In between takes during a scene in Halt and Catch Fire’s final season, Lee Pace comes over and shows me a chimpanzee’s penis on his phone. He zooms in on the “pencil thing” thrust between the bars of a cage as the male chimp grinned widely. He then explains that he went to a chimpanzee sanctuary supported by Judy Greer’s husband, Dean Johnsen. The chimps were in heat. He chuckles softly and then goes back to shooting the scene — a somber one where his character Joe MacMillan has decided to end his company and is saying farewell to his employees.
With that, another venture ends, but another begins. Joe MacMillan’s career over the past four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire took on a cyclical quality of birth, destruction, and rebirth, so it’s fitting that Joe ends the series how he began it, by saying to a roomful of students, “Let me begin by asking you a question.” Only this time, he has lost his Gordon Gekko bombast, and is gentler and more generous. After Pace wrapped that scene, we sat at his character’s old office and discussed the end of the show as the crew broke down the set outside.
My understanding is that you started hosting table reads at your house for the show.
We all always were very close. When we started, I wrote this email to everyone and I was like, “The writers are on the West Coast. The directors come and go. So we should really make a company of people here, like actors.” I come from theater, and that’s my favorite part of doing a play, just rehearsing it. And so, we do a read through every Sunday. We would get together and read the episodes that we were working on. It just started this conversation: We’re talking about the characters and decoding them and getting to know each other in a really close way, so we’re making connections between our lives and the characters. Like, Scoot [McNairy, who plays Gordon Clark] has become one of my best friends. It finds its way into the work in a really satisfying way that I’m really proud of. I really like that. We just embraced the opportunity of getting to tell a story over a long time and getting to really know each other, as you do when you get to work together for a long time.
What did you think of the way the show rebooted itself for season two? Were you part of that conversation?
Well, every time we finished a season, I never thought we would get picked up again because not many people were watching. And that’s one of my favorite things about the show. It doesn’t have the obligation like if a bunch of people were watching it, so we had the opportunity to reboot it. And that’s kind of written into what Joe is about. He changes the way he looks, and he’s one of those people that, if you see him after a couple of beers, he’ll look different. He’ll be talking about different things. He’ll be hanging around different people. He’s a mutable thing, and he doesn’t really have much of a persona himself. He depends on being around people who are smarter than him and more capable than him. He’s got a magician’s alchemy: If we mix all these things, I have the feeling something good is going to come. An intuition. That’s what he does. And he’s right about things, but he’s not able to execute the way that it should. He is his environment and the people around him. He becomes what they need.
He’s like water. He takes the shape of the vessel.
Yeah, exactly. That’s a good way to put it.
What do you think Joe actually does?
Well, I think Joe believes it’s all him, first of all. His answer to that question would be, “I do everything. I’m the one who created everything, I’m the one who hired everyone. I’m making the web browser. I’m making an anti-virus software company.” Because he understands the big picture. He understands all of the parts that go into making the project. Like, with the computer, he needs Gordon to do one thing, he needs Cameron to do one thing, and then he’s got 100 other people who are doing other components for making the computer happen, and he delegates all of the pieces to people. With Comet, it’s the same thing. This is the tool that people need, and he just goes about solving the problem. It seems like Joe doesn’t do anything, but he does everything, actually.
The thing about Joe, too — and this has been hard to play, actually — is that he loses. He’s a failure. He believed passionately in what he was pursuing, and he had every reason to believe each time around that it was going to be the thing that hit. Like, this was going to be the success. He had no doubt about it. He was just hopeful and optimistic every time around, no matter how badly it went before. This time around too, he just expects the best out of it, and it fails. That’s weirdly hard to play, because there’s always a moment in the season when I just don’t understand how you’re doing this to him. Because I hold the Chrises [Cantwell and Rogers, the co-creators of Halt and Catch Fire] responsible for the fate of Joe. I don’t understand this; it doesn’t make sense to me why this is all falling apart right now. But that’s that feeling of failure. It’s out of your hands.
Do you feel like the ending is a fitting one for him?
I do think it’s fitting. I don’t think that it’s another twist, this ending. I don’t understand the whole story, but that’s life in a way, you know? Not everything makes sense. They’re unreasonable people. The relationship with Cameron is unreasonable. Like, there’s no reason to think that’s going to last forever, and so it falls apart in the way that it does. Joe just is finished with her. This person in his life is done when she treats him the way that she does in those last moments. It never felt permanent this season. She always kind of had a foot out the door. She needed a safe place to be after her divorce, and he was happy to do whatever it took to make her stay as long as she was going to stay. But I think he’s got too much dignity and self-respect to be someone’s doormat.
He loves her and wants her in his life, but at a certain point, he’s just not going to beg her to stay. If she wants to go, she can go. He’ll be fine alone, you know? So in that respect, it makes him sad. But at the same time, he’s like, “If you wanna go work with Donna, you two are well-suited for each other.”
It did feel a little bit like Joe was being put out to pasture.
Yeah. I definitely had that feeling when I read it, and that made me sad. But that’s life in a way, isn’t it? That’s what I mean about him failing. Like, he never expected to fail. He knew how good his ideas were. So it’s surprising that it didn’t work out for him. It’s really heartbreaking for him to see people he thinks are less qualified or are grabby and ambitious get the success that he has fought so hard to get. So, that story I find very interesting. The fact that when he’s done, he’s done. With Gordon dead, he’s not going to pursue technology anymore. There’s just no point. I like the questions that are asked at the end of the story now. That feels very appropriate and interesting. The questions that we’ll ask about Joe MacMillan: who he is and what he’s about, seeing him in the role that he’s in, choosing to do this. That feels right to me.
When Joe describes his vision, there’s a very sexual energy as he’s trying to convince people. Did you feel that?
Yeah. I think he wants people to do what he wants them to do, you know? He’s not really interested in what their ideas are. Well, no, that’s not true. He is. But he wants people to come onboard to his thinking. He wants them to be in service to his world. So I guess there is an element of seduction to that, like, “Drop the reality that you see and come into mine. Let me take control of this, and you, for a little while.”
He’s like, “Come into my boudoir.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t intentional, but I think you’re right about that.
His bisexuality also felt like he wanted to encompass everything — or that’s how it read to me.
Yeah. He’s a mutable person. I mean, the way the Chrises described it when they were adding this aspect to the character, they said he operates on all systems. I guess that’s the way that they understand it. But I think he’s just curious about people and he likes to be very intimate with people that he believes in. It makes sense to me that he doesn’t feel limitations. He doesn’t necessarily require monogamy. He’s a questioner and a disrupter. That’s what he does, so those institutions of the heteronormative world are just not of interest to him. He doesn’t feel subjected to those rules; he doesn’t feel like he owes anyone an explanation for it. He doesn’t feel like he’s taking a political role in it. He’s going to just do what he wants to do. If he finds someone sexy and interesting, he’s going to pursue them. If he finds their mind interesting, he’s going to want to know more about it and sleep with them and get close to them. And I think that’s what it’s about. That’s what sex means to him. I think love and intimacy are very important to him and also very challenging for him.
You’ve said that playing Joe in the first season was personally impactful, and I was wondering why or what it was about it.
Yeah, I don’t know. This show fell on a complicated few years in my own life, personally. And you think about it with the character in a way that … I don’t know. Not that I was trying to keep the character separate from my life, but you end up using it as kind of a laboratory to think about things that are going on in your life. It makes me put my head in my hands to think that, because he’s such a sociopath in a lot of ways. But he’s not really. He’s actually just unlucky. And misunderstood. There’s this expectation that he has to fulfill a certain role, and he rejected that. That was just not something that he … I don’t know why that came up.
Having to feel like fulfilling a certain role?
In the first season, he felt like he had to be like Steve Jobs, for example. In the second season, he felt like he had to say, “This is who I am now, and I have to play this role for a while.” And that kept him from understanding who he was, you know? I think it took Ryan dying for him to be like, “Oh, this is who you are. And it’s all you are. You’re just a human. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to succumb to this pressure that you’re putting on yourself.” That all felt very relatable to me at this time in my life. It just did. I don’t know if I did that to the character that was written, or if it was there and it just made its way into my own life. But when I think about where he ends up now — much humbler and much more gentle with himself and generous to other people — I definitely feel close to that with the character and relieved for it. Certain things that I thought were important are just a little less important now.
Did you feel like you had to play a role as you, Lee Pace, the person?
Yeah. I think everyone does, don’t they? You figure out a version of yourself that’s like, “That’s who I am. I’m that person who wears that shirt, and these are his friends, and that’s what he does all day.” I think there’s a side to that with everyone. And there are moments in our lives where that form becomes obsolete, and you feel like, “That’s not necessarily the right fit for me in my life right now.” And I’ve felt that over the past five years. I’m a grown-up now. I’m a grown man now. I’m, like, 38 years old and it catches me by surprise. I’m like, “How did this happen? When did this happen? How did I get to be a grown-up?” It gets me all the time. I’ll be driving and I’ll be like, “I’m an adult now. I’m actually an adult.” It sounds insane coming out of my mouth, but I tell you it happens all the time.