Debra Messing Is Tweeting Like America Depends on It

Mattie Kahn
·14 mins read

In the time it takes to read this sentence, odds are good that Debra Messing will have tweeted. The actor—beloved for her role on the iconic sitcom Will and Grace, retweeted for her passionate calls to defend our fragile democratic institutions—has come to believe that her purpose as a public person who has breathed life into characters that people know and love is to use her platform for a cause.

She has fans and an audience and a megaphone. The people she admires lack one. So she steps in as a conduit, sharing their ideas and objectives and priorities and arguments with the wider world and—since 2016 in particular, with skillful capitalization and emoji use—her 657,000 Twitter followers. She tweets about the Supreme Court and the pandemic and voter suppression. She tweets links for donating to candidates running to flip the Senate. She retweets people like Vanita Gupta, the former head of the civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice, and the actor George Takei. She seems to have a particular fondness for the siren emoji.

Other celebrities’ most conspicuous hashtags are things like #ad or #spon. Messing uses #GOPComplicitTraitors.

Sometimes her quick thumbs lead her off course. She has had to delete unverified assertions. And she has gotten into a series of high-profile spats—with Susan Sarandon, with former Ohio state senator and Bernie Sanders campaign cochair Nina Turner (it ended with Turner accusing Messing of racism), with Donald Trump himself. (“Bad ‘actress’ Debra The Mess Messing is in hot water,” Trump tweeted in September 2019. “She wants to create a ‘Blacklist’ of Trump supporters.”)

Messing keeps at it—not because she likes social media, but because she seems to feel almost called to it. She has her work as an actor. She has her commitments to organizations like the international nonprofit PSI, which aims to deliver health care to vulnerable populations the world over. She has a podcast called The Dissenters, which she cohosts with Mandana Dayani, one of her best friends and the cofounder of the nonpartisan I Am a Voter project. But Twitter has taken on if not an importance equal to those responsibilities, then at least a central one. 

When we meet over Zoom in late August, Messing is in her New York apartment—just as she has been since March. Friends fled to sprawling summer homes. Messing remained hunkered down, phone in hand.

“I’m focused on the election and supporting police reform and the social justice movement,” Messing tells me when I ask what she’s working on. The podcast is geared toward that too. (Recent guests have included Glennon Doyle, Eva Longoria, Rep. Adam Schiff, Jane Fonda, and Patrisse Cullors.) “That’s all I have, besides making sure that my son is okay and navigating school and figuring out how to be a good parent in the middle of a pandemic, which there’s no book for.

“If I’m honest, I don’t feel a hunger or drive to work right now,” Messing continues. Her heart and spirit, as she puts it, are turned toward the race. She is fixated on what she can do to ensure Democrats up and down the ticket prevail. Tweeting out links to ActBlue donation sites is part of that; her more than half-a-million followers can raise a lot of cash. “I just feel like I have to honor that, because I’m in a privileged position where I can.”

Here, Messing talks social media, Sharon Stone, Fox News, and the value of speaking up—even when it means incurring the wrath of the president.

Glamour: The podcast—you and Mandana confess in one episode—is really a great, legit excuse to talk to people whose work you find interesting or inspiring. How has that scheme been working out for you?

Debra Messing: Oh, it’s incredible. It’s better than my wildest dreams. Mandana and I like to say that we are self-avowed nerds. We are voracious readers, and activism is just a part of who we are. Certainly, the last four years with this particular administration has made it more urgent for both of us to find our voices.

There are times when we both have felt like our energy was drained, and we were sort of losing our forward drive because things were just so bad. And so in order to counteract those trends, she and I would send each other articles or links to articles of people that we would discover who we thought were just extraordinary. About a year ago, I was sitting on her couch and she turned to me and she said, “You know, if we do a podcast, we could make all of these people talk to us.”

So we did, and then we started reaching out to people, and we made a long list of all the people that in our dreams we would love to spend time with and learn from, and to our astonishment, most of them said yes.

The name of the podcast reminds me of that phrase—dissent is patriotic. It’s the idea that criticizing America is an act of love too. Who fostered that in you—that notion that you could come from a place of “I refuse to accept this because I want things to be better”?

I grew up in a traditional family with traditional gender roles. I remember watching my brother run for state representative when he was 19. He was a sophomore at Brown University. I remember him saying, “This isn’t good enough. I want to do something.” And I remember my parents telling him, “You can do anything that you put your mind to. If you study hard enough and you prepare and you are authentic, we will support this.”

I was supported in a very different way because I was the creative one, so it was like, “Of course we love you. Be an artist and be an actor and go and do that.” But there was never that same conversation with me—that a woman who is not a politician could use her voice and have impact. I think that that came to me late in life. I think being a part of Will and Grace, because it had social and political impact and import, got me invited to a lot of award shows or events with GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign, where there were always speakers who were passionate and powerful. I always left those particular evenings molecularly changed.

I do recall one very powerful night where Sharon Stone was honored for her activism, and I was there. She got up and gave one of the most magnificent, powerful, challenging speeches I’d ever heard. I was so shocked by it because here she was—this otherworldly, gorgeous, goddess movie star. And then to have her reveal her intellect and her point of view? That really made an impression on me. I think that might have been the beginning of my recognizing that the only person who is going to stop you from believing that your voice can have an impact is you.

Over the past few years, every kind of hate and discrimination has been on the rise. You famously played a Jewish woman on TV. You have talked before about experiencing anti-Semitism as a Jewish woman yourself. Growing up, did you think about that at all—that becoming famous and being Jewish would put some kind of target on you?

I grew up as one of three Jews in my very small town in Rhode Island, and we were the target of anti-Semitism. Our big lights at the end of our driveway were constantly broken with bats over and over and over again. My grandfather had a swastika painted on his car. So I was very aware from a very young age that I was different and that what I was was not good, and people didn’t like me. It took a while for me to not be scared and not to feel shame about being Jewish. I went to Brandeis University, which I think is the most Jewish university in all of America. I don’t think you will find a place that has more Jewish kids. So coming out of that, I felt like, “You know what? I know who I am and I’m not going to apologize for it.”

I don’t think I ever believed that being Jewish would hurt me as an actor beyond just the reality of what I look like. It’s like, I know I’m never going to be cast in the role that Reese Witherspoon gets.

You are incredibly active on social media—on Twitter in particular. When did that start for you?

My relationship to social media and the way I use it has made, I think, an 180-degree reversal in the last four years. I think that I was so scared and so angry and felt so helpless and hopeless and impotent that the only way that I could wake up in the morning and keep taking steps forward was to feel like I was doing something to make a change, and I didn’t know how to do that.

But I did look around social media and start to really see people pushing back—pushing back against children in cages, pushing back against pulling out of the Paris Agreement. I felt like, Oh, I want to elevate their voices. It started with just retweeting other people. I think it was when Trump called me out that I realized that people were reading what I was writing.

Right, which is when you got into a back-and-forth with the president of the United States on Twitter. Do you ever just think to yourself, That’s pretty weird that that happened?

It was insane. At first it was really hard for me to take, but then I just felt like, You know what? I need to pull up my big girl pants and figure out how to handle this because what’s happening outside of me is much more important than people hurting my feelings.

The thing that I think has been challenging is to see people who are in a position of privilege—who have the platform and choose not to use it. It’s something that I struggle with because I know a lot of people are making that choice because they’re scared that people won’t go to their movies, or won’t go to watch their TV shows, which is true, which will happen, but I think it just became clear to me that it was worth it to me to lose fans and to speak my truth, to speak honestly, and to use my platform to spread the words of other more intelligent people to the masses.

When it comes to social media, do you ever feel like you just need to disconnect?

Yes. Sadly, I’m not good at it and I don’t do it nearly enough. At first I was nonstop, because I was trying to answer to people who were telling me why Trump is not racist or why Hillary [Clinton] killed people, and it was part of a pizza conspiracy or something. And so I was answering every single one of those in a very respectful way, just sort of saying, “No, actually, if you read X, Y, and Z, you will see this is actually the truth, and that’s what I feel the way I do.”

It took a little while, but I realized that that was a waste of my time and my energy. So I stopped doing that, but I think that because it seems like every day something catastrophic happens in the news, something unthinkable happens, and I’m still trying to deal with the catastrophic thing that happened yesterday, it feels like I can’t stop because there are too many fires that are all raging at the same time.

When I’m able to step back, there’s no question I’m happier, there’s no question my body feels healthier. Social media, for the most part, makes me unhappier!

I was going to ask whether you’ve ever tweeted something that you really regret, but if it’s making you unhappier, my guess is yes, that there has been something of that nature.

Yes. I’m a very passionate, fiery person. There have been times where I just vomited up a response on Twitter and realized that it was ill-advised, and I apologized for it. The difficult thing obviously is when you make a mistake—and all of us make mistakes because we’re human—and then you apologize when people won’t let you apologize. That certainly has made me think twice before pushing the send button, because it is a responsibility being someone that people know.

Do you think, on Twitter, any Trump supporter has ever been convinced to not vote for Trump?

Well, yes. I can say yes because there was one specific post that really landed for me, and it was this man just saying, “I am a lifelong Republican and I voted for Trump and I have been a staunch supporter of his, but watching him in the last year, I cannot support him anymore. I’m shocked to say this, but I’m not going to vote for him, and I’m actively talking to people in my community about why they shouldn’t.” That gave me hope.

Do you ever watch Fox News just to see what the rest of the country is seeing?

No. I don’t. I mean, I’m on Twitter so much that I inevitably see videos of the news. But I don’t watch.

That seems like a healthy choice, especially given how much else is going on. How are you faring during this pandemic—emotionally, mentally, physically?

It has been incredibly challenging. It has been very up and down for me. I am currently in my apartment in New York City. I have been here since March. I definitely hit a wall from being inside for so long. I mean, at one point, I was like, “I feel like I’m in The Shining.” I’m in this apartment, it doesn’t have a balcony, it doesn’t have a roof; I am inside. It’s just been an extraordinarily stressful time, but I also am very aware and very grateful that I’m healthy, my family is healthy, and that I have a home that I’m not going to be evicted from.

I don’t know what the future holds, and I think that is the thing that is so new and unsettling. I’m a planner. I’m a structured person. Being a single mom who works full time, I really have to have things thought through. All of a sudden, it’s like, I don’t know when I’m going to do my Broadway play. I don’t know when I’m going to do the next TV show that we’re developing. I don’t know when any of this is going to happen. So really the only thing that I think about is how many more people in America are going to die needlessly.

Were you in New York from start to finish?

Start to finish? I did not leave my home until last week for the first time. I had nowhere to fly to. I mean, I have a lot of friends who have second homes, and they all left and they’re all safely ensconced in places where they can be outside in nature and they don’t have to worry about wearing a mask. My experience was a solitary one that most of my friends really couldn’t understand. I did go out once to join a protest march. I was the last one—like all the way in the back.

So much has been happening, and that’s the other thing. It’s not just the most important election of our lifetime. It’s not just a global pandemic. It’s not just a racial justice uprising. Each thing is the most important thing that could possibly happen in our lifetime, and it’s all happening at the same time.

Yes.

Which is why I never go to sleep.

How are you feeling about the November election? Any predictions?

I think Joe Biden will win. And then, thank God, the Constitution protects all of us because once it’s over, it’s over.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour. 

Originally Appeared on Glamour