Jenny Cooney Carrillo
international entertainment and lifestyle journalist
Here at a horse ranch in the Hollywood Hills where our cover shoot is taking place, the smell of success is in the air. OK, so it’s more like horse manure, but Will & Grace star Debra Messing seems surprisingly unaffected by the odor that is causing much grumbling amid the assorted stylists, hair and makeup artists and assistants congregating outside the dressing room trailer where her one-year-old son Roman (with husband/screenwriter Daniel Zelman) is happily playing at her feet.
“I literally grew up next to a farm so when I was a little girl I used to run next door to watch the horses being born,” Messing says cheerfully. “It just tells you how potent your childhood memories are because everybody else is complaining but I’m strangely comforted by the smell of horse poop!”
A few days later, the 36-year-old redhead is solo and dressed down in jeans and a long-sleeved pink cotton-knit top when she arrives at the garden restaurant of the Chateau Marmont hotel and makes another unglamorous confession. “I’ve been cleaning my closets and playing with Roman all morning,” she says with a look of bliss. The Brooklyn-born Rhode-Island-raised theatre-trained actress is enjoying a three week break after wrapping another season of Will & Grace before heading to Las Vegas to shoot the drama Lucky You, also starring Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore. But over iced coffee and a salad, she’s also happy to talk about her recently-released romantic comedy The Wedding Date, in which she plays a woman who hires a male escort (Dermot Mulroney) to pose as her boyfriend at her sister's London wedding.
You lived in London when you were in college. How did you feel going back?
I literally jumped up and down when they told me we were shooting there. I attended Brandeis University near my home in Massachusetts but for my junior year in college, I went to a school that has since closed, ‘BESGIL’ (British European Studies Group in London) with only 44 students from a handful of schools that had private exchanges abroad. I majored in theatre and we had these amazing teachers from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and Cambridge and Oxford and it was a very romantic time in my life. It was the first time that I actually realized I could take care of myself.
What did that experience teach you?
I didn’t know a soul, but I went back-packing through Europe with the ‘Let’s Go’ book that all college students have and I went everywhere from the Amalfi coast in Italy to Munich to Czechoslovakia. I realized I could sleep in train stations and find places to stay and I came back from London feeling confident, strong and self-sufficient. But also in terms of my acting, it was a pivotal time because that experience made me know that I definitely wanted to do this for my life.
Would you consider moving to London?
Absolutely! The architecture is amazing and it was as beautiful as I remembered it. My husband and I turned to each other when we were there and said, ‘we could so live here,’ but it’s so expensive right now, they’d have to work on that first!
Who makes a better cup of tea?
That was my favorite thing about shooting in London. This was a tiny independent film so instead of the American movie snack table where there is tons of food and you gorge on it, we had tea and biscuits all day long on this movie and I loved it!
Have you ever wanted to impress an ex like your character in The Wedding Date?
I never concocted anything that elaborate but I’ve also never had a failed engagement. However I do remember being single and going to family weddings and feeling judged, people saying, ‘oh she’s alone’ so I did understand the impetus for her doing something so extreme. That was something universal, I thought.
You’ve been with Daniel for fourteen years and been married for almost five. That’s a rarity in Hollywood, so what’s your secret?
It’s interesting because we met when we were kids, 22, and we didn’t get engaged until seven years later and I remember all of these well-meaning people being very agitated by the fact we weren’t committed in that official way to each other. But I remember talking about this to Daniel and noticing that during the course of that seven-year courtship we had several friends who had actually married and divorced twice! We both have parents who have been together for over forty years so I think that has a lot to do with our mindset. We’ve learned that marriage is not a fairytale, but something you tend to every day and that nothing comes before our marriage and family.
How did motherhood change your life and marriage?
I actually think motherhood has saved me from my vanity and it’s a relief.  You find out so quickly what is essential, whereas before I had Roman, I might have spent an hour shopping for makeup and now it doesn’t even occur to me; if I need something, I order it on-line at midnight or depend on the nice people who are generous enough to send me things. Even my wardrobe is more about pragmatism and functionality, as you can tell looking at me today. Daniel is such a beautiful father and is madly in love with our son too. We’ve been together for so long, it just feels like part of a continuum for us.
What is your relationship to fashion and beauty these days?
I never knew anything about what I call fashion with a capital F when I was a young girl; I didn’t read fashion magazines or know designer names so I never had an awareness of the artistry of it but I knew that I loved the transformative power of clothing and makeup and hair so it makes sense that I got into acting, because it’s ideally about using those tools to lose yourself in someone else.
What are your favorite products right now?
Hair-wise, I use a lot of the Kerastase line by L’Oreal and I love Laura Mercier’s tinted moisturizer, because you can’t really mess up a little bit of color with sunscreen in it. When I need more coverage, I love Armani foundation and I also use Stila stuff.
What is the most important thing you do every day to feel good about yourself?
I take a bath every night - before it was by myself and now it’s with my son! I love bath stuff, especially Kiehls, and I use a lot of essential oils.
Why did you decide to become a redhead when you’re naturally auburn?
When I got my first movie, A Walk in the Clouds (with Keanu Reeves), they wanted me to be a redhead so they dyed my hair thirteen times and at the end of it, I was this vibrant redhead! All of a sudden I was getting jobs that I wasn’t getting prior to that; a role on NYPD Blue and a hair commercial, ironically enough, and when I got Will & Grace I told them my hair didn’t have to be red but they said they liked it. When the show ends, you may finally see me as a blonde!
How did you feel about being ordered to bed-rest during your pregnancy while you were filming Will & Grace?
I’m glad the season turned out as well as it did but it was very challenging and a lot of pressure. My first priority was to this baby and doing whatever my doctor told me, and when you have trouble in your pregnancy, it’s a personal, private thing but out of necessity I had to share that information because I was responsible to 150 other people on the set of Will & Grace who were affected. It was fantastic going back to work this season because now Grace is back to being a very physically expressive character and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it.
Were you surprised that your show became so successful with a gay character in the lead?
I think our show is hilariously funny but the unexpected social and political effects that it’s had are the things that make me feel most proud. When we first came on the air, Ellen’s show was just going off the air because her character had come out of the closet, so we fully expected to be pulled off the air because America had made their choice. But our four characters were clear right from the start - and almost blasé - about their sexual identify, that two are straight, two are gay. So it became more about us trying to get through life as single people with all the things everybody has to contend with, rather than whether you’re gay or straight.
Jenny Cooney Carrillo
Jenny Cooney Carrillo InStyle cover story interview with Will and Grace star Debra Messing