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It's a good life for the 'Starter Wife'

After the success of last year's miniseries, Debra Messing was asked to return. Before she said yes, she had a few . . . requests.

October 10, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Clearly, there are worse jobs than working on a show that sends up Hollywood excess. On location in Malibu recently, cast and crew of the new USA series "The Starter Wife" worked happily, as stars Debra Messing, David Alan Basche and Hart Bochner along with countless extras -- dressed exquisitely for a wedding -- slow-danced, for take after take, overlooking the sparkling sea.

But glorious days with beautiful people and cupcakes in Malibu aren't everything.

Messing initially balked at reprising the role of Molly Kagan, whom she had played in the popular summer 2007 miniseries about a newly divorced mother, her hotshot studio boss ex, her recovering alcoholic best friend and her adventures in dating.

After eight seasons on NBC's "Will & Grace," Messing had planned on a break to spend time with her son, 4-year-old Roman, and her husband, Emmy-nominated "Damages" co-creator Daniel Zelman. The miniseries had been shot in Australia and she wasn't looking forward to going back.

So she made a list -- as only those who can, do -- of demands.

That she got almost everything, including a title of executive producer and a more costly Los Angeles location, testifies to her savvy and an awareness of her own worth. Though additional characters have made the series more of an ensemble, she said quite accurately, "I am 'The Starter Wife.' I am the center of the show."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Debra Messing: An article in Friday's Calendar section about actress Debra Messing referred to the Culver Studios as the Culver City Studios.

She is also, she said, a "very emotional person" with a head for business.

Working on a long-running series like "Will & Grace" is hard, she said, not just because of the time spent acting but also the hours logged doing publicity. Because of the number of women's magazines, female stars are called on often for interviews and photo shoots. "It's an 80-hour week sometimes," Messing said.

When that series ended, she planned on a six-month hiatus. Then came the film "The Women" and the undeniably tempting script for the "Starter Wife" miniseries, based loosely on the novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer. The miniseries wound up being nominated for 10 Emmys, with Judy Davis winning for supporting actress.

The qualitative and quantitative success surpassed USA's expectations, said Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions. "It literally took off to such a great degree, there was no way we could not" pursue a series, she said, but only if Messing "embraced it and genuinely wanted to do it."

Getting her voice heard

"Before jumping in, I had to sit back and think, 'What are the repercussions of taking this job if it potentially goes on for six years?' " Messing said. "There's no other job on earth where you're asked to sign on for six years before you even know what the experience is going to be."

The first item on her list was that USA shoot the series locally. "I'm a mother, and I said it would have to shoot in Los Angeles," she said. "I want him to be able to stay in his school, to sleep in his house, for me to be able to sleep at my house."

The day after her final scene of the season, Messing, 40, sat in a rocker on the set at Culver City Studios, waiting for a sitter to bring her son so they could both bid farewell to the cast. Hair unpoufed, makeup reduced, her glamour quotient had sunk a bit from the Malibu setting. From under a long, sparkly skirt, she stuck out her foot to display a slipper with a flapping sole -- what happens when she dresses herself, she said.

Messing said she got her business sense from her businessman father, and, naturally, her experiences in television. After shifting the show's location, her next priority was to ensure she had some creative control. She knew that "The Starter Wife," as an ongoing project, would have different considerations over finances, viewership and fitting into the brand.

She's had her share of acting experiences where she was treated as a "dancing monkey," she said. And with media conglomeration, the increased number of people giving notes, or suggestions, can make a project lose focus, she said.

"If you're the star of the show and you're unhappy with the writing or the trajectory of the show or the tone, you can express your displeasure, but at the end of the day, they really don't have to do anything about it.

"If you're an executive producer, they have to listen."

She also insisted that miniseries writers Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon return for the series, along with at least half the original cast (although, as the ex-husband, Basche replaced Peter Jacobson, who was committed to "House"), that the show would pick up where it left off, and that there would be a maximum of 10 episodes the first season. "I tried to get it to eight, but I lost that battle," she said.

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