Debra Messing On Her New Film, The Election And 'Will & Grace'

The actor also opened up about the origin of her new podcast, "The Dissenters."
Debra Messing stars in the new film "The Dark Divide."
Debra Messing stars in the new film "The Dark Divide."

Debra Messing is known for making us laugh. But in her latest project, the actor takes on a much more serious role: a woman who’s dying of cancer.

Messing co-stars with actor David Cross (“Arrested Development”) in “The Dark Divide,” a new film based on the true story of renowned butterfly expert Dr. Robert Pyle’s 1995 journey across one of the largest undeveloped wildlands in America.

Messing plays Robert’s wife, Thea, who urges him to embark on a life-changing expedition through Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest in search of new butterflies species. The film made its virtual theatrical debut this month and will be available via video on demand Nov. 10.

HuffPost caught up with Messing about the movie, her new podcast “The Dissenters,” politics and more.

What attracted you to the role in “The Dark Divide”? 

I saw it as an extraordinary challenge first and foremost, and I love the idea that it was a true story. And when I read it, I was really struck by the meditative nature of the film. There’s not a ton of talking in the film, and that really intrigued me. And then, of course, acting with David Cross, who I had never met before, but obviously I’ve been a huge fan. It all just made sense to me.

Can you talk a little bit more about diving into the role? There are some comedic moments throughout the film, but you’re playing a woman dying of cancer. There are some heavy themes there.

Yeah, I did a lot of research about cancer and the dynamics within families. Their families are dealing with a terminal case. And then I found this beautiful memoir by Julie Yip-Williams called “The Unwinding of the Miracle.” There’s actually a four-episode podcast about it. She was diagnosed with cancer, and she wrote a breathtaking, very descriptive memoir about her journey from being diagnosed all the way through the ups and downs until she finally passed, and her husband finished the memoir for her.

And so that was really my touchstone for certainly the emotional center of the character. She talked quite a bit about what was happening to her body, what it felt like as she got sicker, and then doing research about what happens physically to you.

And then I just really want to honor the wig-makers because they were really responsible for that full transformation. Certainly, once I was in full hair and makeup and I saw myself in the mirror, that really helped me a lot in terms of being able to make the transformation.

Messing and her co-star, David Cross, in a scene from "The Dark Divide."
Messing and her co-star, David Cross, in a scene from "The Dark Divide."

Would you say that you do that kind of prep or research for every role that you do?

I research everything I do, for sure. But, of course, each project has different requirements. I’ve had some roles where it was really about imagery, photographs and arts that inspired me or reminded me of the character or the world that the character was living in. I always make a soundtrack for every role I do. That is very potent for me to listen, have a soundtrack to the world that the film exists in.

And this film, in particular, has its own beautiful soundtrack with The Avett Brothers and other music that really carries it through. 

Yes, the music was beautiful. I think it just does justice to how visually gorgeous the film is. The director of photography was able to really capture just how diverse and gorgeous that forest is. And I have to say, I am really happy that it’s coming out now. It’s powerful that right now ― Oregon and Washington are on fire, and this film takes place entirely in the forest in Oregon and Washington. So just to let people escape from the traumas of everything that’s happening around the world and to be reminded of the healing power and the beauty of late of the natural world and our responsibility to take care of it and protect it.

And then I think it’s a story also about grief and trying to move on and doing things that you don’t think that you’re capable of doing, and sort of coming from a very dark time into the light again. And I think in that way, it’s also apropos for right now. 

With the pandemic and everything else that’s gone on this year, it does feel extra poignant to me as well. How was it working alongside David Cross?

So I just came in, and we did our scenes, and I left. That was another challenge of immediately meeting, and having that connection, and that history as a couple. I think that he and I were both of the same mind of just playing the scenes for the reality that was on the page. And so most of our scenes together, it wasn’t funny, but I do think that there were some moments that you have flashbacks to when Thea is healthier, and they’re happy. I think you can get a sense of the fact that they probably laughed a lot during their marriage. And you got a sense that Thea was the adventurous one of the two and was really the person who sort of pushed him to take risks and to go outside of his comfort zone.

Messing plays Thea, a woman with cancer, in "The Dark Divide."
Messing plays Thea, a woman with cancer, in "The Dark Divide."

Switching gears a little bit, during this time of COVID-19, you’ve come out with your own podcast. I’d love to hear more about what prompted that, as you have so many great guests on it [including Lena Waithe, Eva Longoria, Preet Bharara].

Well, Mandana Dayani, my partner, is a religious refugee from Iran. She came to America when she was 6. And she was a lawyer, and she was an executive. She’s sort of done everything. She’s brilliant. She and I, over the years, have sent each other articles and videos of just really inspiring, spectacular people doing incredible things all over the world. ... I think things have been hard the last few years. And as things became more difficult for us to keep our enthusiasm and energy going, we really kept sending things to keep each other just moving forward. And then one day, we were sitting on the couch and she said, “You know, if we have a podcast, we can make these people talk to us.”

I laughed, and I said, “Well, yeah. Yeah.” And she said, “You know what? And it doesn’t even matter if anyone ever even listened to it because we would still be able to have these people in a room, and they would have to answer all our questions.” ... We were fangirls of all of these people. They’re the superstars that we just wanted to be able to meet, and we thought it was really important to find people from a wide spectrum of areas and businesses. We have a lot of people that you’ve never heard of, but they were all accidental.

We call them accidental activists — people who didn’t decide to go to school to become an activist or grow up in a family of activists. It was just people who saw something that they thought needed to change or that there was a lack of something. And they just decided, “I’m just going to try and do something about it.”

The whole purpose of the podcast was really to inspire and empower our listeners to just take that one step to know that every one of us is an accidental activist. You just have to take that first step of doing something.

Do you consider yourself an accidental activist?

Yes. I grew up in Rhode Island in the woods, and my brother ran for state representative when he was 19. I was 15, and I knocked on doors with him across Rhode Island. So that was my first election and my first taste of politics. My parents were always involved in community actions, charities. I always knew I wanted to be an actress. And I think that when I went to NYU for graduate school, I met this extraordinary teacher, Paul Walker, and he subsequently died at 41 of AIDS. That triggered my activism when it came to trying to educate and treat and ultimately eradicate the disease, the syndrome.

But I think it was ultimately when I became global ambassador for HIV/AIDS in the NGO Population Services International, I think it was when I went to sub-Saharan Africa on those tours. And I was able to see firsthand the disparity between our world and the world that I was visiting, and all the lack and the illness. And being able to come back and bear witness, and to be able to testify on the Hill, and to be able to get funding from our government, I think that was really the thing that set me on that path of just trying to use my voice for good.

You definitely aren’t shy about expressing your views about politics on social media. How are you feeling, just a month or two away from a very important election? Are you feeling at all hopeful? 

Yes. Yes, I am. I feel like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, they have very clear progressive plans for the country, especially when it comes to the climate crisis. We have the fires, we have hurricanes, we have COVID, they have a very extensive COVID plan. I think that if people ask themselves, “Is my life better now than it was four years ago?” I think most people would say no. And I think I feel inspired and encouraged that there is a team ready on day one to take on COVID, and to get the economy back up and running, and to know that there is someone there who is going to fight for everybody in America, regardless of the color of their skin or their religion or their sexuality.

I just think that we know Joe Biden as a decent working-class man who has suffered great loss in his life. And I think that he’s the perfect person to heal our nation and to get back into good standing with the global community because he has been respected by the global community for decades.

We’re almost out of time. “Will and Grace” recently wrapped up for a second time. Now that we’ve had some time to look back on the show, what do you think about the cultural impact? 

I am profoundly proud and grateful for “Will & Grace” and the social and political impact it’s had. I will gladly have “Grace” on my tombstone.

From left, Sean Hayes as Jack McFarland, Megan Mullally as Karen Walker, Messing as Grace Adler, Eric McCormack as Will Truma
From left, Sean Hayes as Jack McFarland, Megan Mullally as Karen Walker, Messing as Grace Adler, Eric McCormack as Will Truman on "Will & Grace."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.