Lee Pace on Playing a Maverick Tech Marketer in “Halt and Catch Fire”

Source: The Wall Street Journal
Date: July 1, 2014
By: Jonathan Welsh

Many actors are known for playing heroes, villains, cowboys, cads, or gangsters. But Lee Pace seems nearly immune to such pigeonholing. After just over ten years on screen, the Julliard-trained Pace has a diverse portfolio of roles, from the buttoned-down, somewhat hapless father in the children’s’ film Marmaduke to the Elven king Thranduil in the Hobbit movies and Calpernia Addams, a transgender nightclub performer, in Soldier’s Girl.

Recently audiences got to know Pace as Joe MacMillan, a hard-charging marketer in “Halt and Catch Fire,” an AMC series set in the early 1980s during the dawn of the personal-computer market. While Joe at first seems fairly conventional, with suits, swagger, sports car, and hairstyle typical of the era, viewers soon find that pinning him down isn’t so easy.

Pace talked with Speakeasy about who Joe really is and what drives him. He also discussed how previous experience on stage and screen helped him take on this mysterious, complicated character.

WSJ: Before we talk about Joe MacMillan, I think we have to begin with Calpernia Addams. While Joe is an intense, complicated character, could he possibly be as challenging as Calpernia in Soldier’s Girl?
Lee Pace: Soldier’s Girl was my first time on a film set. I was 24-years-old and had no idea what to expect. But working on that film wound up teaching me how to do my job. Let’s face it –- it’s tough to walk on set as a woman. But the people working on the film, like the director Frank Pierson, who is no longer with us, helped me realize that you just have to do it; you know, grow up and do your job. When you are playing a character who is falling in love, you have to find something inside yourself that is real. You have to really fall apart because that’s how it happens. You have to remember Calpernia is a real person and these things really happened.

In “Halt and Catch Fire,” Joe isn’t falling in love, but there is a similar intensity in his character that makes him seem, at times, in the verge of falling apart. Is he driven by a need to succeed, to control his colleagues or just to be the center of attention?
Joe definitely isn’t looking for love. He needs the people he works with, like Cameron Howe and Gordon Clark to build his vision of a world-beating computer and he will do whatever it takes to keep them on task. He knows how to feed them, how to challenge them. But there’s no sympathy. He doesn’t care about Gordon’s family life or that Cameron hasn’t slept for days. All he cares about is that she is going to finish writing the BIOS code for the new computer.

Joe is mysterious. We seem to come out of each episode of the show with a few answers about his past, but twice as many new questions. Will we eventually find out more about his background?
I think of Joe as a machine. He is programmed for a mission, to build the best PC, and he pursues it relentlessly. He a guy who leaves the office late at night, probably grabs a sandwich, a few hours of sleep works out and is back in the office before anyone else — except Cameron, who sleeps there. But with time he finds that he is human and cannot be a machine all the time. He is fragile in some ways, as we find when more people from his past, like his father, begin to appear.

You are 35 years old, so aren’t you too young to recall the early 1980s when the story takes place? Do you feel a connection with the era?
I feel connected to that time through video games. I grew up playing my Nintendo games and my neighbors had an Atari set that I really wanted. And the technology grew up with me. Computers kept getting better as I went through school. When I went to college, I got my first cell phone. The show focuses on an interesting time when the idea of personal technology was new and I find that fascinating.

Some skeptics say it is difficult to make a story about the computer business — or nearly any business outside of organized crime — that holds an audience’s interest. Do you feel Joe and his co-workers make personal computers exciting?
I think they are working in an exciting period, when technology was moving quickly and breaking new ground. But really, the show is not about business; it’s about people. The interest lies in how Joe, Gordon, and Cameron interact. That’s where the story seeks to connect with the audience. People are always trying to accomplish something at work or in life, and that’s what these characters are doing. You have to wonder if they can pull it off. Will Joe manage to build his super computer?

The show is sexually charged, and so far Joe has had sexual encounters with Cameron as well as Travis, the young, kept-man companion of a wealthy widow played by Jean Smart. So does this mean Joe is bisexual, or is sex simply another tool he uses to get his way?
Joe will do what he has to do to keep this computer project going. He certainly didn’t fall in love with Travis, but he didn’t hesitate to do what he felt was necessary. When it comes to sex, Joe is fully compatible, again, like a machine. Still, as you get to know him you see vulnerability. We find he is not made of circuitry.

How does Joe stack up with other roles you have played? Is he ahead of Phil Winslow, the father in Marmaduke
We get to know Joe a lot better since he is the focus of “Halt and Catch Fire,” while Phil was supporting the dog. But it still makes me happy when kids recognize me on the street and say, “Hey, aren’t you the dad from Marmaduke“? And I proudly say, “Yes, I am.” Then their parents give me a certain not-so-happy look and say, “Yeah, we have seen that movie 100 times.”