NEW YORK — Last May, Debra Messing said goodbye to an eight-year marriage of sorts when “Will & Grace,” the sitcom that shot her to fame, had its series finale. And like many newly single women, she swore off committed relationships, claiming she needed time to breathe and regain focus.

“I had actually told everyone in my life that I was going to take six months off,” says Messing. “And two months later, I got a call saying that I was offered this six-hour TV event and I was like, ‘No it’s too soon!'”

Some girls just can’t stay away. Tonight, Messing returns to television in USA’s miniseries “The Starter Wife,” based on Gigi Levangie Grazer’s book of the same name. She stars as Molly Kagan, a 40-year-old mother who has been summarily dumped by her Hollywood power producer husband. Molly is shunned by all except her three close friends (including a spot-on Judy Davis as the alcoholic Joan) and is forced to confront the open-ended questions a fresh path poses.

But while the show is all about Hollywood, the series was actually shot over four months in Australia — an experience Messing didn’t always relish.

“I’m not an ocean person…and there was this Blue Bottle jellyfish in season at the time I was supposed to be doing all these sequences and I said, ‘OK, I’m not going in there if they’re there,'” recalls Messing over chamomile tea at The Ritz-Carlton, her wrist cast-bound after a recent skiing accident. “So they were lying to me. They’d go out and take them and chuck them just as they were saying ‘Rolling!’ and then I would go in, not knowing they were just clearing out all the jellyfish. I would do the scene and they would say ‘Cut!’ and get me out of there just as jellyfish were rolling back into the frame.”

Physical pratfalls aside, the role proved creatively taxing as well. Messing — happily married to screenwriter Daniel Zelman and mother of three-year-old Roman — initially had trouble identifying with her new counterpart.

“I thought, ‘There’s nothing that relates to me in this character. How am I going to approach this?'” she says. “The only thing I could key into at first was, a wife of a power broker, there’s a parallel with being a recognizable actress in Hollywood. There are expectations: you’re supposed to look a certain way; your hair is supposed to be a certain way; you are supposed to dress a certain way; your body is supposed to be a certain weight; you’re supposed to show up at certain events, and if you’re not groomed in a particular way, it’s almost perceived as disrespectful to the community…actually, one of my greatest pleasures in the whole six hours was stepping on a scale and being able to say the line, ‘I wonder how much an appendix weighs'”

This story first appeared in the May 31, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Certainly Messing is no stranger to such musings. Fresh-faced and summery in her printed Tibi dress, the flame-haired actress (by the way, those tresses: not natural.) has had her own weight subjected to scrutiny in both directions. But as a 38-year-old mother, she’s had to prioritize her time.

“When I’m not working, I really let it go as long as I can bear it,” she says of the grooming hamster wheel. “As long as I’m not written up in the tabloids as being a bag lady.”

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