Broadway's David Hyde Pierce

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Joan Marcus / The Hartman Group / AP

Mark Rylance, left, and David Hyde Pierce in a scene from La Bête, at the Music Box Theater in New York City

Four-time Emmy winner David Hyde Pierce is best known as Niles Crane, the neurotic psychiatrist brother of Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) on the 11-year hit TV series Frasier. But in the past few years he has become one of Broadway's most ubiquitous stars. After starring in Spamalot and Curtains (for which he won a Tony Award), Pierce, who began his career on stage, returns this week in La Bête. The play, which takes place in 1654 and is written entirely in verse, centers on the artistic conflict between Elomire (Pierce), the head of a traditional acting troupe, and a vulgar new playwright Valere (Mark Rylance), who has been thrust on the company.

The role requires Pierce to do a lot of deadpan reacting — something he's quite familiar with. Pierce spoke to TIME's Amy Lennard Goehner about bullies, the stage and his recent decision to talk openly about being gay.

After such a long, successful, four-Emmy run on Frasier, you've said you prefer theater to TV or film. Why?
It's the audience. One of the reasons I haven't done TV again is that with few exceptions, shows are not shown in front of a live audience. For me, nothing replaces the immediacy and alchemy of what happens in the air in a theater between the actors onstage and the audience.

You once said doing Frasier was actually like doing theater.
Yes, the writing was theatrical, like doing an Oscar Wilde play every week, but also because we had a live audience.

Having done so much theater recently, do you think you might inspire other stars who've strictly stuck to TV to try their hand on Broadway?
I think they are already doing it — TV and film people — both because it's a challenge and also commercially for the theater, it's helpful to have a nationally recognized name in a play. It is tough economic times, and theater is uncertain anyway. But if you have a name, you have a better guarantee of getting bodies in the seats.

Growing up, you were the class clown — albeit a deadpan class clown. Was there a moment that you decided to play it that way?
I've told the story about being a little kid in elementary school and telling a joke to a friend and realizing as I told it, if I told it but didn't laugh, he would laugh more. I was biting my cheeks. It stuck in my head. There's so much talk these days about bullying in school. I wasn't a victim of that, and I think it was because of my sense of humor. I would deflect things and make people laugh. I was lousy in gym and I'd make a joke so people laughed instead of beating me up. It's not why I did it, but it was a perk.

Who were your influences growing up?
My specific influences were Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart. Imprinting in me that great deadpan of Bob Newhart — and something about that at an early age caught my eye. I wasn't watching the Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis and thinking, "I want to be big and broad like that." It was people who were doing less that caught my attention. And later on, in terms of serious actors, Alec Guinness. I've always been drawn to the more reserved performing style.

Jane Leeves, who played Daphne, once said that Niles is the antithesis of David. Would you agree?
In some ways he is. You always find yourself in the character, the character in yourself. But I don't think I'm uptight, I don't dress as well as he did. I've learned to appreciate wine from playing that character, and opera I learned about from John Mahoney, who played the dad on Frasier. I think the superficial aspects of Niles are not very much me.

You've been pretty private, but lately you've spoken more about your personal life.
I tried for years to live my life and let that be the statement. But in the last year that wasn't good enough for me. It stopped being honest, and with all the things that have happened over the last year with marriage equality, it just wasn't enough. During an interview with a writer during Curtains, he asked me why I went to California and my honest response was: "Because my partner had gone out." That was the main coming-out event that got a lot of response. I think it was just time. I wanted all those years to make the statement live and let live, to not have to broadcast your life. The reality is, when you are a celebrity you really don't have that option.

Was it in any way cathartic to finally say, "This is who I am?"
Absolutely. I was amazed at how it changed me. Even though I felt like I was being open, I wasn't hiding, [there is something about] that extra measure of making a public statement. There are some people who cheered me and supported me, and others said "too little too late," and homophobic people who didn't want to know about this. I realized it can't be about other people. I go back to the bullying issue. These sorts of things contribute to the low self-esteem of gay and lesbian young people. But the surprise for me is how it affected me and how I was able to stand on my own two feet and be who I am. My partner and I got married. And it changes something. We'd been together 26 years; it didn't change our commitment, but there's something about wearing a wedding band. The other day I left it on my table and I had to go back and get it. It felt incomplete without that.