When “Will & Grace” began back in 1998, the New York-set sitcom was a major cultural groundbreaker for mainstream TV: Will (McCormack) was a gay lawyer with a straight best friend, interior designer Grace (Messing); and Will’s flamboyant pal Jack (Hayes) and Grace’s tipsy, filthy-rich office assistant Karen (Mullally) rounded out their foursome. The comedy turned on rapid-fire dialogue packed with topical references and plentiful gay puns, interspersed with broad physical gags and many a celebrity cameo (Cher is rumored to be a return guest this season; Andrew Rannells and Jane Lynch memorably appeared in Episode 4, “Grandpa Jack,” as singing co-counselors at a gay-conversion camp).
Society’s come a long way since the initial run of “Will & Grace.” Gay marriage is legal. Countless public figures are now out and proud. Transgender has become a household word. And this humble sitcom accomplished a lot toward making all those changes. In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden even cited it in his endorsement of gay marriage: “I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost nearly anything anybody has ever done so far,” he said on “Meet the Press.”
Messing recalls a cherished story from the show’s early years. “I was in middle America, in an airport, and this woman came up to me and said, ‘I have a story to tell you. My husband hates gays.’ And I was like, ‘OK .. .’ I mean, what do you say to that?” says the Brooklyn-born actress, who was raised in Rhode Island. “She said she was watching our show and laughing and laughing, and eventually her husband started to sit in the room reading the newspaper, but refused to watch. ‘And now,’ she told me, ‘he walks around the house going: Just Jack!’ ”
Humor is, and always has been, the great cultural unifier – although Messing thinks it may now be more crucial than ever. “People are grateful to have an escape,” says the actress, whose iconic red mane makes it so tough to go incognito that she gets a lot of fan feedback. “Mostly they’ll say, ‘Thank you so much for coming back. Thank you for making me chortle. It feels like forever since I’ve laughed out loud, and it feels like old friends have come back.’”
Messing is also loving being back in Grace’s wild wardrobe, which has inspired some choice one-liners on the show. “[Costume designer] Lori Eskowitz-Carter is brilliant,” says Messing. “She brought in cutting-edge stuff back in the day. One of them was a pony-skin skirt with a cow print. I walked out onstage in it and the writers were like, ‘We HAVE to write a joke about that.’” The joke went to Mullally, whose character snarked, “Got skirt?”
This time around, Messing’s adding her own suggestions. “Recently, I wore this Gucci skirt that had big, open-mouthed tigers across the front. I was like, ‘You have to do a pussy joke, you have to!’” She says the cast never knows which lines will end up in the final version – shot in front of a live studio audience and often rewritten on the fly – but listen for that one in the episodes to come. One is a “Will & Grace” holiday special, slated for Dec. 5. “Grace has never had a very successful family experience during the holidays, so the gang’s annual tradition of spending Christmas Eve together means a great deal to her,” says Messing. “I’m not going to tell you just about anything about the plot, but I will say that it goes back in time and is a wink to a much loved holiday story. I had the great pleasure of playing a very broad character that was also a kind of homage to a movie character that means a lot to me.”
Messing is a different person than when “Will & Grace” first hit the small screen almost two decades ago. Now 49, she says she’s more sure of herself, and more likely to assert her opinion and her needs. For that matter, so is Grace – Messing made certain of that. “The one thing I requested of [creators] Max [Mutchnik] and David [Kohan] was that I wanted Grace to be more autonomous and identified as a feminist,” she says. “I felt that was a natural progression. And within this seismic cultural shift, it feels important to be able to embody someone who’s strong and self-sufficient, who feels fulfilled by her career and her great friends and her family.”
Gone is Leo (Harry Connick Jr.), Grace’s husband when the series initially ended in 2006; the new season casually erases the events of your finale, which saw her and Will settled with their respective partners and kids, with a throwaway line about how it was all – maybe? – a dream.
The idea for bringing back “Will & Grace” was born when the cast reunited to shoot a get-out-the-vote video last September – which went spectacularly viral – and the show continues to put its politics out front. The first episode of Season 9, “11 Years Later,” includes a joke about Grace owning a “pussy hat,” the knit pink caps worn to January’s Women’s Marches, and sees her grappling with the morality of accepting a job redecorating the Oval Office to get a president she loathes.
Messing, who’s been a vocal presence on social media during the recent outpouring of stories of sexual harassment under the #metoo hashtag, has described herself as “firework woke.” Recently, she went public with her own disturbing experience: In her first film role, at 25, in Alfonso Arau’s 1995 film “A Walk in the Clouds,” she says the director sprung a nude scene on her that wasn’t in her contract, then shamed her for questioning him and then body-shamed her when she was undressed on set (Arau has denied these claims).
“After telling the story about Alfonso,” Messing says, “I realized I hadn’t spent any time thinking back over my other experiences. There were other egregious things that happened. And I just thought at the time, ‘Well, this guy is a director and I’m the young woman in the cast and so I guess that’s what happens.’ There were consequences to rebuffing someone. And so it was, ‘OK, I’m going to get through this, I’m going to do my job, and interact with this person as little as possible.’ It wasn’t the creative experience I should have been able to have.” As usual, “Will & Grace” will tackle the topical subject; Messing says there’s a sexual-harassment plot in an upcoming episode.
The actress is also over apologizing for having allergies, for which she was mocked in the media earlier this year. A copy of her rider for an event in New York was made public, and it detailed her ban on fish, gluten, wool, cashmere and most flowers, among an array of other things, all of which can make her sick. “For a long time I tried to keep that private, because so quickly you become labeled ‘high-maintenance,’” she says. “As a young woman, I didn’t see a way of sharing that information and expecting compassion in return. And I didn’t want to give anyone a reason not to cast me.” That all changed when she was shooting “The Wedding Date” in 2003, and suffered a severe allergy attack after shooting a scene in a country field, shutting down production for hours because of her swollen eyes and red face. She says she’s used humor as a defense mechanism ever since: “I’ll be like, ‘I’m allergic to everything!’ If you acknowledge it first, if you call yourself high-maintenance, maybe they won’t say it about you.” But now, she says, “I don’t care what people think anymore. This is all about growing up and deciding to accept yourself.”
And she is thrilled to be in that new self-loving zone with her old castmates, a reunion none of them really saw coming. “All our priorities have changed,” says Messing, who co-parents her 13-year-old son, Roman, with her ex-husband, producer Daniel Zelman. “We always loved to giggle together,” she says of McCormack, Hayes and Mullally, “but I think we have a real sense of gratitude about the opportunity to come back to chuckle together. To enter back into a world that feels happy and safe.”