Exploring the minds of tech geniuses is all the rage in film and TV today. And the second season of “Halt and Catch Fire” (premieres Sun May 31, 10pm), AMC’s scripted drama about the genesis of personal computing and all the innovation, inspiration and failure that comes along with it, is no exception. At the Television Critics Association Winter 2015 press tour we caught up with lead actor Lee Pace to discuss his character Joe MacMillan just ahead of the 2nd season’s production. He talks the malaise geniuses often suffer when their ideas come to fruition, the idealism of the ‘80s and his career across several creative mediums.
We haven’t seen any of the 2nd season. Can you talk a little bit about how your character is going to evolve?
I’m very interested in playing something different than I did last season. I think that in life, when you’re away from someone who you know very well for about a year or so, and you see them again and you’re like, who are you? I think that’s what we see next season. Last season he lied, he manipulated, he bullied, and ultimately he failed at this computer that they tried to make. And I think Joe is really looking hard at that and going to make an effort to get real with himself. And I think the Joe that we see at the beginning of the season is different than that ambitious guy who ran over the armadillo. I’m interested in that idea, that ambitious is right next to this malaise, time just ticking by, and what’s the point… love is next to heartbreak.
Are you personally fascinated with the idea of genius?
I am interested in the idea. I guess I’m just interested in people, really. Going into the 1st season I had ideas about who Joe was, that he’s tough, he can complete things. When he gets beaten up last season he’s like, yeah, I had that coming, but I can take it. What else? I guess it’s like an onion. And then there is the possibility of meeting someone and falling in love… there’s nothing like a mirror onto the soul than having to live with someone.
You’ve done your share of film, TV and plays. What’s different about the process for you? Is there one medium that you prefer more?
It’s drastically different. The only thing that is the same is you’re playing a character. But even the process of that is very different when I think of the movies I’ve recently done, like The Hobbit and Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters are so big, and the work is wearing a mask—trying to get as far away from myself as possible. But with this character, the work seems to be taking the mask off, kind of allowing my own thoughts marry with the character in a way.
Do you enjoy the fantasy element?
I love it. I love being on stage, but you love it and hate it. At the beginning of the week you’re just like, I have to do this f*cking play again. But then there are those times that you’re just like, I am the luckiest person in the world, that I can stand up here and learn something new.
The audience is always different. Is that a challenge for you?
That’s one of the unique things about plays, is that the moment only happens here and now… I had a great director who I worked with who called theater the actor’s revenge—because when you’re on stage, it’s you. There’s no editor, there’s no director.
Your first TV show, “Wonderfalls” from Bryan Fuller, was in 2004. How has television changed since then?
There’s just so much on television… But it’s about individuals. I did two shows with Bryan Fuller. I find him to be a unique mind, and a unique talent. This is a totally different group. But I guess the big condition is there is so much stuff. And I think all of this material makes the audience very discerning. And nothing benefits an art form or cultural thing than a discerning audience. Nothing benefits a nation like an educated electorate; nothing will benefit TV more than a smart audience. They don’t buy the ticket. I guess they buy their subscription, but it’s different than movies. You can click easily from one thing to the next.
Does that up the stakes a bit for you as an actor?
I don’t know how I feel about that actually. You don’t want to enter into something like “please like me,” but you want to connect. That’s an important thing. I am most interested with this show in investigating this character as honest a way that I can, because I think that’s what’s interesting about the show—this ambiguity, this grey zone.
From the research that you did on time period to prepare for the role, was there anything that fascinated you about it?
One thing that comes up and is going to play very heavily in this season is games. How important games were to the evolution of this technology, because video games were the first computers that people brought into their home. And playing games online with other people is really one of the igniting factors of the Internet. It’s not about the technology. It’s something Joe says in the first episode. The computers aren’t the thing, it’s the thing that gets us to the thing. It’s not about the circuits and the screens—it’s what people do with them. I think that’s what made Steve Jobs the innovator that he was. That’s what Ada Lovelace in the 1800s was talking about—this marriage of what the technology and poetry and art she imagined computers will be able to… compose music, and potentially think for themselves. That kind of idealism is inspiring. And this time in the ‘80s is such a bright moment for that.
And the innovation continues today. Someone can just think of an idea and make an app for it.
Because it’s all about people and the way they live their lives, and the way they want to present themselves online right now. Whereas a hundred years ago you’re doing your hair to express yourself, now you’re creating a Facebook profile to express yourself, in a different way—and it has nothing to do with the technology. It only has to do with people, and their ability to make someone love them… or, I don’t know, get through it [Laughs].