In fact, when Haddish celebrated her bat mitzvah in late 2019 with a star-studded shindig, Crystal was in attendance alongside Wanda Sykes, Common, Jimmy Kimmel, Chelsea Handler, Kevin Nealon and Sarah Silverman. While the party (held on Haddish’s 40th birthday) doubled as the red-carpet premiere for Haddish’s Netflix special “Black Mitzvah,” the intimate ceremony that preceded it was real, and Crystal played a special role.
“We had just wrapped the film. It was right before Thanksgiving, if I recall,” Crystal tells Variety in a joint interview with Haddish. “Tiffany called me and said, ‘I’m getting bat mitzvahed and I want you to do an Aliyah’ — which is a prayer right before she’s going to read from the Torah — ‘I want you to stand up with me.’”
“It was so moving to me to see her fulfill something that was so important to her to do, and she did great,” Crystal continues. “When I was bar mitzvahed, my uncles would come up and do an Aliyah. I’ve been to so many other ones, where the important people in their families [would do it]. It’s an honor to do this blessing. So, the fact that she wanted me to do it, that was very cool. It was a beautiful thing.”
Haddish chimes in: “It was an honor to have you do that for me, Billy. You’ve blessed me in so many ways, and I’m so grateful.”
One of those blessings was recruiting the younger comedian to join his latest project, “Here Today” — which coincidentally includes a bat kitbag scene. Haddish admits that working with the comedy legend was a bit of a “pinch me moment” at first.
“When I first met him, I don’t know what I was expecting. I’m expecting to come in like, “Whoa,” and he appears [in the sky] and he floats down,” she jokes. “He didn’t float or anything, he’s just a man. But his energy was so wonderful that I just wanted more. I wanted to be around him. I wanted to learn everything I can from him.”
Crystal had no shortage of hats to wear during the production — literally and figuratively. He directed, co-wrote, produced and stars in the film, playing Charlie Burnz, a veteran comedy writer who meets a vivacious young singer named Emma Payge (Haddish) after she wins the chance to meet him in an auction. After learning her triumphant bid was just $22, things continue to go off the rails when Emma has an allergic reaction to shellfish and Charlie has to take her to the hospital.
The premise is based on a short story called “The Prize,” from Crystal’s longtime friend and former “Saturday Night Live” writer Alan Zweibel. Zweibel shared a similar anecdote during a late-night talk show appearance and Crystal quickly recognized that the tale had the potential to carry an even more poignant message.
“It was about an intergenerational relationship. It’s not a romance, it’s a love story,” Crystal says.
In expanding the story beyond the funny anecdote, he and Zweibel wanted to depict a poignant tale about an aging man, who is quietly battling a dementia-like ailment, and the woman who comes to his rescue.
“Something that I feel is missing from people is empathy, and especially in these times, feeling what other people are going through, understanding what they’re going through and helping other people. That’s what eventually happens between Emma and Charlie,” Crystal says.
The new project marks the first time Crystal has directed a film since the 2001 TV movie “61*” and the first time he’s directed a movie that he also starred in since 1995’s “Forget Paris,” in which he acted opposite Debra Winger.
Crystal jokes, “I spent a lot of time with me, and sometimes when I would be upset with me I’d say, ‘Let’s just take it outside and talk it get through and we’ll both calm down and it’ll be fine.’”
But the real key to successfully managing all of the roles — director, actor, writer and producer — at once came down to surrounding himself with the right people on set, he says. Producer Fred Bernstein and Zweibel were his secret weapons.
“If you know your truth, if you know who you are, and you know where you are in every moment, you’ll be fine,” Crystal says. “Something that we had written and, suddenly, it’s coming to life. It’s real, then it gets very pure. That’s what I call the ‘cream.’ And when you’re hitting the cream, there’s really nothing like it.”
Crystal also relished working with Haddish and his on-screen children Laura Benanti and Penn Badgley. With Haddish, Crystal says he strove to enhance the film’s emotional beats by being strategic about when to “release the Kraken” that is her unique brand of comedy.
“As an actor, being with her, being surprised by things that she’s doing and responding in kind, that was great,” Crystal says. “To direct her, to get to some of these moments was really fulfilling for both of us and a challenge to harness the brilliance that she has and use it in special moments, so we’re not seeing a Tiffany Haddish that we’ve seen before.”
“Here Today” is in theaters on May 7.