David Hyde Pierce spent more than a decade in the throes of brotherly love, playing the prim, persnickety Niles Crane to Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane on NBC’s Frasier. But after 11 seasons (and four Emmy Awards for Pierce for Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series), the cast went their separate ways, giving Pierce the opportunity to return to his first love: the stage. Kicking things off with a high-profile stint as Sir Robin in Monty Python’s Spamalot, Pierce followed with another musical, Curtains, then went on to tackle Samson Raphaelson’s stage comedy Accent On Youth. Before beginning a revival of David Hirson’s La Bête, however, he made his first appearance in a feature film in eight years, appearing in Nick Tomnay’s The Perfect Host, which will receive a limited theatrical release on July 1. As Warwick Wilson, Pierce starts the film playing a character that seems more than a little bit similar to the one that won him four Emmys, but before long, it becomes evident that he’s far from the titular perfect host. Or sanity. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Pierce about his work as Warwick, the chances of a Frasier reunion, and what’s so funny about Wet Hot American Summer.
The A.V. Club: It would be fair to say that you haven’t made a mad dash to transition from television to film. Isn’t this the first time we’ve seen your face on the big screen since Frasier closed up shop?
David Hyde Pierce: Yeah, probably. I’m trying to think of the last film before this. I think it was Down With Love, with Ewan McGregor. As soon as Frasier ended, I came to New York to do Broadway shows, and they’ve pretty much been back-to-back, so there’s been no time to film anything.
AVC: Was it always your intent to go from television back to theater?
DHP: Well, about a year before Frasier ended, I decided the thing that I had never done… I started out in the theater, Broadway and Off-Broadway, but I’d never done a musical. And I have musical training, and I’d sort of done some staging of musicals while I was in L.A. doing Frasier, just for fun and for benefits, and I really liked it. So I thought that would be something that was simultaneously going home by going back to theater, but also different and a challenge, because it would be a kind of theater I had never done. What happened was, Spamalot came along, and Spamalot was directed by Mike Nichols, someone I had worked with both in theater and in film, so that was like a perfect fit. And that just let me back into Broadway, really, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
AVC: What about The Perfect Host made you decide to leap back into film?
DHP: Ah… I really like the script. I thought it was very funny and very smart. I really liked the director, Nick Tomnay. They sent me the short film that The Perfect Host is based on [“The Host”], which he had done. And I really liked it. I thought it made you laugh, it was creepy. I thought he was very assured, even though he was essentially a first-time director. I thought he really knew what he was doing, just based on that short film. And then, of course, the character. It’s a really funny character to be able to sink your teeth into.
AVC: It must have been fun starting off the film playing a seemingly familiar character, then turning everyone’s expectations on their ear.
DHP: Absolutely. That was certainly another attraction of the movie. That’s the reason… It’s not just that I’ve been doing Broadway, it’s also that I don’t tend to be offered much that isn’t Niles-like. And unfortunately, 99 percent of people don’t write as well as the writers on Frasier, so to play a similar kind of character that’s not as interesting is not very tempting. But the great thing about this role was that on the surface, he is the person that anyone who had watched Frasier would be familiar with. He’s not particularly uptight in the way Niles was, but certainly sophisticated, and he drank fine wine, he’s hosting a dinner party. And God knows we hosted a lot of dinner parties on Frasier. So that’s familiar territory for me as an actor, and for audiences who are familiar with my work.
AVC: People are going to want to call this a dark comedy just by virtue of the fact that you’re one of the leads. There are definitely funny moments, but this is a dark film.
DHP: Yes. It’s a very dark film. I really like the script a lot, and I like the way it leads you down that path. Sometimes in the theater, people will actually laugh and gasp in the same breath. And I think that’s fun.
AVC: Did you have to force down your comedic instincts at any point?
DHP: No, I think the character was so clearly written. Everything I needed was there on the page. It really tells you… the style of the character, the style of the acting is very much in the writing. So I never had to worry about it. It wasn’t like, “Gee, we should play this really big, and I’ll fall down and have a pie in my face.” It’s a kind of subtle psychological thriller. And the humor really comes out of the characters and the tension of the situation more than anything else.
AVC: A film called The Perfect Host is pretty much telling you up front that the host isn’t gonna be perfect. During your first read of the script, how long did it take you to catch onto the direction that it was heading?
DHP: Oh God…when did I catch on? Let’s see. Did I read the script before I saw the short? You know, I can’t answer that question, because it was so long ago. I mean, I imagine it’s about when the audience catches on. Because if I’m reading it for the very first time, the penny starts to drop right about as you’re watching.
AVC: Given your theater background, did you enjoy the play-like aspects to the film, like the lengthy scenes where it’s just you and Clayne Crawford together in a room?
DHP: Yeah. I did like that. If it wasn’t exactly theatrical, it was close to my experience in the theater, because it was such a low budget and such a short schedule. You didn’t have all that sitting-around time that you tend to have in much more expensive features. It really was… most of my time was spent acting rather than sitting in my trailer. And I like that.
AVC: This was all of 17 days start to finish, right?
DHP: Yeah, that’s right.
AVC: Was it exhausting, exhilarating, or both?
DHP: It was both. A good friend of mine, Zeljko Ivanek, a wonderful actor, asked me ahead of time, “Have you done a lot of independent film?” And at that point, I really hadn’t. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “You gotta learn your lines before. Because the pace is so fast, you won’t have time. Normally, you can mull over the night before what you’re gonna shoot the next day, but when you’re doing that many pages at a time, you just gotta get it in your head. Otherwise, you’ll always be playing catch-up.” And that was great advice. That, and the fact that we actually had a week of rehearsal before we started shooting. Nick rehearsed with me and Clayne in a rehearsal room, and that was really important, invaluable time. I think it’s good for any movie, but especially when you’re not gonna have that much time to be making choices on the set. To really flesh out the characters and work out the emotional arc for each of them, especially some of the physical stuff, that really paid off when we got down to the wire.
AVC: Did you essentially have to film every party scene twice, once where it was just you and him, and once with the guests as well?
DHP: Yeah, that’s right. In general, we would be doing it with the people first, so we all had a real sense of the reality of that, and then we’d have them step out. Of course, the funny thing about that is that it’s not really that exotic and strange. It’s how people make movies all the time. You’re frequently talking to someone who’s not there. There’s a green screen, and they’re putting in this tarantula later. So it’s kind of a basic part of moviemaking. It’s just shifting how you use your imagination.
AVC: Was “Car Wash” actually playing as you were doing your dance scene in the film?
DHP: [Laughs.] Boy, I don’t remember. We had music playing, and I can’t remember if it was “Car Wash,” because I know it was a big deal that they got it. I probably shouldn’t answer that question. I don’t remember, but we definitely had music playing, and it was late.
AVC: How on earth did Helen Reddy find her way into the film?
DHP: Well, she’s an Australian. And there’s your answer. [Laughs.] The director and the screenwriter, Nick Tomnay, is Australian. His manager is one of the producers of the film, and she’s Australian. I don’t know if she manages Helen, but she knows her. And so they asked her, and she said “Sure,” which was a hoot.
AVC: Presumably the same could be said of the experience of doing Spamalot night after night on Broadway.
DHP: Oh my God. It was unbelievable.
AVC: What was your Monty Python background prior to stepping into the role of Sir Robin?
DHP: I grew up on them. I mean, they started on American television when I was about 17. And they just went straight to the core of everything I hold dear as an actor, as a comedian, everything. It was just right up my alley. So when that opportunity came along, to work on what was essentially Monty Python And The Holy Grail, that was a dream come true.
AVC: Had you ever worked with Tim Curry prior to teaming up with him for the production?
DHP: Tim, I had known for years. We were neighbors in California, and I just really like him. And also Hank Azaria. Actually, that whole company. It was a great group of very funny people. And with Mike Nichols and Casey Nicholaw giving the direction and choreography, it was really just a creative powerhouse.
DHP: Oh, yeah, that’s strange to me that that just completely went away. Paul [Giamatti] and I had such a great time doing it, and I saw the pilot episode, which I thought was really interesting and funny and unique. And I don’t know why it went away, but it certainly did.
AVC: Do you yourself have a favorite project that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
DHP: We’re talking film, right? I really had a great fondness for Down With Love. And I haven’t seen it since it came out. I think it did okay on DVD, but it certainly was not a big hit at the time. I just remember thinking it was pretty good. Maybe if I saw it now, I would go, “Okay, I see.” I don’t know. But that’s the first one that occurs to me.
AVC: If you were talking television instead—this may or may not qualify for consideration, but what are your recollections of working on The Powers That Be?
DHP: Oh, well, that’s a good case, actually. You know, I loved working on that show. It was a Norman Lear show. I had come out to L.A., I think it would have been ’92, maybe, when they were casting the pilot. And it was the very last thing I read for. And I read, not for the part I ended up playing. I read for the part that ended up being played by Peter MacNicol. And Norman, I remember, said to me after I finished, he said, “Well, that was very good, but you’re completely wrong for the part. Have you ever thought about directing?” And I thought, “Well, no, not against my will.” And then I went back to New York, and they called me up and said, “Listen, there’s this other part, of the suicidal Congressman. Would you go on tape for that?” And the only thing in the audition was this guy in the theater, he was married to the senator’s daughter and was suicidal. Which you can imagine, being a congressperson. The scene was, he had to get up on a chair in his bedroom and tie the curtain rope around his neck and jump off the chair, and instead of hanging himself, he just opens the curtains. Which is what I did in the audition, and they cast me. And then I went out and I had the best time.
It was such an amazing company. Holland Taylor, Peter, John Forsythe, Robin Bartlett. Linda Hunt was in the original pilot! Yeah. Eve Gordon. Elizabeth Berridge played the maid, and I fell in love with the maid in that show, which is a precursor to Frasier. We loved it. I remember John Forsythe talking about how we weren’t really getting the perks that I guess one gets. We weren’t getting the treatment one gets when the show is a favorite of the network. Now, it was my first television show, so I didn’t know anything about that. It was on the air, doing fine. So we came on in the spring of whatever year that was. And then we were picked up, and we would come on in the fall of… Oh, yes, the fall of ’92, because it was the year Clinton was actually elected. But they postponed us until after the election. We lost the entire fall. And of course at the time, we had all these conspiracy theories that NBC… Because it was Norman Lear, he’s obviously so liberal, and this was gonna be a political show, and they didn’t want that on the air. I don’t know. We’ll probably never know what happened. But it was a real blow to me, because it sort of died a slow death and didn’t get to end. They just sort of stopped it, and I think even the last few episodes…I think they eventually got shown on USA Network, but to my knowledge, it’s never been shown on TV Land or anything like that. I thought it was quite a nice thing. And [writers] David Crane and Marta Kauffman went on to do Friends. So they did okay.
AVC: As did Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for that matter.
DHP: Of course! Who I’ve seen repeatedly at Sundance. It’s so funny. He played my son Pierce on the show. There’s a fantastic production still of the whole cast, and I used it when I was at Sundance. I was there filming, and I showed it ’cause it’s got Joey, and… I don’t know how old he was. Eight, maybe? Tiny, anyway. Very sweet.
AVC: When you first made the jump from working in theater to working in film, you had such memorable roles as “Theater Guy” in Vampire’s Kiss and “Bartender at Fashion Show” in Bright Lights, Big City.
DHP: Yeah! [Laughs.] “Sorry, the bar is closed” was my line in Bright Lights, Big City. I said it to Michael J. Fox. It cost me more to join the union than they paid me to do the role. I had to borrow money from my agent.
AVC: How did those early auditions come about?
DHP: Oh, it was all theater-connected. I was in New York doing shows. Those movies were shooting in New York. I had a small part in The Fisher King. What was the other thing? Oh, Crossing Delancey. They all just came from a lot of the casting people, a lot of the directors were theater. There’s a movie called Rocket Gibraltar. Burt Lancaster’s, I believe, last film. You look at that cast, and it’s all New York theater actors. It’s sort of the way, when I was a young actor in New York, the way it is now, it’s Law & Order: SVU… It used to be Miami Vice and Spenser: For Hire. Those are the shows that you cast out of New York, so you would see theater actors playing these parts. So that’s, essentially, how my film career got started. And then there were times, like with Wolf, which was a Mike Nichols movie. I had worked with Mike in the theater, so he knew me. So when I went to read, I had a little bit of a leg up there. So it was mainly small parts until I was on television doing Frasier. And that gives you a certain profile, and then people are more interested in you. So that’s when I started doing larger roles.
AVC: Did you have to pinch yourself when you got the role on Frasier? It must have felt like a chance at a huge jump in profile, given that it was a Cheers spin-off.
DHP: Well, except that it’s only in retrospect that you realize what a big thing it was.
AVC: True enough. At the time, people were probably still thinking, “You know, this could be another AfterMASH.”
DHP: Absolutely! And how smart of them that out of all the characters to spin off, they picked Frasier. Not everyone would have thought that that character would be the center of a show. And more importantly, if you pitched that show today, it would not be on the air. So yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t a sure thing at all. At the time, what happened was, they brought me in. There wasn’t a part. They were thinking of maybe having a brother. The casting director and the three creators chatted with me: “Well, we think Frasier went to Harvard, so we think Niles went to Yale, and we think Frasier’s a Freudian, so we think Niles is a Jungian. And that’s kind of what we know.” That was it. And then my agent called and said, “You got the part.” I hadn’t even seen the script. In fact, I thought, “Gosh, I got the part, and I don’t even know what it is.” And when they sent me the script and I read it, I thought, “Well, this is terrible.” Because they had written two of the same character. Niles is just like Frasier. What sense does that make?
At the first table-read, we read through, and I’m like, “Ohhh.” But having that experience with The Powers That Be, I didn’t think, “Okay, here we go. Big hit show.” I had learned that you can do something with high-profile people with a long track record, a.k.a. Norman Lear, and it can go on and like in theater, it can close in a night or close in a week or close in the season. Really, it was many years into the show before I was able to really look at it and say, “Wow. This really is a hit.” So yeah, it wasn’t like a “pinch myself” moment. I was very happy. I loved doing it. And there were a lot of very important aspects to the show. The quality of the writing. Getting to work with Jimmy Burrows, one of the great television directors. And getting to work with that cast!
AVC: They had some fantastic writers on the show, but was there a particular aspect of Niles that you yourself brought to it?
DHP: Huh. Well, I’ll say this. I think that the physical comedy that ended up being a big part of the character… I think they gave me a little bit to do in one episode and it worked well, so that made them think, “Ooh. We can go down that road.” And so that led to a lot of great physical stuff. So I think, maybe, that’s something they might not have envisioned at first, that I brought to it. I don’t know. So much of it was on the page. But I can say this: What we all brought to it as actors, ’cause it was a company of mostly theater-trained actors, we all had the ability to play comedy, but not stray too far from reality. Even though some of the situations could be very extreme, the playing of it was not broad. I think that’s one of the reasons it seems to hold up in reruns. If it was a heartfelt scene or if it was a ridiculously silly scene, we played it serious either way.
AVC: Was it fun to get the chance to act against Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob’s brother on The Simpsons, as well?
DHP: Yes, it was. As frequently happens in animated stuff, usually people aren’t together at the same time doing the scenes. You record your own track, and then… But because it was me and Kels and they wanted to get the relationship, we did record together. And it was a lot of fun. Again, I love the writing on that show so much. So they gave us great stuff to do.
AVC: Has there ever been discussion of reuniting the Frasier cast for a one-off special?
DHP: No. I don’t think so. I’ve been asked that, of course, but I think it’s a terrible idea. I mean, we see each other all the time in real life. We love each other, and all of us getting together is certainly not a bad idea. I just don’t think there need to be cameras present.
AVC: This year marks the 10th anniversary of Wet Hot American Summer, another one of your seminal works.
DHP: [Laughs.] And it was a blast. I mean, when you watch the film, you can kind of tell how it was. It was just very silly and a lot of fun. But it was also hard work. I was working at the behind-the-scenes stuff with David Wain and Michael Showalter, and I wasn’t aware, because I was having such a good time, how hard they worked. They took this very funny movie very seriously. And the weather was relentless. It was so cold and it was so wet. And of course the whole movie was supposed to be a sunny summer camp. And it was like a big cosmic joke on the film. But I think it gives real credit to them and the rest of the cast and the crew that we all remember it as a great time, not as a miserable shoot.
AVC: Do you have a favorite moment from the film?
DHP: Oh, man, there’s so many great things in it. I can say that my own favorite moment, you can’t print.
AVC: Actually, that line is probably going to end up in the comments section, anyway, if you’d like to just go ahead and say it.
DHP: Well, it’s the thing that made me laugh the hardest when I read the script, where I was, like, “What the hell?” [Hesitates.]
AVC: Does it, uh, rhyme with “Oh, buck my sock!”
DHP: Yes. It really does! That’s amazing, that you would… [Trails off, laughing.] But beyond that… I don’t know. Everything Chris Meloni did made me laugh. I mean, I couldn’t pick one. I love seeing those kids get dumped out of the van. It’s just so awful. [Laughs.] And Paul Rudd taking all the kids to witness the accidental waterskiing death. I can tell you exactly what my favorite moment is: the crashing of Spacelab. Because that was done in one take, because they had no money. They created this amazing piece of space machinery, yanked it up on a crane, prayed to God, and they got it. It was beautiful. That’s my favorite moment.
AVC: So what are your plans now that you’ve made your way back into film? Are you still planning to work in theater, or try to do more films?
DHP: I’m going to try working in the theater. I’m getting ready to direct this musical, which I’ll be doing in the fall. And then, at the end of the year, I’ll be doing a new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. So that will take me into February of next year. That’s as far as I’ve planned, because we’re doing the musical out of town, and depending on how it goes, we may do it again somewhere else out of town, we might try bringing it into New York. So those are the two things that are most prominent right now, for me. And then I’ll see what happens in the film world. If something interesting comes along, I’ll do it.
AVC: Would you have an interest in doing television again?
DHP: Yeah, sure. Sure. But it’s not something I’m… No, I would just say yes. I’m not actively looking for something right now, because I’ve got these projects, and I’m obviously happy in the theater. But there’s also a lot of great stuff on television, so I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.
AVC: Do you have a wine recommendation for those watching The Perfect Host at home?
DHP: [Laughs.] I guess my recommendation would be whatever wine you drink watching this movie, make sure you pour it yourself.