There’s a lot more to David Hyde Pierce than Niles Crane. Though he’s best known for his multi-Emmy-winning role as a highbrow, fastidious shrink on Frasier, Pierce has carved out a distinctive career on stage (he won a Tony Award for his starring role in the musical Curtains in 2007) and as a voice actor (key roles in A Bug’s Life, Treasure Planet, and The Simpsons). In the psychological thriller The Perfect Host, Pierce plays a man preparing for a dinner party when an escaped fugitive turns up at his door; what follows is as twisty as a corkscrew, and audiences expecting good ol’ Niles are in for a surprise. In an interview with RT, Pierce shared his favorite films, and discussed his juicy role in The Perfect Host, how he prepares for a role, and the legacy of Frasier.
I would say… It’s a really hard question to answer, first of all, because there are so many great films, and it’s hard to pick just a few. But certainly, Bonnie and Clyde is one. It’s perfectly cast, beautifully shot, and that ballet of death at the end was something unlike anything I’d ever seen before. [Everyone in the cast] were incredible. Estelle Parsons, oh my gosh.
The Godfather. The palette of the movie, the colors. There’s something about the production design and the cinematography. Everything about that. I mean, I like the story, the characters, all that, but the thing, when I think of the movie — like if I’m flipping channels and it’s on, I have to stop and watch it — the thing that catches me is always just its rich, rich, rich deep palette. It’s incredible. I mean, they’re all great films, the first one especially. When I was a kid and it was on TV, I would always have to go make spaghetti and watch it. I could not watch that movie without having spaghetti and tomato sauce. There was just something so evocative about those guys making sauce in the kitchen.
Horror of Dracula. First of all, the match up of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee was so brilliant. They were so great together. Plus, the ending — I hate to say this, because you’ve to see it — when Dracula has Van Helsing at his mercy, and the sun’s come up outside, and Van Helsing tears down the curtains, so the sun comes streaming in, and then takes two candlesticks and forms a cross. It’s just so cool. And I think that’s the first time anybody ever did that in a movie; now they do all kinds of versions of that thing. But I just thought that was pretty brilliant writing.
I will give you Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano. Oh, it’s a great movie. It’s a Russian movie; [Nikita] Mikhalkov is the director, and it’s a Checkhov play, really — it’s based on Platonov. Chekhov is unbelievably difficult to do, to capture the mood, to capture the humor, the incredible sadness and pathos of the characters, all that. It’s very rare that you see a great production of Checkhov. I saw this when I was rehearsing a production of The Cherry Orchard. The great British director Peter Brook was directing, and he set up a screening of this movie for us. It’s just, it’s also a beautiful movie to look at, and also it was a great director, but it’s the characters, both the acting and the depiction of this wonderful, very specific group of Russian characters is unmatched.
Last one is A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. I don’t think it’s up there on most people’s lists. I just think it’s so beautiful. It’s very funny, but very gentle, and it also deals with issues of life and death in a very serious way. I can remember every time I saw it crying at the end. And part of it, too, is [Woody Allen] makes this incredibly good use of Mendelssohn’s music. I think the entire score is — I’m not sure about the soundtrack — but the score is Mendelssohn. I just think it’s a really exquisite piece of filmmaking.
Next, Pierce talks what audiences expect of him, how he prepares for a role, and the legacy of Frasier.
On to The Perfect Host. I know there’s only so much people want to give away about the movie itself, but I think my first thought watching it was, “This is pretty unpredictable.”
David Hyde Pierce: Good! That’s excellent. That is definitely meant to be unpredictable. Every time you think you know where you are, it should change, and every time you think you know who someone is, that should change. I think the cool thing is that also happens to the characters in the movie as well.
It’s funny because watching it, I’m like, “Oh, I think I know where this is going.” And then, all of a sudden, we see a side of you that we haven’t seen much before. Did you enjoy upending audience expectations in this movie?
I love the character to begin with. I think any actor would love to play this character. But it’s a really nice ride for me, because it does sort of start out meeting the audience’s expectations if you’re familiar with my work. The beginning of the movie is very much what you might be used to. And then, I sort of depart from that pretty extremely. I think it worked well for the movie, because I think it helps lull the audience into sort of saying, “Oh yeah, I remember this guy. We’ve seen him before.”
It’s funny; you are not the first person to say that about it, and it’s something I did not get at all, reading the script. What appealed to me was the character, the story, the back and forth between the actors. What ended up being very theatrical about it, though, was that we had such a tight shooting schedule, only 17 days. We had four days of rehearsal, which doesn’t always happen on a movie, where Clayne Crawford, who plays opposite me, and Nick Tomnay, the director, and I got to really work through the characters, work through the emotional arcs of the characters, figure out what the physicality of the whole thing would be. And then, because there wasn’t a lot of time, it was a chance to really have good long scenes, and long interchanges between the actors. You know, I don’t know that it’s theatrical so much as, maybe we’re not used to that kind of thing. Filmmaking has become so much about quick cuts and jiggly cameras and stuff like that that maybe it just harkens back to an older style of filmmaking.
This is Nick Tomnay’s first major feature as a director. When you’re working with a “newbie,” how do you approach the material?
What I did was, I met with Nick, and I had seen a short film that he’d made on which The Perfect Host was based, and seeing his work in that format and having conversations with him, that’s all I really needed. I liked him, I trusted him, and he really understood the film because he’d written it. From that point on, it didn’t change the way I prepared for the film, and when we were on the set, all of my expectations were borne out. He was amazing. It’s a very high pressure situation, directing your first feature — no time, very little money, things go wrong, and he handled everything. He constantly kept a serious voice, focused creativity and support on the set, and that was amazing, I think, for a first-time director.
Discipline and also, he really knew what he wanted. When you have that kind of time available, you can’t just shoot endlessly. You know, you have to budget, and then figure it out in editing. Which is not to say he was stuck; because he knew exactly what he wanted, he could change and improvise and throw stuff out, because he had the overall shape of the piece in his head.
Shifting gears slightly, I’m sure you get this all the time, but I wonder? Obviously, you’re best known for playing Niles Crane on Frasier. When people come up to you and say, “I loved you on that show,” or “Hey Niles!”, does it get old? Have you accepted that as part of what the public perceives you as?
I love it. I love it. People are very affectionate. The kind of thing you have on a long-running television show like that is very particular. It really has to do with affection; it’s not star worship. People feel like you’re a friend, they feel like you’re a family member. Some people grew up watching the show, some people’s parents watched the show, some people’s — God help us — grandparents watched the show, you know. So it doesn’t get old, but I do.
One of the things I’ve read you saying is that Frasier felt like doing an Oscar Wilde play on television. That’s kind of something high to shoot for, especially in the world of TV. Are you still surprised how popular it was, given how it was a bit smarter than a lot of other stuff going on at the time?
No, I don’t think it was smarter; I think it was really good writing, and I think it holds up. If you see a rerun now, it’s still funny. It wasn’t tied to contemporary references or jokes about what was going on in the press at the time. It was very carefully written by really, really skillful writers. And that’s the Oscar Wilde comparison, I would say. It was a great cast — I wouldn’t take anything away from the acting, which I think was also pretty good — but I really feel that the core of that show [was the writing]. And the incredible thing about it is, for 11 years, it sustained a really, really, really high level of writing.
What are you doing next? Are you working on any plays right now?
I’m in pre-production; I’m going to direct a musical, a new musical. We’ll do that in the fall. And then, I’m going to be acting in a play in New York, the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, at the end of the year.
I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question, except now that I’m directing for the first time, I use the same exact process that I use when I approach any part, which is, I’ll do anything. I will explore any avenue; I will do research on any aspect of the character. I’ll go to see a concert, I’ll go to the museum and look at paintings. Walking down the street, some person does something that gives me an idea. A dog does something that gives me an idea. You never know. If I’m going to talk about my approach, it is to open myself to influence that might spark something about a character or about a show.
So, for example, when you were doing, say, A Bug’s Life, did you read up on insects or visit museums?
No, I didn’t do that. That’s a little bit what I’m saying; in that case, the script was the script. I didn’t have to physically act out things. I was just sort of reading a script. But, I guess what I’m saying is that I try to do not just what you would literally expect, not the most obvious things. I did a play in London last year, and it took place back in the 1600s, so I went to a museum and looked at paintings from the 1600s that were about scenes that had nothing to do with the play. Because I knew everything about what life was like on stage in the scenes that we had. What I didn’t know was, what happens when these people go home? Or what happens when they go out to drink? So, that kind of stuff, because those are the things you wouldn’t expect. You never know what it might tell you about the character.
What did you do for your character in The Perfect Host?
I spent a lot of time talking to myself.