During the pandemic lockdown, Messing caught up on “Real Housewives” shows and dabbled in the ukulele. She also studied the script for “Birthday Candles”. Some parts came easily to him; she identified with the passion and expansion of young Ernestine. The failure of middle-aged Ernestine’s marriage, her experiences of loss – that also resonated. But what Ernestine experiences later is unfamiliar. “I haven’t experienced that yet,” Messing said.
She watched YouTube videos of centenarians: studying how they moved, how they sat. She also worked with a voice coach to learn more about what happens to the larynx as women age. Ernestine never leaves the stage, so there are no prostheses or wigs. Aging therefore takes place through the body and the voice, as well as through subtle changes in hairstyle and glasses.
“I’m not 107,” Messing said. “I don’t know anyone who is 107. So part of that is believing that homework will protect me and support me.”
It works, for Haidle anyway. “Whatever she does,” he said, “it’s like a magic trick.”
Part of this trick: Messing listens to the script every night while she sleeps. (“So intense,” Haidle said.) It, she believes, helps her learn lines. It also makes her feel like she’s doing her best. “Doing the work gives me peace,” she said. “I don’t know if it helps or not, but putting it on and falling asleep, I like to think it takes root in a deeper way.”
Nothing about his approach feels lighthearted. Typically, actors move through technical rehearsals casually. But on a recent one — when Messing and a co-star, Enrico Colantoni, were working on a scene — she appeared to be giving a full performance for every pass. She even wanted him to give a real kiss.
“Kiss me,” she insisted. “Kiss me, come.” Under her sweater, blue this time, she wore a painkiller bandage, because bending over at 107, as she had done in rehearsal the day before, had put a lot of strain on her lower back.
Cooking required additional preparation. It’s a science, Messing said, and science has never really been his thing. It doesn’t help that every stir, crack and sprinkle is precisely timed to Ernestine’s milestone events.