HBO Max’s new series Julia, inspired by Julia Child’s extraordinary life and career, was a perfect opportunity for creator Daniel Goldfarb to re-team with his friend and former collaborator Chris Keyser. The show is comfort food for the soul as Julia embarks on an extraordinary journey through her live-to-videotape series The French Chef, heralded as the beginning of food television.
Having worked together on FX’s short-lived series Tyrant, Emmy-nominee Goldfarb teamed with showrunner Keyser to tell the story of Julia Child’s initiation into public television and her influence on how American families prepared home-cooked meals.
Julia stars BAFTA winner Sarah Lancashire as Child, who, after moving back to America with her husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce), pioneers the modern cooking show through her WGBH television series The French Chef. This series proved to be Child’s second success, following her enormously popular first cookbook: Mastering The Art of French Cooking.
Supported by WGBH TV producers Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) and Russ Numash (Fran Kranz), Julia Child popularized French cuisine with her joie de vivre and made it accessible to all home chefs, no matter their capabilities in the kitchen.
“There was a lot of information about both Julia and Paul, but there were spaces taken up by scenes that happened in private,” shares Goldfarb. “We weren’t writing a biopic, so we tried hard not to see the end from the beginning, to not imagine her as an inevitability but to put ourselves in her head, and in Paul’s head, and just keep moving forward.”
Goldfarb and Keyser spoke with Awards Focus about casting Sarah Lancashire as the French Chef, coloring Julia’s private life outside the studio through her letters, and balancing Julia’s conservative and progressive world views.
Awards Focus: You had both previously worked together on the Fx series Tyrant. How did you both find your way to this series?
Chris Keyser: Daniel and I have been friends for a long time. We have mutual friends in the playwriting community, and we worked on a show together several years ago called Tyrant.
Our friendship continued after the show was canceled, but with Julia, this got reversed. Daniel came on first, and he was asked whom he might want to work with, and he suggested me.
Daniel Goldfarb: Working for Chris on Tyrant was an incredible experience. I so admired the way he ran the room and the way he thought about story. He’s also such good company. He was very inspiring, and the goal was to have a room like that.
AF: Can you both recall the first time you saw Julia Child on-screen?
Goldfarb: I remember Julia from her books. My mother is a wonderful cook, and she had a number of Julia’s cookbooks. I first saw Julia in the Saturday Night Live sketch with Dan Aykroyd, and as she got older, she appeared semi-regularly on David Letterman. She was always so charming and funny, but I immersed myself in The French Chef after I got this job.
Keyser: [laughs] My story is the opposite. I was a child of the sixties, and my family didn’t cook at all. We really lived the culinary life that Julia tried to expunge from American culture, eating out of cans and buying food from fast-food restaurants. I remember watching Julia when she was still in black and white. I was too young to know the joy she expressed through cooking that applied to life, but my parents responded to it, and I began to experience that later in life. I knew people who knew her, so it was a couple of degrees of separation.
AF: Can you talk about the casting process and when you knew you’d found Julia in Sarah Lancashire?
Goldfarb: We just got really lucky. Sarah was sent the script, and she got excited about it. Chris and I both agree she’s one of the greatest actors of her generation, and she has these incredible giant eyes that can convey multiple things simultaneously.
You also see her think, which is what makes great actors great. Julia is just as alive when she’s not talking as when she is, so we were thrilled by that. We knew she had comedic chops and a theatrical flare, which is part of Julia. The real Julia and Paul had such wit, and they surrounded themselves with people that had such wit too, so we knew Sarah had the authority and gravitas that made her take on Julia feel fresh and special.
AF: Julia lived her private life behind closed doors, so how did you manage to read between the lines and color in Julia’s personal life outside the studio?
Keyser: We knew a lot about the signposts in her life, so it became an imaginative process using what she wrote about herself and the letters she and Paul would write. There was a lot of information, but there were spaces taken up by scenes that happened in private. We imagined the people with whom she might have met and the feeling she must’ve had when she got her first opportunity or suffered from her early failures. We weren’t writing a biopic, so we tried hard not to see the end from the beginning, not to imagine her as an inevitability but to put ourselves in her head and Paul’s head and just keep moving forward.
AF: What made you decide to start the story from the beginning of The French Chef rather than when Julia was writing her first cookbook?
Goldfarb: It seemed like an incredible moment of transition for both Julia and Paul. Chris and I spoke about how the season arc would focus on the marriage and how the marriage is when we start. It’s always a wonderful, loving marriage, but it starts as quite old-fashioned. Their time in France was Paul’s moment when his career was at its peak. Julia learned to cook to fill her days, and then she found Simone ‘Simca’ Beck. They wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but Julia was on Paul’s adventure. So, we thought it would be fascinating to see Paul on Julia’s adventure. By the end of the season, this marriage had evolved into a modern marriage, and it was like a great second act. They were back in America, and it felt like an exciting time to dive in.
AF: Julia’s and Paul’s homophobic perceptions are often discussed alongside her success, and in episode five they venture to San Francisco, where Julia experiences the city’s gay nightlife.
What were the conversations in the writer’s room about this particular episode and tackling this side of Julia?
Keyser: A couple of things went into it. First, it was a historical fact that Julia was taken up by the counter culture almost immediately upon entering the national scene. There were drag queens who dressed up as Julia.
We also knew that Julia and Paul were a kind of mess of contradictions. People say and do one thing one day and something else entirely the next. So for example, James Beard was one of her closest friends.
At the same time, she was casually homophobic, as was Paul. So we placed them in San Francisco, and in one moment, she’s being taken to a drag club by James Beard, and Julia and Paul are calling them fairies the following day.
We don’t comment on any of that and instead just sort of look at what existed with her. She was, in some ways, forward-thinking and, in other ways, a product of her time.
I hope people realize that this is only the beginning of her story, and we hope to have a journey that takes decades to talk about who she was, how she evolved, and how she saw the world and spoke about it.
It is not just about issues of gay rights and homosexuality, but also women and their bodies and feminism, and that changed over time. Some things she’s very conservative about, and others she’s very progressive, and we are not going to try to resolve those contradictions.
AF: There’s also this immensely loyal community surrounding Julia and Paul. How did you juggle all these different personalities and stories and ensure each character had their own arc?
Goldfarb: Julia and Paul surrounded themselves with extraordinary people, like Alice Naman, who is a combination of two characters: Madeline Anderson, who became a superstar at WNET, and the other a young black female producer at WGBH who produced shows later in the sixties.
Then Judith Jones is so remarkable, and she discovered Anne Frank and was the editor for John Updike. Then there was Russ Morash, an extraordinary producer, and Paul Child, an artist and black belt in Judo. So we wanted to talk about their relationship with Julia as much as we could and give them a life outside of her.
Keyser: Also, we had to be efficient. We allowed all of them to have their own stories and stories with each other. So, instead of the show feeling like a wheel with a central spoke, it’s more like a web connecting a community, and that’s what mattered to us.