David Hyde Pierce & Bebe Neuwirth Interview: Julia

Julia, the new 8-part series from HBO Max that premiered this week, dives deep into one year in the life of Julia Child. Almost two decades after her death, she remains beloved for her French cuisine cookbooks, her cooking shows that practically invented the now ubiquitous concept, and her overall sunny disposition. But showrunner Daniel Goldfarb (who also serves as a producer on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) probes a little further than her dishes to celebrate the woman behind the kitchen.

Set at the inception of her public television show The French Chef, the series follows Julia (perfectly embodied by Sarah Lancashire, Happy Valley) and her loving husband Paul (the incomparable David Hyde Pierce) as they navigate the mountains and valleys of her newfound fame. She is also aided in her struggles, whether with work or home, by best friend and constant companion Avis DeVoto (Tony Award winner Bebe Neuwirth). However, while these two may be pillars in her life, they are often nothing but nuisances to each other.


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The actors spoke with Screen Rant about what Julia means to her husband and best friend, how they fit into each other’s lives, and how much fun it is to experience the joys of being on a set for the first time through the eyes of their characters.

Julia - Baby Neuwirth & Sarah Lancashire

I really love the friendship between Avis and Julia. There is a book worth of letters to attest to their life together, but what was your way into that character and into that relationship?

Bebe Neuwirth: I relied heavily on the script, really. I trust these writers; they just wrote something really great.

I read some of the letters – I read a bunch of the letters, and I gleaned a few things about her factually. But because this is not a documentary, I use that as inspiration. And there’s a couple of times when it comes up in production, where I said, “There’s this thing about Avis, and I wonder if we can address that here.” But those times were really very rare.

They were just wonderfully written, and it was really fun to play. She was so warm and supportive of her friends; so happy to be in the background and not comfortable in the limelight. That was beautiful to me.

Paul is also a loving and supportive husband, but he struggles a little bit at first with his own sense of accomplishment. Can you talk about the evolution of that marriage and his place in it?

David Hyde Pierce: Yeah. I think that when they met, many years before in World War II in the OSS in Ceylon and China, they were equals. They became friends, they shared exotic meals together, and a friendship developed into a loving relationship. And at that time, Paul is the one who introduced Julia to French culture and French food and French wine, and she took to it like a fish to water. Just loved it.

Then when she got involved in the Cordon Bleu and started cooking, he supported her study, and they grew together as she wrote the book. He helped her illustrating the book and doing research for the book, so they were partners all along.

What happens at the beginning of our series is that they’ve come back from many years in Europe, and are both trying to figure out where life will go now. Her book has come out, and it’s almost starting to fade in terms of fame. He has retired and doesn’t quite see what the future will be. And what Paul has to deal with is that Julia finds something; she finds a new chapter, which is television, and it starts to expand for her.

He has to process and deal with that, and I think it’s a tribute to their love and to their long relationship in history together, that the choice that he ultimately makes is to be there for her.

While Avis is one of Julia’s staunchest supporters, she doesn’t seem to be as big a fan of Paul. Can you talk about why she keeps him at a distance?

Bebe Neuwirth: I think there’s a little bit of rivalry, really. They both love Julia, and Julia loves both of them. So, there’s just a little bit of [rivalry]. I think it’s just that basic, but of course, they are somewhat evolved and deeply intelligent people.

I’ll only speak for myself, but I think if someone said to Avis, “You know, you’re jealous of him,” I think she’d be appalled and really embarrassed and say, “Certainly not! No, of course not. There’s room for everyone, but I’m sitting in the front.” I think it’s just as simple as that.

Personality-wise, if Julia wasn’t there, maybe she wouldn’t be drawn to him immediately as a person to say, “That’s somebody I want to have dinner with.” Julia has brought them together and so, out of respect for Julia and to keep the peace, she does the best she can with Paul. I think eventually, at least in the series, they start to see each other a little bit more generously.

Julia - David Hyde Pierce & Sarah Lancashire 2

It’s really fun to watch the evolution of that dynamic as they’re both working on The French Chef. Speaking of which, can you talk about the meta aspect of working on a show about working on a show? How do you handle that side of it?

David Hyde Pierce: I don’t know if there’s a good answer to that. We don’t really have to handle it, because we’re not really aware of the meta-ness of it. That’s much more of a writing, producing, and camera work sort of thing.

I guess what I would say, for me as Paul, is that what’s funny about it is that Paul has never been on a TV set in his life. He doesn’t know what it is. But Paul being Paul, he becomes very authoritative instantly and starts telling people what to do, and people aren’t that happy being told what to do. And this goes back to the relationship with Avis. I think Paul can be a very irritating person. That’s also documented, though he’s got more going on than that.

But I think, for someone who has spent some time on a TV set – admittedly, not with cameras of that vintage – it’s fun to play that aspect of it.

Bebe Neuwirth: It’s really fun to be on that set. That set is fantastic with Fran Kranz, who plays the director and Brittany Bradford, who plays the producer, and Michael Malvesti, who plays one of the camera operators. We have this wonderful [cast] that we’re surrounded by. Everybody on that set is embodying that thing.

And it’s true, we walk on as these total outsiders. Certainly, Avis does not have the response that Paul has. She does not take over; she’s like, “Wow, this is amazing!” She’s just happy to be there and jolly. But it’s really fun to play someone who is agog at the fact that there is running water in that sink.

As someone who has not had that much experience with cooking shows, watching a show about a cooking show now makes me want to watch all the ones that are currently out. Do either of you have a strong affinity for either cooking or cooking shows in general?

David Hyde Pierce: I like Ida Garten, I think she’s great. I’ve seen her cooking show, [Barefoot Contessa].

More: 8 Best Cooking Documentaries Like Julia

The first three episodes of Julia premiere March 31 on HBO Max, with one new episode dropping every following Thursday.

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