Julia Child, the late American chef credited with making French cuisine accessible in the United States, remains highly influential nearly 20 years after her death. In the past few months alone, she’s been the subject of a new documentary and the inspiration for a new reality TV show.
Now she has another moment in the new HBO Max series Julia.
Actress Sarah Lancashire plays the woman considered America’s first “celebrity chef” and describes Child as someone who “took performance to a whole new level”.
“She was like this beautiful bird of paradise with this amazing energy and liveliness,” Lancashire said.
The show dramatizes how Child was inspired to launch his show, The French cook in 1963 after an appearance on a sleepy public TV show about Reading. She was one of the first to host her own cooking show.
“She was bringing a new genre to the screen,” says Lancashire. “It hadn’t really been done before.”
Lancashire was born and raised in the UK, so she wasn’t as familiar with Child as American audiences. Still, she says the challenge of making a cultural icon feel human came easy to her.
“The starting point has to be their humanity and their authenticity,” she says. So she focused on the complicated person behind Child’s unique voice and exuberant public persona.
“She’s naturally very funny. [but] I never approached the show as a comedy,” Lancashire says. “I didn’t really want it to be the launch pad.
“I needed to know precisely who Julia was when she wasn’t in front of the cameras, when she wasn’t on the show,” Lancashire explains. “The Julia behind closed doors. The Julia when she was with her friends, when she was with Paul. For me, that’s just as important as trying to portray the woman on camera.”
The French cook aired on WGBH and became a phenomenon, running for 10 seasons. By the time it ended in 1973, Child had established herself as a household name. She had mastered the art of French cooking and even co-authored a book about it, aptly titled Master the art of French cuisine.
“She was beaming with sunshine and optimism, and I think that’s why people wanted to watch her,” Lancashire said. “She made them feel capable and competent. And she never judged at all.”
In fact, Child insisted on keeping her phone number in the phone book so people could contact her if they had trouble with any of her recipes.
“She was a woman who had no ego,” Lancashire says. “It wasn’t about fame. It was Julia as a teacher, and she wanted to make sure her students could have access to her if they needed her.”
Lancashire says Child lived an “extremely interesting” life.
“She just followed her own mantra, this wonderful phrase that she has – find something you’re passionate about and continue to be hugely interested in it,” Lancashire says. “I don’t think she was doing it for any reason other than wanting to pass on her knowledge.”
Child continued to share this knowledge long after his show ended. In 1981, she co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food. And in the mid-1990s, she established the Julia Child Foundation for Food and Culinary Arts, which helped cement her legacy of teaching people how to cook.
It’s a legacy Lancashire hopes to see in the new HBO Max series.
“I think people hold her so dear to their hearts because of the qualities she had,” Lancashire says. “What I hope more than anything is that we have lived up to this.”