Even if you don't know Lee Pace's name, you'll probably recognize his face. But since his biggest role yet is as makeup-covered super villain Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy, that may not be the case. Even so, Pace's work speaks for itself. Just looking at the last few years reveals appearances in everything from under-appreciated critical darlings (Pushing Daisies) to massive blockbusters (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). He also had a part playing Confederate New York City mayor Fernando Wood in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and will reprise his role as the elf-king Thranduil in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies this fall. Yep, dude gets around.
The best place to consistently see Lee's considerable acting chops, though, has been Sunday nights on AMC where he plays slickster business man Joe MacMillan on Halt and Catch Fire. Set in Texas' so-called "Silicon Prairie" startup world of the '80s, the show tells the story of MacMillan and a rag-tag team of coders racing to create the first personal computer regular people actually want to use. Pace plays MacMillan as both impossibly charming, deviously calculating, and occasionally unhinged—a guy who will do what whatever it takes to get his product off the ground. Amidst the mayhem of Guardians of the Galaxy's opening weekend, Pace took a moment to talk the show's season finale this Sunday at 10/9c. Read on as Pace talks about identifying with his characters, the difference between blockbusters and TV work, and his fading video game skills.
What drew you to your character, Joe McMillan in the first place?
I guess what drew me to him in the first place was, I don’t know he struck me kind of as a riddle, but a riddle worth solving. He was a mysterious person—one of those white guys in suits who gets what they want, you know? It’s like this powerful and dangerous force in our world.
He was a mysterious person—one of those white guys in suits who gets what they want, you know?
And then I look at computers and they’re also this powerful, dangerous force. I mean they’re incredible, they’re good and magnificent. They do these incredible things to enhance our lives, but they’re also a little bit odious, ya know what I mean? [laughs] Because they’re always there. So I kind of just wanted to unravel what that was about. I just find it fascinating. He made me think of Ivan Boesky and the corporate raiders from the early ‘80s. That kind of made me want to look again, and then I kind of realized, “Well all he actually wants to do is build you an awesome computer.” That’s all he wants to do. He doesn’t care what you think about him, you know? He doesn’t care if you like him, he just cares about doing this thing that he’s programmed to do.
How have you seen Joe change as the series has progressed?
I guess the way I’ve seen him change is, he’s learned that there’s much more than that. There’s much more than just accomplishing what you set out to accomplish, and that’s where the secret of innovation lies. The show has been such a slow, delicate that it’s not like he just walked in the door knowing what the golden nugget of innovation was. It’s taken him this experience of trying to build something awesome and getting very close to that.
We saw in the last episode he gets very, very close to that. To learn, “Oh, yeah, that’s the thing. That’s it, I’ve gotta actually open myself up to this. I can’t just muscle people through into doing what I want to do, what I want them to do or what I think might work. I’ve got to investigate myself, I’ve got to know who I am and know what I want, figure out what other people want.”
Joe often uses shady, even Machiavellian tactics to do what needs to be done—at least as he sees. Do you see him as a good guy deep down, or is he more sinister?
I don’t know, I mean I go back and forth and I think about it. When I was in the middle of shooting it, I did defend him. When he’s got the possibilities of this technology, he sees it and he believes that he sees it in a way that no one else does—he sees the potential impact of it. So if he can connect the dots to make that stuff happen, he is absolutely going to do everything in his power to do that
I still find the character puzzling, to be honest. There are things that I don’t understand about him. I’m interested in understanding more about him.
He can’t worry about if Gordon [Clark]’s having a bad day at work, or if Cameron [Howe] doesn’t feel good about herself. These things are irrelevant because the goal is so massive, so elusive, so hard to get to, but that’s the way a sociopath things [laughs]. That’s just being a part of the real world, being a part of the here and now, and knowing yourself and the people you’re looking at, which is something that Joe—I think because of his experience—is blind to, or uninterested in. I still find the character puzzling, to be honest. There are things that I don’t understand about him. I’m interested in understanding more about him, you know what I mean?
When you go from a character like Joe to Ronan the Accuser, how does the way you approach the characters change?
What you do is to try and embody the character as best as you can, understand what the director is interested in, what the story he or she is telling is, and try to contribute what you can to the story. It’s a totally different approach than with a character like Ronan. [Ronan] is physical—you tell the story in a different way. With Joe, I can’t do too much. I just have to think about it, think about who he is, what he wants, what hurts, what feels good, and then let the moments affect me. That’s not really the same thing with Ronan.
Is it fun for you to go back and forth from blockbuster like Guardians to a show where you’re doing a lot of character-based work?
I feel very fortunate to have that, very, very lucky because just for that reason. The characters are so different, the approach for the characters is so different. It’s not just about different people, it’s about a different way of working that I find very interesting, that I think I’ve had the good fortune to do. So, yeah, I love it!
Other characters, like Ronan, are about being something that’s not even human.
Do you tend to gravitate toward characters you can see yourself in, or that are totally removed from how you think of yourself? Did you identify with Joe at all?
Like I said, it’s different ways of working. I never expected Joe to be, in a way, as close to me as he turned out to be, you know what I mean? When I read the beginning stuff, when I read the pilot and stuff, I didn’t think he was like me at all. But when I watched it back, when I watched what we had shot, I did feel like, “Oh, I understand that. I understand trying to walk into a new situation, starting a new endeavor, and maybe trying to be someone that you’re not. I get that.” I understand having a hard time connecting with someone that you care about deeply, and possibly losing them, and these are all things that Joe is going through.
I’m sorry, I kind of veered off away from your question, but I kind of do think… I don’t know, I like them both. They’re just different, very different. I’m definitely surprised at how much like me he is, and especially in this last episode. I mean I’m actor [laughs]—other characters, like Ronan, are about being something that’s not even human. But with a character like Joe, it’s a real study in humanity, and authenticity, and that’s the opportunity and that’s the important part, is to allow that authenticity in.
Video games take an interesting place in the evolution of personal computers because they were the first computers that people embraced.
Before you started the show, how much knowledge did you have of computers from that time period?
I had a bit of knowledge. What was interesting about that time is that it was kind of a dark time in [the history of computers] because everything after it got much more interesting. So this moment when the computers are so big, so clunky, so full of bugs and ineffective, is a time that you just forget about. I didn’t know that much about it, but what I did know about was video games. Video games take an interesting place in the evolution of personal computers because they were the first computers that people embraced.
Are you still a gamer?
Not so much anymore. I’d love to but I just don’t really have time, and I think there’s big investment with playing games, isn’t there? [Laughs.] It's not something you can just dip in and out of. Whenever I try to get in again I’m like, “Woah, this is way out of my—this is too hard.”
From the beginning it's not clear if Cardiff Electric is going to be one of the few successes from that time or one of the many failures. Did you know where it was headed from the beginning?
We just found out along with the scripts that came every week. It made for a real innocence in their move forward. We didn’t know if they were gonna succeed, they didn’t know if they were gonna succeed, and I think that’s interesting. I think that was an interesting approach to who they were, what they were about. Yeah, so I had no idea. But that’s the same thing with the television show. You go and start something like this, you don’t know if it’s gonna be good, if it’s gonna be bad, who’s going to even like it.
God I’d be lucky if he found a place for me in one of his worlds.
So, I have to ask—do you think there’s going to be a Season 2?
Who knows, I don’t know. I’m not the one who makes that decision. I’m hopeful that there might be. We’re all proud of what we made, and yeah we’re hopeful that there might be a season two. I definitely think that there’s an interesting story to tell there, but I have no idea. Do you think there will be one?
I hope so! I’ve been enjoying it.
There’s been some talk of you maybe teaming up again with Bryan Fuller. Maybe as a guest star on Hannibal?
Oh, in any capacity I’d love to work with Bryan Fuller again. We work very well together, we’re good collaborators. He's one of the most talented people I’ve worked with. He’s just an original storyteller, and God I’d be lucky if he found a place for me in one of his worlds.
Now that you've played elves, super villains, guys who can bring back the dead. Is there a character or an archetype you haven’t played that you’d like to?
Oh yeah, there’s so many. But, you know, I’m an actor. I depend on being cast. I don’t make the choices about what I’ll play, and that’s kind of part of the excitement of it. You know, tomorrow a script will land in my lap and I’ll be like, “Oh that’s really interesting” and go off on the research of it, and go on runs and bike rides and think about the character. Just let your imagination go with it. Actors are interpretative artists, they don’t create it, they figure it out.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.