The critically acclaimed and lamentably under-watched tech startup drama Halt and Catch Fire returns tonight for its second season on AMC. Set during the onset of the 1980s techincal revolutions, the series stars Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé, as a pack of ambitious computer engineers striving to invent the next major tech breakthrough in the wake of IBM’s personal computer. Season two picks up more than a year and a half after the team saw those dreams crushed at the hands of the superior Apple Macintosh and their ringleader Joe MacMillan (Pace) figuratively burned everyone who trusted him when he literally burned their achievements to the ground.
Back in January, at the Television Critics Association press tour, I had the opportunity to sit down with Lee Pace for an exclusive chat about Halt and Catch Fire season two. The cast hadn’t even begun filming at this point, so it was a spoiler free chat where we really got to dig into the character of Joe MacMillan, what makes him tick, and how he’s evolved since the season one finale.
How does what you’ve seen of this seasons scripts shape up to what you were handed in the first season?
LEE PACE: In this season, there’s a very different Joe. Last season I really wanted the impact of the failure to transform him. Last season Joe was kind of a hungry, ruthless wolf scrambling around the sides of the pack and I’d like to see him transform, address his qualities; that he lied, he cheated, he manipulated, and ultimately he failed. I think he’s strong enough, he’s tough enough to look at that and have a real talk with himself about how to be a part of this thing that is greater than him. They’re on the eve of one of the most significant revolutions in human history. We’re still in the middle of it! And he feels that, he sees that, he wants desperately to be a part of it. He knows that we’re all a part of It. I think this season is very much about getting right so that he can fulfill his potential, but as with all things in life, as we learned last season – the goal last season was to build a computer has the balls to build, and he did build it, he sold it, and he shipped it, but it wasn’t…things don’t ever work out the way you thought they would. They never do, and that’s the point really.
And he had such a hustle before, how is that failure going to affect the way he conducts himself?
PACE: Yeah, he does. I like that hustle aspect to Joe. I think it’s really interesting. I like that he’s tough and he can take a punch. Like in episode 5 when he’s beaten up, the end of episode 4, for acting outside the rules, and I learned a lot about Joe in that episode. He’s like, “Yeah, I probably had that coming, but I can take a hit. I can take it, what else you got?” I like that about Joe and I think that’s always going to be a part of who he is, it’s going to serve him well at times and it’s going to not serve him well at times, but I think he’s learning a different thing now. He’s focused on an authenticity that I’m really interested in. It’s true enough, really. It’s life.
I’m the same age as Joe and I find in my own life that there’s a certain amount of, “You’re a grown up now, Pace.” It’s all moving in one direction. I’m not saying these are middle-aged blues or anything, because I’m 35 years old and Joe is 35 year old, but there is an interesting moment of crisis when one is in their thirties. Especially someone like Joe; he’s not married, he has no kids, he’s been playing this role for such a long time, I don’t think he knows who he is really. I don’t think he knows. He doesn’t ask those questions. He asks – Who do I have to be to get what I want? The answers to that question are very different to the answers to -What do I want? What am I good at? What do I love? What makes me happy? He believes, in the coming season, what I’m interested in playing anyway, is that in answering those questions he understands what of value he has to bring to this culture.
As you said, he doesn’t have a family. He doesn’t have a wife. Is there going to be a growth in his personal life this season?
PACE: There is. There is. The story this season is that I’ve got a very significant person in my life, which I think is going to be interesting for Joe. Look, you really learn about yourself when you’re in a relationship, I’ll tell you that [laughs].
Can you talk a bit about the dynamic on set between the cast? You have such a wonderfully talented and friendly cast. How do the shoots go for you?
PACE: We love working together. At the beginning of last season, right before we started, we were like, “You know what? The writers are in LA, the directors are going to come and go, but we have a company of actors,” a very old fashioned kind of theater company of actors. We get together, we read the scripts, and basically that’s drinking and smoking and talking about who these people are and the parallels we can draw in our lives, talking about each other’s characters, talking about what we’ve learned about the time.
That’s where the work is done actually, is hanging out at my house or Scoot’s house, just all of us talking about the story, Scoot talking about what’s going on in his home with Donna. Stirring up that real stuff. I think absolutely, all of us, by the end of the season that the way that we like to work on this show as a company is very personally. The work is opening up, kind of sharing that hurt, that ambition, the excitement of it in a real way.
This season picks up a decent chunk of time after the conclusion of season one. Do you know why they chose to pick up the story that way and how that shapes the second season?
There were time jumps in the first season that I found interesting. I like an asymmetrical story. I like a story that’s not linear. I like, in life you don’t see someone in six months and suddenly you’re like, “What happened to you? You’re not who I thought you were.” That gap actually tells you quite a bit about the person. There is a gap between these two seasons and the Joe that we saw last season and the Joe that we’re going to see this season are very, very different people and it’s that difference, that gap, I think it’s true to life.
It must be satisfying as an actor to get to grow with a character like that.
PACE: It’s playing the moment, really. It’s just the moment. You don’t have to play the before or what happened after, you don’t have to play the disaster of last year. The only thing I have to play is, “I’m going to get it right this time. I’m going to know what it’s like to be in love.” [Pauses] I don’t know, we’re staring down this season and it’s kind of like I’m looking at this huge journey we’re going to go on together and when you work in the way that we’ve been working on it, it’s hard not to take it personally and feel like I’ve just been through this ordeal [laughs]. But one of Joe’s thing is that this should be fun. So that’s the way I’m approaching it this time. I’m really embracing the idea that Joe is embracing a reset, a restart. But at the same time, the truth is, people don’t change. People don’t change in life. He’s a sociopath. He always will be. No matter how much he wants to be happy, he’ll always be sad.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Chekhov, actually, when approaching this season. For a couple reasons, one of which is that great love is right next to the heartbreak in Chekhov, ambition is right next to failure, there’s a hope for future and the tide of the past, there’s inertia and malaise. With Three Sisters they spend the entire play saying, “When we get to Moscow things will be different. We’re going to Moscow. We’re Going to Moscow.” And they never get there. And that’s the point, actually. That’s the point. That’s life. That’s how it works. In Uncle Vanya there’s this – Am I boring you to death? [Laughs]
No, I love Chekhov! And I’m curious how that thematically ties into the series for you. But no, not boring at all! I adore Chekhov’s work.
PACE: I’m obsessed with it too, and when I was looking forward to this season and thinking – there’s things about last season that I didn’t connect with, how do I get in there? I went back to all that work I did in drama school with Chekhov, and that’s it. What makes those plays, I think, so profound is that just as this story is told right before the eve of a technical revolution, that story is told right before the Russian revolution. Now we look at Russia and it’s very very different than it was back then. The essence of the people are the same. These are Russians before a revolution, we are Americans before this revolution. [Laughs] I’m always a little cautious about revealing those thought about Chekhov, because I’m like, God, is this going to be the most boring thing?”
Not to me! I love it.
PACE: I find it interesting. I love those characters. I find them enigmatic and that’s why I think that cannon of plays have survived, five plays, because they’ve become these riddles. Great actors want to unravel who Sonya is, they want to find out, “that’s what I have to offer.” That’s how I feel about Joe.