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Lee Pace interview: ‘Halt and Catch Fire is about people, not computers’

Ever since breaking through opposite Anna Friel in Bryan Fuller’s delirious, divisive TV fantasia Pushing Daisies, Lee Pace has been a familiar face at multiplexes. A role in the final Twilight film was followed by that of Thranduil,The Hobbit’s Elven King, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s supervillain, Ronan the Accuser. His latest project, Halt and Catch Fire (named after an early computer command requiring a restart), investigates the home-computing revolution in the early 1980s, with Pace’s Joe MacMillan the slippery svengali at its heart.

Hi, Lee! I see your Twitter image is your Ronan Lego figure – how big a deal was that for you?

There are bigger deals my life, but it’s pretty cool having an action figure.

Do you play with it more than your Thranduil Lego figure?

Oh, you can’t choose favourites …

Bricking it… Lee Pace's Lego figures Thranduil and Ronan.
Bricking it… Lee Pace’s Lego figures Thranduil and Ronan. Photograph: PR

Your current project is Halt and Catch Fire – a drama about the birth of home computing doesn’t immediately sound that compelling.

I thought the script was interesting – something I didn’t know much about. I know about the tech industry after 2000: Facebook and so on. That’s the tech history we’re most exposed to – what’s happening now. The birth of it all felt like a dark spot.

Was Steve Jobs an influence for Joe, the ruthless 1980s marketing visionary you play? There’s also a touch of Don Draper, a bit of Patrick Bateman …

Yeah, I drew on everyone you’ve mentioned. Some of them I thought Joe was consciously drawing on. I think Joe is looking at Steve Jobs, [crooked stockbroker] Ivan Boesky and everyone making a difference in tech and finance at that time and going, ‘God, what is that guy doing right? How can I do that?’

The honour of code… Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace.

Is it tough to sell some of the more technical dialogue?

I understand as much as I can. These characters are experts, so I’ve given myself a pass on some of it. The show isn’t really about computers; it’s about people. People who really care about computers the way I care about movies. How they work, how they connect, which programs run them. That’s their area of creativity.

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Are you a gamer?

I don’t have time for it so much now, although I love Monument Valley – it’s so artful, like magic code. When I was a kid, I played Super Mario Bros and Megaman 2 and 3 for hours and hours, trying to convince my mother they were good for me because they helped my hand-eye coordination. They influenced a whole generation of people to make computers what they are now, through problem-solving and so on.

I found it weirdly moving when someone used a Speak & Spell in H&CF. I hadn’t heard that voice in 30 years.

I had a similar thing with that. It was such an impactful voice – very Proustian.

Is it odd to relive those years from an adult perspective?

One of things I found interesting was playing a character who is the age my father was then; seeing him as a three-dimensional human rather than just my dad. And while you could say it’s a period piece, I would argue that the history is too recent. The weird mishaps and missed connections that happen on this show would never happen now, because people have cellphones. Cellphones have ruined storytelling.

Joe is an antihero, but Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy was an out-and-out villain. Are bad guys more fun?

Bad guys are pretty fun to play, although I wanted to redeem Joe a little [in H&CF]. Joe is complicated, and he has had a traumatic life. But he’s also a smart person, and treating people badly is a stupid thing to do.

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Speaking of being badly treated, do you look back on Pushing Daisies and wonder what might have been?

Yeah, we were so unlucky. The writers’ strike took the wind out of our sails a little coming off such a great first season, and it was hard to catch that audience [again]. But more people have seen the show after the fact than any of us expected. We were proud of it, it was unique and I give 100% credit for that to Bryan Fuller. There was real love in that show, but also a perverse darkness – Bryan made those two elements work in harmony.

Were you ever concerned about getting lost in the shuffle on the big blockbusters?

No, not at all. I feel so grateful to have been a part of them – the characters I’ve had the opportunity to play are unique, and they’re very different from each other. Ronan and the Elven King are too extraordinary to worry about them getting lost.

What’s next?

A little time off. It’s been a big few years …

Series 1 of Halt and Catch Fire is on Amazon Prime in the UK now. Episodes of Series 2 are released every Tuesday, and on AMC in the US on Sunday nights

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