In the HBO Max series “Julia,” celebrity chef Julia Child (Sarah Lancashire) has many allies in her quest to bring French cooking to public television. Chief among them are her loving husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce) and her sharp-tongued best friend Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth). But while the two are deeply loyal towards Julia, any interaction they have with one another is prone to end in argument; in their very first scene, when Avis catches Paul in a white lie about watching Julia’s show earlier that day, Neuwirth delivers her line “She didn’t tell the fucking sole meunière story, Paul” with positively acidic contempt.
For people who watched NBC sitcoms in the ‘90s, these scenes bring a rush of nostalgia. On “Frasier,” the popular spin-off of the iconic sitcom “Cheers,” Pierce rose to fame as Niles, the snobbish brother of the title character. Neuwirth, meanwhile, reprised her Emmy-winning “Cheers” role as Lillith, Frasier’s (Kesley Grammer) icy ex-wife, as a recurring guest star. The two mostly had nothing but contempt for each other; in one episode, Niles memorably quips that he fears what would happen if Lillith fell into a volcano, for “the shock wave from the hottest thing in nature meeting the coldest would crack the earth in two.” Avis and Paul aren’t quite on that level, but the two have a bit of that same animosity, regularly getting on each other’s nerves and trading snark in the scenes they share.
In real life though, Pierce and Neuwirth have been friends for years — in addition to their work together on “Frasier,” the two are both accomplished stage actors, having won Tonys for their performances in the musicals “Curtains” and the long-running “Chicago” revival, respectively. After “Frasier” ended, they’ve seen each other’s work, and have frequently crossed paths at Tony Award ceremonies and benefit concerts. Together, the two playfully rib each other, and Pierce affectionately refers to Neuwirth by the nickname “Bebes.”
Variety sat down virtually with Pierce and Neuwirth to discuss their favorite memories working together, getting into character in “Julia,” and what the status of the upcoming “Frasier” revival on Paramount Plus looks like.
So, how’d you guys learn you’d be working with each other again?
David Hyde Pierce: They sent me the script and offered me the part, and I was going to be involved early on. Then things fell through, I was doing a musical and a wonderful British actor [Tom Hollander] got cast. Then COVID shut down my musical, and Bebes’ read for the pilot, and it timed out that Tom couldn’t make it back to the States. So they called me up to see if I was available. It was October of 2020 when we did that pilot. Is that right? I think it’s right, it was one of those years, it all blurs together. And I saw Bebes was going to be in it and I thought, well, there’s trouble.
Bebe Neuwirth: I was the one hurdle.
Pierce: Hardly, hardly.
Neuwirth: They called me and said, “there’s going to be a change in the show, they want David Hyde Pierce to play Paul Child.” So they peeled me off the ceiling. And I said, “fantastic, that’s thrilling.” The idea that we’d be working together and stuck in Boston together for a while? That was thrilling.
Were you fans of Julia Child at all before you got the parts?
Pierce: I certainly had seen her when I was a little boy on TV because I would have been watching PBS for other reasons, and she would have popped on. I actually have a very dear friend who ended up working with her in her later years. He knew Julia and Paul very late in Paul’s life, when he was in very poor health. And he said, even then, when Paul was barely present, they were always together. And the love between them was absolute, they were inseparable. So, I’ve always kept that with me as I work on this part of Paul’s life, thinking that that will be when things end.
Neuwirth: To point out the difference between David and I, we’re the same age, but David was watching PBS, and I was watching “Mighty Mouse.”
Did you do any research into your characters’ lives for the show?
Pierce: Actually, it’s interesting, we haven’t really talked about this so much, but Bebes and I have very different perspectives on this. I took a deep dive into who Paul was and just fell in love with him, because he was so complicated and so multi-talented and so devoted to her and they had such an amazing journey together. He was a furniture maker. He was a black belt in judo. He played the violin, he had a twin brother who played the cello. I was just obsessed with him, so when I brought all of that into the show, and there were things that were in conflict with that, I would fight for what I knew to be true about Paul. Not because I wanted it to be historically accurate, but because I felt it was an essential part of this character or an essential part of the relationship that I didn’t want to get lost.
Neuwirth: I want to know a lot about her, I want to keep her true to who she is just as David does. But I don’t want to know so much so that if we come across a scene and it veers off of what is factually true, I don’t want to get so wrapped up that I become self-conscious as an actress, where I keep thinking, “well, that’s not right.” It’s just harder for me to separate that. At the same time, there is probably less written about Avis DeVoto than there is about Paul Child. I looked into a few things. I looked at the letters between the two of them, and there were a few salient points throughout the bits of letters that I read. Things about her relationship to politics, she was a real strong lefty. And it became clear also in the letters, the senses of humor between Julia and Avis, and I think the writers really captured this very well. Julia, to me, has a very goofy sense of humor. And if you ever watched “The French Chef,” you go, “she’s goofy.” Avis had a very sharp wit, and she was more in the Dorothy Parker style, and I think the writers have done a fantastic job of capturing that. So it’s enough to help me but not so much that it gets in my way, because I know myself and I might let it get in my way. And I don’t want to do that.
How did you develop your character’s different relationships and chemistry with Sarah Lancashire? Your characters are both so concerned with supporting Julia, but they have very different ways of going about it, which is an interesting dynamic.
Neuwirth: I think that this is where a really great script and decades of experience come in. This is gonna sound glib, but I’m absolutely serious: We put on our costumes, we put on our wigs and you push me out onto the stage and it’s “Say the words, look at the other person, listen, respond.” And it’s really kind of there. I think trusting in the experience, the work and knowing that that’s going to be there, it goes a very long way.
Pierce: For me, I think what’s been great working with Sarah is, first of all, she loves and believes in Julia, and that gives her a power in the character. And I think both Julia and Paul were fairly strong people. We’ve both been around, we both respect and admire each other. So we’ve been able to sort of bump up against each other in a way that I just instinctively know is very true, I think, to what Julia and Paul must have been. Because they were deeply in love and admired each other totally. And they also each had their own way of doing things. So I found that — and I think Sarah has too — frisson really thrilling, and I think it informs the intimacy and closeness of the characters.
You two have a fun snappy push and pull relationship together. How much do you think your comedic chemistry in “Julia” pulls from your “Frasier” days?
Neuwirth: We had our sense of humor before we got to “Frasier.” I think it’s really important to say that. David has been getting laughs for decades before he was on “Frasier.” And I was getting laughs in ballets when I was a little kid, decades before I got to “Frasier.” I was getting laughs in the Broadway shows that I was doing. So our senses of humor existed, and we were able to play the humor of “Frasier” very, very well. I don’t know what else to say about that, David?
Pierce: I have something to say.
Neuwirth: I thought you might.
Pierce: I do, I do. Because I appreciate the compliment. I think we are funny, and we’re funny together. And we’re dear friends and we know each other well, both from working together and just from life. But there’s something else that we have in common and I thought of it when I thought of what Bebe brings to the role of Avis, which is that she has an ability to see beyond the most obvious dimension of this scene. We have a scene in an art gallery where her dialogue with me could easily have been funny and sarcastic. And that would have been it and it would have been perfectly fine. And she surprised me with the compassion that she brought. And that meant a lot to me as an actor and as Paul, but it’s also something that I think I instinctively do, too, which is find what else is there, other than the obvious.
I will also say, I think it’s something that “Frasier” used to do too. It’s why it didn’t subsist just as a “haha” sitcom. I have two words: John Mahoney. The depth of that show is represented by them having that wonderful actor. So, I think that three-dimensionality of our comedy and our acting is something that we share.
Neuwirth: I think that makes it funnier. I was having this conversation on this other show that I’m doing right now that has some wildly funny things in it. The more deeply grounded in truth, and the deeper that truth goes, the funnier it is. A pie in the face is funny, but if the pie in the face has a context and a grounding in something that’s really deep and profound, and maybe even includes pain and heart, that pie in the face is hilarious on a level that is almost mind-blowing.
Do you two remember when you first met? Was it on the set of “Frasier?”
Pierce: I thought you were going to say, “Do you two remember anything?” Because I was going to say, “not really.” But to answer your question, no, because we had known each other from the theater before then. I’m sure we met at benefits and stuff, don’t you think?
Neuwirth: Maybe? I don’t remember. I know I saw you in the one-act festival at the Ensemble Theatre Company. That was almost 40 years ago. But I don’t know in-between then and “Frasier,” which would have been 10 or 15 years after that.
Pierce: Yeah, we may not have actually crossed paths because I was still doing theater when you went off to do “Cheers.”
Neuwirth: Yeah, but I was doing theater when I went off to do “Cheers” also.
Pierce: No, I know! What I mean is I wasn’t crossing paths with you in New York when you were in LA shooting the show.
Neuwirth: Yeah, but I mean, my first two seasons of “Cheers,” I was in New York doing “Sweet Charity” on Broadway. That’s what I’m saying, I was commuting.
Pierce: Oh! Oh, oh oh. Wow.
Neuwirth: So to answer your question, we don’t know.
Pierce: You know what, I think “Frasier” was the first time we met. I feel like we’ve known each other all our lives, but I think that’s true. I think we met on whatever that first episode was that you were on?
Neuwirth: I’ll tell you what I remember about that though, I remember you did something and I laughed so hard. I don’t think it was in the read through, I think we were actually blocking, and I remember [Director] Jimmy Burrows giving me a look like, “Yeah, he’s funny.”
Pierce: Do you remember me running over and kissing you?
Neuwirth: Oh dear!
On “Frasier,” Lilith popping up was always an event for the show. It usually happened only once per season. What was it like for you Bebe, joining the cast as a guest star after you were in “Cheers?”
Neuwirth: It was interesting, because not only did the characters of Frasier and Lilith start on another show, but it was also on the same stage at Paramount Studios. Walking back into Stage 25 at Paramount, it was a little mind-bending to come in and see there’s Kelsey, and then there’s all these other people. I felt a little bit like I was home, but I was also a guest. And all of these weirdnesses were mitigated by the fact that that was one of the most kind, generous, hospitable, just incredibly lovely group of people. So any awkwardness that I felt, and I generally walk around just feeling awkward, was mitigated by that, it was just such a kind group. And I knew where I was. I knew that these were the greatest writers. I knew this was the greatest character, and that these new characters that they created were brilliant. So it was odd and wonderful.
Pierce: I gotta say, when I hear you describe that, Bebes, as I think about it, it’s not surprising at all, but I never thought about it. I cannot imagine being in that situation. And I can also tell you, knowing our cast intimately, that the reason we were so nice to you is because you were so wonderful. Because we can turn on people on a dime. Part of it too, was to get to see you, in person, do your thing. And feel how kind of seamlessly you fit in, it was wonderful. And it was a great dynamic. That great Niles and Lilith relationship, they found wonderful ways to exploit.
Neuwirth: The producers and the writers on that show, if you thought “Oh I know, they’ll bring Lilith back and they’ll do this,” you’re wrong. They’d do something much funnier, much more profound in a lot of ways. They went to places because they could with this group of actors, and they always made these really astonishingly brilliant choices of what to do. I remember when they first cast “Frasier,” I was like, “Oh my god, with those people they can do anything. This is gonna be good.”
Did you two have any favorite memories or scenes you shared together on “Frasier?”
Neuwirth: I wasn’t on stage with him when it happened, but it was the one where we were making Thanksgiving. I always remember this, David’s physical comedy is really spectacular, it’s really a gift. And he’s cooking the turkey, and goes out the kitchen, and me and Kelsey come in and steal the turkey. He goes back in the kitchen, he opens the oven and the turkey’s gone. And he looks around, and he looks up. And to me, David, you don’t have to do anything else ever in your life as a comedic actor.
Pierce: For me, it was this fantastic episode where the two of us ended up sleeping together at a psychiatrist conference. And it is such a brilliantly constructed farce and also has a lot of heart and soul in it. Whoever directed it, they were very careful about the reveal. They had screens up, because we had a live audience and they parted the screens, Lilith was in bed, and you could see there was obviously someone in bed with her. And then she and the audience simultaneously see that it’s Niles, and it’s one of the great live reactions that I can recall in that whole show, because it was such a shock and so funny. And the writers being the writers, how it played out was as good or better.
Neuwirth: That’s one of the things that speaks to the brilliance of the writing and the producing, is that these moments are set up over decades sometimes. I remember there was a line Johnny Ratzenberger had in the final season of “Cheers,” and it was so funny and Jimmy Burrows goes “It was an 11-year setup to that joke.” But I think if you keep the characters authentic, and keep them true to who they are, then the payoff is incredible.
So final question. Paramount Plus is doing the “Frasier” revival. Are you two going to appear in it?
Neuwirth: I don’t know what it is!
Pierce: Yeah, that’s the thing. That’s an abstract question. Kelsey’s spearheading that, and I don’t know where it is in its development and what form it will take. So it’s an impossible question to ask, no matter how many people want to know the answer.
Neuwirth: I’d like to say, we are very supportive.
Pierce: Yes, absolutely.
Neuwirth: I think that it should go without saying. I’m very supportive of it happening. I hope they continue in the excellence that they started with. I trust that they will.
This interview has been edited and condensed.