If you ever spot Megan Mullally in a restaurant, don't waste your money sending over a martini. After catapulting to fame portraying the pill-popping, brash-talking boozehound Karen Walker on NBC's just-wrapped hit sitcom Will & Grace, people seem to expect Mullally to indulge in a drink or two ... or five.
Off the set, Mullally is more of a teetotaler. "People do think of me as quite the lush, but in real life I never drank hard alcohol until a few years ago ... I just never liked the taste of it," says the 48-year-old actor and eponymous host of The Megan Mullally Show, which debuts mid-September in syndication on various networks. Mullally's colorful character made for "must-see TV" every Thursday night for eight seasons. And while she says it was a blast to play someone as out of control as Karen, the three-time Emmy Award winner usually "only drinks water or herbal tea."
Apparently, obsessive Karen fans and talk-show junkies who are expecting the helium-induced lilt made so famous on Will & Grace are in for a big surprise this fall. Not only is Mullally breaking away from her sitcom comfort zone -- launching a show, with nods toward Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, that is part-variety, part-talk, featuring skits, a live band, and correspondents -- she's also playing herself for the first time.
So will the real Megan Mullally please step forward? Her voice is deeper and raspier than one would expect, and the other differences don't end at happy hour. Where Karen Walker rebuffed all solid foods, Mullally is an organic-food fan. "I don't eat a lot of sugar, and eating unprocessed foods makes a big difference in my weight and energy. As you get older, your body just doesn't really tolerate outside interference, including alcohol and junk food," she says.
Mullally's husband -- carpenter and actor Nick Offerman -- is a role model for her in this regard. "He grew up in a small town where people don't have the healthiest eating habits, and he has retrained himself to eat healthier and work out ... he's really self-motivated."
She is relying especially on his healthy influence lately, as she prepares to take center stage in her latest creative endeavor. "I'm just trying to get a lot of sleep and eat healthy. I am psychologically gearing myself up for the change in workload," she says.
To keep from drowning in the competitive talk soup that is daytime television, The Megan Mullally Show plans to break new ground. But Mullally thinks she's found the right formula to help her stand out from the crowd: Her show features an interactive web site, where viewers will be asked to participate in creative challenges, including decorating a room on a budget, shooting a documentary about what is weird and quirky about their hometown, or writing an essay -- in no more than 100 words -- describing where they are in their life right now.
"Fashioning your own creativity is really its heart and soul," says the singer, dancer, and performer. Acting, dancing, music, writing, interior design -- Mullally aims to incorporate all these creative undertakings into the show.
"Go and do something for yourself that makes you feel good" could be the show's mission statement. "It's about feeding yourself, rather than spending time with things that are empty and don't have any meaning or resonance," she says.
Leading New York City psychoanalyst Gail Saltz, MD, author of several books, including Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie, says that such creative expression is a good thing to foster.
"Motivating people to do things they may feel satisfied with or proud of can open up an arena they didn't know was there, and that certainly has an upside," Saltz says. "Creativity requires flexibility, and it may require some listening to your inner voice and developing self-awareness. And that is a positive trait."
Although Mullally is excited, developing a talk show can be stressful. Whereas Karen Walker would simply pop a few Xanax and a Valium or two, Mullally tends to "do deep breathing for stress, or take hot baths," she says. "This is really important for me because of the all-consuming nature of a show like this -- especially when it's named after you."
To keep from feeling overwhelmed, she tries to carve out some time for herself each day that is unrelated to her work. "It could be going outside in the backyard and sitting in nature for five minutes," says Mullally, who lives in West Hollywood, Calif., "or as nonspiritual as going online and looking at art or books."
But sometimes the stress gets to her and affects her sleeping habits. Fortunately, she says, her husband "can sleep through a freight train," so Mullally uses those late-night hours to catch up on email. "I stay up because I start feeling like I have to get everything done," she says. "Sometimes I work until 3 in the morning."
Health experts recommend that the average adult log between seven and eight hours of slumber each night, yet Mullally doesn't seem to be suffering from a lack of beauty sleep. Her good looks are all natural. And while Karen Walker might have loved her lipo as much as a 4 p.m. cocktail, Mullally has no desire to go under the knife. "I haven't done anything, and I don't plan to -- but it's one of those things where you say, 'Never say never,'" she admits.
Still, "the older women I see who I think are really beautiful are really natural. Period," she says. But "to each his own. I don't have any judgments if people choose to undergo plastic surgery. If you step back and look at the larger scheme of things, I think it's reflective of a trend in our culture to put the emphasis on what you look like rather than who you are on the inside."
To that end, Mullally recently bought the film rights to Sally MacLeod's Passing Strange, which tells the story of a wife who is encouraged by her family to undergo an Extreme Makeover-type surgery. "She has plastic surgery, and there is a domino effect where things occur that nobody would have expected."
Mullally keeps it simple when it comes to her own beauty routine. Her skin care revolves around a weekly facial. "It does seem to make a difference," she says. "Every night before bed, I just wash my face, use a toner and good moisturizer, and occasionally do a little mask," adding that she makes her husband do one, too, "just to torture him."
While regular stress-busting exercise can fall by the wayside during her busy schedule, Mullally makes sure to take the stairs instead of the elevator when she goes to her new office.
Two other things that help Mullally cope with a chaotic schedule are her rescued poodles, Willa and Elmo. Study after study shows that people with pets live longer, healthier lives. In fact, one study by researchers at the State University of New York in Buffalo found that people with and high-stress jobs who were given a pet had a significantly larger reduction in the rise of blood pressure related to mental stress than those without pets.
"I feel like my dogs make me laugh all the time," she says. "But they also bring me back to reality when I am working too much. They have their own distinct personalities and they just crack me up."
Laughter is perhaps the one thing that Mullally shares with her sitcom alter ego. "Laughter is absolutely the best medicine. My husband is hysterically funny, and between him and my dogs, the laughter keeps me going. I am happy as a clam."