The pandemic hasn’t given us many good things, but here’s one: In a roundabout way, it’s the reason David Hyde Pierce co-starred in Julia. The producers of HBO Max’s Julia Child series offered him the role of Child’s husband, Paul, many months before the coronavirus crisis. “I read the script and I loved it, then for various reasons, I ended up not doing it,” Pierce says, chalking it up to bad timing and other commitments. That might’ve been the end were it not for COVID — and a few other snags.
The first came when Joan Cusack, initially attached to star as the show’s titular chef, dropped out not long after news of her casting leaked in September 2019. Producers replaced her with Sarah Lancashire and, after Pierce passed, cast Tom Hollander as Paul Child. The Hollywood trades even reported on the HBO pilot’s cast as Pierce happily prepared to do a new musical at the Public Theater in New York. You can guess what happened next. “They sat down to do their table read, and we got ready to go into technical rehearsals,” Pierce recalls. “And then COVID shut it all down.”
Six months of lockdown later, movie and TV productions cautiously started up again, and Julia plotted its return to production. At that point, Hollander “just wasn’t interested in coming back to the States,” Pierce says, noting the pandemic’s likely influence on his decision. Meanwhile, there was no clear timetable for Broadway’s reopening, and Pierce was once again open. He familiarized himself with Lancashire’s work and came away impressed. “She had an incredible range and seemed like a person who would be nice to work with, so I said yes,” he says. It didn’t hurt that in the months after Pierce initially passed, fellow Frasier star Bebe Neuwirth joined the cast as Julia’s BFF Avis.
Julia finally premiered on HBO Max this spring, garnering strong reviews, a quick renewal, and Emmy buzz, not surprising considering the reaction to the show and the presence of Pierce and Neuwirth, who have more than a dozen nominations and six wins (not to mention several Tonys) between them. Vulture spoke with Pierce about why he was attracted to Julia, his thoughts on the planned Frasier sequel at Paramount+, and why he has absolutely no regrets about that time he dressed up in tights to do an interpretive dance routine at the Emmys.
Before you signed up for Julia, did you have any particular interest in Julia Child?
I’m not a gourmand, in spite of having played one on TV, but I was aware of her. I had seen her show when I was a kid. I knew that Saturday Night Live parody with Dan Aykroyd. I had seen Meryl and Stanley’s movie. So it wasn’t like I thought, Oh, I want to be in the show about Julia Child. It was the script and the story of these two people.
They were such an interesting, complicated couple. They had this very modern relationship but were also very much people of their time. Some historians in recent years have written of homophobic instances with them, which is interesting because Paul at one point was “investigated” by the government for being gay. Did you look into that when prepping for the show?
I read a lot, and during the McCarthy era, they brought him into Washington and interrogated him in a pretty vigorous way about his contacts, whether he was a communist and who of their friends were communists, because the Childs were in a very left-wing group in Europe. They also accused him of being homosexual. I don’t know whether that was an attempt to get information out of him, a threat of something they might disclose, whether there was any reason to think that there was any truth to that.
In reading other people’s accounts of him, they talk about him as a ladies’ man. He had lots and lots of women he had affairs with, and two women — Edith Kennedy and Julia — who he was deeply and romantically and physically in love with. So I think it really upset him, partially because of his personal attitude toward homosexuality at the time. But also, it was part of a whole sequence of working for so many years for the government and being passed over for promotions and not being paid very much and feeling unappreciated. It added insult to injury.
He had an affair with a Kennedy?
Not one of those Kennedys. She was a woman who was older than him — she was basically to him what he ended up being to Julia. She introduced him to this world of French culture and jazz and music. She was an amazingly cosmopolitan woman, and I think he was completely smitten and adored her. Then she died young and he was bereft.
This was before Julia, right? Not an extramarital affair …
I am 150 percent sure he was faithful. I’ve never read anything that suggests they had an open marriage. I think they were deeply devoted to each other. He went many years after Edith died before he found Julia.
There were so many great story lines for Paul during the first season of Julia. Was any particular moment or episode a highlight for you?
One of the things I thought was a real gift to me as an actor, but also to Paul as a person, was that the writers found as many ways as they could for Paul to not be in sync with Julia. From my research, he could be very prickly and stubborn. What I love about this couple is they’re both really tough cookies, so it’s a wonderful marriage of friction.
But in the last episode, they created the scenario that Julia had been undone by her meeting with Betty Friedan and started questioning things and deciding against doing the show. They wrote a really wonderful speech for Paul to come around and be what Paul always was in the real Julia’s life: to be there for her and support her, as she did for him. So that whole turn, that journey and especially that speech — I was very grateful to be able to say those words to Julia.
Have you gotten any early sense of what story lines there might be in season two, or are we still way too early in that process?
It’s not too early, but I’m not going to tell you. [Laughs.] But we’ll be back filming probably sometime in July.
You shoot on location in Boston, right?
We do. Last year, we were there May through September, and it was great. All of the Paul and Julia Child archives are at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. Last year, we were all under such strict COVID rules, which kept us all safe, but this year, I want to spend my free time looking at the letters, reading the letters between them, looking at Paul’s paintings. I actually met someone just a few weeks ago who had worked with Julia, and she had given him one of Paul’s paintings. It was hanging in his wife’s living room, and I got to stand in front of the actual thing. It was a piece I had never seen before. It was really fantastic, kind of a cubist landscape.
Are you always as meticulous with your research when playing real-life characters? Do you like to inhabit the character as much as possible, or is it simply your innate curiosity?
I think it’s both. Part of the fun of being an actor is this wide range of exploration of lives you couldn’t have lived and things you’ve never done — learning to be a painter, learning to draw, learning to play the violin. But in general, whether it’s a fictional character or a real person, I do a lot of background work because you never know where inspiration will hit, and I want the well from which I draw inspiration to be filled as purely as possible with the world and the attributes and the history of this particular person.
Let me change the subject pretty dramatically. 2022 actually marks the 25th anniversary of a major milestone in your career, David.
What is it?
You co-hosted the 1997 CableACE awards with …
[Laughs.] Christine Baranski?
It was with Sela Ward from Sisters.
I bring this up because two years later, you’d host the Emmys with Jenna Elfman, and I think you may be the only person to host both shows. I’m wondering what you recall about hosting the CableACEs.
My only memory is that, after hosting it, they never had it again. So I am assuming there is a connection somewhere. The Emmys survived, but the CableACEs did not survive my hosting. I’ve always felt bad about that.
Did you enjoy those gigs back in the day?
You know, I actually did. I remember working with Jenna Elfman because we ended up doing an interpretive dance. We thought it the most absurd thing to do. I was after Rob Lowe and the Oscars, and this was a bit of an homage to the idea that they always have people interpretively dance the movies that were being nominated. We thought it was time for the Emmys to stoop that low.
This year is also the 30th anniversary of a show you were in just before Frasier called The Powers That Be, which was produced by Norman Lear and created by the team that had done Dream On for HBO and would go on to make Friends. I need to hear everything you’re willing to tell me about The Powers That Be.
It was a really cool show, a political satire, and quite edgy for its time. John Forsythe was playing a governor instead of a president, and Holland Taylor was playing his wife, but they were clearly meant to be the Reagans. In the very first scene of the first episode, Holland’s character calls the maid, played by Elizabeth Berridge, into the lounge and says, “Charlotte, I found this dust ball in the powder room” — and then she slaps her. It was so shocking, which was the point. It was meant to be hard-edged. It was my first sitcom and I remember having the best time. I loved it.
But John and Holland, who had been around a little bit longer — especially John — kept saying, “You know, they’re not treating us right.” I think he was talking about the kind of perks a network show tends to get, but also, they had an instinct that the network was not behind it. We were a spring replacement. We were supposed to go on in the fall, but it was the election year that ultimately put Bill Clinton in the presidency, and they took us off the air until after the election. You wonder if that was because it was a Norman Lear show. He had a very left-wing point of view, and I don’t know if the network felt they didn’t want him to give a voice to this.
All the episodes are streaming now, by the way, in case you want to watch it again.
Oh, I didn’t know that. They canceled the show and didn’t air the last few episodes, and then ultimately they aired on a completely different network that I don’t think exists anymore. I would love to see it again.
I guess it is good that it got canceled quickly, though, because you might not have been free to play Niles Crane.
Well also, our casting director for Frasier showed the creators of the show clips from Powers that Be. That show was how she knew to bring me to their attention.
Do you and the rest of the Frasier cast feel any sort of possessiveness about the show’s legacy or its place in pop culture? Does it matter to you how many people are (or aren’t) talking about it at any point?
I think the show speaks for itself. A show like Seinfeld had a very particular edge and kind of anti-sitcom feel about it that was unique for its time, and really still is. That’s why it holds up. But Frasier’s a different thing. It’s not pablum. It’s not, I don’t know, “do something else while the TV’s on in the background.” It’s a very smart show. It’s very, very beautifully written and arced and a lot of amazing characters and guest stars and an amazingly deep bench of theater people come on. If people aren’t talking about it, that’s okay because the people who love it just love it. And it has proved itself generation after generation after generation. Even though the clothing styles and some of the subject matter may go out of date, the show itself doesn’t seem to. It doesn’t seem bound to its era, in my opinion. So I’m okay with how it’s doing and what its legacy is. And, in the great scheme of things, it’s a television show.
Are there any current TV shows you’re really into right now?
I watched Call My Agent, but for some reason, I’m not good at sticking with things, even the shows that I love. That’s one I love that I still haven’t finished it yet. It may be because I love it so much I don’t want it to end. I watched The Gilded Age because virtually everyone is a friend; they were able to cast all of Broadway because it was filmed during the pandemic and I had a good time watching that. What else? Some of the Marvel things. I love The Mandalorian. Just getting into Obi-Wan Kenobi because I had worked with Ewan McGregor years ago and adored him as a person and also as an actor, and he’s so exquisite in this show. So I watch things in small bites, but I’m not really watching sitcoms. I’m drawn to other stuff now.
I think there’s a law that requires me to ask you about this Frasier reboot that may or may not be happening at Paramount+. Right now, you’re not set to be a regular part of it, but since Frasier ended, has anyone has ever come to you about doing a spinoff with Niles, or Niles and Daphne? Or have you ever pitched it?
No one ever approached me about it so it wasn’t something I turned down. But it was also not something I was looking to do, so I wasn’t an engine behind it, either. In fact, by the time Frasier was ending, I knew I was going to be doing Spamalot, which was the first Broadway musical I’d ever done. So my focus was elsewhere.
And in the years since, whenever the show is talked about — I don’t have a strong feeling that there’s anything more that I can think of that I need to say about the character. But I’m not a writer. And I think if they came up with some way of telling the stories that intrigued me, then I might think, Oh, I could go back and do that. But in terms of my own drive and interest, no. I love those characters, but I don’t miss them.
But in terms of the Paramount+ project, your mind is open to the idea?
Yeah. That whole time of my life, the writing on those shows, the actors I got to work with — all of that is deeply important to me. And I would never disrespect that in such a way as to say just offhandedly, “Oh, no, thanks. I’m not going to do that again.” It’s too valuable to me. But by the same token, because it’s so valuable to me, I also wouldn’t do it just do it. And I believe it can be done without me, too — finding new stories to tell, in the same way that Frasier did after Cheers. They didn’t bring along the Cheers gang to make a new show. They popped in from time to time and that was a blast, but there was something else that needed to be said, and it needed to be said in a different way. And maybe they will find that and I’ll be in it, or maybe they’ll find it and they won’t need me to be in it.
It’s always perilous when you bring back such treasured things. I’m glad it’s taking a while. Frasier is a show where you don’t want to sully the memory of it in any way by doing something bad.
You know, I don’t worry about that. The classic example was AfterMASH and M*A*S*H. People can talk about how good or bad AfterMASH was, but it doesn’t sully the memory of M*A*S*H. It’s not like people think, Oh, we were wrong to ever watch that show because of this other sequel. I don’t think that’s a fear. And as I’ve just given this whole speech about how important and valuable that whole experience was to me and how many people say how great it is and it got them through the pandemic: It’s also a TV show. So I think it’s equally a mistake to be precious and feel like, Well, it’s holy scripture. What if we did something wrong? I don’t look at it that way, either. It’s more personal for me. It’s about how I am going to spend whatever artistic life I have left and where I can make the most significant contribution.