you succeed at it, some days you don't. And I related to the idea that the show she wrote was kind of a siren's call. She had promised her husband that she was not going to work while they were trying to adopt a baby, and then she had an idea for a Broadway show. It rang true for me -- when an idea comes, you have to follow it. The challenge that caused in her marriage was also something I related to, and had experienced myself. Julia has to please her husband, her writing partner, her teenage son, and herself. And isn't that the challenge of women every day, trying to please everybody? And failing? [She laughs.]
Can we talk about some of those challenges in your own marriage? You and your husband were together a long time.
Twenty years. It's a very long time. When I say the move to New York was traumatic, it was traumatic because every aspect of my life was going through a huge change.
So you were already discussing a separation before you moved?
Oh yes. Yes, yes. [She pauses, then continues with care.] It's a new chapter in my personal life. I'm walking a path I've never walked before. But I'm optimistic. Every thought is dictated by what's best for our son. We are completely on the same page in that regard. We are dear friends. And I am at peace with the journey we've had. I feel like the 20 years we had together has been a huge success. And despite the fact that everything is changing, I think everyone is thriving.
Would you say that you and your husband grew apart?
No. [She pauses again.] I think the institution of marriage is a noble thing. I think the idea of a partner for life is incredibly romantic. But now we're living to 100. A hundred years ago, people were dying at age 37. Til death do us part was a much different deal.
How's your son, Roman, doing?
It's exciting watching him navigate New York City. Every month I see him growing stronger and more confident and brave. He says, "I can go walk the dog by myself." I say, "No, you can't, but I'm thrilled you want to." He's become a little man in a very short time.
Do you feel a different kind of energy, being in New York City?
I feel more at home. I remember, 20 years ago, talking with the head of New York University's grad school program, which I attended. He said something to the effect that the students NYU accepts are the more character-y, quirky people. I've always felt that about myself. I'm not classically beautiful. Growing up in Rhode Island, being one of three Jewish kids, I always felt like I was "the other." But at NYU, none of us fit into a mold, and we were treated as if we could do anything. With beautiful costuming and lighting, anybody can be transformed on stage into a beautiful leading lady. But you learn very quickly when you go to Los Angeles that it's not about transformation. You have to be born that way.
On paper your career looks like a string of green lights. You landed your first major role -- in Ned and Stacey -- soon after you graduated from NYU. Then Will & Grace.
When Will & Grace hit, it completely changed all of our lives. We had people hiding in the bushes, we were on the cover of magazines. But when I read an amazing script for a film that was shooting during my hiatus -- it was A Beautiful Mind [which eventually starred Jennifer Connelly] -- I had to fight to get a meeting. They said, "Oh no, she's funny, she's TV girl." I can't fault [director] Ron Howard for looking at Grace and thinking, "I don't see it." That's how the world saw me. At some point you have to come to terms with, This is where I am in this community. I'm in a privileged position. But there's always going to be someone in a more privileged position than me.
Have the recent changes in your life made you reexamine who you are, what you want?
Oh, absolutely. I'm trying to keep things as simple as possible -- embracing saying "no" and being okay with people being unhappy with me.
Because by saying "yes" you would overextend yourself?
Yes. I say "no" in order to take better care of myself. I think a lot of saying "yes" is wishful thinking. I have a friend who can work 16 hours a day, go to a charity event every night, be a mother, go away for long weekends overseas, and be completely fulfilled and restored by all of that. I'm restored by solitude and quiet. I am now unapologetic about saying, "You know what? Saturday I'm just going to be home with my son."
What's it been like going through all this change in your 40s?
I know myself better than I ever have before. I feel more attractive now than I have in a long time. I feel healthier and stronger. I don't exercise -- that's something I struggle with. I'm naturally lean and I'm constantly walking. I'll exercise in spurts, usually inspired by a dress I have to fit into. But once that gown is squeezed into, if I continue to exercise, I get sick or I pull my back. For some reason my body literally rejects exercise. [Just now a woman at the next table leans over and invites Messing to a play she wrote, then hands her a card advertising it. After the woman leaves, Messing holds up the card.] Okay, here's an example of what I'm talking about. Odds are I won't have time to see this play. But I will take this card home, and I'll try to go. If I were really accepting of myself, I would recycle this card right now. But I'm not there yet.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2012.