LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Debra Messing sticks out like a sore thumb in her latest movie, "Nothing Like the Holidays." But that is just fine by her.
In the comedy, which debuts in U.S. theaters on Friday, a Puerto Rican family comes together at Christmas for the first time in three years, and Messing plays a very non-Latina career-driven executive wife of the family's eldest brother, played by John Leguizamo.
"I'd never been an outsider in a film," Messing said. "I very much felt like the white Jewish girl and it was the first time I had ever been the minority on the set."
Messing tried to "access my inner Latina" by recalling her elementary school Spanish during the shoot, she said.
The 40-year-old Messing said the film marks a step forward in Hollywood because it is essentially a mainstream holiday film but one that focuses on a minority, Latino family.
"Nothing Like the Holidays" follows the Rodriguez family during a holiday gathering in Chicago that is prompted by the youngest brother's return from combat overseas.
An ensemble piece, the movie details the trials of each family member's career or personal relationships. Messing's character, Sarah, for instance, struggles with whether to take a new, high-powered job while facing pressure from her husband and mother-in-law to start a family.
"That's not specific to the Puerto Rican culture," Messing said of the themes the movie pursues. "I could see an Italian family on screen, I could see a Jewish family on screen. You could just fill in the blank, because family is family."
At the same time, she added, "you can learn and celebrate the Puerto Rican culture, which has never really been done."
Messing, who shot to stardom on eight seasons of the NBC sitcom "Will & Grace," said she hoped "Nothing Like the Holidays" would help break down cultural barriers in Hollywood in much the same way "Will & Grace" brought gay characters to mainstream TV audiences in a hit prime-time
"It would be wonderful if this film in some way has a similar effect, representing a community who is normally not represented, not written about, and often represented in stereotypes," Messing said.
She said the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president made her hopeful that Hollywood will embrace characters of different cultural backgrounds.
"There is an excitement about the possibility of tolerance, especially now we are going to have our first African American president," she said. "It seems like a reflection of that, this film. And I hope it does become a trend."
Messing has appeared in several movies since "Will & Grace" wound down in 2006, including the high-society comedy "The Women" earlier this year.
Despite wanting to focus on films and plays following that show's end, however, Messing is back on television in USA Network's series "The Starter Wife," in which she plays the ex-wife of a Hollywood mogul.
"It was not in my master plan," Messing said of her latest TV stint, adding that the program's 5-month shooting schedule still gives her the flexibility she craved when "Will & Grace" ended.
"That was much more palatable being A, a mother, and B, someone who just wanted to be able to say 'I don't know what I'm going to be doing,' and to give myself some air so I could figure out what I was hungering for," Messing said.
With her time off last year, Messing shot "Nothing Like the Holidays" in five weeks. The short schedule was critical, given she has a four-year-old son at home and her husband, Daniel Zelman, also has a busy schedule as writer and producer of the cable TV show "Damages."
"It's impossibly hard," Messing said of managing the demands of both motherhood and work. "Compromises are made every month, and it just feels like 'Okay, this is the life of an adult woman in America.'"
Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte