Face to face with Pace

Source: Houston Chronicle
Date: September 28, 2008
By: Andrew Dansby

The Warner Bros. compound is full of sets designed to look like some familiar place. A few hundred square feet includes a New York city street, Chicago Police Department vehicles and other sets, props and facades. The lot also houses the TV show Pushing Daisies, which is supposed to look like no place else.

Daisies, which begins its second season Wednesday, is practically an ode to Crayola, and not the indulgent box of 64 colors envied by kids. Pushing Daisies gets by with the smallest pack: Three primary colors and a handful of vibrant secondary ones.

Its stars are dressed radiantly, like cartoon characters. Kristin Chenoweth walks onto a set wearing a bright orange minidress. Anna Friel is in white with bright red flowers. And the very tall Chi McBride saunters in with dapper charcoal suit pants and vest and a bright purple shirt.

In this big, bright fairy tale, Spring native Lee Pace gets to be a black-and-white guy dressed in funereal attire like the world’s friendliest Reservoir Dog.

Pace plays Ned, a piemaker who with one touch can raise the dead — from rotten fruit to people. A second touch rekills the previously deceased. What’s more, if an awakened dead person remains alive more than one minute, something or someone in close proximity then dies. McBride’s private investigator Emerson Cod hits on the idea of going into business with Ned, who has no last name. They wake the dead, get info about their murders, rekill them and earn reward money for solving the crimes.

This causes Ned no small amount of conflict.

One of the murdered is Ned’s childhood crush, Chuck, (Friel) who doesn’t receive a deadly second touch. They fall in love. Of course, theirs is a romance of Saran Wrap kisses and twin beds. Physical contact would send Chuck back to the other side.

If TV comedies go to frustrating extremes to keep their leads from hooking up, Daisies has made it nearly impossible from the outset.

So this show like no other with a romance like no other has a lead like no other. At least not on today’s tube.

The conflicted anti-hero has become de rigeur and, frankly, a little predictable. Ned, a role that earned Pace an Emmy nomination, is not an anti-hero.

“So many guys on TV are people who betray their family or do bad things,” he says. “Ned’s a guy fighting for the girl. He makes mistakes, but he tries to do the right thing.

“For a while, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that made this show different. Obviously there are lots of them, big and little. But what really makes it different is the good-hearted nature behind it.”

There’s a knock on Pace’s door. “Churros!” he exclaims with clear but measured excitement. He’d been denied them just 30 minutes earlier, but some were found, and Pace is a very happy man. Enough so to share.

He takes a bite and then finishes his thought.

“Ned’s kind-hearted. And deadly.”

Pushing Daisies is no doubt a tough sell at a time when the best-rated comedies are from a tired tradition and the best-reviewed dramas feature those good-cops-who-do-bad-things anti-heroes. Pushing Daisies enjoyed some early love for its splendid look and its off-the-wall premise.

The enthusiasm cooled a bit as the strike-shortened first season advanced. Some found its big heart to be a little precious.

It’s also an expensive show and will need to expand its audience this season to survive.

Pace is confident. He thinks the foreign rights and DVD sales have been strong for the show. He sees its placelessness as an asset.

“Put Japanese in our mouths, and we’re Japanese,” he says. “The show could take place in Seattle or L.A. It could be anywhere.”

Sure enough, walking through Pushing Daisies’ sets feels like walking through somebody else’s dream. They’re full of color and creativity, none more than the Pie Hole, the pie shop where Ned works. On TV the Pie Hole seems like it must be a computer-generated locale, with its massive pie-crust awning. But no, from the crust outside to the ’50s diner tables and booths inside, the Pie Hole is testament to creative carpentry.

Adam Kane, who directed several episodes of the show’s first season, is at the helm on this day. Speaking of the sets, the costumes, the crew, the cast, he smiles and sounds like a guy who loves his job. “Look at all you have right at your fingertips,” he says.

Everyone involved in production — writers, producers, directors, actors and so on — seems equally smitten with the show.

McBride in particular wastes no time establishing himself as an on-set needler. “Houston Chronicle, huh?” he says in his raspy voice. He chugs out a deep heh-heh laugh. “Man, Yao Ming got his (butt) kicked,” he says, referring to the Olympics.

The cast is called out to the set. Of the major players only Chenoweth is on camera. In this scene, she’s being held captive, and she and her captor trade lines with McBride, Friel and Pace, who are off-camera.

This episode is inspired by Los Angeles’ Magic Castle, a famed place where magicians ply their trade. Earlier in the day Kane and some others watch playbacks from the day before, which include guest star Fred Willard as a magician.

Since he’s off camera, Pace’s lines aren’t for the final cut of the scene, and from afar they sound dead. There’s a mumbled cadence to them, as he talks about being abandoned by his father. But heard more clearly through headphones, the nuances of his readings come to life.

Ned’s pent-up frustrations and anxieties and discomforts feel subtle and real.

“He makes it look so easy, but it’s not,” says Dan Jinks, one of Pushing Daisies’ producers. “He’s given very complicated things to say and he can say them with such humor and charm, and this easygoing manner. He always looks relaxed.”

Ask Pace about his various roles and he speaks of them all lovingly. A Soldiers Girl, in which he played a transgender nightclub singer, earned him a Golden Globe nomination in 2003. It was a big, early break.

He had a little less to do on Wonderfalls, a quirky charmer from 2004 by Pushing Daisies’ creator Bryan Fuller that never finished its first season. But he greets enthusiasm for that show with a kind smile and an “Oh you liked Wonderfalls? Awww.” Some of the facial physical comedy that Pace uses so well as Ned can be seen in that show.

He’s also particularly fond of the movie The Fall, an imaginative period piece released earlier this year in which he plays an injured stuntman who tells wild adventure tales to a young girl.

Now there’s Ned, a role he seems to relish.

Pace had a somewhat rootless childhood. He was born in Oklahoma and spent part of his youth in the Middle East, before the family settled in Spring. He’s not sure if that informs Ned’s awkwardness around people in any way.

To wit: “I bet it does. Or maybe not,” he says. He laughs. “I don’t know . . . I’m not as self-reflective as many other actors are. So maybe. Probably.”

Pace says he fell into acting. He’d wanted to be a swimmer but recurring ear infections kept him out of the water. He needed another high school elective, which is when his mother suggested acting. “I thought she was kidding.” He says “in Texas they can make anything competitive,” so he found himself in speech tournaments that included actors and debaters interacting.

Pace did some work at the Alley Theatre before studying acting further at Juilliard.

He suggests that time between high school and drama school was particularly important.

“It gave me some perspective,” he says. “You hear people in drama school ask things like, ‘When I get out do I want to work in theater, TV or film?’ When you get out you don’t have time to ask that. You have to hustle.”

On the subject of hustling, Pushing Daisies’ first season was shot at a breakneck pace because of the looming writers strike. It was one of just a few breakout shows from last year.

A less frantic pace is now in place “so you can have a little bit of a life outside the show,” he says.

He’s excited about the direction Ned is taking. Abandonment issues bubble up a lot this season. “Ned’s at his best when things are complicated,” he says.

Jinks says the season is full of complications for Ned, not the least of which are his feelings for Chuck. “He was a guy happy to fade into the scenery and make pies but she came into his life and woke something up that he’s still adjusting to,” he says. “Ned remains the emotional core of this show.”

Back on the set, Kane watches a playback from the previous day’s shoot.

Willard’s character, full of Willard’s unique panache, greets Ned. “You’re the piemaker!”

Ned has earned a reputation in his unnamed town. Sure he makes delicious pies. But he also has an incredible power that he uses to solve mysteries while dubiously padding the pocketbook of his partner Cod. He’d prefer things be more peacefully normal.

Pace, understated as always, serves up Ned’s mantra.

“I’m … a … piemaker … “