A SIDEKICK STEPS UP
Why Everyone's Talking about Will & Grace's Megan Mullally
by John Stark
"I'm 40" says Megan Mullally, sitting up straight in her living room chair. She says it so adamantly that I expect trumpets to blare, streamers to fall, and clowns to enter. "I have a thing about age, a campaign, really," she says, proudly, defiantly. "I know it's taboo to say your age. But at this age I'm the happiest I've been since I was a child--the most creatively excited, challenged, and inspired."
After 20 years in the business, Mullally has NBC's Will & Grace to thank for this rekindled joy. The performer's breakthrough role arrived last year in the guise of Karen Walker, a Manhattan socialite who likes to slum it in the workaday world. Although Grace couldn't have asked for a worse assistant, Debra Messing couldn't have asked for a better sidekick.
When I arrived to interview Mullally at her Hollywood bungalow, I truly expected Karen to greet me to look me up and down, and ask in that catty, lemonade voice of hers, "Honey, who are you?" But Megan is not Karen, not by a long shot.
Mullally looks a lot younger and softer than her designer-labeled TV persona. And bite your tongue, she's not had "work." That would be completely out of character. "What's this whole thing about having to look I9 when you're 85 years old?" she asks. "When I see women who've had a truckload of plastic surgery, what I read is terror. An actor fears she won't get any more parts. Well if that's the case I don't want any more parts. But I'm sure I will be getting parts until I'm 90, because your face is how you express yourself."
Of course, not looking your age still helps. "When Megan told us on the set she was 40, everyone was shocked. I thought she was my age," says Sean Hayes, 29, who plays Will's best friend, Jack.
Not only does Mullally not look like her character, Karen, she doesn't even sound like her. "I don't know where that voice comes from. It just came out at the audition," Mullally says. Then there are Megan and Karen's disparate lifestyles: As much as Karen likes cocktail parties in the Hamptons or dining late at Elaine's, Megan prefers to stay home at night reading books. Mullally lives alone, and prefers it that way. "I've been in relationships since I was I9, and for the last six months, for the first time ever, I've been really single," she says. "I'm a little worried. I like it a little too much."
Unlike Karen, who can't seem to get to Grace's office before n a.m. and complains at only having four hours for lunch, Megan is always striving to perfect her craft. Before Will & Grace, she'd been honing her comedic timing doing guest spots on all the top sitcoms, from Seinfeld to Frasier, and starred in two hit Broadway revivals, Grease, with Rosie O'Donnell, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, opposite Matthew Broderick.
As a child, she taught herself to sing by listening to her parents' LPs and imitating the vocalists. She was so seriously into dance that at age I6 and I7 she spent her summers in New York training with the Balanchine School of American Ballet. "That was really, really hard, and took a lot of discipline," she says. "There were a lot of older Russian teachers there with names like Madam Danilova. They'd come in wearing big, dark sunglasses, and talk about you in Russian. They'd point at you and make faces. It was very nerve-wracking."
Nowadays, it's not aging Russian ballerinas who are watching Mullally's form, but her hatha yoga instructor, Judith Seckler. Three to five times a week Seckler comes to Mullally's home for private instruction. Mullally discovered yoga earlier this year, taking to it like Karen to a sale at Barney's
"Over the years I've tried every form of exercise known to man," says Mullally. "Then one day I noticed a friend of mine had transformed herself into nothing less than a goddess. I asked her how and she said it was all due to yoga."
"Megan's the ideal student,'' says Seckler. "She understands the link between the body and the mind. And she's hilarious. We laugh all the time. I'll say to her, are you sore from yesterday? And she'll say, 'I have no idea what you're talking about' even though she can barely move."
Mullally also meditates daily, and gave up sugar. "In the past I could make an entire bowl of cookie dough and never bake a single one. Thank God I don't do that anymore."
One reason Mullally's so adamant about her health is she needs plenty of stamina, not just for Will & Grace but for all the movie work that's now coming her way, including the upcoming Monkey Bone with Brendan Frasier, and a lead role in Rahda Mitchell's indie, Everything Put Together.
And then there's Mullally's one-woman stage show, which she's performing through December at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood. Called Sweetheart, it examines relationships from both male and female perspectives, told through the songs of Rodgers & Hart, Tom Waits, Brecht, Weill, Jobim, and others. She wrote and directed the show and produced a CD of its score.
She says this passion to be creative harkens back to her late father, Carter Mullally Jr., whom she lovingly calls "a big ham bone."A contract player for Paramount Pictures, he moved his wife, Martha, a former model, and their only child, Megan, from Hollywood to his hometown of Oklahoma City in I965. "He never really worked," says Mullally. "My dad's family had been--and I say this in the past tense fabulously wealthy. During World War I they had been a main supplier of horses and mules to the Allied forces, and made jillions of dollars. After that my grandfather launched an oil business."
Carter saw Oklahoma as one vast stage. "At one point he bought a x937 Rolls Royce Phantom III" recalls Mullally. "He'd drive around in it wearing an ascot and smoking a cigar.
Everyone else had pickups."Then there was his sense of humor, "the blackest imaginable" she says. "Like I'd come home from school and he'd say in an Anglophile accent, 'Dahling, I don't know how to tell you this, but your mummy is dead.' Or in the middle of dinner he'd clutch his chest and fall over dead in his plate. He was really, really funny. He couldn't have pulled that humor off if he wasn't."
Carter died in 1992, so he didn't see his daughter become famous. "Since he was an actor who never made it in a big way, maybe, possibly, subconsciously, I was holding back, not wanting to pass him up," says Mullally.
She definitely isn't holding back now. "I don't believe in timetables or people's preconceived ideas of when things are supposed to occur in your life," she stresses. "All this started happening to me this year. People say that everything is supposed to happen to you when you're young. I'm here to say, don't believe it."
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Last updated March 12, 2001.
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