Debra Messing arrives at a lush hotel bungalow to discover...she has arrived. It's a serene and sunny California afternoon, and the Will & Grace star is returning from a raucous press conference in front of an atypically animated audience of television critics (one charmed reporter actually kissed her). Now, as a publicist leads her through the door of the four-room, Peacock-bankrolled suite at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton, Messing, 30, comes face-to-face with the benefits of good buzz. ''My God, look at this place!'' she gasps, her feet frozen in the entryway. ''Hello, NBC!''
It's taken four years of prime-time fits and starts for this female George Clooney (himself a vet of a string of failures prior to ER) to reach perk nirvana. Fresh from New York University's M.F.A. program, the New York native first opened eyeballs in 1994 as Donna Abandando's sexpot sister, Dana, on NYPD Blue. One year later came The Big Break That Wasn't: a starring role in her first two-folks-separated-by-an-and sitcom, Fox's Ned and Stacey, which lasted barely two seasons. That was followed by two Seinfeld appearances (as Jerry's never-available crush, Beth), then her own ABC drama, Prey, a cheesy 1998 mid-season replacement about a new species of humans, which quickly lost its evolutionary struggle.
''I came into [Will & Grace] feeling like I should be relaxed because I've been through this,'' says Messing. ''But working with [Cheers director] Jim Burrows and doing a show that has sparked [interest] with people it feels completely new. I'm actually a little shaky right now.''
For exec producers Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, who were still searching last spring for their female lead, it took one casual afternoon reading in Burrows' den to convince them they'd found their saving Grace. ''There's that fabulous line in As Good as It Gets where Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt, 'You make me want to be a better man,''' says Mutchnick. ''Debra makes you want to be a better writer.'' Kohan concurs: ''She has total access to her emotions, which is a weird thing for someone as heavily in denial as myself.''
Messing, burned out from six months of 18-hour days on Prey, was in a bit of denial herself: ''I thought, Am I just too deliriously tired to make this decision?'' Mutchnick and Kohan were persistent wooers, however, even enlisting NBC's Warren Littlefield to talk her out of any insecurities. ''I was very aggressive in lobbying her,'' says Littlefield. ''She's smart, funny, attractive. Hello?''
Messing's fan club increased by one other VIP last year. Woody Allen was so smitten with the actress during auditions for his latest film, Celebrity, he added a minor character for her. ''[My agent] called saying: 'It's a small part, but he wants to know if you'll take it,''' says Messing, who recently bought a house in the Hollywood Hills with her actor fiance, Daniel Zelman. ''I was like, 'Duh. Duh! I'll carry a cup of water to be in his film!'''
But Debra, why grovel? Cop a star attitude already. ''Oh, my God!'' Messing yelps. ''You're making me very nervous!'' Paging Warren Littlefield.