David Hyde Pierce—best known for playing Niles Crane on Frasier—returns to screen this spring in the HBO Max series Julia. Pierce plays Paul Child, husband to famed TV chef and cookbook author Julia Child, who is credited with transforming the way Americans approached cooking in the latter half of the 20th century. The show, which picks up on the Childs’ lives after they return to the U.S. from Europe in the early 1960s, follows their diverging career paths: Paul, a diplomat essentially forced into retirement, finds himself floundering just as Julia decides to try her hand at hosting a cooking show for a public TV station in Boston. Julia chronicles how, after a rocky start, The French Chef eventually went on to air for 206 episodes—and how Child’s rise to fame was in many ways made possible by her husband and a team of friends, editors, and producers.
As Paul, Pierce conveys the nuanced challenges involved in supporting one’s partner in the spotlight—no matter how he may feel in a given episode, Paul is depicted as steadfastly at Julia’s side. Their romance, remembered in history as a “feminist love story”, is not the central focus of Julia. But the strength and vitality of their partnership comes through even as the show chronicles their ups and downs, particularly as a middle-aged couple reckoning with their choice not to have children.
Pierce spoke to TIME about embodying Paul Child, how the role compared to playing Niles Crane, and what a Frasier reboot might mean for him.
How familiar were you with Paul and Julia Child’s story before filming?
I knew nothing about Paul—it was great to dig into his life because he was an endlessly fascinating, complicated man. He was a self-taught painter, a fine furniture maker, an exquisite photographer. And he had his own life in the diplomatic corps. To be obliged to investigate all these pursuits in order to prepare—it was a gift.
Paul represents a departure from a 1960s culture that pressured men to be breadwinners and fulfill other traditional ideals of masculinity. You see that contrast with his father-in-law (James Cromwell), who expects Julia to marry someone “manly.”
You have this guy who is in some ways very close to Niles Crane, the character I played on Frasier—very sophisticated, knew about wine, knew about food. But he also took on challenges. He had a terrible fear of heights. He went to work on a ship, and when there was a huge storm tossing the ship around, he decided to climb to the top of the mast in hopes it would cure his fear. In fact, it made it worse. Every time he met with resistance, he seemed to just double down.
You’ve talked before about working to convey Niles Crane’s restrained and intense desire for Daphne, his unrequited love interest, through physical comedy. Paul is much different—what were you thinking about while taking on his physicality?
Paul was a small man, smaller than I am. I took into account what that means for a man sometimes. Because of all the physical activities that he did, he was more in his body than Niles Crane would have been. Niles walked around in spite of his body, and therefore terrible things happened.
People familiar with the Childs’ story know them as strong, loving partners. But the show still depicts their more complicated moments.
There’s no such thing as a couple that doesn’t fight. The challenge was to imagine situations where there may have been conflict. That’s really important, because it shows the depth and strength of the relationship.
I love when she goes out and gets drunk with James Beard, and Paul is so annoyed.
She really was best friends with James Beard. There’s no record of that event happening—but it is totally intuitable that Paul, along with being totally supportive of her success, would feel that way. He’s processing his own decline professionally. As much as he loves and supports her ascension, he’s a human being.
Julia had you reunite with your Frasier castmate Bebe Neuwirth, who plays Julia’s friend Avis DeVoto. You have a fun, prickly dynamic. What was it like working with her again?
We’ve known each other from New York theater circles for years. There’s nothing better than getting to play an antagonistic scene with someone you really love. You trust each other and can just go to town. And there’s a wonderful jealousy she and Paul each have about their relationship with Julia.
You’ve long said you’re opposed to the idea of participating in a Frasier reboot. But with the trend of reboots continuing at full steam, is there anything that would bring you back?
I hope it happens. In terms of my own involvement, I’m not going to talk about another woman while I’m involved with this one.
This appears in the April 11, 2022 issue of TIME.
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