A woman mourning her murdered lover. A mystical pie-maker endowed with the ability to raise the dead. A tech megalomaniac. The Elf King of the Third Realm. A tortured Mormon husband. A vampire named Garrett.
Lee Pace has spent two decades inhabiting other people’s stories, stretching and shrinking his magnetic personality and six-five frame to meet the demands of his various television and film characters. For the former competitive high-school monologuist and Juilliard graduate, the process of becoming a clone emperor in Foundation or Ronan the Accuser in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is as transformative as it is self-revelatory. “I remember thinking, Wow, I’ve done it. I’m someone completely different than myself,” he says of his first screen credit, Calpernia Addams, the trans lover of a murdered U.S. soldier in the 2003 Showtime film Soldier’s Girl. “Then I watched the film back a year later and all I saw was myself. All I saw was myself falling in love; all I saw was myself grieving inside of a different gender, in a different story.”
Pace approaches his work with the same big, open sincerity — a vulnerability he describes as “transferring onto the character, or maybe the character’s transferring onto me” — that he demonstrates during an on-camera conversation at Vulture Festival. Recalling his time on the set of the beloved (and underwatched) AMC series Halt and Catch Fire, he explains how he would routinely call the showrunners to decry their treatment of his character, Joe MacMillian, an early internet pioneer whose coldhearted ambition leads him to sabotage personal relationships throughout the show’s four seasons. Pace claims he’s no Method actor, but he readily admits to a kind of devotion to the people he plays — a sturdy belief in their ability to change their worlds and in his own ability to change them, too. Watch the full conversation below, or read on for the transcript.
What were you like as a child, and how did you first start thinking about acting?
We traveled and moved around a lot. We would be in a place for about two years and then move on, so I didn’t have many friends. A lot of the people I connected to were characters in stories I read and watched. One of my favorite movies, that I’ve probably seen more than any other movie, is Labyrinth.
I was a competitive swimmer for years. Then came a time, right before seventh grade, when I had a lot of damage in my ears. They’d have to poke a hole in my eardrum every year. It was so painful. I had to stop swimming, and I was devastated about it. I thought my life was over. You know how it is at that age. I thought I was going to die. And my mother responded by saying, “Well, you’re real dramatic! Why don’t you try theater arts?”
Was your response like, “Yeah, get me on a stage,” or did you think she was crazy?
We were in Texas at that time, and I still had a very competitive spirit from swimming, and Texas will make anything competitive. There were competitive drama tournaments, so I got into that and I fought like hell.
Were you doing two- and three-person scenes? Were you doing monologues?
There would be debate tournaments and then there would be drama tournaments where you would do about ten minutes of a dramatic play or a humorous play, and you would have to play all the characters. You would be having a dialogue with yourself. It was absurd! You would show up in these math classrooms, and one of the other kid’s moms would be the judge, and you would just act your face off!
I loved it. I was in. Then I went to this really big Texas high school that had a really advanced drama department, where kids knew all the plays on Broadway. We would pass around Stanislavsky and Uta Hagen. It was the first time I read Angels in America because at that time it was just coming off Broadway. I was exposed to all these other people I had a lot in common with, and I felt an aspiration toward these characters I would read in plays. I’d feel like, I know nothing about being a man whose marriage is falling apart, but I want to try that on for a while.
Do you remember any of your early roles in high school?
One of the big glories was Washington Square, the Henry James book. We did The Heiress for a UIL one-act play, and we took it to state. We didn’t win, but we went all the way to state, and I played Dr. Sloper. So there I was with white paint in my hair and all these lines drawn on my face. I see pictures of it and I look absolutely ridiculous. But I was serious about that role. Serious.
We also did a musical every year, and I did Crazy for You. I played Bobby Childs; I didn’t know how to dance at all and they kind of taught me tap dancing, but if I would forget it, I’d just shuffle my feet around. You know, acting!
What were your parents thinking? Did your mom have a sense, when she told you you should try acting, that it might really hit?
No, I don’t think so. But I was very determined once I started doing it, and I wasn’t good at anything else. I had no other options! I actually started working with the Alley Theatre in Houston. They cast me in some stuff my senior year of high school, so I stopped going to school and started doing that instead. My parents were probably really concerned for me, but I wasn’t listening. I think they appreciated my foolish, driven, I’m gonna do this insane thing with my life attitude.
I would guess that when you got into Juilliard, they thought, Okay, maybe he’s pretty good at this.
They did! At that point, we didn’t know much about Juilliard. My parents are from Oklahoma. I knew some things about it, but I didn’t really have a clear picture of what I was getting myself into. I was 17 years old when I went. I think it was that competitive spirit that made me go, I want to get in. And I was certain I was going to get in. I was just certain. It was the only school I auditioned for. I mean, foolish, right? It’s insane, actually, that I was pinning my future on that.
So when you got to New York, was it a massive shock to your system or was it like, It’s just more drama kids, I already know this?
I remember the drive from LaGuardia to Lincoln Center, where Juilliard is, and thinking that New York looked like Sesame Street. I’d never been to New York, and that’s what I thought. And then I didn’t really leave Lincoln Center. We would go see plays, and you could pay anything you wanted to get into the Met, and I didn’t have any money so I would spend a lot of Saturdays and Sundays at the Met.
Which is your favorite wing at the Met?
The Temple of Dendur is pretty incredible.
It’s a banger, that one.
Yeah. I mean, the paintings, the Impressionists on the upper floor, it’s just one hit after the next. I always think it’s interesting about going to the Met, having gone all these years — you have these little paths that tell their own story as you wander through it. You don’t know what you’ve come there for, but when you leave, there’s a real narrative of the day you’ve had with these masterworks.
But I never left Lincoln Center. I mean, all we did was talk about Chekhov and debate the authorship question of Shakespeare. We were such nerds!
What do you think: Was it all a man named Shakespeare, or are those plays the work of many individuals?
I think there was a him. There’s something really interesting about the idea that there was an effort behind using theater as a tool of learning for this mass of people who wanted to evolve their use of language. There’s nothing better than those words. They are the most extraordinary words the English language has ever produced.
Which is your favorite Shakespeare play?
I love Macbeth for so many reasons. Throughout the 1800s, Macbeth was the show they would put on if the theater was in financial trouble because it would sell so many tickets. I love Romeo and Juliet. I love the wit and comedy of As You Like It. There’s such a confidence to the way those characters speak to each other and use language in such a layered way.
At Juilliard, I had all this time to really inhabit those roles, think about them, talk to my classmates and my teachers, who were so knowledgeable, about what the rhyme means, what the scansion means, how you can find the ciphers inside those words. What a gift to have that little laboratory where I could think about words and characters and how they fit inside me. I haven’t done any Shakespeare since. No Chekhov, no Shakespeare. I would love to, love to! But I’m very grateful for having had the time there to do it. I did Richard II my fourth year, which was great fun. What a role.
So then you were in a couple of productions, and your first major screen credit is a Showtime movie called Soldier’s Girl. It came out in 2003. It’s based on a real-life story about a private named Barry Winchell who is murdered in his bed by his bunkmates. You play Calpernia Addams, the trans woman he was in love with. It is a lot for a first screen role. How did you prepare for it?
There weren’t many representations of trans people available at that time, and certainly none that wanted to do what we wanted to do with this movie. She wasn’t the butt of a joke; she wasn’t punished for the choice she had made in her life. I worked very closely with Calpernia Addams while we were shooting. She was there for the entire filming. So much of my preparation was just being inspired by her, trying to honor her, and mostly trying to understand her.
I remember thinking, Wow, I’ve transformed completely. I’ve just done it. I’m someone completely different than myself. But then I watched the film back a year later and all I saw was myself. All I saw was myself falling in love, all I saw was myself grieving inside of a different gender, in a different story, someone who is dealing with profound tragedy.
I didn’t understand anything about being on a film set at that time. They had to teach me what a mark was! Frank Pierson directed it, Ron Nyswaner did the script, and they mentored me on how to conduct myself on a film set.
You won a Gotham Breakout for that role, which makes absolute sense to me looking back because it really is transformative. But a trans woman is something to which not every actor would say, Yes, that’s a role I immediately want to take. What was it about that role?
I found her fascinating. I found the situation she was in fascinating. I was touched by the story of Barry Winchell, a child who was murdered by his roommate, beaten to death. They found his brains 13 feet away from him. It was horrendous. I wanted to honor him and be a part of his story. When I read the script, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
You next did a show called Wonderfalls with Bryan Fuller, and that transitioned into Pushing Daisies, which is a role that is close to a lot of people’s hearts. Watching this clip from the pilot — what does it make you feel?
That was a little moving to see. I visited Anna Friel recently in London. When we were shooting those scenes, her daughter, Gracie, was learning how to walk, and now she’s 16. I adored working with Anna. I’ve never met someone who loves life like Anna Friel. And she came into my life at a time that I needed someone like that in my life, and she did for Ned as well. What a great experience that was.
We had a chance to have a conversation about that show a couple months ago, and it seems like Bryan Fuller writes a challenging kind of dialogue. Everything moves very fast.
Yeah, it was a big network show they had very high hopes for. Then it starts coming out and then the writers’ strike happened. We had a certain number of scripts written, but our writers were picketing outside the gate to the lot. And we would join them for part of the day, but most of the time, we all wanted to keep the show going. We wanted to give them what they needed, but we had to show up to work so the series could keep going, and eventually we ran out of scripts because the strike lasted as long as it did. That was a big blow to the show, because we were gaining momentum and building an audience, and we had to cut that season short.
A weird thing happens when you’re on a network show like that and people are watching it while you’re still making it. These abstract numbers come in that somehow quantify the success of it, which means nothing to what you consider a successful thing — which is This is cool, this is making us laugh, I feel really good about the work we’re doing. But success becomes a different thing when it’s on a network. It’s like a weird meta-theater experience because when you’re in a play, you get instant feedback so you can work with the audience to have a great time. You’re all there together feeling the same thing, doing the same thing. With TV, you’re sort of doing that as well, but you have no control over it.
But we got canceled. Pushing Daisies got canceled.
I’m still upset.
I always think about it as a win because I’m proud of what we made. I enjoyed the experience with those people. In preparing for today, the thing that came into my head was all these extraordinary people I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years. These directors who have taken an interest in my interpretation of a role. I’ve worked with Robert De Niro, Steven Spielberg. I pinched myself thinking how lucky I have been to learn from people who are masters of what they do.
So that show ended and then you move into this stage of your career where you’re taking roles as small characters in giant franchises. That can be a role that you take because it seems interesting, or it’s a role you take because you don’t say no to a Marvel movie. Maybe it’s a role you take because there’s something really appealing about working with the people who are already attached to the franchise. Yet it seems so challenging to come into these massive productions and be an actor who cares a lot about his craft and is trying to make these characters feel grounded. Are these roles you look back on and think, Yes, I am very attached to those characters?
They’re similar in the kind of space they take up, those movies. But they’re like chalk and cheese — they’re all so different from each other: the way the filmmakers approach them, the characters, the needs of the movie. They’re big experiences. Lots of personalities, lots of challenges. With The Hobbit, Peter Jackson is a true visionary. He was approaching that movie as an innovator, shooting at an accelerated frame rate, shooting it in 3D with two cameras that would change to a 3D ratio in the shot. There’s a scene I have with Richard Armitage in the second movie where we’re meeting for the first time, and he’s on one set and I’m on a different stage, and we’re acting at the same time, and they’re splicing it together in real time. What a privilege to work with someone like Peter Jackson. Not to mention Ian McKellen. I did a scene on a giant elk with Billy Connolly on a giant pig! Talk about something I would never have imagined I would get the chance to do.
We just watched a clip from The Hobbit. When you were shooting this scene with Richard Armitage, you were on separate stages?
That scene was on separate stages so they could do the size ratio. That’s the other thing: Everything is a sleight of hand, like a magic trick, because we’re all different sizes. Peter Jackson invented a cinematic language on those movies. It’s really worth a rewatch just to see. There’s that scene where Gandalf is in Bilbo’s house and they’re all handing him different things. They couldn’t shoot that at the same time, obviously, because they were all different sizes. It’s an extraordinary piece of choreography and props. It’s not just cinema. It’s a whole other thing that he’s doing.
What a fun role. I remember I’d just gotten my farm at that time, and I was just walking around, like, thinking about elves!
What does thinking about elves mean for you?
Well, I believe in elves!
I’m going to need more information about that.
Well, I’ve got proof. When I was shooting The Hobbit in New Zealand, I would always go on a big hike where I would backpack and camp. I did Lake Waikaremoana, and I did the Tongariro Northern Circuit, which is about a five-day hike that takes you basically up to where they shot Mt. Doom. I was taking pictures with my phone, and on the second day I reached for my phone and I couldn’t find it. And I thought, Oh, fuck! I’ve lost my phone and I’ve got four more days. I can’t turn back; I’ve got to keep walking! So at night, when I was making camp, I’d tear apart my pack, looking for my phone, thinking, It must be in here somewhere! It must be in here! Three days go by, the phone is nowhere to be. I mean, I’ve lost it. I’m certain I left it back there. But I woke up the last night and the screen is stuck to my back. Elves. That’s elves! They said, Son, you don’t need that here! We’re going to take that technology away from you! You need to think about other things. Look around, be where you are, you don’t need that phone. It will not help you. So they took it away from me for a while. But they’re not evil, so they gave it back. Is that not proof?
So then you do a little show called Halt and Catch Fire. Can you talk about that experience?
Oh my God, I loved making that show. We had this incredible cast of people. The directors change on a show like that, so we were like, We can create a company of actors that can really do our work and investigate who these people are. We took those meetings really, really seriously. We would fight about the characters.
Kerry Bishé was so good on that show, and I did not have many scenes with her, but I knew when I had a scene with her coming up I needed to be ready because she always came to play. I was constantly defending Joe MacMillan, and I remember being like, “Joe’s right, and y’all are being unfair to him!” And she’s like, “He’s a monster and you’re a monster for defending him!” I would get on the phone with the showrunners and say, “This is not fair! You can’t do this to Joe!” It’s like a child screaming up to God saying, “Give me my way!”
You can feel that in the performance.
I felt it, I did!
It’s so much of who Joe is. Joe is railing against all this unfairness he perceives. He constantly wants to re-create the world because he is so visionary, and the cards are not turning up in his favor. You feeling unfairness around Joe, and meanwhile Joe being angry at the world’s unfairness — I think that’s part of why that performance is so fantastic.
Yeah, and I evolved with him. I remember realizing the foolishness of my arguing about that because at that point I realized no one was watching the show so there was no pressure of a hit, of repeating something that worked, because it didn’t seem to be working!
It was working!
We all liked it. AMC liked it and supported it and wanted to see us keep making it. At some point, I realized, This is not a show about winners. This is a show about people who have the right idea at the wrong time, who are unlucky, who are carrying the weight of a bad reputation. That’s Joe. He’s got a bad reputation and he can’t shake it. No matter how much he wants to evolve, people remember who he was. And that’s life. That’s American entrepreneurship. I love that show. I’m so proud of the point of view of humanity that we got to investigate during that time.
But I would never describe the way I work as Method-y. I don’t even know if I understand what that means. What always ends up happening is you kind of find yourself transferring onto the character, or maybe the character’s transferring onto me. Right now, I’m feeling really securely like the Emperor of the Galaxy.
I want to talk about Angels in America, which is a show you were reading in high school and then had a chance to be in. I remember seeing it and thinking as an audience member it demands your attention, the full length of it. To perform that over and over again must take so much out of you.
That play was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Not to be corny about it, but it was like a spiritual confrontation, to walk through that show in the shoes of Joe Pitt. He is a beautifully written character who is going through the fire. For that long period of time, every day, I was just getting the skin ripped off. And then he’s stumbling out of that play going through the greatest pain of his life into a transformation, and who knows where it goes from there.
That’s the brilliance of Tony Kushner’s conception of Joe Pitt: We see him at the moment of change, but we don’t see what the change is because it could be very many things. There could be a very sad end to Joe Pitt, or he could find himself on a dance floor surrounded by his brothers, redeemed. Who knows what happens? That part is for the audience to decide. The part I had to inhabit was him realizing that he is an unloved human and having to break the heart of the only person he loves. It was torture. And because the play is so brilliant, it’s immediate. Like, the train leaves the station and it’s going at 200 mph, and you’re just like pow, pow, pow, each scene after the next hitting you in the face. It was hard to play that character. And when Louis condemns him for being a closeted man, it got me thinking: The closet isn’t a thing people choose. It is a thing that is placed around someone. It is a thing that is done to someone. And people who find themselves in a situation like that deserve our patience and gentleness.
That was the same moment in your career where you came out. It was a New York Times profile, which is a huge moment for any actor. Do you feel like you’ve reached a point where managing your public persona feels more comfortable?
I never really thought I was in. I never felt like that was a choice I made. But the media has a way of talking about things. I feel strongly, and did then as I do now, that I reserve my right to contain multitudes, and I would wish the same for all other actors. I reserve my right to explore all the different facets of humanity through my work and in my life. Have you seen the show Heartstopper?
I have. It’s so beautiful.
Isn’t it beautiful?
It’s so, so good. And one of the actors faced a similar Tower of Babel about the whole thing. It’s absurd. I look at him, and he’s so great in the show, and all I think is, I want to see what else you do. I want to see all of the people you inhabit in your career. I actually don’t care about anything else. I don’t want to know it; it’s none of my business anyway. I’d rather take your word for it than some kind of hot take on it, you know? He’ll choose to reveal himself in the work he does, in the way he interprets characters, in the way he chooses the characters he wants to play.
One of your strengths is the ability to inhabit all different kinds of people. And as you were saying earlier, no matter how much you wish you could transform yourself into these people, some of you shows up in the role. There is something more meaningful about that way of revealing yourself.
Storytelling is such an important part of humanity. I think it’s how we agree on our values. You can imagine cavemen sitting around a fire talking about the hunt, talking about who really killed it on the hunt, talking about who ate too much meat, making jokes about it. And in that storytelling, the tribe figures out, This is who we are. Storytelling has gotten much more sophisticated now, but it is still how we all connect.
The Hobbit has a relationship with the Make-A-Wish foundation, and there were so many children that would come onto our set who were fighting cancer, or who had recovered, and those movies helped them through it. I get chills just thinking about it. These children are having the fight of their life and they’re watching a story about these little hobbits walking into uncertainty and unimaginable evil, coming in contact with orcs and elves and dwarves, and finding a courage in themselves to rise to the occasion. This is important. I’ll never be one to say, “Oh, I’m just an actor.” This is a worthy profession. This is a worthy thing to engage in because it’s how we get through moments like that together. Like during the pandemic, we were all taking in stories and reflecting on how we fit inside those stories, how we define ourselves around them, how they’ve shaped or deformed the way we think about ourselves, our identities, our future. This is crucial to us.
Thinking about how you started and where you are now, are there different kinds of roles that excite you now? Is there a challenge you still long to take on?
Oh, yeah. You know, I actually read Washington Square on the flight over here. I picked it up off the shelf and thought, Oh, this is fun, and there I was reading Dr. Sloper and thinking, Well maybe one day, maybe one day …
You won’t have to paint on the lines now!
Yeah, I’ll have earned them! He’s very fascinating, but there are so many things about him that … I hadn’t lived enough life yet. You know, the roles do get better. They get more interesting, more complex, because your life gets more complex the older you get. So I definitely look ahead and I think Yeah, that’ll be interesting.
Is there a role you long to play that you haven’t had the chance to yet? Let’s will it into the world right now.
Oh my gosh! We are in Hollywood, right? Dreams actually can come true. I don’t know in what way it would be that I could play him, but he means a great deal to me: my favorite writer, Walt Whitman. I’d hate to see the magic of him reduced into some biopic, but I always pray that there could be some form that I could work with those words because it’s second to Shakespeare. He’s the American master.