When Lee Pace was a kid, his father bought his mother an Adam Osborne personal computer. It was advertised as a portable system, weighing in at a feather-light 24 pounds. “My mom was convinced that it was a fad and a waste of money,” the actor recalls. “Now she’s addicted to her iPhone.”
Pace has been thinking a lot about the evolution of personal technology lately, thanks to his starring role in AMC’s new drama “Halt and Catch Fire”, premiering Sunday, June 1 at 10pm. As Joe MacMillan, a slick former IBM executive, he blows into Texas’s Silicon Prairie in his fast sports car and is holstering an even faster sales pitch. Joe seduces his way into Cardiff Electric, a smaller software company he aims to use as a vehicle to develop a personal computer that is less expensive and better than IBM’s. In those days, that was a dangerous proposition.
Joe knows exactly what he’s doing and what the stakes are. But he also sells confidence, and sells it well, which is how he’s able to enlist the help of Cardiff drone Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a brilliant engineer knocked sideways by his past failures, and young computer prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), in spite of the fact that what Joe is doing to could destroy everyone around him.
In reading this description of Joe, one might think that AMC is trying to introduce another well-dressed, emotionally flawed hero to its audience in order to help ease the pain of losing “Mad Men”. There’s some truth in that assessment; the network needs to replenish its drama stable. If “Halt” not only ignites an audience but inspires young professionals to start wearing skinny ties with their suits, all the better.
But Pace warns against thinking of Joe as Don Draper’s replacement. “When I think of how far Joe comes in this first season, I almost don’t even recognize the man in the pilot, “ he says. “I think of how different he is at the end, how much this experience has transformed him.”
In a recent phone conversation, Pace chatted with us about the Joe/Don thing, the show’s examination of the personal computing boom, and why he turned to one of Richard Gere’s signature 1980s roles as part of creating his “Halt and Catch Fire’s” Joe.
IMDbTV: One of my first thoughts upon watching the premiere was that I can foresee people looking at this and saying, “It’s ‘80s Don Draper” – that is, at first blush. But moving deeper into the episode, one can see that your character has a much harder edge. What would you say to someone who might be tempted to compare Joe MacMillan to Don Draper?
Lee Pace: I would say, stick around until episode three, and then answer the question for yourself. I’m such a huge fan of that show [“Mad Men”]. It’s a true, true achievement of fiction. But with this, the subject matter is different and the man is fundamentally different. Yes, it’s a man in a suit in an office who is competent at what he does, and doesn’t necessarily get along with everyone that he’s working with. There are certain similarities.
And I felt the same way when I read [the script] the first time, when I read the pilot. But the more I investigated this guy, and the more I looked for influences not only in the tech world, but within that time, it’s very different. I was looking at not only some of the young hustlers who then became tech titans but, you know… some of those corporate raiders who defined the culture of the ‘80s. Get more. Make more money. Have more sex. Go harder. Go tougher. That’s kind of the path I started down with Joe McMillan.
IMDbTV: You were quite young during this era. … What was your earliest memory of interacting this kind of technology ?
Pace: …I remember video games…Video games play a really interesting part in the role of technology – not only because people our age were playing those video games, but it became such an integrated part of who we grew up, and how we thought. Then video games graduated to [computers] being in school.
…We’re a part of that generation of people that grew up as computers grew up, basically. In a way, those machines have been designed to make our lives happen. Whether it be learning, or playing, or connecting with one another. Our generation, in particular, has a very interesting insight into the world of personal technology, which is specifically what Joe is interested in. Somehow getting this technology into the hands of civilians, for lack of a better word. Out of business.
You have to understand, in the late ‘70s, computers were the size of refrigerators and they served massive companies where people would do their business at terminals that fed into these computers. This is a turning point, where the computers got smaller and smart innovators like Steve Jobs and many, many others…everyone was trying to figure out a personal computer.
That’s what Joe is interested in. Joe is trying to connect the dots between the video games, between Atari and the fact that people want these machines in their homes. Back at IBM, everyone is buying these things. Every year, millions more people are buying them.
In the pilot when I say the line, “The computer’s not the thing, it’s the thing that gets us to the thing”, what Joe is excited about is the change in the culture.
IMDbTV: It’s an interesting series both in terms of its content and, for lack of a better term, stylistically. It’s taking this era that’s seen as very sexy and at the forefront of what will become our modern technological age, and yet, all of these things that we take for granted now are seen at their very beginning, and actually very clunky looking. But Joe, he looks like he could live in the current era and not necessarily be a step behind.
Pace: Well, it’s not that distant a history, really. It’s in our lifetime. Joe McMillan is the same age my father was in 1983, which is the age I am right now. That’s an interesting opportunity, personally, for me to get to play. But here we are in a time when, because of innovators like Joe and his contemporaries, innovation has become one of the most exciting things that we live with. The people who create these technologies – Steve Jobs in particular, because he’s one of the most successful at it and the most exciting ideas came from that man – are rock stars. This little time, I actually found it to be a very unexplored dark zone in our recent history. I didn’t really know much about this turning point in our history, and it’s such a significant change.
IMDbTV: What was the most interesting thing that you learned about the corporate politics going on behind the scenes of this boom, when there was still room for other companies besides IBM and Apple to make their mark?
Pace: Oh God, it’s such a huge subject. But when I mentioned those corporate raiders, that’s something that is in Joe’s blood, that idea that you have to be the winner. That there’s only one winner, and it’s gotta be you. Because if it’s not you, it’s going to be someone else. And nobody really cares how you got there. If you are uncompromising, if you win, then people look back on your actions and judge you as a risk-taker, bold and ahead of your time. If you lose, you’re just an a–hole.
Joe knows that, and he comes ready to fight in every way. He’s ready to fight IBM, he’s ready to fight Gordon. He’s ready to push Gordon to make this machine what it needs to be. Because there’s only going to be one machine that makes it into the history books, and that’s the machine that Joe wants to make. This is before the Macintosh came out.
IMDbTV: Is Joe going to be the kind of guy who people are going to, in some ways, aspire to be? You know how influential television characters can be, for better or for worse.
Pace: I’ve learned a lot about Joe. I’ve learned a lot about myself, playing Joe. Some of the research I did was looking at leadership theory… And I think Joe, in his blood, has got some very good skills at being a leader and some very questionable skills. But the fact is, he is effective. He is going to reach his goals. He is going to complete the mission he set out to complete at any cost. That is the basic component of Joe. He’s that machine… He will remove obstacles, get around them and change the rules to make sure that the mission is complete. Because he believes in it. He believes in the mission more than he believes in anyone’s feelings. He’s not going to validate someone’s hurt feelings when he’s got a million people who need a computer that’s faster, cheaper and smaller.
…Some part of me responds to me by thinking, “Wow, that guy’s a winner. That guy’s a real leader.” And some part of me responds to him and thinks, “That guy is a sociopath.”
IMDbTV: Yes, there’s an element of Joe that is almost devilishly seductive, especially in his interactions with Gordon. He inspires him to do what he does best and to become the person that he wants to be. But you know that he’s only doing it as a means to an end, and he’s going to ditch him as soon as he can. That must be interesting to play.
Pace: It is. It’s simple. I always think about this computer that they’re endeavoring to make is Joe. He is … designed to add value to your life, just like a computer. He is designed to do the things that you need done to make you more money, to get it done quickly, to operate on all systems. Fully compatible. But there are bugs in that machine, and the program is still new and flawed. It’s in that zone that I believe we found the really interesting story of Joe.
IMDbTV: Let’s step back for a bit, even outside of the series, to talk about what’s been going on with you. You’ve had a really interesting couple of years, bouncing back and forth between some incredibly high profile movies. There was a time when all of the movies that you were in at that moment, that were released and in theaters, was in Top Five [of highest grossing movies at the domestic box office of the day].
Pace: Oh yeah! That was, not last November but the November before that . I remember my mother taking a picture of IMDb’s Box Office [listing] and saying, “Lee, this is unbelievable!” I had Lincoln, The Hobbit [ An Unexpected Journey] and Twilight. Totally a moment when I was like, “Oh my god…I’m going to remember this.”
IMDbTV: That’s great! So I have to ask, with that experience in movies and this – you’ve done a lot of television, like “Pushing Daisies” and “Wonderfalls”– which process do you enjoy more?
Pace: I mean…I’ve also done theater. I’ve done a play, like, about every other year. The more I do this, the less difference I see between them all. It all becomes interesting in different ways, but it’s still always playing a character. All the characters are different, obviously. Joe is very different than the elven king, who is different than Ronan the Accuser. I mean, that’s really the fundamental difference.
The difference between TV and everything else is, and I find this fascinating, you’re still making it while everyone is watching it. Like, when you’re doing a play, you’ve got the performance, you’ve got control of the performance, and you’re in the same room with your audience. There’s the immediate kind of communication happening.
IMDbTV: And you have the social aspect with television, too.
Pace: Which is so fascinating, especially in our time of TV right now. Yeah, the way people talk on Twitter, Tumblr, live tweet during a show. Awfully exciting, because the show is one thing, but just like Joe says, the computer isn’t the thing, it’s the thing that gets us to the thing. The show is one thing, but the way the culture can respond to a show is something completely different and very exciting.
IMDbTV: One more question. Were there any particular films or television series, when either when you were building this character or dipping into the series experience, that informed your performance or your approach to “Halt and Catch Fire”?
Pace: American Gigolo. Nine ½ Weeks. What else? Oh yes – The Triumph of the Nerds. That was an incredibly informative documentary about this world and the way that these personal computers evolved.
IMDbTV: Hold on, let’s go back for a minute…what is it about American Gigolo? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that movie.
Pace: Watch it again, you’ll be amazed. First of all, he’s just about the coolest thing you’ve ever seen. I don’t know, there’s so many things. I loved his performance – he was so cocky and so seductive, and yet so needy, so needy of the people around him. He kind of puts on this mask – there are these gorgeous suits, the Armanis. It was that kind of quality of cool. I’m a far cry from Richard Gere in that. But I think about these people, and I imagine Joe, in his own self-creation, seeing that movie and saying, “Yeah, that’s cool. I like that.” Seeing those suits he wore and saying, “I’m gonna get myself one of those. I want that effect on people that he has. I want my hair to look like that.”… It’s definitely a movie you couldn’t imagine being made today.
AMC’s new drama “Halt and Catch Fire” premieres Sunday, June 1 at 10pm.