Cultural icon Julia Child has gotten the Hollywood treatment before, most notably with Meryl Streep, but now U.K. star Sarah Lancashire steps into the kitchen alongside David Hyde Pierce (Frasier) and Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers) in the HBO Max series Julia (streaming on Crave in Canada March 31).
“I think television is ready for Julia, television needs Julia at the moment,” Lancashire said. “There is a lesson in Julia that we can all learn from, her indomitable spirit, her joie de vivre, her wit, her wisdom, her unsinkability, her curiosity for life, and playing someone who is so life affirming is rather healthy to play.”
“A lot of the pieces that I play tend to be rather unhealthy. They have a residual effect that lingers after you finish shooting and Julia is the complete opposite. I just hope that we've managed to capture some of that spirit.”
The eight-episode series looks at Julia’s life specifically leading up to and during her TV show “The French Chef,” which really opened the door for the cooking shows we know and love today, with Lancashire brilliantly showcasing Julia’s charm and often hysterical personality.
“If it wasn't Sarah, I don't think we would have had a show,” creator Daniel Goldfarb said. “We needed someone as great as Sarah to bring Julia to life.”
“To cast an essentially dramatic actress in a role that turns out to be as much of a comedy was really beneficial for us,” producer Christopher Keyser added. “She has this ability, without prosthetics or anything, to just transform herself into this [person].”
“She walks in the door in the beginning the morning and she’s Sarah Lancashire, and somehow when she gets on stage, because she has so embodied the essence of this woman, the way she moves and the way she thinks, and the way her eyes express what she's feeling, that one person has disappeared… It's a transformation beyond what I've seen.”
Much of the story is focused on Julia’s push to actually get her show off the ground, with the help of her friend Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth) and producer Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford).
As can be expected for the 1960s, Julia and Alice both face criticism, pushback and struggle to be taken seriously.
In Julia’s case, men at the TV station state that they would prefer to give someone “attractive” and “camera-friendly,” with a “less distinct sound” their own show, resulting in Julia having to pay for much of the initial production herself.
In the case of Alice, a Black woman trying to grow her career, she pushes hard for Julia’s show but is often pushed around, cast by the wayside and overlooked.
“Alice is an amalgamation of a lot of different producers there, Ruth Lockwood and some other Black producers that were working at WGBH, and it ended up being a really big gift, and challenge, just really trying to figure out who this woman could have been, what her life was,” actor Brittany Bradford said.
“So there was a different type of creativity, I guess maybe, because of not being able to have a biography to read, but I learned a lot and I'm really grateful to represent the Alices that would have been at that time.”
'Under no circumstances was I approaching this as a comedy'
Something that’s more unique about Julia is that we not only see her public moments, but there are these morsels of time where Sarah Lancashire embodies Julia Child’s inner thoughts and feelings.
“I can remember telling the writers and the producers that under no circumstances was I approaching this as a comedy,” Lancashire said. “I wanted Julia to be real, that was very important to me, that she had a truth and an honesty.”
“We know who Julia Child was in public because we've seen it,… but what we don't know is who Julia Child was, away from the cameras.”
The actor revealed that when she was in Boston, many people were eager to approach Lancashire to share their personal stories about Julia. One story stood out to the actor in particular. A hotel manager told her he drove Julia home once after a fancy function when he was in his 20s and she didn’t say anything when she was in the car, Julia just “let out a huge sigh of relief.”
“For me was the gift, it was the story that I needed to hear because the silence spoke volumes,” Lancashire said. “It was the person that I needed to know, away from the cameras.”
“When you borrow somebody’s shadow and you become the custodian of their legacy, there's a huge amount of responsibility that comes with that. As an actor, I do feel terribly responsible that we view this woman with absolute respect.”
With Julia created by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel producer Daniel Goldfarb, it can be tempting to compare the two, but frankly, that would be a disservice to both shows and undermines the diversity of experiences of women. Ultimately, we need to remember we can, and should, create more than one story centred around women who are charismatic and funny.
“I think on the surface, there are definitely some similarities and I think both shows have an optimism to them, although I think the optimism is crafted differently, but I think actually apart from [the] surface woman succeeding in a man's world, the shows are really different," Goldfarb said.
'She is something which he is not, and that is a star'
Julia Child's relationship with her husband, Paul Child, has been well documented and oftentimes called a “feminist” love story. While Julia certainly leans into the true love between the two, it also captures that while Paul was ultimately supportive of his wife, it wasn’t completely tension-free to move into this dynamic where Julia was not only the person working, but a "star."
“What interested me about it was knowing their life leading up to that moment, because their roles changed, they went from being friends when they met in World War II…and then he took her to France and showed her what French cooking was, the French language and wine, and things like that,” David Hyde Pierce said. “So there was a period where he was her instructor.”
“Then she created the cookbook, which is her master work, which he assisted with and supported her with, so that by the time they got to the point where our show starts, they had this incredibly rich experience together. I think, as Paul says in our show, what happens is he realizes that at a certain point, as she's getting involved in television, that she is something which he is not, and that is a star.”
Was Julia Child a feminist?
For years it's been debated whether Julia Child is a “feminist,” and Julia certainly enters that discussion.
“You think you’re opening doors for women, expanding their horizons? They may be dreaming of France but they’re stuck in front of a hot oven,” Julia is told in a confrontation in the show. “Now women have to prepare meals worthy of the finest chefs,… and how can these women who you have locked in the kitchen possibly find time for anything else, let alone a career.”
Julia producer Christopher Keyser revealed a lot of time was spent on addressing this feminism debate, but also biographical information that Julia was homophobic, particularly in the 1960s, when this story is set.
“That was, in some ways, probably the most complicated thing for us to do in the first season,” Keyser said. “I hope that we succeeded in at least portraying some of those contradictions.”
“She would not have said about herself that she was a feminist, she certainly wasn't politically motivated… On the other hand, she's obviously an embodiment of what it means to be a powerful woman who says, I can do everything a man can do. So in the version of ‘do as I say, not do as I do,’ she becomes this complicated figure.”
Creator Daniel Goldfarb added that it’s these contradictions in Julia’s life that they really leaned into for the story.
“There is evidence of her being homophobic, she and Paul were homophobic, they were products of their time, they weren't ahead of their time,” Keyser said. “On the other hand, James Beard was one of her closest friends."
“What we ended up doing in the long run was...just to say, ‘this is what the truth of it is’... She lived a life that ended up meaning something for people, but that life was full of lots of different inconsistencies.”