Sharon Stone and Debra Messing Break Down Why Comedy Is Harder Than Drama
This season marked a return of sorts for both Sharon Stone and Debra Messing — for Stone, it was her chance to take center stage again, with her role in Steven Soderbergh’s enigmatic HBO mystery “Mosaic.” And Messing stepped back into the role that first made her famous, with NBC’s reboot of hit comedy “Will & Grace.” The two actresses talked with Variety about why comedy is harder than drama, battling stereotypes, and what makes them laugh themselves.
Sharon Stone: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. I think about this because I’m starting to do more comedy. It’s been a long time since I did comedy, but you’re really like the Lucille Ball of our generation. You are just the apex of comedy. Is comedy hard for you?
Debra Messing: I think comedy is hard because it’s musical. I think that if something is brilliantly written then the music just comes off the page. But if it’s not brilliantly written then I think it’s much scarier to do than a drama that perhaps that may not be brilliantly written. Because I think in a drama you can find things in character and you can find things on the fly and I think with comedy if it’s a broader comedy there’s an expectation. And there’s a goal, it’s to make people laugh. And you’re either going to do it or you’re not.
Stone: So often on “Will and Grace” you’re the butt of the joke. And how do you feel doing that?
Messing: I love it. I don’t know if it’s because I’m self-lacerating in real-life. So it feels familiar. I think it allows me to react and that’s where a lot of my comedy comes from. It’s in between the lines, I feel. It’s taking note of what’s happening between those two people or what’s coming at me. So I think of those barbs as opportunities.
Stone: You’re just so great at it. You have such a deftness, such a skill. I’m really obsessed with “Will and Grace.” And now with this comeback show, it’s better. The original show was magnificent, but the show now, because everyone is more full in what they are. You’re more Jewish, they’re more gay.
Messing: She’s more evil.
Stone: Yes. And yet she’s also more compassionate. Everybody’s more of all the things that they are.
Messing: Well, aren’t we all as we age?
Messing: And it’s funny you say that because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if the characters that we all met as 30-year-olds, if that kind of energy and the music that was played back then was going to be expected by the audience to replicate it or if they would be disappointed if it wasn’t a pure replication of it. And it was like, “Well, we’re 11 years older. We are who we are now and these characters have grown 11 years.”
Stone: And the world has grown and opened up.
Messing: And gotten scarier.
Stone: Yes, because there’s a lot of resistance to all that growth.
Messing: So it felt almost freeing in a way because everything is so different. It felt like on some level there was nothing to lose. And we were coming back on our terms. We literally sat down and were like, “Do we want to do this?” And it was a real conversation about this is something we built and we protected and it was a legacy, and we can’t just come back just because it’s offered to us. There has to be a reason and there has to be a collective understanding of what we’re trying to do. And it was after that conversation that we realized, “You know what, we all want the same thing. And we have the support from the network.”
“I don’t think that’s a selfish thing to do the thing you love and that you’re good at. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do in life. But we get programmed to toe the line, and we forget that discipline is freedom. And if you really are disciplined and you really are disciplined to the thing that you are meant to be, it should be joyful.”
Stone: This thing you wanted to bring forward, do you want to discuss what it is?
Messing: Yeah. I was concerned that we would be censored, frankly. You know that we weren’t going to be able to be what we always were. And from its inception, the DNA of “Will and Grace,” it was always provocative, it was always pushing boundaries, it was always talking about what’s happening right now in politics and in pop culture. And obviously, back then we were making jokes about Bush and then Obama and now it’s a very decisive, chaotic, confusing time in our country and it’s ripe for “Will and Grace” obviously because every day there is something that is being pushed or pulled.
Stone: It’s wonderful with Megan Mullally’s character constantly bringing in that stuff. I liked the episode where she wanted to buy the cake for the party for Donald Trump. And your character had to come to terms with, “If I can get the cake made for the gay couple, and if that’s the thing, if we’re standing up for those rights, we do have to stand up for everybody’s rights, whether I like it or not.”
Messing: For me personally, that was one of the more important episodes because I felt that, I hoped that it told the world that there’s no hypocrisy here. This show is about inclusion in every way. And equal rights. But yet, it was interesting because there were a lot of people who were conservative Republicans who took great offense at that particular episode.
Stone: Even though you were standing up for her right to get it. Because you were saying, “I don’t like what you are doing.” I have to say I appreciate the kind of work that you are doing.
Messing: Thank you. The thing that was driving me was I was feeling scared and I was feeling like I didn’t know what I could do to make people feel like things were going to be OK. And to make myself feel like things were going to be OK. And it really is a selfish thing, by going to work I get to laugh every single day.
Stone: I don’t think that’s a selfish thing to do the thing you love and that you’re good at. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do in life. But we get programmed to toe the line and we forget that discipline is freedom. And if you really are disciplined to the thing that you are meant to be, it should be joyful.
Messing: But you also know that it’s not always joyful.
Stone: No, it’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of discipline, it’s a lot of incredibly long hours. It’s a lot of eating off paper plates from a trailer in the dirt. People think that what we do is so glamorous. But the hours are incredibly long. We don’t work eight hours — we’re just getting started when eight hours happens.
Messing: 16 hours! And with “Mosaic,” you were in Utah.
Stone: And we worked. Steven Soderbergh is, I think without any exaggeration, a genius. From “Sex, Lies and Videotape” on up. But we didn’t get all the script, we got the pieces we were in. Which is little bit intense. But then it was, “You’re going to shoot 20 to 30 pages a day.” And he doesn’t light and he shoots himself. Now there’s a lot of great things in that. I thought, “Well, if we’re not lighting I’m not going to wear a bunch of makeup.” Because I’m going to look like I’ve fallen in my makeup. So let’s keep it down to just a little bit of light base and some ChapStick and call it a day. And I have a great ability to find my own light. Just get in it, as all women learn to do. I would just get to the set quickly so when we are blocking the scene I could find a chair where there was some light. And it was actually quite wonderful because in the first five days you think, “I am going to die.” It’s so exhausting and it’s so challenging. But once you get your rhythm you get it. And of course we’re not new to this.
Messing: We know how to take care of ourselves in those situations.
Stone: And do the work before we get there so that we can handle it.
Messing: How was Utah?
Stone: Well it was snowing and gorgeous and wonderful. It turned out to be an amazing experience and for me I hadn’t been working a lot for a long time, because I had a stroke and brain hemorrhage in 2001 and I had a long recovery and so I recovered by taking small parts, little things just to make sure that I could remember my lines, get it all back together. And then I thought, “You know what, I don’t want to get back in this lane I was in. Because I’m getting older. I don’t want to be fighting for those parts that I don’t really want to do anymore.”
Messing: They’re less interesting also as you become wiser. I need you to talk about the scene in the attic when you find out the truth from your fiance. That scene was breathtaking and painful to watch. How long did you work on that scene?
Stone: I think when you have faced betrayal, you have to work through a process that is forgiving the unforgivable. Which teaches you, “I believe.” To stand and not keep getting re-hooked into it. And that takes a lot of practice because you have this innate hook that you have to just feel and resist. And that takes a lot of feminine wisdom and a lot of knowing that being a mother, being a woman is bigger than this hook. I think playing this scene is allowing yourself to feel that feeling again of that unimaginable thing that the love that you believed isn’t there. And it’s so shocking when it just isn’t there that it destroys you. It doesn’t just destroy the love, it just destroys you. And I don’t think that people don’t want to admit that. But it destroys, it wipes you out in a second. It breaks your trust in yourself.
“I was concerned that we would be censored, frankly. You know that we weren’t going to be able to be what we always were. And from its inception, the DNA of ‘Will & Grace,’ it was always provocative, it was always pushing boundaries, it was always talking about what’s happening right now in politics and in pop culture.”
Messing: I sat back and I felt like, I don’t think I’ve seen on camera someone go ride that wave and be allowed to ride every part of it through the end.
Stone: This is the thing about Steven Soderbergh, and I do think it comes down to the not lighting and that he’s shooting it. Because so many people are so concerned about how you look. We need to do it again because you didn’t have your chin up and you look like you have two chins or …
Messing: There’s a shadow from your hair.
Stone: … and you don’t look pretty when you did that. And because he is interested in capturing the breaking, the unattractiveness. It’s all OK to see the real truth of what happens and he goes with you when it’s happening. And for me, after having had to be always looking so great, the gift of being able to just be was just like falling on doves. I just felt like each time, each thing, I was allowed to live in it fully and truly and I felt like she was a person who was very loving in her own quirky way.
Messing: She has some moments of flipping in there that made me go, “Oh. I want to know where that came from.”
Stone: Right. Wounds. Real wounds because you don’t get to be our age without some real wounds. And I felt like a character, warts and all, was more relevant to understand why all of these men had these like different kinds of relationships that hung on that were somehow yet unresolved.
Messing: Does it make you want to do work like that more? I know that you’ve said you’re going on to comedy now.
Stone: You know everything makes me feel like that, but then I don’t get another job for five years.
Messing: That’s crazy!
Stone: Every time you rip your guts out people are like, “That’s fantastic, please don’t do anymore of that.” You know I just think it’s complex. I love to do comedy but after I did “The Muse,” I didn’t get offered any more comedies.
Messing: It’s not because of your abilities, it’s because of what people think in their head, “Oh, Sharon Stone is …”
Stone: Well I think I’m a little eccentric.
Messing: Which is fantastic. It is. It’s interesting.
Stone: I’m hoping that at a point everything will line up. It’s such a blessing that you lined up with “Will and Grace,” because it’s a perfect match. And I think, you know there’s darkness in some of that comedy.
Stone: And that’s hard to do because how do you make dark comedy? I think it was Madeline Kahn who said, “It’s like keeping a feather in the air.” It’s like you have to keep it afloat. And I think that that’s true.
Messing: There are also so many different styles of comedy and with each one there has to be an adjustment. Sitcom it is all about music and making a laugh land. And then you’ve got the single camera comedies, like “Sex in the City” or I did one, “Starter Wife.” Totally different, you’re not going for the laugh at all. And then you have the big broad ones.
Stone: How did you do that? What makes that different?
Messing: I’m not interested in comedy that doesn’t have depth or the action or some kind of thing that I understand as a viewer. So if something is just like, “Oh, hey how was school?” “Boom.” That doesn’t fill me with anything.
Stone: And I don’t like watching it, it doesn’t make me laugh.
Messing: It doesn’t make me laugh either. I think it’s all about the gas and how much you turn it up. It’s like if you’re in a sitcom and there’s a moment that’s funny, you just commit to it that much more. You need it more, you want it more. Everything is just a little bit more extreme. So the gas is a little bit higher. So the stakes are higher so when it goes wrong your reaction to it is higher. And then when it’s single camera, it’s much more naturalistic. And then I think it’s more character development. I do think like you talk about being quirky, I do think as an audience member I respond to women who are imperfect.
Stone: Who were your role models in comedy?
Messing: Oh, I grew up watching “I Love Lucy,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” Mary Tyler Moore, “Seinfeld,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus was big for me. And Madeline Kahn.
Stone: Madeline Kahn to me hung the moon. She was really amazing. I could never get past how funny she was.
Messing: I just want to see movies like that again. I want writers to write like that again.
Stone: I really like watching people fall down. It really makes me laugh. When you did the cake in the face, I loved that.
Messing: I love it when people fart in public — and that was the one thing that I was not allowed to do as Grace.
Stone: I have three boys so our sign of affection is we hug and then we do a burp. We burp in each other’s ear, and that’s our hello.
Messing: It’s like what you were saying about being pretty and the value that our industry has put on that for so long. When I did “Will and Grace,” I said to them, “I don’t want to be the pretty girl who stands in the corner. That’s not going to make me happy.” I had to wear fake boobs when I first started in Hollywood. On my first sitcom, they gave me the cutlets. I had just graduated with my master’s from NYU in acting and I was like, “I’m an actress.” And they’re like, “Here.” And I was like, “I look stupid. I’m not going to wear these.” And they’re like, “The president of the network called and said he wants you to wear those.” I was in shock. I was new to the industry and I just thought, “I can’t say no.” Now no one comes at me with those things. I’m like, “I’m flat chested. I love it.”
Stone: When I was in “The Quick and the Dead,” we decided I would wear leather pants. And the head of the studio was like, “Who does she think she is, Kate Moss?”
Messing: What is that even supposed to mean? What did he want you to wear? Jeans?
Stone: I think they thought I was going to wear like a big dress.
Messing: Yes, a big prairie dress with cowboy boots. (Laughs.)
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