Interview: Lee Pace on ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

Lee Pace doesn't do many projects that generate ambivalence. 

After making his small screen bones in the Bryan Fuller-created “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies” and having his earliest big screen exposure in Tarsem Singh's polarizingly unique “The Fall,” Pace has been on an absurd franchise streak of late. 

He checked “Twilight” off the list as Garrett in the second part of “Breaking Dawn.” 

His Thranduil has had an increasingly large presence through the last two “Hobbit” films.

And this summer, Pace will enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Ronan the Accuser in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

It's unclear how many Lee Paces exist, because amidst these major franchise films, Pace also found the time for his return to regular series television. 

On the new AMC drama “Halt and Catch Fire,” Pace plays Joe MacMillan, a former IBM wunderkind who recruits Scoot McNairy's Gordon Clark to work with him on an ethically murky project in the midst of the early-80s personal computing boom. 

MacMillan is part con man, part visionary and, watching the pilot for “Halt and Catch Fire,” which has already been posted to Tumblr and will premiere on AMC this Sunday, it's unclear if Joe is on a journey toward becoming the hero of the piece, or perhaps a basic cable-style anti-hero.

Pace is excited about his new TV character, but as we talked last week, he was also very, very excited about “Guardians of the Galaxy,” especially since the first extended trailer — featuring at least two fleeting glimpses of his character — had just debuted. 

So we talked mostly about “Halt and Catch Fire,” but Pace also shared what he's looking forward to seeing from his Marvel debut.

Check out the full Q&A [And stay tuned for my interviews with McNairy, Kerry Bishe and showrunner Jonathan Lisco]…

HitFix: Now, I guess my first question is one of sorta logistics. Where were you able to fit all of this in with “Guardians,” with “Hobbit,” you've just been rather busy for the past year…

Lee Pace: Man, I can't even tell you how. I mean it's been this past year living out of a suitcase. We shot the pilot in April, went from Atlanta to London, did the first tests for Ronan, the kind of costume and make up and all that stuff. Went from there to New Zealand, shot my pick-ups for the “Hobbit.” Went from there back to London, did that whole crazy, f***ing movie. I mean the craziest thing I think I've ever been a part of was that movie. And then basically went from that right into this. Wait. No! No, no, I went from that into Stephen Frears' movie about Lance Armstrong. Why I thought I needed another movie in there, I don't know. And then I just finished this about a month ago so I'm like home and finally get a chance to have a life.

HitFix: How much of it is sort of a compulsion to work? How much of it is projects that you just couldn't turn down, et cetera? 

Lee Pace: One hundred percent both. I mean I'm a big believer of when jobs are coming, grind it out. Do it! Because they don't always come for actors, you depend on getting cast. I mean, God, just this incredibly cool stuff kind of fell into my lap. This has been just an incredible experience and “Guardians of the Galaxy” was just… I mean… did you see the trailer?

HitFix: I did!

Lee Pace: It's pretty wicked isn't it?

HitFix: Have you gone around and sort of looked at the people who have been screen grabbing Ronan and just sort of like, “Okay here's our first look and let's pick it to pieces!”

Lee Pace: Oh no. I haven't. I try not to do that because I don't want to…

HitFix: People are intrigued because I mean it's only like two frames and some people have taken those frames and they're like, “Okay can you see this? Can you see that??”

Lee Pace: Yeah, yeah. I'm really excited about this character. I mean he's nuts. I mean I've never played anything like it and I've had such a good, it's one of those things where you don't know how to approach something like this. This is not Joe MacMillan. You can't think, “Well, you know, this is my relationship with my father…” It's not that. There's none of that, you now, kind of “This is how I would go about dealing with these problems.” It's a complete kind of act of imagination. But in the hands of James Gunn, I'm such a fan of his movies. So it's very much a creation of his and I found my self being like, “Alright, let's do it. You tell me what you're into here.

HitFix: Is that an immediate feeling that you have where you can sort of turn yourself over to a director or do you have to sort of see other things and go, “Okay, I know you know what you doing?”

Lee Pace: I mean you sit down with him for 10 minutes and you know he knows what he's doing. I mean he's just making the movie that he wants to see. I mean that's a filmmaker. And it's just a privilege to work with someone like that. You know, Peter Jackson is the same way. He's going to make the movie that he wants to see. And to be a small part in one of those is so cool. Because they have thousands of people work on these movies, thousands and there's so many different layers. So my performance is just a small, small part of that puzzle. Creative and fun, working on these massive movies has just been so much more fun than I've ever dreamed it could be.

HitFix: Well, just in terms of sort of imagination and foreigness and in terms of out there in outlandishness… You know… “Hexadecimal code” and whatever the heck these motherboard things are doing, is that a language you speak?

Lee Pace: No, but it's hardly a language Joe speaks either. Joe doesn't know a lot. He knows, he understands the basics of this, but he doesn't understand the cutting edge technology that he needs Gordon to create. It's Gordon's business, he just needs to push Gordon to do it, to make it. What Joe has in mind is an awesome computer, the computer that no one else has the balls to build. He doesn't even know quite what that is. He knows it needs to be cheaper, it needs to be faster and it needs to be smaller. That's what he knows. And that's going to be tough to do. And he knows it's going to be tough to do and he knows it is going to be even tougher to get people to buy it.

HitFix: I was going to ask you sort of what the balance was between sort of con artist and visionary in this guy, but sort of let me give you a third option, what's the balance of sort of con artist, visionary and sort of master motivator?

Lee Pace: Well, you call Steve Jobs a visionary now when you look back over all that he's accomplished, you know, all of the incredible things that he's brought to us. Joe's a hustler. He doesn't know. There's no promises here. When I saw the pilot for the first time, the big thing that took me by surprise was the innocence of the show. There's no promises that any of this is going to go off well, in fact it's likely not going to, but he's got to try. He's already late to the party. Already there's a computer on the market, and at the time there's 60 other companies trying to make a personal computer as well, Southwestern Bell was trying to make a computer, Exxon was trying to make a computer, everyone is trying to get into this fight. And Joe is like, “I'm going to do it. And the only way to get into it is to build the best one because anything else is a loser.”

HitFix: And so where's sort of the core in that that you can personally relate to?

Lee Pace: I did learn about myself playing Joe MacMillian. I mean look at this last year, all this hard work. I mean Joe lives for his work, that's what he thinks about when he wakes up first thing in the morning. He eats takeout standing over his sink. He is all about making this computer. There's no room for anything else. He is a machine. I wouldn't say I'm an acting machine but…

HitFix: “…But if you want to write that, you can…”

Lee Pace: [Laughs.] Oh boy, I just walked into that one. But I find myself now after a year of working thinking, you know, “What else is there besides putting on a costume and going to set and playing characters and saying lines? There's got to be more to that.” Without giving away too much I think that's the thing that Joe reveals himself this season.

HitFix: So he does start looking for more?

Lee Pace: When I watch the pilot episode, as I did recently on Tumblr, I hardly recognized that man from how this experience impacts him.

HitFix: Now, what of this sort of '80s environment resonates with you, sort of childhood memories, sort of your own personal youth in the '80s I guess?

Lee Pace: I was a child. I mean I was a kid. I remember my sister. I remember our dog. I do have this great picture that my father took of my mother sitting in front of an Adam Osborne computer, which was one of the kind of first portable computers out there. It weighed 28 pounds. It could do a very limited number of things. But my mom thought it was a fad and a waste of money. It was expensive. And here she's got an iPhone in her purse and uses it all day long. And that's what I remember. I remember video games. Video games played such an exciting part in the development of computers. We're about roughly the same age, I would reckon. And it's like computers have grown up with us from those very basic computers, the Commodores, the Ataris, the Nintendos, and throughout our evolution have filled our needs. So we wanted to do something after school. We played Nintendo. I remember playing it for hours and hours and hours and hours. So it just becomes a part of our – a tool that we require.

HitFix: Well, I was talking with Scoot about how sort of resonant the sound of the Speak & Spell was and I was surprised by that in the pilot because I had a Speak & Spell, haven't thought about it in 20 years but you hear that thing boot up in the pilot and the sound took me back. So did you have that? Did you have a Speak & Spell as a child?

Lee Pace: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We had those. I remember, but it was a little bit later then this time. It was kind of early, I remember going over to a friend's house and his Commodore and we would play Battleship and we would play Adventure. But Adventure was kind of this time I would say. We were more into the next kind of versions of it at that time. But it's like you learn the basics of programming by learning about those games. You have a choice between this and this, what do you want to do? That. You know what I mean? It's just like you learn the very basics of how a computer functions.

HitFix: I don't feel like I still understand the very basics of how a computer functions. Do you actually know?

Lee Pace: [He shakes his head aggressively.] No. But sort of. This actually is an easier way into it than trying to figure out how my iPhone works. I do feel like I understand how this computers that we built works. I understand how it powers itself. I understand its motherboard. I understand the CPU. I understand the kind of components and how the memory is stored, how the disk drives work. And, like I said, these are the guys who were inventing that way of thinking or pulling that way of thinking out of themselves. One of the themes of the show that I find really exciting was this concept of do the creators of this thing imprint their soul onto this thing that we've created? Because computers are just little microscopic passageways with electrons moving at the speed of light. I mean our physiology is not dissimilar to that. And our analytical physiology is not dissimilar to that. And Joe's a machine. He's going to accomplish the programs set before him. He's going to remove obstacles if they get into his way. He's going to add value. He's going to be compatible, fully compatible, with all systems. He's going to absorb new information. But the program is rudimentary and there's bugs in the machine and there are flaws in the program. And it's in that place that I find the character of Joe most interesting.

HitFix: Did you know initially what Joe's bugs were? Because there were a lot of things after the pilot where there are these sort of pieces of information that we don't have that are obviously totally pivotal to what this guy is thinking at all times. Were you told? Did you know those things?

Lee Pace: Well, just from what what's in the script itself is he begins that episode in control; he ends that episode out of control. He has done all these things. He has set this thing into motion, but watching IBM walk in that door he knows how hard this is going to be. It's like jumping off a cliff, you don't know how you're going to land. It's probably going to hurt, but there's no choice for him. He's going to do it. He knows this wave is coming and he wants to be an effective part of it. This will be his life work bring the Millennium about. He's not going to let some other asshole win it. He will do anything, uncompromising ambition.

HitFix: Now, you've done the daily series, the weekly series grind before a couple times now. What was your thought process regarding diving back into it?

Lee Pace: You learn a lot doing one of these when you're on-set every day. And I've had the time of my life doing “Pushing Daisies.” Being on set, working on the show, falling in love with Anna Friel. Bryan Fuller is, after doing two shows with him, a friend for life. And I really kind of learned how to do my job as an actor working with Bryan all that time. So with this one I guess going into it, I wanted to enjoy it more. be a little less stressed out about what the viewers think and be a little more like, “Well, this is what I got to offer this.” If they don't watch it they don't watch it, you know? 

It's hard with “Pushing Daisies” when it got off the air. I mean we really, really believed in that show and it was such a risk, the show that we made. So when it didn't work out and we weren't able to conclude it in a way that… it was just so abruptly the whole thing. It ended in such an abrupt way and it was such a promising kind of beginning that this time around it's just, my mind just keeps going back to Joe. Still kind of in the making that show place. And I think about “Pushing Daisies,” IBM, “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” do you know what I mean? You get this second chance in a way to make it right. And I gave myself lots of pep talks about how to do that. I wanted to really enjoy everyone that I worked with and we did. The actors, we've just worked together in such a great way, really kind of figuring this story out, figuring out the world of these characters in a complete way.

HitFix: It seems to me like your character and Scoot's character they're sort of binaries. They're set up as being kind of opposite of versions of each other. How did you shape Joe after having seen what his Gordon looked like? Did you make any sort of adjustments to sort of separate the two or bring the two together?

Lee Pace: Yeah, absolutely. I find the story of Gordon Clark very moving. This guy who failed, you know, he failed and how hard that is to get back on the horse after you've failed. And, in a way, it's a good choice for me to make to make it even harder for him, you know what I mean? Joe does not want to work with a loser. Joe wants to be a winner and he wants to work with winners. He needs Gordon to knock this out of the park, he needs him to and he will do anything to support him. But if he is not impressed 100 percent of the time there's going to be conflict. And that causes problems for each of us.

HitFix: Now, it strikes me that you have spent a lot of your acting time in sort of period things, in sort of outlandish fantasy worlds, in sci-fi worlds. Do you feel more comfortable acting when it's not the literal environment out your door?

Lee Pace: I don't really think this is much of a period piece to be honest. I mean it's only 30 years ago; it's in our lifetime. I mean there are period elements of it, of course, but I find innovation to be one of the most interesting movements of our time. Elon Musk, some of these people who are making incredible, incredible things and I want to know how they tick. I want to know what that visionary spirit is about and that's why – people are people. I've been playing some elves and aliens lately [He laughs], but people are people.

HitFix: So, you don't find yourself gravitating more towards fantastical environments?

Lee Pace: I'm an actor. I depend on being cast.

HitFix: But you mentioned the Lance Armstrong thing. Did that feel like a different process because it was so close? I assume it's slightly a period piece as well but, you now, ten years, but did it feel different because it was so close because the clothes were roughly the same or because the hairstyles were roughly the same?

Lee Pace: I mean I don't deal with clothes; I don't deal with hair; I deal with people. And of course there are different influences on it at a time that are different than our time right now and all of that stuff is details, interesting details of information. It's all in the details that creates the clear picture. All I've got is my thoughts. That's all I have to work with really is my thoughts and my ability to communicate. And that doesn't change really from time to time. 

When I was in school working on Chekhov, that's Russia in the turn of the century, late 1800s. And I remember getting into a discussion with my drama teacher about, “Yeah, but people are people. Is there a bunch of difference?” She's like, “There is, there is, that is. There is a difference in the way men behave towards women in this time. There is a difference. There's a difference.” And, you know, I guess I take back what I said earlier. There is a difference. You flip through the GQs from 1983, men are depicted differently. They're depicted differently. They're advertised to in a different way. And I found that very, very interesting. The movies that I kind of watch from the time and kind of hung up on the idea for it is of “That's cool, that's cool.” “9 ½ Weeks,” “American Gigolo,” the differences, it's interesting. There's an inspiration to be found there.

HitFix: Just the last question, is there anything you're particularly excited to see how it looks on the screen in “Guardians”?

Lee Pace: Groot.

HitFix: OK. He's the thing you're most intrigued for?

Lee Pace: Yeah, I'm really excited to see that character because we didn't get to work with him on-set. Both Groot and Rocket were never there.

HitFix: Prima donnas.

Lee Pace: I know. Assholes. So we never got to see them. Of course, I want to see how my spaceship turns out. I've seemed a little bit of the concept art and whatnot but, yeah. That movie is going to be really good.

“Halt and Catch Fire” premieres on Sunday, June 1 on AMC.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” premieres on August 1 in theaters everywhere.