Despite the fact that NBC has decided to hold off on raising the curtain on SMASH until early 2012, our excitement cannot be contained. Which is why we thought now might be as good a time as any to share an interview with star Debra Messing, who during a recent stop in Toronto to promote the series opened up about her character, the inevitable comparisons to GLEE and what it’s like working with an all-star ensemble including Anjelica Huston and Katharine McPhee.
What can you tell us about your character Julia and how she fits into the fabric of the show.
Debra Messing: I play Julia, a lyricist who along with her composing partner Tom have been writing Broadway musicals successfully for about 20 years. When you meet us we have decided to take a year off for the first time, because I’m married, have a 15 year old son and my husband and I want to adopt a baby. Then of course this idea about Marilyn Monroe sort of germinates and takes off and all of those plans are sort of turned upside down. So then it really is about this passion project, putting it together and trying to balance a creative life with a real marriage.
Rumor has it you have an amazing voice, what’s your history with singing?
Debra Messing: [Laughs] I just want to first take the ‘amazing’ away and put it to the side because after seeing our two lovely ingenuous singing [Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty] it’s all about in relation to. But yes I sing, actually, my dream when I was growing up in Rhode Island was to be a Broadway musical actress. To sing, dance and to be one of those girls, so I took lots of dancing lessons and I sang and I was in a lot of musicals. My mother actually made albums when she was a teenager, so it was a musical family and I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled to be working in a world that is so pure and joyous and brings me back to the root of why I wanted to be an actress to begin with. Then to be able to sing amongst all these people in this kind of venue, it’s going to be heaven. Hopefully it will be heaven for you too. [Laughs]
What’s your reaction to the inevitable comparisons to GLEE and do you have a theory as to why the TV musical took so long to catch on?
Debra Messing: First of all, I am a huge fan of GLEE, I think it is a tremendous original show that is groundbreaking. It’s a very, very different show however from SMASH. I think the only thing that really ties them together is that there’s singing in both of them but SMASH is a completely naturalistic world. Part of the joyousness of watching GLEE is that it has a tone, a universe that is elevated where they sort of wink at the audience. SMASH is earnest, naturalistic and organic. With GLEE, people just break out in song, current music that everyone can enjoy where as the music in SMASH will be original music that is specifically written for this Marilyn Monroe musical by a Tony Award winning lyricist and composer [Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman], the people responsible for Hairspray among other things. So that is thrilling for all of us because its all original, yet hopefully it will be as fun to watch as GLEE, even though they’re tonally different. As for why there’s now a place in television for this, in part, I think a lot of it comes the success of AMERICAN IDOL and other reality shows like that. I think everyone loves an underdog, everyone loves someone to root for when the odds are against them and with shows like AMERICAN IDOL, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE and other shows like that where discovering fresh, pure magical talent that otherwise would be unseen is thrilling and is thrilling to be on that ride. I think that’s a part of the appeal of SMASH, that you will be able to see these untapped beautiful actresses and see their struggle and also its almost like the Wizard of Oz, looking behind the curtain. You know we’re so used to elevating actors and movie makers and what have you, there’s some sort of great equalizer I think about being able to see the process and see how unglamorous it is, how hard it is, how much work there is and how much sacrifice there is. So it can sort of humanize everybody who is in this business with a capital B.
The SMASH ensemble includes wonderful acting vets like Anjelica Huston and relative newcomers like Katharine McPhee. What’s been your experience working with both of them?
Debra Messing: Ahhhh Anjelica Huston…I am in love with Anjelica Huston, she’s a walking Picasso painting and is the most amazing beauty. I have to say that when I heard she was cast I was over the moon because obviously we all know her as a tremendous actress and… oh my gosh I always wanted to work with her. Truth be told, I was intimidated, you know she is a grand imposing woman, she carries a lot of gravitas with her I think she is incredibly elegant and dignified and for some reason she inspired feelings in me wanting her to like me so much. Yet she immediately put me at ease and by the end you know, hugging, snuggling and laughing she’s just a really amazing woman and incredible to act with. As for Katharine McPhee, I absolutely was, was amazed. I too only knew her as this magnificent singer from AMERICAN IDOL. I actually voted for her when she was competing. I voted for her on the very last night and was upset when it didn’t go her way but obviously things have turned out okay for her. When I heard that they had cast her I though I thought, “Oh that’s fascinating.” But I did wonder what is she going to be like as an actress. I came into the pilot going in excited about meeting the actress and I think she does beautiful work in the pilot.
And finally, with the show shooting in New York, is it be safe to assume that SMASH will feature big name Broadway guest stars?
Debra Messing: In an ideal world we’ll constantly be bringing in real Broadway talent onto the show every week and that’s something that I am so excited about. It’s great not only because we’ll be exposed to their talent which usually you have to spend a hundred and twenty dollars to witness in a play. You’re going to be able to see them on TV and that’s tremendous. But also, it’s a showcase for a whole subset of actors that normally don’t have the same kind of opportunity or platform to show themselves and to show their art in a sort of mass way. I think it’s a really exciting thing.
NBC (CTV in Canada) will raise the curtain on SMASH in early 2012