Debra Messing Recalls Sexual Harassment 'Power Play' On Set With Director Alfonso Arau

"Your job is to get naked and to say the lines," he allegedly told her.

”Her nose is ruining my movie!” Debra Messing began a theatrical retelling of her first experience shooting a Hollywood film. It introduced her to Keanu Reeves, a gorgeous set in Napa Valley, and the rampant misogyny that has plagued the film industry for decades upon decades.

At age 25, Messing had been cast in her first big movie, 1995’s “A Walk in the Clouds,” the actress recalled with both humor and gravitas at the MAKERS conference in California this week. The film starred Reeves, whom Messing notes was fresh off the rush of publicity surrounding 1994’s “Speed,” and had recruited, in her words, “ass-hat” director Alfonso Arau. 

Although Messing was a highly trained actress fresh out of a master’s program and dedicated to a career in film, she said Arau subjected her to a series of humiliations over her body. 

The most disturbing one came as the director and male producers surprised the actress with plans to shoot a nude scene she hadn’t agreed to do, at a part in the film where Reeves finds Messing’s character in bed with another man.

Messing’s agent told her that refusing would likely get her fired. When she asked the director for an explanation, he berated her, allegedly saying, “Your job is to get naked and to say the lines. That’s it,” before shooing her away. 

After body makeup was applied for the scene, Messing said Arau decided he needed to “set” the single sheet covering her on the bed.

“He lifts it, scans my naked body, then drops the sheet on top of me like a used Kleenex. He walks away without a word,” the actress said. After being sized up during shooting by the director, who walked around her mostly nude body instructing her to cover up her “nipple” or “ass,” the actress said the only part of her unclothed body on view in the film is her back. 

“The whole thing was a power play, a game,” she said. “And the goal, to demean me, to strip me of my power and make me feel on a cellular level his dominance over me.”

Debra Messing and her lovely schnoz.
Debra Messing and her lovely schnoz.

Trouble on the “Walk in the Clouds” set had started even earlier, during a kiss scene between Messing and Reeves. Recalling Arau’s “look of horror” seeing a close-up shot of her face, Messing said the director shouted out, “How quickly can we get a plastic surgeon in here? Her nose is ruining my movie!”

“I can’t do this! Look at this!” Arau shouted, she said, pointing to her nose at the monitor where the footage was displayed. The actress remembered feeling “frozen, horrified, mortified” during the awkward moment on set. Soon the director walked over and asked for Messing to help him by hiding her nose from the camera. 

The actress said she “felt deep shame” for her Jewish heritage, remembering anti-Semitic incidents from her childhood in a community without Jewish people.

But “A Walk in the Clouds” wasn’t the only time she’s faced gross misogyny in her career, the actress said. 

Deciding to pursue theater and TV projects instead of film from then on, Messing was cast just a few years later in the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace.” The show embraced her small-breasted body only after she questioned needing to wear chicken cutlets in her bra. Evidently, the bra-stuffing request had come from an NBC executive who declined to explain himself.

“Success out of truth. This is who I am,” Messing stated.