Niles no more

David Hyde Pierce knows what it means to be a ‘Perfect Host’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

On television and onstage, David Hyde Pierce has enjoyed the rare perk of being a character actor who gets leading-man attention — and money. By the time he ended his 11-year run on the acclaimed sitcom Frasier, Pierce had become the highest-paid series regular not to headline a series in TV history. (Four Emmy Awards will do that for you.) In 2007, he added stage superstardom to the resume when he won the Tony Award for best actor in a musical (against tough competition) playing a sad-sack cop in Curtains. (That followed a hit run as one of the leads in Spamalot.)

On film, though, Pierce has always been the second banana, often giving memorable supporting in movies like Wolf or voicing animated characters in A Bug’s Life and others, but never being asked to carry them.
Not anymore. Pierce finally gets above-the-title billing — but keeps his character-actor cred — in the indie comedy-thriller The Perfect Host.

“These opportunities don’t come around a lot except for the Tom Cruises of the world,” Pierce admits. “When they first showed me the poster, I saw my name big and my picture all over it. I realized that’s what it means to be the star of the movie.”

Of course, Pierce knows the box office expectations aren’t as high for his film as its opening-weekend competition, Transformers 3. The Perfect Host, which got its local premiere in April at the USA Film Festival but opens in some cities for a commercial run this week (it was screened earlier this week at the Texas Theatre as well), is a quirky and enjoyable romp full of twists — so many, in fact, it’s difficult to talk about without spoiling some of the surprises.

On the surface, it’s about a career criminal named James (Clayne Crawford) who talks his way into the home of a sophisticated but meek suburbanite named Warwick (Pierce). James plans to kill Warwick, but then the tables are turned on him, as the evening spins out in ways that recall such thrillers as Misery, Rear Window, Psycho and A Clockwork Orange.

Only not. And with more humor. Well, you gotta see it to get it.

“It’s a movie where what seems to be is continually not,” agrees Pierce, trying not to give away any secrets. “People who seem benign are not and those you think are dangerous maybe aren’t. At Sundance, many people said seeing it a second time is a lot of fun, knowing what’s real and what’s not.”

“The most influential film was Joseph Losey’s The Servant, but also Polanski’s early work — Cul-de-Sac, Compulsion,” says first-time feature director and co-writer Nick Tomnay. “Warwick is doing [this] to satisfy his fetish. He’s actually quite a happy guy — he’s not conflicted about it. But the last note of the film is very dark.”

For Pierce, it was an opportunity to stretch but without veering too far from his screen persona. Warwick is as fastidious as Niles Crane but has a kooky side Niles never did. It’s a transition that he embraced.

“Especially when you’re seen on a TV show, you can’t pretend the past didn’t happen,” he says. But Warwick allows Pierce to be both the “perfect host” of the title and act out deep, id-like compulsions. And it also gave Pierce the chance to do something he rarely has done in public: Disco dance.

“I got a friend of mine who was a dancing coach to choreograph that,” Pierce says. “That was great to do.”

Theater remains a passion for Pierce, though; in addition to his performances in Curtains and Spamalot, he was in New York seeing La Cage aux Folles — once with his former co-star, Kelsey Grammer (whose performance he raved over), and once with the replacement cast of Chris Seiber in Grammer’s role and Harvey Fierstein as his drag-queen boyfriend.

“Harvey was great,” he says. “There’s an added layer because of course Harvey has lived it in a way.”

Pierce, who is gay and lives with his long-time partner in California, has been very active in recent years coming out in support of same-sex marriage. But he’s not definitive about Warwick’s sexuality.

“I think Warwick would be up for anything,” he says with a wink.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens