role call

Lee Pace Answers All Our Questions About Pushing Daisies

“When I got cast in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson said, ‘I loved you in Pushing Daisies.’”

Photo: ABC
Photo: ABC

This interview with Lee Pace was originally published in March, 2022. The beloved actor (and tall drink of water) will be sharing more stories about Pushing Daisies, The Hobbit, and the rest of his career when he’s awarded Vulture’s honorary degree at this year’s Vulture Festival. Catch him in Los Angeles on November 13 — tickets are on sale now!

Pushing Daisies premiered in an exciting, uncertain moment on television. It was 2007, several years before streaming services would explode the number of series that premiere each year, and well into an era where network dramas were looking to experiment with form and style. It was the perfect, and probably only, moment a series like Pushing Daisies could appear on ABC: a high-concept drama with a brittle, hopeful tone and an unusual look for television, with highly saturated colors and a crisp focus that creates a fairy-tale feeling. The story of Ned, a pie-maker with the ability to bring people back from the dead, was so unlike everything else on the network-programming grid. Pushing Daisies is whimsical in a heady, almost flighty way, but its whimsy was also full of grief and longing. Looking back, it was a show with an unmistakably queer aesthetic, and yet that undercurrent went largely unspoken at the time.

2007 was also the year of the writers’ strike, a labor action that lasted over three months and disrupted the entire industry, including the first season of Pushing Daisies. It would prove to be a fitting circumstance for the show’s entire two-season run on TV: improbable, full of hope and excitement and a sense that TV could be different in the future, and also full of uncertainty about what that future would be or whether the show would even have one. At the heart of the show was Lee Pace as Ned, and we recently caught up with him to discuss the role.

KV: I am so happy to talk with you about Pushing Daisies.
LP: When I got the call about doing this interview, I was really, really excited because I’m so proud of the show and it’s fun to look back on it. I can’t believe it’s been 15 years.

Before you were on Pushing Daisies, you were on a Bryan Fuller show called Wonderfalls. Could you tell me a little about meeting Bryan Fuller and how you got involved with that project? 
I think Adam Scott had originally played the role that I was playing, Jaye’s brother Aaron. So I watched the pilot and they were recasting him and Kerry Washington. I was right outta school; it was probably the first year I was out of school. I remember I flew out to L.A. for a test on it, which was one of the first times I’d ever even been to L.A. And then I got it. And then they were gonna also recast Kerry Washington, who did the pilot. And I suggested my friend Tracie Thoms, who I had gone to Juilliard with, to play Mahandra. It was one of my very first jobs.

I bring up Wonderfalls because it’s not the same world as Pushing Daisies, but they feel like cousins. It’s an unusual place to begin a career, in this bizarre fantasy world.
You know, it’s Bryan Fuller, isn’t it? That’s the kind of zone that it exists in, there is a real exploration and awareness of death. I would like to say that it’s not morbid, but it is kind of morbid in a cheery way, if that makes any sense. I think what I’d seen of his work before that was Dead Like Me. That was my first step into the world of Bryan Fuller, and it was very Bryan Fuller.

Aside from “dark and cheery,” how would you explain to someone what a Bryan Fuller show is like?
I would say it welcomes magic — and I’m not talking a sorcery kind of magic. I’m talking like a surreal happening that is possible inside that world to explore the ideas that he wants to explore. I think in the character of Jaye that he was creating with Wonderfalls, he wanted to be able to stretch the rules of her reality, and to do that, needed to create something that was unreal. I would say that was similarly true of Ned and Chuck: To understand Ned better, he needed to be different than other people. He needed to be an alien inside the world. It’s imaginative work. It speaks to who Bryan is as a writer and a creator that this is what makes sense to him, you know?

I read that originally, the idea might have been for Ned to be a Dead Like Me character — that he might’ve been a reaper within that world. And he then became spun off as his own thing for Pushing Daisies.
Oh, I’d never heard that. That’s exciting to hear. I love the idea of Ned as a reaper character. I can’t imagine Ned without Chuck, though.

Were you actively looking for new TV roles after Wonderfalls ended?
I wasn’t really actively seeking out TV roles. I was doing a lot of theater at that time. I just shot this movie called The Good Shepherd that Robert De Niro directed, which was such a privilege to be a part of; I’d just shot this movie called Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I was enjoying going from movie to movie. And then I heard that Bryan had a really good script and I asked him if I could read it. I read Ned and thought, God, this character would be a lot of fun to play. I think I feel a connection to him. So I wrote Bryan this very coy email saying, “You should cast Martha Stewart’s dogs to play the killer because she has chows and there was a chow that I think commits the first murder.” And he responded, “Well actually, can we talk about you playing Ned?” I flew out to L.A. and met Barry Sonnenfeld, who very much helped me figure out who Ned was and the tone of the show that we then developed. The rhythm of how Bryan’s writing was spoken very quickly, that was very much Barry directing me into a certain lane.

I was going to ask about the dialogue — there are so many words, it seems like a challenge to balance the musicality with the way a human might actually say some of these ideas. Was there a long rehearsal process to figuring out what the dialogue should sound like?
Well, we loved the writing. That was part of it. Chi, Kristin, Ellen, Anna, Swoosie — we all had a lot of pride in being a part of this and technically pulling that stuff off word for word. There were days that we would shoot in the Pie Hole and we had so much dialogue to learn, and we would just run it and run it and run it with each other. Also, one of the things that Barry established in the photography of the show was we used very wide lenses. So when we were shooting around the table, for example, in the Pie Hole, we would have to be acting to a bunch of marks around the camera lens because they were using the wide lens. And if we were to actually look at the people, it would look like we were looking on the other side of the room.

In addition to the very fast dialogue — and I texted Anna last night and said that we were doing this interview, what are some of the things you remember and stuff? And she said, “Everything is rhyming. Everything is in threes.” Which is exactly how Bryan wrote. So we would learn the scenes that are spoken very quickly, try to say it without a flaw in the lines, and also have to be looking around the camera lens at the sticker of Kristin and then the sticker of Chi. It was technical, but we were all in it together, you know?

There is such a striking, distinctive look to the series, and the pilot feels so fully formed from the beginning. 
Barry pulled off something really cool in the pilot. It was one of the things that first made me think, This is really interesting: He pulled off a joke that happens in-camera. What I remember is the killer in the bedroom and Swoosie kills the guy who’s coming in, and Chuck is in the room with me. But Swoosie doesn’t see it because she has the eye patch, and the gag worked because the camera cut to her perspective, and you didn’t see what she didn’t see. I was like, Wow, he just told a joke with a camera.

That’s a very difficult thing to pull off. And part of it was those wide lenses, which made everything in the background in focus all the time. That made it time-consuming to shoot because you had to light the entire background, even if you’re just coming in for a close-up. There’s no “let’s just punch in and get a quick close-up.” It’s 30 minutes to take down the cameras, move them, relight the room, and continue. It gave us time to learn our lines, basically.

Do you remember the process of trying to find the other leads?
I remember when they mentioned Anna Friel to me. I had seen her do Closer on Broadway with Natasha Richardson, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I know exactly who you’re talking about; she’s incredible and would be phenomenal in this role.” And I remember when they mentioned Kristin Chenoweth, who I didn’t know at the time. But before we shot the pilot, Bryan came to New York and we went to go see Kristin in something and went to go visit her backstage. It was the first time I’d met Kristin.

She is very tiny, and you are very tall. It must’ve been very challenging to set up any shot that has both of you in the frame at the same time.
What I remember is her constantly standing on a box — all the time she was standing on boxes. Anna’s tiny too, that was one of the things she texted me, one of the memories that she had was always standing on a box. Chi McBride needed no box.

So you have this pilot, it’s extremely weird. How worried were you about whether it was going get picked up?
I don’t know if I knew enough about the business at that point. I wanted it to go and I’m kind of an optimistic person. It was my taste. I didn’t know if it would be everyone’s, you know?

You were just mentioning that you felt a real connection to Ned. What about him resonated with you?
I guess I just related to his feeling like an outsider. I was thinking about this when me and Anna were talking last night, because she and I became very close. Anna is one of the funnest people I’ve ever met. She just loves life. She just wants to have people over for dinner and everyone to get around the keyboard and play guitars and sing and have a good night until the wee hours of the morning. That’s Anna. And I am very Ned-like, I’m much more introverted. And I remember the impact Anna had on me, similar to Ned and Chuck. Ned is leading this very closed-off life, working away on his pies, doing this hustle that he’s got going with Emerson, and then she comes into his life, and I’ve always thought that that’s really the heart of the show. When you have love, when you have enjoyment, a love of life, that’s the thing that makes a show about death not really about death. That’s the best way I can answer your question: I was looking for love and Anna Friel came into my life in a way that Ned was looking for love when Chuck came.

It’s a beautiful love story between the two of them, and at the same time, when I was rewatching the show just recently, I realized there was a lot of coded stuff happening. There’s a constant sense of longing: They’re in love, but they should not touch each other. Ned is in love with somebody named Chuck. I thought, Huh, this is a much queerer show than I realized. Was that something you thought about at the time?
I’m sure I did think about it then. This was the second show I’d done with Bryan Fuller, who had by then become a good friend. Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen were producing the show. It’s one of the things I loved about it. I think it’s one of the things that the audience connected to ultimately and continues to connect to when they discover it. It exists in a space that it carves for itself; it doesn’t need the signals of other spaces. Any person can come to it and meet it where it is, if that makes any sense.

It completely does. It’s thrilling that we’re now in a moment where we can have queer TV, shows that say all of those things out loud. But there’s something really fascinating and magical about Pushing Daisies and the way it plays in that space in a winking, covert way. Just as you said — people can come to it however they’re going to come to it. 
That invitation to a place that is truly queer that is just, “This is what we like, what do you like?” There’s no barrier to entry, no matter, how you’re coming to it. That’s Bryan Fuller’s self-reflection and reflecting on how he grew up, how he processed love growing up in the ’80s and ’90s and everything that was going on in our country during that time. That goes into the machine and Pushing Daisies comes out. That’s art.

The show also had just, like, an untold number of great guest stars.
I love that you asked this question because I wrote a list down.

Give me the list!
I’ve got Diana Scarwid, David Arquette, Paul Reubens, Raúl Esparza, Patrick Breen — who I did Normal Heart with later. And then Mark Harelik, who was also a part of Normal Heart. Graham McTavish, who I did The Hobbit with later. Molly Shannon and Mike White did an episode together. Riki Lindhome, Barbara Barrie, Missi Pyle, Fred Willard, Shelley Berman, George Segal, Nora Dunn, Hamish Linklater, Joel McHale, Beth Grant, Willie Garson, Eric Stonestreet, Mary Kay Place, and so many more.

An unbelievable list of people.
And also they were given these wild characters to play.

One that was stuck in my head for some reason is Fred Willard stuck in concrete.
Totally. And I think Eric Stonestreet fell into a deep-fat fryer. That was the episode where me and Kristin were at the food fair. And he was murdered by being chicken-fried.

This is one of the other things that I noticed rewatching the show: Ned is the central character, and yet when you’re watching it, he really feels like the straightest character in this world of zany, bonkers people. He is the strangest, but he has to be the most grounded at the same time.
I suppose you’re right. I felt like when I’ve looked back on scenes, I always think I’m being very, um, big. But compared to some of the other things that went on in that show, I guess he was simple in his way, Ned. He’s kind of passive, along for the ride.

Well, he’s terrified of himself. He is constantly trying to keep people from knowing who he is. It’s this undercurrent of sadness that I think is part of what keeps the show from just flying off into the hilarious absurdity. Does that make sense?
It does. I think that would be the real danger of the show. I think that Bryan would never let that happen. That’s not the story that he was interested in telling. Ned is someone who has lived a life of heartbreak and continues to — I mean, they all are — that is not deeply buried. It’s a close-to-the-surface kind of heartbreak and I think a reason for the whimsicalness in a way. You could eradicate one, but you then lose the point.

It would overbalance the show. It has to be that whimsical in order to try to counterbalance how deeply tragic it is all the time.
Yeah. I think about certain scenes, like when we bring Chuck’s father back and she wants to keep him alive. I mean, that’s pretty sad, that’s pretty serious. That was the balance, but we were working so, so hard on that show, that inside of our little bubble it was all we were thinking about. This was the world, these were the terms that we thought in. That dichotomy came up in all of our performances because it was in the environment around us.

So you knew the show would be ending by the time you shot the finale.
A big part of the experience of shooting Pushing Daisies was the writers’ strike. And that was in the first season. We had just premiered, it was going really well, and then we had to shut down because of the writers’ strike. And our writers were such a big part of our lives, because they were right there on the lot with us, they would come to set all the time. They had to, like, walk out and were picketing around the front gates of Warner Bros. and we would have to drive past them like, “Hi, my friends, we will bring you lunch and walk with you and support you in your renegotiations.” But I think we had about two, three episodes left and then we had to shut down and that was our first season. Talk about a curveball. When we got the second season, I think everyone felt raised from the dead in a way. So when we got canceled in the middle of that second season, we were stressed about that. We were also grateful to get the chance to come back and do that second season, but it happened very suddenly. It was really like Bryan suddenly scrambling to abbreviate what he had planned for the rest of that second season.

You did have the grace of knowing it was coming, though. You could at least get that final shot of Chuck and Ned on the porch. I remember being just completely flabbergasted that the show was ending, but also at least we are in this perfectly Pushing Daisies feeling: “I’m so happy and so sad at the same time.”
Yeah. I think you’re right. It was bittersweet. It’s kind of the nature of the show. It was great that it existed. There’s no reason it should have, and on network TV at that time, the fact that it existed at all is kind of a miracle. It would’ve been interesting to see where those characters go with longevity.

Did you have souvenirs? Were you trying to desperately scramble to keep something of the show for yourselves?
I think there was a pair of these black-and-white chef’s pants, and maybe like a gray hoodie or something. I’m trying to think if I took some props, I remember those pies on set all the time. There were these pies. I mean, they looked delicious, but they were really made out of plastic and lard.

I figured they must have been terrible.
I think they tried real pies for a while, but after a couple hours under the lights, it attracted flies. So they moved over to plastic-and-lard pies.

Do you still think about Ned? Is he somebody who has stayed with you for the past 15 years?
I had read this Joan Didion quote that I’m about to mess up. But the idea, especially post COVID, means something to me, which is, “I am no longer in touch with the person I used to be.” I think that’s very true of how life has gone. It was 15 years ago. I was 26, 27 years old. I look back at that time very fondly. It changed my life in a lot of ways. I remember Peter Jackson, when I got cast in The Hobbit, said, “We loved you in Pushing Daisies. That’s why you’re here.” How he went from Ned to the Elven king is very bizarre, but I’ll take it. It was a formative experience in my life; I very much learned how to do my job with those people.

It was formative for me and for a lot of people watching TV at that moment. It was one of the series I remember watching and thinking, I didn’t know TV could be like this. Then it was sort of depressing when other stuff didn’t live up to it, but you knew it was possible.
Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right about that. And I’m very proud to be hearing you kind of discuss it in that way. Because it felt good to make it, it felt good to feel that freedom and that sense of community, which you don’t always feel in this line of work. When I think about what the show would’ve been without the restrictions of commercials and being on a certain time slot on a network, that was a restrictive thing. You have to tell a certain kind of story in a certain way with act breaks, and I wonder what Bryan could possibly do with the story without those restrictions.

One last question: You sometimes had to kiss through Saran Wrap. Tell me about making out with Saran Wrap between your faces.
I mean, we laughed and laughed while we were doing it, but I got to kiss Anna. I remember we were going down to do the first ComicCon, which I didn’t even know what ComicCon was really at that time. I think we went into the big hall, and it was before the show had come out. And I remember looking at Anna and being like, “Holy moly, there’s a lot of people here.” And then they’re asking questions, and I’m like, “They’re talking words at us, Anna, and wanting us to talk back!” And she just looked at me and grabbed my face and gave me a great big kiss right there on the stage. So although there was a lot of kissing through Saran Wrap and plastic, I did get one very memorable kiss with Anna Friel.

Lee Pace Answers All Our Questions About Pushing Daisies