Megan Mullally on being and not being Karen -- The new talk show host is still hanging on to her ''Will & Grace'' character

By Adam B. Vary
Updated September 01, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Oh, fascinating,” sighs Megan Mullally as she settles into an interview at the Hollywood office of her new daytime talk program, The Megan Mullally Show. ”Actors talking about themselves. Nothing better!” That’s exactly the kind of cheeky sarcasm you might expect to hear from Mullally if you watched her for eight seasons as the outrageous and often-soused Karen Walker on Will & Grace. But as it turns out, that opening zinger is the closest Karen comes to peering out of Mullally’s no-nonsense black-rimmed glasses. Her real voice is a cool and calming alto, her manner surprisingly low-key, her office styled in West Elm Zen. Mullally, it soon becomes clear, is nothing like Karen whatsoever.

Which makes her job embodying the character all the more impressive. The role just won Mullally, 47, her second Emmy, as well as three consecutive SAG awards and the quip-quoting adulation of countless gay men (”I’m too tired to slap you — bash your face against my palm”), and when Will & Grace ended its run last May, Mullally realized that Karen would be tough to top. In fact, she decided not to even try. ”Playing Karen was so satisfying that it almost cured my acting bug completely,” she says. ”Not that I had conquered the world of acting. It was just that I had something to prove to myself when I started Will & Grace. Now I feel like, okay, well, I’ve satisfied that.”

Hence The Megan Mullally Show, premiering in syndication Sept. 18. Mullally promises an unusually eclectic lineup that will bounce from comedy sketches to musical performances to celeb interviews to on-location interactions with real people. Sounds like a tricky mix, especially for a first-time TV host (RIP The Roseanne Show, Queen Latifah Show, Tempestt), but she claims she’s not worried. ”I don’t get nervous anymore,” she says evenly. Mullally does genuinely come across as self-confident and unflappable, qualities she’s honed over a career built on sitcom guest-star roles and failed TV pilots that at times left her near-broke. ”She doesn’t apologize for anything,” says Will & Grace costar Debra Messing. ”She doesn’t need anyone telling her, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.’ She makes everything look effortless, and that’s the thing that is thrilling and infuriating about Megan.”

Like the time in 2003 when Mullally filled in for David Letterman, who was out with shingles. ”The whole day, knowing that she was going to have to go on, I was so nervous for her,” remembers Messing. ”But, you know, she took a nap before she went on!” Though she’s reluctant to discuss it — ”David Letterman is probably like, ‘God, shut up already!”’ — that evening’s show was the first time Mullally realized TV talk could be in her future. ”[The job had] seemed really far-flung,” she says. ”Like being an astronaut, or somebody who tunnels underground. And it’s so weird [I felt that way], because I loved talk shows so much. I studied them.”

Mullally, an only child, fondly recalls staying up with her mother in their Oklahoma City home to watch Dinah Shore and Johnny Carson, soaking up small details like how you could tell if Carson liked a performance by the tilt of his head. But at 8, she told her parents she wanted to be an actress, not a talk-show host, and by age 12 she was getting backstage acting pointers from her father, a former contract actor for Paramount Pictures. Her early career profited from a series of fortuitous breaks: She moved to Chicago in 1978, just as its theater scene began to flourish; she signed with mega-agency William Morris two weeks after arriving in Los Angeles in the early ’80s; and she booked The Ellen Burstyn Show, her debut sitcom (she played Burstyn’s divorced daughter), off her very first major TV audition. Though the show was short-lived, the gig provided a chance to learn comedic acting from one of its masters, costar Elaine Stritch. ”Elaine’s kind of the last great vaudevillian,” says Mullally. ”She has her own rim shot!”