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Sarah Lancashire on the power of women and playing Julia Child

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Julia Child is having a moment - actually, another moment. In just about the last six months, America's first celebrity chef has been the subject of a stylish documentary by the makers of "RBG," the inspiration for a new reality cooking show and the subject of a new HBO Max series, "Julia." The show dramatizes how Child was inspired to launch "The French Chef" after an appearance on a sleepy public television show about reading.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JULIA")

JEFFERSON MAYS: (As P. Albert Duhamel) My guest this afternoon writes cookbooks. Yes, you heard that correctly - cookbooks. To be frank, it would be rather disingenuous for me to say it's what I've been reading as I have never actually read a cookbook. Maybe for today, we'll rename our little program "What My Wife's Been Reading" (laughter). No, but seriously, folks, please welcome my guest, Cambridge's own Mrs. Julia Child.

SARAH LANCASHIRE: (As Julia Child) Oh, what a lovely introduction.

SNELL: That's actress Sarah Lancashire playing Julia Child. Lancashire might be new to American viewers, but she's starred in some of the most popular British television shows of the last few decades, including "Last Tango In Halifax" and "Happy Valley." Sarah Lancashire joins me now. Welcome.

LANCASHIRE: Hi there. It's nice to be here.

SNELL: So you just heard me tick off all of these many ways Julia Child is still part of American culture a decade and a half after her death. But I gather you weren't quite as familiar with her.

LANCASHIRE: Well, no, I wasn't. Living and being brought up in the U.K., of course, Julia didn't really have a public persona over here. But you would have been incredibly familiar with her if you worked in the culinary world, if you were a chef or restauranteur or if - even if you were an amateur cook.

SNELL: You know, that's one of the things that really struck me about this series - is that we see a very different side of Julia Child. I think for a lot of Americans, I guess she's a bit of a caricature - you know, the funny voice and all of that energy. And there are all these comedy skits about her. But she seems like a really, I mean, complicated person in this portrayal. And I'm wondering, was it hard to make a cultural icon seem human?

LANCASHIRE: No, completely opposite because I think the starting point when you're creating a character, real or imagined, has to be the humanity and the authenticity. And so for me, that was very much the starting point. I never approached the series as a comedy. I had seen sketches of people playing Julia, or - and I can see that - I can perfectly see why she's a target for lampooning, of course, because she has such a broad personality.

SNELL: She's very funny just naturally.

LANCASHIRE: She's naturally very funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JULIA")

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia Child) Now the piece de resistance. It's time to flame it in brandy, to flambe. Now light a match, stand away, and let her rip.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAME ROARING)

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia Child) Oh, rather high, isn't it? I'll try to put the old tin lid on that. Oh, well, as Lady Macbeth would say, out, out, damn flame. Take that. There.

But I really didn't want that to be the launch pad for me because I needed to know specifically who Julia was when she was away from the cameras, when she wasn't on show, when she wasn't switched on, the Julia behind closed doors, the Julia when she was with her friends, when she was with Paul. That, to me, is equally as important as trying to portray the woman in front of the camera.

SNELL: And this is a woman who is clearly ambitious and motivated, but she has no model to follow. We watch her swing between an outward confidence to kind of a private insecurity that makes it almost painfully familiar as I watch it. So how did you think about that dynamic?

LANCASHIRE: You know, she's rather interesting in the sense that she - Paul and Julia had a tremendously interesting life.

SNELL: Yes.

LANCASHIRE: And she only followed her own mantra, this wonderful phrase that she has of - find something you're passionate about, and keep tremendously interested in it.

SNELL: That's great advice.

LANCASHIRE: It is. It is the most fabulous mantra. And I think that - I think she just followed her own advice, really, by approaching WGBH about doing a cooking show. And, of course, I don't think she was taken terribly seriously at all. And she arrived, and she did something which I think they had almost forgotten to do. She turned up, and she entertained. She wasn't afraid to entertain. And she took performance to a whole different level. And I don't think she thought for one moment that it was going to be the success that it was. I think it's - the viewers made it a success.

SNELL: You know, there is this scene where she gets a phone call from somebody who she doesn't know and is asking a question about the details of why their recipe went wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JULIA")

LANCASHIRE: (As Julia Child) Well, it's not supposed to be sweet. What brand of cognac did you use? Next time, just grab the brandy - no need for it to be French. No, well, you're very welcome. Buh-bye (ph).

SNELL: She doesn't for a moment judge or have any questions. She just answers the question and moves on. And we come to learn it's not the first time that's happened.

LANCASHIRE: No because their phone number was in the book. And Julia insisted that they kept their phone number in the book just in case people wanted to contact her, just in case people had a problem with the recipe, which I think is fantastic because it just demonstrates that she - this is a woman who had no ego. But still, this was not about celebrity. This was Julia as a teacher, and she wanted to ensure that her pupils could access her if they needed her.

SNELL: Well, I have to ask you about that cooking. I mean, at one point, she had to make a perfect French omelet on this tiny hot plate on a tiny little table that's lower than the chair she's sitting in.

LANCASHIRE: Yeah.

SNELL: And I have to wonder, were you able to cook before you did this? Are you able to cook now?

LANCASHIRE: Well, I've raised a family, so of course. I mean, I'm - I don't know whether I'm old-fashioned or not, but I was taught to cook as a girl. And my brothers were. They didn't have to worry whether I could do it or not because I could. I'm a very practical person. I can cook an omelet. I can do a souffle. I can put a shelf up. I'm just one of those people.

SNELL: Well, I have to ask before I let you go, what is the one thing that you hope that viewers learn or understand about Julia Child when they are done watching this? What's something, you know, different about her that you hope they walk away from this series understanding?

LANCASHIRE: Oh, I think - really, I think people already know. I mean, I think people hold her so dear in their hearts because of the qualities that she had. What I hope more than anything is that we've lived up to that.

SNELL: Sarah Lancashire plays the title role in the new HBO Max series "Julia." Thank you so much for speaking with me.

LANCASHIRE: Oh, thank you, Kelsey. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENS LEKMAN SONG, "THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.