“Sometimes I’ll see somebody and they just instantly burst into tears.”
Megan Mullally is talking about especially animated fans who recognize her as Karen Walker from Will & Grace, which returned to NBC in a roundly celebrated revival this fall. “I always just give them a big hug and I’m like, ‘I’m so boring! You don’t understand,” she adds.
But admirers old and new of Grace’s brassy assistant will agree that there’s nothing boring about Mullally’s scene-stealing character, whom audiences first met during the series’ original eight-season run from 1998 to 2006. When the sitcom’s famous foursome first reunited last September for a video to encourage viewers to vote in the 2016 presidential election, the biggest bombshell came with Karen’s choice of candidate.
“She’s a Trump supporter on paper,” Mullally tells ET over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. The political tone of the PSA, which served as a precursor to this fall’s new episodes, remains, particularly when it comes to Karen. “It’s a little meta, but all of her jokes are the most pointedly anti-Trump, without her knowing that [they are].” But in Karen’s defense, the actress says she’s a horrible person. “That’s what makes her a great character.”
Despite the show’s more aggressive political undertones, much about the new Will & Grace feels the same as the first time around -- for pretty much everyone involved. “It feels like we never left. I’d say we have about 70 percent of all the same people from 11 and a half years ago on the floor,” Mullally says, referring to everyone from camera operators and designers to craft services and, of course, longtime series director James Burrows.
“When we sat down for the table read,” she says of preparing for the 2016 reunion video, “We were like, ‘Holy sh*t.’ We were all looking around at each other like, ‘Um, you guys, this is Will & Grace.’ It feels like we never left; it also seems that a miracle has occurred.”
And Karen was on deck, ready to deliver her razor-sharp punch lines. “I felt like she’d just been in there standing by, waiting for the curtain to go back up or something. It was all just right there,” says the actress, whose theater background means she’s perfectly at home in front of a live audience. Mullally has four Broadway productions under her belt; most recently, she starred in It’s Only a Play in 2014, opposite Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.
As viewers can likely tell from home, studio audiences of the new Will & Grace episodes have been explosive. “The first taping was like a Beatles concert. It was a little scary, like, is the building going to explode?” Mullally recalls. “I started out doing theater for many years, so for me, I love it. When there’s a big laugh and you have to fill [the time] and you find funny things, it’s theater.”
But for all the laughs, the show has delivered one of its most touching moments so far when dealing with Rosario’s absence from the revival. Shelley Morrison, who played Karen’s longtime maid and best friend and appeared briefly in the election PSA, has retired from acting and declined to return to the series. In the episode titled “Rosario’s Quinceanera,” Karen is forced to say goodbye to Rosario, who unexpectedly dies in the hospital.
For Mullally, who recently turned 59, it was a chance to show a side of Karen -- and of herself as an actress -- that no one has ever seen before. “I started acting when I was 12; nobody’s ever handed me material like that in my whole career,” she says, “thrilled” for Karen to have a moment like that. “It was so poignant, I think, for everybody. And we really do miss Shelley and the character of Rosario; [I felt] that they really did right by her, and that was important to me also.”
While it’s been a decade since Will & Grace’s finale, Mullally hasn’t been far from the screen, with memorable appearances on the second season of Party Down and as Tammy Two opposite her husband, Nick Offerman, on Parks and Recreation, as well as voicing Gayle on Bob’s Burgers. Mullally has also become a reliable supporting player with roles in G.B.F. and Why Him? This year, she can be seen in The Disaster Artist, starring James Franco, and the buzzy black comedy Lemon. But none of that has topped her reprisal of Karen.
“I’m just very grateful,” Mullally says of returning to the role for which she’s most beloved. “Every minute we’re on the set, we feel it. We feel like, ‘OK, savor this because this sh*t came back, and that’s not supposed to happen!’ It makes it that much sweeter. To have it airing on the same network, same time slot. It’s a beautiful thing.”