Actress Sarah Lancashire was about 10 pages into reading the pilot script for the new HBO Max TV series Julia when she gasped over a sudden realization and hurriedly phoned her agent.
“I said, ‘You don’t know who this is, do you?’ and he said, ‘No…’” Lancashire recently recounted to The Daily Beast over Zoom. “I said, ‘This is Julia Child!’” His response: “Who is Julia Child?”
The truth is, it wasn’t just her agent who had a limited awareness of the woman who may be the most influential and recognized cooking TV personality in mainstream American culture outside of Martha Stewart—whose path to fame Child certainly paved the way for with her hugely influential program The French Chef in the 1960s. Lancashire’s familiarity stemmed solely from the marketing for the 2009 film Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep; Child wasn’t as much of a presence in the U.K., where Lancashire resides.
Given that you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t have their own take on Child’s signature, sing-song “Bon appétit!”—especially after Streep was nominated for an Oscar for hers—a Brit with limited knowledge of the chef might seem like surprise casting in a bio series. In fact, when you start to list off all the extenuating circumstances that surrounded Lancashire’s casting, that she’s playing the part at all might be considered miraculous. Or, after watching her uncanny portrayal of Child in Julia, which launches Thursday, perhaps the better word is “fated.”
For one, the agent wasn’t ever supposed to send her the script in the first place. When he passed it on to her in 2019, she had just informed them that she planned to take a year off work.
While she is a British acting legend—having starred in the series The Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, recently tugged at heartstrings as the mother in the musical film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, been honored with an OBE by Queen Elizabeth, and, at one point, been the highest-paid actress in U.K. television—she had never worked in an American production before.
She estimates she auditioned five times for the role, which is especially noteworthy considering she had not formally auditioned since she first started her career 35 years ago. It’s not a pride thing or any sort of diva behavior. “I was terrible at auditions,” she says, reckoning that if she was asked to do them, “I would never have worked.”
Lancashire starts to get dizzy as she recounts all these things. (Oh, and there was the small issue of a pandemic swirling through all of this, too. Production in Boston began in March 2020 and shut down for six months after just three days of shooting.) “I came for Julia,” Lancashire says. “She’s so beautifully unique. I could never find her in the U.K., and I think you’re only ever going to find her once in the U.S., frankly. To be playing what feels like a force of nature is a rather wonderful position to be in.”
Julia follows Child in the period after the success of her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She is contemplating the next stage of her career as she and her husband Paul (played by David Hyde Pierce) transition into the next stage of their marriage. When she’s invited to be interviewed about Mastering the Art on a public television series about books in Boston, she goes rogue, fumbles around to plug in a hotplate, and makes scrambled eggs, dutifully ignoring the pretentious sneering from the host who finds talking about a cookbook to be beneath him. (He finds the eggs to be delicious, though.)
A female producer and Child’s book agent, also a woman, recognize a spark of potential there. Women around the country had been ecstatically working their way through her cookbook, and there was something naturally beguiling about Child’s personality cocktail of confidence and indifference on camera. It was an ease that can’t be learned—unusual, yet irresistible. After some convincing that TV is not a mere fad, her husband comes around, becoming her dutiful supporter at a time when gender roles may have rendered other men threatened.
With their encouragement, Child finances a pilot episode of The French Chef herself, producing it with Paul and her friends despite the fact that none of them know anything about TV and the traditional cooking-show format didn’t even exist yet. They would, in fact, be pioneering that themselves.
Child became such an outsized personality and beloved icon that we don’t realize what a gambit this was at the time, and the fortitude it took for a middle-aged woman at that particularly sexist era in American history to will a career second act in television into existence. As Child says in the series, “One of the advantages of looking like me is that you learn at a young age not to take no for an answer.”
At the crux of Julia, you could say, is the spiritual origin behind her most indelible televised moment: instructing her audience to have “the courage of your convictions” while flipping a potato in a pan, shrugging it off with humility and hilarity when she fails, and brazenly moving right along.
“There’s an awful lot of Julia that I recognize in myself: aspects of her character, her singularity, the way that she never really seemed to conform and that she certainly plowed her own furrow in life,” Lancashire says. “There’s this wonderful phrase that she says, which is ‘Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.’ That was probably her motto throughout her entire life. I think she learned from a very early age that she wasn’t going to fit in, in a traditional manner. She was six-foot-two. That’s not an easy height to carry around with you. But I love her no-nonsense practicality.”
There is something, as generations know, transfixing about Child on screen.
There’s the musicality of her voice, which trills wildly between falsetto and bass like opera’s most chaotic aria. That roller-coaster undulation between upper and lower registers was outside Lancashire’s vocal capabilities. At one point she worked with a voice coach who specializes in accents, but that didn’t work out, so she worked on her own to develop what she calls “a parallel, which is suggestive of Julia.” Here is where her original lack of familiarity with Child was a benefit. “Because I didn’t grow up with the legacy of Julia, I didn’t have the weight of expectation or preconception that comes with it.”
Child’s seeming lack of vanity on screen is equal parts mystifying and enchanting to people even today. Or, perhaps, her determination exceeded whatever self-consciousness there may have been, to the point that mistakes were swiftly forgiven and excised from the mind. We watched her do it real time during these cooking segments, which, in turn, doubled as profound life lessons.
There was no denying the joy she brought to each of her tasks, an infectiousness that moved the nation to bravely attempt coq au vin or beef bourguignon alongside her. She also had a ribald nature and a cheekiness that often, amusingly, found their way into her show; in Julia, we certainly see how they were fundamental in other areas of her personal life.
“She had this true grit, this absolute determination, that for me almost felt like a frontier woman,” Lancashire says. Public service television at the time was dull, preachy, and patronizing. You can imagine the corridors of local stations teeming with bored white men in their identical gray suits. “Then she arrives. I call her my bird of paradise. I mean, what an exotic creature to arrive, like color came into their lives.”
Showrunner Christopher Keyser and creator Daniel Goldfarb know that the first instinct would be to cast a comic actress as Child, someone who could more obviously capture the joie de vivre that we all think about, or who maybe fits more in line with the caricature we’ve replaced her with in our minds after decades of pop-culture jokes and impersonations. In fact, Joan Cusack was originally attached to star.
Lancashire has marveled over the stark difference in tone this series and role has from the dark, heavy dramas she’s made a name for herself in over her career. That’s why she was such interesting casting, Goldfarb says. “She has an authority and a gravity that I think is not what you expect in terms of Julia Child.”
And as for the Julie & Julia—and Meryl Streep—of it all? The projects center around different periods of Child’s life, and neither feature a pure imitation of the chef. Streep and Lancashire, Keyser says, respectively channel different essences of Child, and of themselves. “Julia is this remarkable person who means a lot to a lot of different people, which allows you to interpret her in a lot of different ways. It’s not Hamlet, but no one says, ‘There are a million Hamlets, why make another one?’”
They believe the timing, too, couldn’t be better for telling Child’s story. More than two years into a pandemic, the idea of reinvention has been on many people’s minds, and this is a show about just that. The fundamental pleasure Child finds in her passion for food and cooking should inspire anyone who’s had existential thoughts about what their lives mean and how they should be spending their time.
Also, look around at the world. What better time for a series that basks in love, food, and nostalgia?
Lancashire remembers when she was shooting in Boston and someone would find out about the series and start fawning about how they can’t wait to see it. “My heart would sink. I’d just think, maybe you can wait… Everybody has an idea of who Julia Child should be and how whoever plays her should be. That kind of made me feel much easier about the whole thing.”
In fact, that’s a very Julia Child perspective to have. Julia begins streaming Thursday. [Clears throat and smiles into the camera] “Bon appétit!”