Debi Mazar Talks Womanhood, Millennials and Breaking Rules
In the 1990s Debi Mazar’s cat-eyed glamour was spotted everywhere, alongside close friend Madonna. Arm-in-arm they strolled red carpets across two continents and partied with a glittery group of social provocateurs. As an actress, Mazar came on the scene and shone brightly in the 1990 iconic mob film, Goodfellas, as Ray Liotta’s coke-addled mistress. She then appeared alongside actress Annabella Sciorra in Spike Lee’s 1991 interracial romance drama, Jungle Fever and followed that up with two more Spike Lee films, Malcolm X and Girl 6. In 1995 she spiced up the screen as one half of Sugar & Spice alongside Drew Barrymore in Batman Forever. More recent projects included the role of sharp-tongued publicist Shauna on HBO’s runaway hit series, Entourage, which aired from 2004-2011.
Her characters have always been quick to offer a sarcastic comeback or some bold advice, no effs given. If film and television casts can be compared to ingredients, then Mazar is surely the hot sauce.
These days, the mom of two teenage daughters splits her time between New York City and Italy. Landing on another hit series with TV Land’s Younger, now going into its seventh season, Mazar takes the reigns once again as irreverent artsy urbanite, Maggie. The show centers around a Gen-X divorcee who poses as a millennial to jumpstart her career in book publishing, only to have worlds collide in parenthood, work and love.
When speaking with Debi Mazar, she gives it to me straight, no chaser. A dye in the wool New Yorker with an Avant-Garde spirit, Mazar shares her views on friendship, parenthood, social media and the art of risk taking.
Allison Kugel: In your series, Younger, your character Maggie is the catalyst that gives the other characters permission to make bold decisions that they wouldn’t ordinarily make. In your own life, who has given you permission to draw outside the lines?
Debi Mazar: I surround myself with many friends that do that for me; it’s not just one person. Certainly, it starts with my husband. I obviously run things by him. In my life, I’ve had people I looked up to who were older, or who had sage advice in their soul to offer. Sometimes it could even be my teenage daughters. Their thoughts are generally so pure. My older gay male friends always have sage advice, and my girlfriends, [the late fashion designer] Isabel Toledo being one of them, and Madonna being one of them… ultimately, you know deep in your soul what you should do, and I’ve always been a risk-taker.
Allison Kugel: Are you as bold and irreverent as the characters you’ve played?
Debi Mazar: I think I’m bolder than my current character on Younger, for real! Maggie is a little more Bohemian, and she’s [artsy]. I sometimes wish she could be even bolder. I know she’s a catalyst for the story. Often, in my life, I’m just like, “Oh please, just fucking do it already!” I think I’m a little bit more the type of person in my own life who will say, “Do what you need to do,” as opposed to merely suggesting. There have been times with the character of Liza (played by Sutton Foster), where I wish my character, Maggie, could have offered her that type of direct advice. But we have to tell a story and stretch it out for television.
Allison Kugel: Younger just finished its sixth season, and you’re going into your seventh season. It’s amazing when you consider how much competition there is for people’s attention these days. Why do you think the show has resonated with your audience?
Debi Mazar: Our show is about female relationships, for the most part. They’re strong women who are bonding together and lifting each other up. In a world that is so crazy, I think that is a big part of the show’s appeal. Our show is also filled with humor, it’s extremely positive and light. It really is entertainment. The marketing machine that TV Land and Viacom put together, in terms of promoting the show and how they continue to promote the show, has been aggressive and fun. I give them a lot of credit for throwing it out into the stratosphere, especially on a network that was all about reruns. When I first got offered the show and they said it was on TV Land, I said, “Wait, isn’t that the rerun channel?”
Allison Kugel: That reminds me of what Dave Chappelle said about the first season of Chappelle’s Show airing on Comedy Central. He said, “That wasn’t exactly the place to be at the time.” Sometimes it takes one groundbreaking show.
Debi Mazar: Yeah, I was like, “Oh, that’s weird. I don’t know.” (laughs) Of course, I would love being next to I Love Lucy, but they were doing this whole new launch of original programming when Younger started. Having the platform of Hulu, and wherever else you can watch Younger, that’s helped enormously to blast it out, and the show has sold well, globally. I hop through airports constantly, and no matter where I go people tell me they watch Younger. Ultimately, our show is about love.
Allison Kugel: I would consider you a Gen-Xer, like me. There is a Gen-X versus Millennial component to the show that speaks to a lot of people. Do you long for what was, or are you more of an embrace the times we’re in kind of person?
Debi Mazar: I’m a mother of teenagers, so I’ve had to deal with Millennials and Gen-Z, and I find them so refreshing. I am a Gen X type of person in terms of where I live, and liking how things used to be, and yes, I do complain that I liked New York City better when it was less crowded. I liked the city when it was edgier and not so antiseptic and cleaned up. On the flip side, I’m also a modernist and someone that looks to the future. I can’t sit around talking about how things used to be, because you have to exist in how things are and make your next decisions based on that. I can easily decide that I’m moving to Italy tomorrow, because I married an Italian and we have a country home in Florence. And I can choose to really go a whole other route, pretend like I’m in the Renaissance, and live in the country and tune out a lot of stuff. But I’m kind of addicted to certain things at this point. I have Instagram and I sit and check my phone for things all the time.
Allison Kugel: Darren Star is the brilliant creator of Younger. What would you say are the hallmarks of a Darren Star (Beverly Hills, 90210; Sex and the City; Younger) television series?
Debi Mazar: Darren likes to push buttons in terms of sexuality. He likes to push buttons with love triangles, the dynamics of friendships and with fashion. He loves all of that. If you watch any of his shows, there is always an element of people that are living on the edge, having to make decisions; they are dressing up and going out; they are having fun; and they’re voracious and hungry for things. His shows are funny, witty, fast-moving and nice to look at. The greatest thing Darren does is write wonderful female characters. I mean, remember when Sex and the City was happening? A lot of people were like, “I’m the Samantha of my group,” or “I’m the Carrie.” With my character, Maggie, on Younger, I’m happy to play a lesbian. I think it appeals to a huge demographic within the LGBTQ (at this point Mazar laments that she may be leaving out some letters) community. It’s relevant.
Allison Kugel: Darren Star recently claimed there is a statistic showing that women are often put in positions of power during extreme corporate shake ups, placing them on what he referred to as “the edge of a cliff,” and making them more vulnerable to failure in their respective positions. In Younger, Hilary Duff’s character, Kelsey, experiences this when she is put in charge of Millennial Publishing during a shake up in the company. Do you think the audience is ultimately looking to be entertained by her failure, or inspired by her success?
Debi Mazar: I think the audience is watching to see what happens. We all live on the edge of not knowing whether we’re going to be a failure or a success, and failure and success is something that is measured by ego. It could be measured in many different ways. I don’t know if that is a proven statistic, but I happen to think that women are stronger than men in many ways. Women turn shit around all the time. There are a lot of success stories in Corporate America of how women have turned things around. So, I don’t really know where that statistic comes from and I don’t think it’s a male or female thing, necessarily. Half of it is luck and timing, anyway.
Allison Kugel: Do you think someone can become extremely successful playing by the rules, or do you think that rules must be broken while chasing a dream?
Debi Mazar: A rebel has to break rules. You have to take chances, and you have to fall on your face before you get back up and know that you made a mistake, and you can try to do it differently. I think you have to break the rules to a degree… in a smart way.
Allison Kugel: Who in your life has made you most proud to have been born a woman?
Debi Mazar: It’s interesting, because I wanted to have a son, but I got daughters. I’m proud that they ended up being girls, because they’re magnificent. I look at Malala [Yousafzai] paving the way. She was tortured; being a woman representing a society and getting shot in the head, and then going out there and being an activist. There’s the Gloria Steinems of the world, and a billion other women of the world. Had they been born men… I just think that gender isn’t necessarily the answer. The gender discussion now is so big that sometimes people aren’t born women and they choose to become them. And, hey, that’s a beautiful thing too.
Allison Kugel: Why do you think ageism is so prevalent in American culture, specifically?
Debi Mazar: Oh God! Well I think it’s not just America, unfortunately.
Allison Kugel: Since you live in Italy for part of the year, would you say it is similar or different in that respect?
Debi Mazar: I feel young for my age, to a degree, but my body doesn’t always feel so young because I’m not, and it’s just how it is. Throughout history, men were always the presidents in America. We still haven’t had an American president that’s a female. When I’m in Europe, people appreciate people, whether they have leathery skin or not. It’s about character and their souls and their mind. I do feel appreciated in America, because I think it’s about the frame of mind of the person who might feel the ageism. I might not be able to go out and get a job that a twenty-year old is getting, but I don’t try to do that. In fact, when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I was chasing after the roles of grandmothers on sitcoms. I don’t care about the number. As an actor, we all have to be different shapes, sizes, colors and have imperfections. That’s what makes us look interesting.
Allison Kugel: What are your thoughts on Younger’s lead character Liza (played by Sutton Foster) relaunching her career in publishing by lying about her age? The series starts off with her pretending to be twenty-six, although she is a forty-year-old divorcee with a teenage daughter.
Debi Mazar: When the series starts off, her character was damaged. She was a divorcee suffering from a broken heart, a broken family, living in the suburbs, truly devoting herself to her child, which we all do. Suddenly she is single and going, “Oh my God, my daughter is moving out and going to college. What the hell am I going to do?” When she comes to my apartment, I am there to save her and wrap her up in my arms and be a friend first. I tell her, “I love you, you’re great, you’re beautiful.” When all of these [job] interviews are not working out, I suggest she have some fun and change it up. When I first started my career, I didn’t have a lot of acting credits and I fudged a little bit on my resume to make it look better than it was, because I wanted to get some action. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hustling, embellishing and trying to convince people that you can do the job.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of this generation leading the way, what’s one piece of technology that you can’t live without, personally and professionally?
Debi Mazar: Instagram, hands down! I’m able to post a still-life image that I find beautiful, or I’m able to show something that I shoot a picture of, that’s funny and makes people laugh. I’m able to share a photograph of a throwback from a moment in my life. It’s a reflection of my sense of style, my sense of photography, my sense of depth of field, color and comedy. To me, Instagram is really that and I keep my feed positive. On the flip side of it, when people come after me for my anti-Trump stuff or political stuff, I just block certain people. I don’t want to read into it and fall down that rabbit hole. I love WhatsApp because you can talk to anybody all over the world, and I also love how in Europe everyone walks down the street voice messaging into their phone’s mic, instead of texting. That’s my new favorite thing to do.
Allison Kugel: Towards the end of season six of Younger, your character Maggie is having a steamy fling with actress Nicole Ari Parker, who guest stars on the show. What was that like?
Debi Mazar: You know, Nicole Ari Parker did the two episodes of our show and we never closed out the fact that we’re having this little affair. Then I date a guy after her. It shows that Maggie’s hot to trot, and she’s on the market
Allison Kugel: Your character is very fluid, sexually?
Debi Mazar: Actually, she’s not fluid, but she is just seduced by a single moment with a man in that one episode. So, she’s not fluid. But if Darren [Star] decides I’m fluid in season seven, then I guess I will be (laughs).
Allison Kugel: (Laughs)
Debi Mazar: But he decided, at least in season six, that I wasn’t, and I’m fine with that. If I have to, I’d much rather make out with girls than make out with guys, because I’m married, and I only want to kiss my husband.
Allison Kugel: I get that.
Debi Mazar: I mean, if I have to it’s okay, it’s part of my job, but it’s much easier for me to go on set and be like, “Look, we got this. Let’s make this fun.” Sometimes you get these actresses who get a little bit nervous. I just make them feel calm and loved and feel easy about doing the scene with me. Nicole [Ari Parker] and I had moments where we’d be on the street ready to make out for a scene, and I taught her how to kiss me for the cameras. We didn’t have to put tongues down, we just put our lips together and smash our faces together like they did in the 1920’s movies. It doesn’t have to be this groping, weird thing. Actors can make it look good if they know what they’re doing. It’s really about the suggestion of sensuality.
Allison Kugel: You’ve had a group of eclectic and fabulous friends over the years. What kinds of people do you typically gravitate towards in your own life?
Debi Mazar: I’m that person that supports all people. I love fucked up people; I love straight shooters; I love people that are very by the book. I just see beauty in all kinds of people. When you let go of the norms and you allow people to be who they are, you find beauty and strength in them.
Younger airs on TV Land on Wednesdays at 10/9c. Catch up on Seasons 1-6 on TV Land On Demand or on Hulu and PlayStation Vue. Follow Debi Mazar on Instagram @debimazar.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of communications firm, Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
Photos courtesy of TV Land. Transcription and Typesetting: Carolyn Strum.