Debra Messing, like the Virgin Queen Elizabeth she portrays in the opening fantasy sequence of The Starter Wife, holds court among the gathered reporters on a sunny September day in Los Angeles. She’s not quite as elaborately styled — opting for slacks, a sleeveless green blouse, chunky jewelry and an artfully messy ponytail — but she still commands attention.
The set visit to Culver Studios is for the new USA series The Starter Wife, which follows the miniseries of the same name based on Gigi Levangie’s bestselling book. This time around, Messing isn’t just the star but has also donned the hat of executive producer.
"It’s been much harder and much more exhausting than I thought it would be. It’s almost like left brain, right brain," Messing admits about her dual roles. "But it’s something that I think I’m good at and I don’t say that about many things. Just having a forum to speak up creatively about something, it’s just made me that much more invested and makes me care that much more about the project. I am so proud of it."
Although Messing hadn’t been looking to take on another series after ending her run on Will & Grace, her positive experience with writers Josie McGibbon and Sara Parriott and the cast of the Starter Wife miniseries convinced her that she shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. "So I took my cowardice hat off and did it," she says.
Messing’s character Molly Kagan has gone through some changes since we last saw her in the miniseries. For one, her love interest Sam Knight (Stephen Moyer who currently plays a vampire on HBO’s True Blood), the hot, homeless beach bum is no longer in the picture. The writers decided to appeal to more men in the audience through the use of humor but also by creating more realistic male characters.
"We have more sort of guys’ guys than we did in the other one," McGibbon explains. "Our romantic lead in the miniseries was more a romance novel type guy. He was the mysterious, homeless guy, and here [in a series] we have more layers. We need to live with these people now. It’s not just a movie."
Unfortunately, fans won’t get to see Molly and Sam part ways, only learn about it through dialog.
"Originally Sara and I wanted her breaking up with Sam to be the bulk of the first episode," adds McGibbon. "We’re new to TV because we’ve been feature writers until now. And the network felt strongly that the first episode has to be about the future of the series. They know these things better than we do. We just thought it would be so satisfying to see something blow up, you know. So we kind of do here in a couple of lines and we reference what happened with him."
Fear not though. Molly will still get romance and a pursue a different career path all in one fell swoop when she meets Zach McNeill, played by Hart Bochner.
"Molly is now a single mom and needs to find a career and a way of supporting herself and her child," says Messing. "As you knew in the miniseries, she was a children’s book author. At the end of the miniseries, she came out, finally, with her second book and you learned that it did not sell at the beginning of the series. And so that is really no longer an avenue."
"I play a quite successful screenwriter, and part of my issue is that I’m going through this period of being creatively blocked," explains Bochner. "And I think one of the ways out of it is to talk about the process and so I put together a group of published writers who come to my house once a week. So the first meeting is, I requested that everybody read a portion of their published work.
"And Debra’s character Molly, is a published writer who has actually written a children’s pop-up book about sharks," he continues. "I didn’t know that going in, but it’s not nearly as legitimate as some of the other writers. But she quickly finds her voice under my encouragement and tutelage and her work is quite surprising. She’s able to dig deep and into the depths of what she’s been going through."
As Molly struggles with her career, she’s also having difficulties with her ex-husband Kenny (David Alan Basche), namely regarding their daughter Jaden (Brielle Barbusca).
"You can expect that Molly and Kenny will have differing ideas about what’s appropriate for their child," says Messing. "They have to deal with going to school functions and sharing custody and wanting to switch days. You know, someone was supposed to pick her up at school and all of the things that I think divorced parents who have kids and they share custody, deal with."
Amongst all this drama, Molly naturally continues to look stylish and put-together well thanks to costume designer Agata Maskiewicz.
"Well, she’s sort of classic stylish and a little free-spirited," explains Maskiewicz about creating Molly’s look. "Molly tries to be this very specific woman. She used to try to be a wife and now she’s a mother. Beautiful clothes, and she always puts something special on it. Usually it’s like jewelry. They’re like statement pieces. Most of the time clothes are a little simpler than the jewelry. Jewelry, shoes, bags, more accessories."
Messing also has input into what her character wears.
"She’s very stylish, and she has excellent taste," adds Maskiewicz. "It’s nice to have somebody who loves it as much as you do because then you talk about it and we have fun with it in silly ways. Once I bought her hot pink sequin Manolos. I thought she was going to cry, she was so happy, and it just cracked me up. It was perfect."
The costuming department really has its work cut out for them during the elaborate fantasy sequences that place Molly and her friends in spoofs of various movies. The series begins with Messing dressed as the titular queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and from there, the series takes her on a number of adventures, whether it’s suspended from the ceiling a la Mission: Impossible, playing the Jack Nicholson part in A Few Good Men or as the star of Hello Molly.
"I was a hoofer when I was a little girl. I wanted to be a Broadway triple threat," reveals Messing. "So for that one day my dream came true and I was Carol Channing. We were down in downtown Los Angeles in this just magnificent old theater and we had the velvet staircase. We had chorus boys and, I mean, the entire cast, you know, singing and dancing and it was insane."
And even though she has done a wide range of roles through the fantasy sequences, there’s still one type that she would love to tackle.
"Well, I would really love to do a silent movie, a Lillian Gish [movie] of some kind," she says, "and just have the little subtitles underneath. I can’t name one movie, but just the idea of it excites me."
The series The Starter Wife debuts on USA on Friday, Oct. 10.