Debra Messing on Getting Political, Losing Jobs and Paying No Mind to the Tabloids (Exclusive)
By Brice Sander
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I open Zoom to find the face of Grace Adler herself staring back at me.
"Oh, there you are! I thought my computer was broken," Debra Messing announces, having logged onto the video chat service a solid five minutes before our interview was set to start. "I'm always early!"
The apparently perennially punctual actress is sitting in her New York home, earbuds in, ready to talk about her next chapter, which kicked off when she closed the last one by saying goodbye to Will & Grace for the second time in April. Weeks later, she shifted to new media, launching the podcast The Dissenters. It's a weekly show where Messing and her co-host, I Am a Voter founder Mandana Dayani, interview people they've dubbed "dissenters," a term borrowed from Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s infamous "I dissent" line.
"A 'dissenter' is someone who stood up to an injustice or challenged the status quo; someone who fought to find a better way," Messing’s instantly recognizable voice explains at the top of every episode. Guests range from A-list stars (Eva Longoria), to politicians (Adam Schiff), authors (Glennon Doyle) and regular people doing extraordinary things, like Amanda Nguyen, the woman Messing and Dayani dubbed "The Civil Rights Astronaut." Nguyen scored a Nobel Peace Prize nomination before she turned 30 after fighting to pass the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act.
The show is the first time in Messing's now decades-long career where the microphone is turned around. She gets to ask the questions -- and she doesn't have to play a character. She just gets to be Debra Messing.
"I'm discovering how much I love being the person who gets to ask all the questions," Messing admits with a laugh. "It's extraordinary to be able to have these incredibly inspiring people sit in the room with me and they have to answer all my questions. They’re trapped! They have to."
"I am more fulfilled by this than I ever imagined I would be," she confesses. “I feel so grateful and I do feel good about putting out something positive and uplifting and empowering during a time where everyone is really suffering and struggling."
While some might assume Messing made the pivot to podcasting because of the coronavirus pandemic, The Dissenters was actually born (and many episodes recorded) before the near-global shutdown. The passion behind the show was born long before podcasting even existed. Messing, a self-proclaimed social justice advocate, says she's been doing the work of bringing truth to power and fighting for what's right since she was a kid. That drive became political once Messing realized she could use her celebrity to enact the change she was so desperate to see in the world.
"Have I always been this political? No, not at all," she admits. "I really think that when I became global ambassador for HIV/AIDS through the NGO Population Services International about 12 years ago and I started traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and then coming back and testifying on the Hill to try and procure money for these preventions and other treatments, I think that was when it really sort of clicked into me that, you know, people have needs. And we have this government that we can go and try to get support from and, obviously I'm not a congressperson, but as someone who is a public person, I was given this platform that's a privilege and so, I really just try to use my platform for good."
"It is surreal," she says, recalling seeing the notification of Trump’s tweet pop up in her feed. "I honestly thought I was being punk'd when I first saw it. But it really was absurd, because I felt like, well, I'm nobody. Like, why are you talking about me? Why are you talking to me? Why can't you be talking about the children who are in cages right now? So my response was to encourage him to focus on the things that really mattered and I really wasn't one of them."
Messing doesn't like to be "the story." It's why you don't see her respond to tabloid reports about behind-the-scenes "feuds" or other headlines that might just be using her name for clicks.
"You know, we are human and when things that are written about us that are patently untrue, it is frustrating, because you do want to defend yourself," she says. "You do want to say, 'No, that is not me,' but you're screaming into a barrel. It's not going to land on the people who you want to hear it and then it just continues to live on. So it's just better to let it move on, 'cause there's going to be something tomorrow. There's always something."
The "something" Messing is focused on right now is the 2020 election. She's supporting (to no one's surprise) Democratic nominee Joe Biden, but she's even more eagerly supporting every eligible American’s right to vote.
"It's our duty, it's our civic duty as Americans," she proclaims. "It's astonishing to know that 45 percent of the American population didn't vote in 2016. It's mind-blowing, and of course this is more important than ever because our country is suffering so much. Because we have 180,000 people who have died [from COVID-19] and there is no plan, and there is no treatment yet. And our economy has crashed and there's unemployment numbers that are just devastating. There's just a lot of suffering."
"I feel like when you go into a voting booth, that gives you power," Messing continues. "You are using your voice and that's the one time where your voice is exactly equal to every single person who goes into that voting booth. And it's your opportunity to say, I want the country to go in this direction. So I just like to tell people, take your power back."
Messing's evolution into a more political player in Hollywood hasn't gone unnoticed by those in charge, and that's not necessarily a good thing for the star. During her The Dissenters interview with Sophia Bush, both actresses admitted to having lost out on big paydays because the corporations behind endorsement deals and even acting jobs found it too risky to hire women so vocal.
"I won't get into specifics, but I do know that there were some job offers that were almost closed, and then there was some hesitation about me being outspoken," Messing tells ET. "And I respect that. These are private businesses and they have the right to choose whomever they think represents them the best. It's not going to stop me from expressing my opinion or fighting on behalf of people who need support, who are marginalized. It's just a choice that I've made."
On the show, Bush joked that she didn’t want the companies' "blood money" anyway, a sentiment Messing agrees with, just maybe not with such strong words.
"She's a potent speaker, isn't she?" Messing says of her friend. "But I think it's… it's pretty much the same idea."
The industry hasn't shut Messing out by any means. She'll return to Broadway (whenever that's possible) to star in her "dream job," the play Birthday Candles, in which her character ages from 17 to 107 without Messing ever leaving the stage. She's also gearing up to start work on a new, 1980s-set, single-camera sitcom for Starz, East Wing, created by her friend (and The Dissenters guest), Ali Wentworth. It's inspired by Wentworth's mother, who was the social secretary for the Reagan administration.
"It was a time when Democrats and Republicans could really disagree on the Hill and then they'd have dinner afterwards," Messing notes. "And they would laugh and they would drink and it was-- there was decency, and I just think that kind of nostalgia, I think that will be healing for all of us to see."
Playing a civil servant on TV is as close to a political career as Messing's willing to get. While her friends are urging her to run for office, Messing says she's not sure she's cut out for that world.
"I just keep saying, 'No, no, no, no, no,' I think I'm much more effective as an advocate," she offers. "I think that I am very fiery and I would not be able to sit there, you know, and have [Mitch] McConnell lie ... without standing up and saying, 'You're a liar!' I couldn't keep it together, so I think it's better that people who have more poise than me are the ones who are actually in office, and I could be behind the scenes being like, 'What do you need? How can I help you?'"
The Dissenters is part of that mission to be of service. While season 1 only has a few episodes left to premiere, Messing and Dayani are already cooking up ideas for season 2, which will feature 20 more game-changers.
In between tapings, Messing is squeezing in quarantine ukulele and piano lessons -- and viewings of The Real Housewives. For the record, she's staunchly on Brandi Glanville's side of the Denise Richards drama on Beverly Hills -- "[Denise] just kept standing up and leaving whenever things got a little hot, and you can't do that on the Housewives. You got to stay at dinner and have a glass broken and, like, spaghetti thrown at you." -- and absolutely devastated by Dorinda Medley's exit from New York.
"I mean, I feel happy for her if she feels like she is sort of done with this chapter and now she's ready to move on," she says. "And I think probably not having a camera 24/7 around for years on end, that ending is probably a healthy thing and I think she'll probably be happy… but she's fun when she gets drunk."
And with that, Messing waves goodbye and closes out of the Zoom. The Dissenters is available wherever you listen to podcasts from Dear Media, and you can check your voter registration status and local election information anytime at IAmaVoter.com.