During the pandemic shutdown, Messing caught up with “Real Housewives” shows and tried the ukulele. She also studied the script for “Birthday Candles.” Some parts entered her easily; she identified with the passion and vastness of the young Ernestine. The collapse of middle-aged Ernestine’s marriage, her experiences of loss – these also resonated. But what Ernestine undergoes later is unknown. “I haven’t seen anything like it 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 what happens to the larynx as women age. Ernestine never leaves the stage, so there are no prosthetics or wigs. So aging takes place through the body and voice, plus subtle changes in hairstyle and glasses.
“I’m not 107,” Messing said. “I don’t know anyone who is 107. So part of it is confidence that the homework will protect and support me.”
It works, at least for Haidle. “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.) This, she thinks, helps her learn lines. It also makes her feel like she’s doing her best. “Doing the work gives me peace of mind,” she said. “I don’t know if it helps or not, but when I put it on and fall asleep with it, I like to think it’s embedded in a deeper way.”
Nothing about her approach seems light. Usually, actors casually go through technical rehearsals. But on a recent one – when Messing and a co-star, Enrico Colantoni, worked through a scene – she seemed to put in a full performance for every pass. She even wanted him to do a real kiss.
“Kiss me,” she insisted. “Kiss me, come on.” Under her sweater, this time blue, she was wearing a painkiller, because bending over like a 107-year-old, as she had done during rehearsal the day before, her lower back was sore.
Baking takes extra preparation. It’s a science, Messing said, and science was never really her thing. It doesn’t help that every stirring, cracking, and sprinkling is timed exactly to Ernestine’s milestone events.