Lee Pace has the magic touch.
Relaxing on the set of his critically praised series, "Pushing Daisies," Pace taps the air teasingly with his forefinger. It's how Pace's character, Ned, makes others live or die with a single stroke on the darkly whimsical ABC drama.
It's also how Pace keeps British actress Anna Friel, his lively co-star, in line during long production hours. Friel plays Ned's longtime love, Charlotte "Chuck" Charles.
"When Anna acts up on set, I just touch her like this," Pace said, pointing a magic finger.
The finger tap is a joke on Ned and Chuck's deadly dilemma on "Pushing Daisies" airing on Wednesday night. In the show's pilot, Ned resurrected Chuck after she was murdered. Now they live together. If Ned touches Chuck once more — directly, skin-on-skin — she's back in a casket, pronto.
"Just sitting together in a car, it's life or death stakes for them," Pace said of the seemingly doomed (or at least physically frustrated) couple. "Every day when we block scenes, I think, 'Now how should we hold our bodies?'"
In fact, the physical intimacy of Ned and Chuck is carefully chaperoned on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, especially by executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black"), who also directs the series.
"Barry's always going, 'Ooops! Don't you dare touch Anna,'" Friel said. "It's hard, trying to fit together into a tight two-shot."
On a recent day of production, Friel was fighting a bad cold in her trailer. "Don't get too close," she said.
"We actually did try going for a week with no touching at all on set," Friel said of her co-star. "We didn't do too good. We're both — particularly me — incredibly tactile. By day three I was dead three times."
An unintended message
If "Pushing Daisies" carries a message about sexual abstinence, "that was never the intention, but you can certainly read it in," Fuller said. "I suppose the show is really about the dangers of any kind of intimacy, not just physical intimacy."
When he's not baking perfect pies, Ned investigates homicides, with help from Chuck and private eye Emerson Cod (Chi McBride). Zap, and Ned revives victims long enough for them to reveal their killers. Zap, and they're dead again.
"Ned's real gift is the understanding of the value of life and death," Pace said. "He's not careless with his powers. But after he brought Chuck back to life everything is different for him. It's like his life is happening for the first time."
Fantasy elements aside, playing Ned is not a stretch, Pace said. Not after his previous roles as a transgendered female entertainer in the 2003 Showtime telefilm "Soldier's Girl" and an inscrutable CIA agent in the 2006 movie "The Good Shepherd." He also played a supporting role in "Wonderfalls."
"There's a way that Bryan writes for Ned that's the way I speak," Pace said. "I ramble. And a big challenge with Ned is just trusting that less is enough. Ned's range of emotions is like this," he said, squeezing a bit of air between thumb and forefinger.
Indeed, much of the acting on "Pushing Daisies" is understated, by design.
"That's a tribute to Barry Sonnenfeld's directing style," Fuller said. "Since everything in the show is so vivid, if the acting were also vivid it might be too much."
An homage to Hitchcock
Visually, "Pushing Daisies" pops with rich colors and quirky sets including the Pie Hole, Ned's restaurant-in-the-round with a crust-shaped roof.
"Daisies" is also an ongoing homage to one of Fuller's favorite filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock. A future episode will feature a take on the dream sequence in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," Fuller said. Another episode will send up the infamous shower-stabbing scene in "Psycho."
"And there's a big homage to Hitchcock's 'The Birds,' with a character who's pathologically afraid of birds," Fuller said.
On the romantic side of the series, visual jokes abound. Ned and Chuck must never brush flesh against flesh. But they adopt an array of inventive protective barriers, including cellophane, body bags and beekeepers' suits.
"Actually, there's something about the not-touching that's kind of hot," Pace said. "Ned and Chuck are turned on by wishing they could touch. When they cross each other in a doorway, they share that moment of, 'I wish I could kiss you, I wish I could run to bed with you — but I can't.' But there's still something sexy about it, you know?"