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Debra Messing ‘Open’s Up

Hollywood.com talks with Debra Messing about voicing a motherly park ranger in the new animated comedy Open Season, as well as what’s the best thing about motherhood.

Hollywood.com: Did you want to do this because you were pregnant and didn’t have to get dressed?
Debra Messing:
You know it came to me without looking and the timing of it was so perfect because I was pregnant and I was also working on Will & Grace at the time but as you know animation takes three-plus years to do. I’m such a big fan of animation, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to try. So when it came up it just seemed like it was like “Oh! Thank you!”

HW: Did you have to practice your roar?
DM: Actually I didn’t. I actually have a natural robust roar, that’s there and very accessible. I don’t know what that means. I’ll have to ask a shrink. 

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HW: How much actual studio time did you spend?
It’s hard to say ‘cause I went in quite a bit. I didn’t think that I would be going in as often—this is my first time so everything was a first for me. I thought I’d go in say my lines and that would be it. The way they work, I would go in, put things down and then they would have Ashton come in and Martin and they’d start to edit things together and see what was working and what wasn’t working and construct it and redefine it as it went along. There were scenes or parts of scenes that I redid several times because they kept changing the approach of another scene on the other side. It was really interesting, the fine tuning at the very end. The last scene of the film, we did that a couple of times, to get the right degree of whatever emotions they were hoping to achieve.

HW: Did you hear Martin Lawrence’s voice to record your part?
DM: I never had his voice to play opposite, which was really shocking. The whole process at first was so intimidating and scary, because you have no one to act opposite, and so much of it is having courage to try different things and to make yourself look like an idiot, and putting your trust into other people’s hands to put it together to make it funny, and tender and what have you. You really just hand over it all and they become the architect of the whole creative vision. And at first that was kind of scary and very quickly it became thrilling and liberating. I just really fell in love with falling out of bed in my sweatpants, not having to put on makeup, not having to brush my hair, walking into a studio and having all of these people who are so excited about this project and passionate. And playful. People who work in animation are animated people. Their energy is infectious. No matter what when you walk into that room, it’s inspiring and the whole process of playing became just that. I was never worried about anyone judging me and saying, “Oh that was awful.” Everything was like, “OK. let’s try something else.” It was almost like going back to graduate school and being in theater games class. “Let’s try this!” It was very gratifying to watch the playfulness between them. You don’t know until you see the film.

HW: Were any of the nurturing scenes recorded after you gave birth?
DM: Yes, the lullaby was done after I’d given birth

HW: Do you think you were better at it because of that?
DM: I think so. Yeah. I think that. They said in the beginning that this character isn’t very well defined but we want you to make it as personal as possible. We want you to really represent the female point of view as much as possible. The guys and the animals are so comic and playful, and then you have this other element, the maternal-child relationship, nurturing, the struggle of learning when to let go, when to encourage change, how to do that. They’re universal themes. And it was important to them that it land. I didn’t know if it would be interesting enough for the audience members to invest in but they were really encouraging the whole time. They said ‘give it as much heart as possible’ to ground the film as much as possible, so I’m sure I’m sure had I done this before having a child, I’m an actor and it’s my job to imagine, so I would have attempted to do the same thing. But I think because I am a new mother it was very accessible to me and understandable to me. It was very easy to understand wanting to protect your child, not wanting to send them somewhere that you don’t have control over and you’re not sure if they’re going to be OK or happy or safe and what that hole would feel like.

HW: Did you have input into the character or play with the lines?
I came into it about a year and a half into their process so they had just finished doing renderings and had pictures up all over the place of the animation itself, the valley, some of the characters. They had some of the script but when I went in there I didn’t have a script to read. They just pitched the script to me verbally, and said “these are the relationships etc. I feel like it was already in place. They’d probably say “When we got Debra we encouraged her to bring as much life to the character and quirk,” which they did but I don’t feel it was me, I feel like it was collaborative.
HW: Do you have pets you treat as part of the family?
DM: I have a dog and she is my first child. She’s my first daughter. Her name Lola and she’s 6 1/2 and she sleeps with us every night. I don’t put clothes on her—I have a certain respect for her as a dog. And I think she appreciates it. I did try once to put a sweater on her and she got really, really angry. We get each other

HW: Have a moral feeling about hunting?
DM: I think killing anything for sport, just for fun, is something that I can’t wrap my mind around. I wish it wouldn’t exist.

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HW: What’s some of your favorite animated films?
DM: Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh. I loved Winnie the Pooh when I was a child. I loved The Little Mermaid.

HW: What do you watch with your son?
He’s very into the Wiggles right now. We’re not into animation right now. Prior to the Wiggles, his first love was Winnie the Pooh. I would show him the non-scary parts of The Lion King, the singing. He loves “Hakuna Matata.’ So he would sing. And Jungle Book.

HW: What’s the best thing about motherhood?
Everything. Him.

HW: How has it changed you?
DM: I think that it’s made me more introspective and more grateful and made balance in my life a much greater priority. It’s always been important to me and it’s always been a goal but I think that it’s become the main focus of everything for me. I start my day and I say ‘how am I gonna make sure that everything is balanced?’ and I laugh more than I ever have.

HW: What’s life like without Will & Grace?
DM: It’s really interesting. At first it was really traumatizing when it ended, as we all knew it would be because we loved each other and we loved what we were doing. But I took a month off with my family and went to Cape Cod and spent time sitting in a pond and cooked hot dogs. It was exactly what I needed, the time to let it sink in that it was really over and a new chapter was beginning. And now I feel excited about the future and about the new challenges that lie ahead. I’m going to Australia to shoot a six-hour miniseries next month, a novel that’s been adapted. That’s exciting to me and I may do another film in Toronto next spring. It’s called Cry of the Owl and it’s a dark thriller. The novel is by the same woman who wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley [Patricia Highsmith], and it’s that sort of drama. And I’m just trying to hunt down a play. I know when I talk to you guys I’m always talking about a play. It’s gonna happen.

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