AMC said goodbye to Breaking Bad last year, and they're already prepping next year's Mad Men swan song. With the loss of the two series that put them on the map for award-winning original programming, it's time for a new series and a new star to shake things up on the network. Enter Halt and Catch Fire and its leading man Lee Pace, who's not letting the media pressure get to him.
"I'm a huge fan of Mad Men," Pace told Yahoo TV as we sat down with him to talk about his new '80s-set drama about the dawn of personal computers. "I think that Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner… it's such an achievement that they made that show. It's a very special fictional creation. But it's nothing like this. Nothing."
And while Pace gave props to his personal TV favorites like Breaking Bad and Netflix's House of Cards, he didn't take this new gig just to follow anti-hero suit: "Joe's a character that I've never seen before on television," he said, referring to Joe MacMillan, his renegade former IBM exec character who sets out to beat the computer pioneers at their own game. MacMillan decides to reverse-engineer the IBM PC with help from his ragtag team, engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis).
"I think he despises everything they stand for and the IBM corporate culture… you hear these crazy stories, which are true, of people in black or blue suits, modest coat and tie, white shirt, certain kind of haircut. It was the picture of corporate. I think he sees that and says, 'That's f---ed. It can be better than that, it can be more than that, and it needs to be. It has to be.' That's why he picked people like Gordon and Cameron to go on this journey with him because he's not interested in doing it that way.
"I want there to be something inspiring about him. It's not about the money. It's never about the money. Money's not interesting. Ideas are interesting, culture is interesting, and that's what he's hoping to be part of.
"He's just risked everything to make this happen. This is the big moment of his life, this is the make-or-break, he's got it all on the line. He's taking this huge, huge risk, and he knows it will be transformative — he just doesn't know how. He has an idea for how he'd like it to be transformative, but life is life, and Joe is not one of the guys on TV that always succeeds. There are those guys on TV that've got the gun, they know 12 languages, they always get the girl. Joe's not that guy. Joe is a hustler."
And Pace is at a similar point in his career, returning to TV after a five-year hiatus, taking a chance on a third television series, while his film and theater career are stronger than ever. He's also treading into uncharted waters, creatively, considering his two previous shows, Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, were both created by the same man, Bryan Fuller.
"He's so weird. He's so special. And a true creator," Pace said of Fuller, now running NBC's Hannibal, whom he calls a friend for life. "He's a creator of things that would never exist on the planet without the mind of Bryan Fuller. When I was doing these conversations launching Pushing Daisies, I had to explain what that show was about. [Laughs.] 'Well I can touch dead people back to life, but they can only live for a minute, and if I touched them a second time then they would die forever. Annnnd that's the show. Oh and I bring my childhood sweetheart back to life but I can never touch her again.' I mean… it sounds like a Bollywood movie. [Laughs.] But when I read it, I was a little bit like, 'This thing is nuts. I like it.' And Wonderfalls too — tchotchkes would talk to Jaye [played by Caroline Dhavernas] and kind of encourage her to do things that would have unexpectedly positive outcomes.' He's nuts."
But as different as Ned the Pushing Daisies piemaker; Aaron Tyler, the easygoing yet existential crisis-prone brother of Jaye in Wonderfalls; and Joe MacMillan are, Pace's excitement to dive into a new character was the same: "I read it and I was like, 'Yeah, that guy's a psycho. Let's go! Let's do it!'"
Since Daisies went off the air in 2009, Pace has been spending his time doing theater in New York and acting on the big screen, starring in big budget Hollywood movies, a large number of them with a sci-fi bent. From playing a vampire in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 to his turn as Elven king Thranduil in The Hobbit, and tackling true villain territory as Ronan the Accuser in this summer's superhero blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, coming back to TV isn't the only change for him: "I know, I'm finally playing a human again!"
Pace is admittedly the kind of actor who works best when he can find some common ground with the characters he's playing, but he's not so serious about his process that he can't make a joke. "I mean, I've got a little bit of Ned in me — I'm awkward. You play a character that long and it draws something out in you — but after doing Guardians of the Galaxy I'm now much more evil than I ever thought I would be. Super, super evil. [Laughs.]
"Joe is a character that I've got enough ideas about — I feel like I've met that guy before, or versions of that guy with different faces. I've never met a Ronan before. [Laughs.] And I've never met an Elven king before."
[Related: 14 Things We Can't Wait to See on TV in 2014]
Those prominent roles haven't turned Pace into your typical movie star — in fact, he's quite the opposite, opting to reside in New York instead of Hollywood, and never appearing in tabloids. Dressed in a cozy grey lightweight sweater and a tan corduroy jacket, with a black-on-black Yankees baseball cap he removed while indoors, Pace politely squinted into the sun when we moved our chat outside, just to keep eye contact. He had to be told — demanded even — to put his sunglasses on before he'd oblige. "See, that's LA. I would think you'd want to look someone in the eye, you want to know what they think," he said without a hint of insincerity.
In researching this new role, he had the chance to pick the brains of some real-life tech visionaries, which is something he genuinely delighted in. "I met Steve Wozniak — want to see something cool?," Pace said excitedly as he pulled out his wallet — which was thin and obviously strictly maintained — and revealed a substantial metal business card that was engraved and had a grid of numbered holes punched in it to represent a phone number.
"I've got Steve Wozniak's business card! It's the coolest business card you've ever seen, right? Look at the number — in the old days that's how you'd program a computer. It's so cool, right? What a life. He loves the show — he said, 'That's exactly how it was!' He's a guy who happened to fall into this insanely hot industry. Tech CEOs have become like rock stars. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates… these guys are fascinating people, simply because of the things that they make. They think about what people want before they want it."
Pace was just 4 years old in 1983, the year Halt and Catch Fire is set, but he could draw from early memories and stories of his family's first computer. "My dad bought an Adam Osborne computer — do you know those? 1983. There's a great picture of my mom sitting at it with a code book open — he obviously thought it was so novel that he took a picture of it. This is before everyone had an iPhone and was taking pictures of everything in the world. She thought it was a waste of time, a waste of money, a fad, and it would go away in no time. And now she's got the phone in her pocket. That's what Joe sees already — he sees the future of this technology. And he doesn't have faith in IBM or Apple or any of these other companies to do it right. So he's going to do it right. He's going to make a machine that is faster than anything else, cheaper than anything else, and smaller than anything else. Which is still the goal today."
While Pace rattled off details about new technology he became privy to while researching this role — like the ski goggles he just bought that have a camera attached to them to film tricks, or contact lenses being developed that double as screens to pull up detailed stats about anything and anyone you're looking at — it became clear that the subject matter excites him as much as the character.
As for the evolution of his character after the pilot, Pace said Joe is all systems go. "The pilot episode is the tamest one we've got … He's totally different than he was in the pilot. It's shocking, actually. And in some ways I feel like he's learned some things that served him well. Those first introductions of who Joe was… they feel so far away now. I look back at the pilot, I saw it again recently, and I was like, 'Who is that guy?'"
But where Pace lights up when teasing details or talking about possibilities for the character's future, Joe remains an enigma in the pilot — a man who's obsessed with a very singular vision. "It's all his life is. That apartment he's in… it's just a chair. There's no life. There's one chair. He just sees this machine. He's a machine. The series becomes about 'Is there a soul to this machine?' It's created by people — do creators not imprint a little bit of their nature onto this thing that they've made? Joe's a machine. He's a machine that creates value. He completes the task that's put in front of him, and he executes. He doesn't let things stop him. He figures out solutions to problems. But there are bugs in machines, and it's those bugs that he's most interested in. "
Pace is truly excited to see where things could go if and when the series gets a second season: "Where we leave him at the end of this season, you really feel like anything — anything — is possible."
But human-computer comparisons and teases that "anything is possible" don't mean this is going super sci-fi, too. "Oh god no! I say that he's a machine, but he's still flesh and blood, he's still an organic thing that needs love. He's not firing rockets out of his fingers," Pace said with a laugh.
"It's the beginning of a new endeavor for Joe — it's that simple. And we had the same experience making the show. I didn't know anyone on the show, and neither did anyone else really. Everyone was kind of jumping into the same thing — who knows if we'd get along. Who knows if it'll be any good? Who knows if anyone will watch? We might make big fools of ourselves.
"You only become a visionary after the fact. If Joe succeeds then all the terrible things he's done to succeed were risks that paid off. If he doesn't succeed, he's an a--hole," Pace said with a smile. "He doesn't know if he's right — and actually everyone around him is pretty certain that he's wrong — so he's got a big fight ahead of him, and he knows it's a big fight."
Halt and Catch Fire premieres Sunday, June 1 at 10 p.m. on AMC.