‘Will & Grace’ Cocreators Reveal Debra Messing’s Wild Audition Process: ‘It Was Very Cloak and Dagger’

The actress, who auditioned for Grace Adler at director Jimmy Burrows’ house, was falsely told she was the only one being seen for the role

Debra Messing and Eric McCormack on Will and Grace
Debra Messing and Eric McCormack on "Will and Grace" (Credit: Gary Null/NBC)

When Max Mutchnick and David Kohan pitched “Will & Grace” to NBC, the pair were tasked with creating a replacement for “Mad About You.”

“We went and wrote a basic heterosexual love story and their neighbors were these two,” Mutchnick said, referring to stars Eric McCormack and Debra Messing. “And [former NBC entertainment president] Warren Littlefield, to his credit, said, ‘You two seem to really have a vibe on [those friends] next door.’ That’s how the show came to be. They were part of a different ensemble.” 

“Our objective was to write an entertaining show about these people that we knew. That was really it,” Kohan added. “We also weren’t trying to be bold. We were actually trying to just say on the air.” 

Initially, McCormack was paired with Marin Hinkle. 

“I was given the impression by everybody that they like the two of you together or they don’t and that’s it, the show dies,” McCormack recalled. “And it didn’t happen that way, they offered me the part. And I had a month of like, ‘This show is gonna die if we don’t find the perfect Grace.’ I read with several women.”

McCormack, Mutchnick and Kohan said they always wanted Debra Messing in the role of Grace, but that they had trouble getting her due to her attachment to the ABC show “Prey” at the time. 

“I had just wrapped ‘Prey,’ and I was exhausted and my agents called and said, ‘We have a special script,’ and I said, ‘I’m too tired, call me back in three months.’ And they were like ‘We will messenger it to you because it is so special.’ And I read it and I was like, ‘Wow, this is special.’ And I went in and had a meeting with these two and I was still feeling like I’m just too tired. And they came over to my house with a bottle of vodka and a lime and said, ‘Ask us questions.’ And for three hours we spoke, and I started feeling better about it and they said, ‘OK, will you read? We have our Will and you don’t even have to negotiate, just will you read?’ And I was like, ‘OK we’ll see how this goes.’”

McCormack said that Messing and two other actresses were set up to believe they were the only ones auditioning at director Jimmy Burrows house with a “cadre of cars dropping people off.” 

“Naturally, it had to be Debra, Nicolette Sheridan and a girl from a Kleenex commercial. She was like a hot chick in the commercials that year,” Mutchnick said. “We always knew it was gonna be this one, but you have to do what you have to do.” 

“It was coordinated because each actress couldn’t know about the other actress auditioning,” Kohan added. “It was very cloak and dagger.”

Messing said that the first time reading the script with McCormack was “effortless.”

“We were laughing at each other,” she said. “And then I was walking out and Jimmy comes over and he goes, ‘You gotta do the show,’ and I was like, ‘Oh Jimmy, I don’t know. I’ve got to think on it.’ And he was like, ‘You will never ever find a show like this again.’”

Mutchnick revealed that they couldn’t give Messing the role in the audition room due to a previous precedent set by Farah Fawcett on “Charlie’s Angels.” 

“Farah Fawcett got the job on ‘Charlie’s Angels’ before they closed her deal, and so she had them over a barrel. So you’re not supposed to give the actor the job before the deal is signed,” he said. “That’s why it was such a joke that Jim and Warren chased you out of that house saying, ‘It’s yours, it’s yours.’ We didn’t sign.” 

“Will & Grace,” which earned 18 Primetime Emmy Awards and 83 nominations, ran on the network from 1998 to 2006. The revival returned to primetime in 2017 and ran until 2020.