Debra Messing will forever hold a space in our hearts for her Emmy-winning portrayal of quirky-yet-enchanting Grace Adler in the iconic sitcom Will and Grace. But starring as Jessica Goldman, a newly divorced, single mom helping her son Evan (played by Eli Golden) navigate major rites of passage in 13: The Musical—on Netflix now—is a role she instantly related to.
"It's a love letter to mothers and sons and how difficult growing up is," she explains. In 2012, Debra divorced her husband of 10 years, writer and producer Daniel Gelman. Their son Roman was 8 years old at the time. In 13: The Musical, her character Jessica uproots Evan's life in NYC for Indiana just months before his much-anticipated bar mitzvah—the long-awaited party of the year.
Evan must make new friends and start over at a pivotal moment. The struggles of turning 13, being 13, and, gasp, parenting a 13-year-old are real—and universally confusing! Though Debra's son is now all grown up at 18, making 13: The Musical gave her a new perspective on that precarious time. "I didn't consider how challenging it was for him as a 13-year-old every day at school—wanting to fit in, wanting to figure out your niche," she recalls. "There's a parallel to the movie because I was divorced and a single mom and moved to New York City. It made me feel more compassion for mothers."
Parents sat down with Debra as she reflects on watching her own son go from boy to man, what she learned from her young and diverse 13: The Musical castmates, and the life lessons she still holds onto from when she was a 13-year-old girl who also struggled to find her place.
What did you appreciate about the way parent and child relationships were portrayed in 13: The Musical?
As a parent, you want to hide when you're suffering or struggling from your kid and that takes a lot of energy. And I think that my character Jessica tries the best she can to communicate to Evan her remorse for the upheaval in his life and knowing how sh***y the whole situation is. It was great to see all these kids make mistakes in different ways, have to deal with consequences and figure out how to get back on track and be better. And I like seeing that the parents made mistakes, too—that was really, really important.
Your son Roman is now 18—what do you remember about parenting him during his middle school years?
I remember being confused through it because I was a single mom and for so long, he was my little boy. And then he was going through this very difficult and complicated transition from a boy to a teenager. That meant I had to learn how to separate a little bit and not give my advice and not tell him what to do and let him make his own mistakes.
What's your best advice for getting kids to open up, especially while going through those difficult rites of passage like a bar mitzvah, a move, or divorce?
It's regularly communicating that you understand how difficult things are for them right now. And while I don't understand the difficulties they're going through—everyone your age goes through it, and it can be painful, and it can be confusing and I just want you to know I am here as a safe place to land anytime you want to talk about it. It's hard to make them talk, but if you're constantly talking about feelings and about your own transitions in a way that lets them know, "Oh, my mom [or dad] went through the same thing."
In 13: The Musical, your character Jessica put aside her writing career when she started a family. You kept a successful career going as a mom.
Well, I think moms, and especially single moms, have the hardest jobs on earth. I was tortured at first trying to be everything to everybody, wanting to be the perfect mother, wanting to be the perfect employee. I set boundaries to protect our time together. So, I said, "I won't shoot in anywhere else but L.A., as long as he's in school." And I would say, "I won't take that job unless I'm definitely going to be home when he goes to bed." I was in a place of privilege where I could make those needs contingent on saying yes or no but I think every mother must discover what mothering means to them. People have different priorities and it's easy to look at a mom and judge her. I would say most women are trying to balance family, kids, and work, so I'm not special. Everyone is struggling through this. Some people have partners that are helpful or family members who live nearby, but you create a chosen family who can be there in an emergency. And, at the end of the day, you wake up every day and hour by hour, you do the best you can.
What do you remember about yourself and your relationship with your own mother at 13?
Oh, God. It was awful. I didn't have many friends by the time I was 13. I had the theater. That was my place where I knew I was safe. I knew I didn't fit in, and I didn't know why. I remember trying to figure it out like a puzzle and not being able to for a very long time. My mom was a stay home mom, and she was there when I walked in the door. She'd say, "How was your day?" and we'd watch Oprah together. She was a safe place for me to land.
13: The Musical has such a beautiful message of self-acceptance. The kids are all so different, yet really trying to embrace themselves. What was that like to witness on set?
Kids these days are extraordinary. I think that they are far more emotionally intelligent than my generation was at that time. They ask the hard questions at a young age and they're saying, "I'm questioning" or "I don't know" or "This is where I am right now." And I loved the fact that this was such a diverse cast. It was really beautiful. It was the most diverse cast I'd ever been a part of. It felt very intentional. And it was very meaningful for me that this movie was about a Jewish family because when I was a kid, I tried to hide it.
Why was that?
Someone painted a swastika on my grandfather's car. There were a few incidents that were seminal. And I just was like, "If I don't acknowledge [I'm Jewish], I'm safe." And so, as an adult now, to be a part of a movie where the kids say, "Yeah, a bris is the bat mitzvah." And it's so funny. But they're saying that people just don't understand each other's differences. I loved seeing them all coalesce and come together at the end as they all recognize they're just kids that have all the same problems, same crushes—whether you're Jewish or Black—didn't matter when it came to your humanity.