Julia Child, the late American chef credited with making French cuisine more accessible in the United States, remains widely influential nearly 20 years after her death. In the last few months alone, she’s been the subject of a new documentary and the inspiration for a new reality cooking show.
Now she has another moment in the new HBO Max series Julia.
Actress Sarah Lancashire plays the woman credited as America’s first “celebrity chef,” and describes Child as someone who “took performance to a whole other level.”
“She was like this beautiful bird of paradise with this extraordinary energy and vivacity,” Lancashire said.
The show dramatizes how Child was inspired to start her show, The French chef In 1963 after appearing on a sleepy public television program about reading. She was one of the first to host her own cooking show.
“She brought a new genre to the screen,” says Lancashire. “It hadn’t really been done before.”
Lancashire was born and raised in Britain, so she wasn’t as familiar with Child as American audiences are. Still, she says the challenge of making a cultural icon feel human came easily to her.
“The starting point has to be their humanity and their authenticity,” she says. So she focused on the complicated persona behind Child’s unique voice and exuberant public persona.
“Of course she’s very funny [but] I never approached the series as a comedy,” says Lancashire. “I didn’t really want that to be the launch pad.”
“I needed to know exactly who Julia was when she wasn’t in front of the cameras, when she wasn’t on the show,” says Lancashire. “Juliet behind closed doors. Julia when she was with her friends, when she was with Paul. That’s just as important to me as trying to portray the woman on camera.”
The French chef aired on WGBH and became a phenomenon that ran for 10 seasons. By the time it ended in 1973, Child had established itself as a household name. She has mastered the art of French cooking and even co-authored an aptly titled book about it Mastery of French culinary art.
“She radiated sunshine and optimism, and I think that’s why people wanted to see her,” says Lancashire. “She made them feel capable and competent. And she never judged at all.”
In fact, Child insisted on storing her phone number in the phone book so people could contact her if they had problems with one of her prescriptions.
“This is a woman with no ego,” says Lancashire. “This wasn’t about fame. This was Julia as a teacher, and she wanted to make sure her students could access her when they needed her.”
Lancashire says Child has lived an “enormously interesting” life.
“She was just following her own mantra, this wonderful phrase she has — find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it,” says Lancashire. “I don’t think she did it for any other reason than passing on her knowledge.”
Child continued to share this knowledge long after her show ended. In 1981 she co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food. And in the mid-’90s, she founded the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts, which helped cement her legacy of teaching people to cook.
It’s a legacy Lancashire hopes will live up to in the new HBO Max series.
“I think people fell in love with her because of her qualities,” says Lancashire. “What I hope more than anything is that we’ve lived up to that.”