In the 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, David Hyde Pierce played Henry Newman, a professor of astrophysics — sorry, an associate professor of astrophysics — and probably the only character in the whole movie who didn’t smell of burger. To mark the 10th anniversary of David Wain’s crazed comedy, we spoke to the Frasier star about his rain-sodden days at the fictional Camp Firewood and also asked him about his new thriller, The Perfect Host.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you agree to appear in Wet Hot American Summer?
DAVID HYDE PIERCE: I’ll tell you the two reasons I took it. First, I read the script and I thought it was very funny. But I thought, this is only going to be funny if these guys know how to do it. Then they sent me some footage from their sketch comedy show, from The State, which had exactly the right tone, very much like the Pythons, doing completely demented things absolutely seriously.
Playing Niles on Frasier, you didn’t often get the opportunity to say lines like, “Oh, f— my c—!” Was that also part of the appeal?
It was absolutely an appeal. My manager Peter Safran had brought it to me with specifically that in mind, that it would bring me to a different kind of audience. Which it absolutely did. Even now kids come up to me and say, “Wet Hot American Summer!” It’s usually the same people who talk to me about the Simpsons.
Speaking of the Simpsons, did you know that your cartoon co-star Hank Azaria actually attended Pennsylvania’s Camp Towanda, where the film was shot?
I think that did come out. Camp Towonda. Well, and we see how he turned out!
Could you paint us a picture of the living conditions at the camp?
Yes. Valley Forge [which is also in Pennsylvania] is where the American revolutionary soldiers under George Washington almost died form the cold and the weather. That’s what it was like. But if they had all been wearing short shorts. It was absolutely bitter cold and like, Amazonian rains. Just crazy rain. Lots of mud and hip boots. And good times.
Paul Rudd told me they’d been shooting for two weeks before you turned up, which meant they’d been drunk for two weeks, essentially. He said they were apprehensive about your arrival, because you were the one person that nobody knew.
Yeah, a lot of them had worked together before. They only knew me from [playing Niles on] the TV show — imagine putting that character in the midst of a drunken, nightmarish, rain-slogged summer camp. That probably wouldn’t work out well.
What else do you remember?
It was also the beginning of Survivor. It had started on television and they were watching that, I think in the dining hall or somewhere. I remember being horrified that this thing was coming on television and thinking, “Well, this is certainly not something that’s going to last.”
Talk us through the mustache. That’s yours right?
No. I had to give it back. It was a pantomime mustache. But it was a good one. I have to say, when you watch the movie, you look at things like the clothes and my mustache, stuff like that, they did a really good job. It was actually quite professionally done. It wasn’t hokey, except in places where it was meant to be.
I remember the first time I saw the film I didn’t really get it.
I think drinking helps.
Well, Joe Lo Truglio told me that it only really started to get a cult following when pot-smoking college kids started watching it on DVD.
That’s our demographic! Yeah, college students tend to end up seeing Wet Hot. It’s funny for them, especially because, with people like Bradley [Cooper], or Paul Rudd, people who have gone on to have big careers — to see them back when is kind of a trip for people.
Janeane Garofalo — with whom you have many scenes in the film — told me that she was always punctual, and she always knew her lines, but that she was drunk 90 percent of the time.
[Laughs uproariously] I did not know how drunk she was. She was a blast to work with. And a really good kisser.
Speaking of which, one of the scenes you would not normally see in a camp comedy is the film’s tender, if graphic, gay love scene between Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black. What did you think about that?
Well, it was just one more thing. It was like them becoming heroin addicts on their hour off in town. There was no area into which this film didn’t stray. But they managed to be kind of shocking and affectionate at the same time. I think that’s the appeal of the movie.
What was Bradley Cooper like?
Bradley Cooper was exactly the way he is now. He was a really nice guy and very funny, as you can see in the film. But it’s ironic to look back, now that he’s such a huge star to see him doing that. It makes it even funnier to see him being so silly in that film.
Would you be up for a sequel?
Yeah, sure. Just to see everybody again would be worth it.
In the new thriller The Perfect Host, which opens in theaters tomorrow (and is also available on VOD), you play a seemingly urbane and effete character to lets a seemingly dangerous criminal into his house. It’s almost impossible to describe the plot further without spoiling things, but suffice to say it becomes clear fairly early on that this is an utterly berserk twist on Niles.
Yes. It’s not the same character. But it’s the same type of character, you might think, as the movie begins. The fun I get to have is that he turns out to be nothing like that at all. It’s a nice departure for me. It’s basically a very dark comedy-thriller. Nothing is what it seems and it’s full of a lot of twists and it gave me a chance as an actor to really do a lot of stuff that I don’t normally get to do.
Did you get on well with your co-star, Clayne Crawford? Because the film is essentially a two-hander.
I adored him. We had a great working relationship. It was a very intense, very fast shoot, it was only 17 days. So we really had to work together. What’s great is that we‘re very different in our process and our style and all that. And that was absolutely perfect for what had to happen in the film, but we were also able to work together. We just had a really good time doing it. We got to do some very wild stuff.
Are you a good host yourself in real life?
No, no. Terrible.
You don’t host dinner parties?
It’s not a big part of my life. I’m not having parties every week. Or every month.
So if I were to just drop by, you couldn’t whip me up some risotto, or whatever?
You absolutely can drop by any time and… have a muffin. That’s about as extravagant as my hosting duties get.
To read more about Wet Hot American Summer, check out the 10th anniversary retrospective feature in this week’s True Blood issue of Entertainment Weekly. You can watch the trailers for Wet Hot American Summer and The Perfect Host below.
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