You’d be forgiven for thinking David Hyde Pierce dropped off the face of the earth after wrapping “Frasier” seven years ago. That is, if you don’t follow the theater scene. For eleven years, Pierce played the Type A, opera loving Niles Crane to Emmy-winning perfection on the popular series. Since taping the last episode, Pierce has gone on to become a bonafide stage star, appearing on Broadway and London’s West End in a string of productions, including “Curtains” which garnered him a Tony.
“The Perfect Host” (which opens in limited release today) marks his first time on screen since “Frasier” came to an end. At first glance, his turn as Warwick, a posh, wine drinking, well off man preparing for a dinner party in his fine home, might strike you as Niles’s other brother. But don’t let that fool you. The twisty thriller kicks off with a wounded bank robber (Clayne Crawford) finding refuge at Warwick’s house. When invited in, the criminal gets more than he bargained for.
We caught up with Pierce in New York, where he’s prepping his first directorial effort, “It Shoulda Been You,” a musical comedy that will open at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey this fall.
This marks your first on screen project “Frasier” wrapped seven years ago. Why this project, why now and why such a long delay?
Well the delay is the easy question. I used to do movies in the breaks of “Frasier,” but once I came back to New York I did theater. You can’t leave a show you’re starring in. I did back to back shows. I was in each of them for about a year and a half. So that sort of adds up. The first time I got a window coincided with seeing a script for “The Perfect Host” and I loved it. It was such an excruciatingly short filming time that it wasn’t a problem to schedule it in.
What was it about the script that really appealed to you? Your turn will no doubt surprise fans of “Frasier.”
Part of the appeal is that it first seems like the same kind of character you’re used to seeing [from me], but then it changes. So that was fun to be able to do that. It was also just a great part, really juicy, something to really sink your teeth into. And I just loved the script. I thought it was really funny, suprising and dark. It just intrigued me. The final part was that I met the director, Nick Tomnay, and I liked him, and I liked his take on the film.
Were you at all apprehensive given it was his first feature film?
No. I’ll tell you why. Because he had this short called “The Host” on which this film is based and I had got to see that. It was very cool and shorthanded. He clearly knew what he was doing.
Did the theatrical aspect of the script attract you to the project? It’s essentially a two-hander set under one roof.
No. I didn’t identify it as that. Acting wise I don’t know if I’d call it theatrical. The core/appeal of the movie lies in the dynamic between two actors – that I liked. It wasn’t about special effects, it wasn’t about giant tarantulas. And yet, it’s very out there. It’s not just a kitchen sink drama, it’s a quirky piece.
You shot it all, in what 17 days?
Yes. It certainly created a very intense feeling on set. Although Nick, first time director that he is, managed to create a very positive creative feel on the set. The part of filmmaking that I don’t enjoy is the part where you’re not acting and there’s a lot of that. You sit around in a trailer while they’re relighting; and after the movie’s done someone goes off and edits it and the performance is in their hands. But that’s part of any movie. The schedule in this allowed the first thing to go away. Because the core of the movie is these first person scenes and because we had no time, it really felt that I was albe to spend my time acting and not waiting around.
Did you fear being pigeonholed as an actor after leaving “Frasier”?
What I did was that I went back to the theater. I went to musicals, which is something I had never done before. That’s such apples and oranges. If I had done another TV show or another film I would have to have done something very close to Niles, or something very different and people wouldn’t have accepted it. But the theater is the thing that allowed me to expand very quickly away from what I had been doing on “Frasier.”
“Frasier” was shot each week in front of live audience. Did going back into theater not seem that far fetched given your time on the show?
Yeah. Between the fact that we had a live audience, the quality of the writing which was theatrical and most of the cast being theater actors. From day one we related to each other as it we were doing a play. And I continued to do theater in between the breaks. I would just say it was like doing a play a week doing “Frasier,” so it didn’t feel that hard to go back on stage.
The irony is, in doing this film, when I do interviews about the film, what people say is, “The character really starts out as Niles. Yes he’s back!” It’s true. It’s not him, but he’s absolutely in the same ballpark as that character. He’s a sophisticated person planning a dinner party. He’s drinking wine. So the trappings are not unfamiliar to anyone who has seen “Frasier.”
How does theater differ from film for you?
It’s the real connection. Not only with the audience. But the real connection with time. In the sense that when you’re working in the theater, everything happens in real time. What are you are rehearsing is what you are rehearsing. When you perform it, it happens in that moment. It is never done, then goes on when you’re not there. I love that.
It’s a little bit like living in New York. Living here, I’m constantly engaged walking down the street. You don’t have the chance to blunder through. It’s the same with theater.