Before she won raves as the redheaded half of television’s “Will & Grace” — and before she started trending on Twitter for asking The Hollywood Reporter to publish the names of show-business Trump supporters — Debra Messing was making her stage-acting debut in the Intiman Theatre’s 1993 production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
“It was my first job out of graduate school,” Messing said recently. “I remember walking down the waterfront and having lunch on the grass overlooking the water, and walking to the theater every day, and the rain, and being very excited. But I haven’t been back.”
That will change Saturday, when Messing will be interviewed onstage at Benaroya Hall as part of SEAJAM, the Seattle Jewish Arts + Music Festival, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stroum Jewish Community Center (SJCC) on Mercer Island, and its 70th year in Greater Seattle. Events include “Challah for the J: The Great Challah Contest,” in which community members will compete for braided-and-baked bragging rights; and a Celebration Brunch hosted by Chef Joel Gamoran.
Messing, 51, has her own Jewish community center memories from her childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, where her parents — who both grew up in Brooklyn, New York — were “very involved” in their religious community. Her father was president of their temple.
“That was a big part of my parents’ identity, and by proxy, mine,” she said.
Messing remembered being one of just three Jewish students in her public school, where she had “experiences of anti-Semitism” that she didn’t discuss, but may have emboldened her.
Years later, when she landed the role of Grace Adler — a single, interior designer who lives in New York with her gay best friend, lawyer Will Truman — Messing made sure that Judaism was part of her character’s identity.
“I think it’s important,” she said. “We were finding a source of comedy that is very specific to her. Let’s talk about her being Jewish, going to Camp Ramah, her bat mitzvah. And, of course, (the late) Debbie Reynolds was cast as my mother.”
Grace would become one of the first openly Jewish female leads on a prime-time television show, Messing said, adding that before then, Jewish women were usually secondary characters: for instance, Mary Tyler Moore’s friend Rhoda Morgenstern (played by the late Valerie Harper, who later starred in her own spinoff).
“It was something I was proud of,” Messing said of her religion. “I felt it was an opportunity to represent, and ‘Will & Grace’ became known for representing marginalized people, mainly those in the LGBTQ community. That was at the forefront of our discussions: How can we represent in a more progressive way?”
When “Will & Grace” returned to NBC in 2017 (it had ended in 2006 after eight seasons) Messing wanted to be sure that Grace was portrayed as a feminist.
“It had been, ‘When am I going to find my husband?’ and coming back, she was married and divorced, not a mother, and her business was thriving,” Messing said. “It’s important that we show she’s very happy with the choices she’s made.
“It’s the opportunity that is pop culture,” Messing said of the show. “It has eyes on it. There’s a responsibility that you not be cavalier about the storytelling.”
Messing is hardly cavalier about her politics. On Aug. 30, she made national news by tweeting a request to The Hollywood Reporter that it publish a list of those attending a Sept. 17 reelection fundraiser for President Donald Trump in Beverly Hills, California, saying “the public has a right to know.”
Trump responded the next day, tweeting: “I have not forgotten that when it was announced that I was going to do The Apprentice, and when it then became a big hit, helping NBC’s failed lineup greatly, @DebraMessing came up to me at an Upfront & profusely thanked me, even calling me ‘Sir.’ How times have changed!”
Messing had plenty of supporters, but on “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg compared Messing’s call to McCarthyism, saying “The last time people did this, people ended up killing themselves.”
Messing’s response: “I’m trending!”
She then posted a phone number to communicate more directly with her followers: 646-766-1007.
“I wanted a way to communicate about issues and to go more deeply than we can on Twitter,” she said. “So, text me! Doesn’t that sound crazy?”
For a full list of SEAJAM events, go to: www.sjcc.org/arts-ideas/seajam/