Decoding Halt and Catch Fire’s Enigma with Lee Pace

We log on with Lee Pace and talk the ‘80s, eccentric geniuses, and the changes for his unpredictable Halt and Catch Fire character.

While not quite gaining the same attention as other network juggernauts like Mad Men, The Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire has slowly been growing into one of the most satisfying prestige dramas on the network. The ‘80s-set series follows the tech exploits of the upstart company, Mutiny, as they try to stake their claim in the computing world. The third season sees the plucky programmers relocating from Texas to Silicon Valley to  truly test what this team is made of. 

Lee Pace plays Joe MacMillan, the series’ constantly reinventing renegade. He’s almost like an anti-Don Draper. He’s an unpredictable eccentric who’s constantly towing the line between genius and masochist. The show’s latest season puts Joe in his most exciting position yet, and one that places him in a very interesting role in relation to everyone else on the show. I got to talk to Lee about the new territory his character explores the season, the show’s slow expansion, and who exactly Joe MacMillan really is. 

DEN OF GEEK: Joe’s gone through so many re-inventions at this point. What does his new role in life mean to him and will it stick?

LEE PACE: Joe is a very fluid person. He operates on all systems. He’s one of those people that if you met him when he was ten, you’d have no idea what he’d be like when he’s sixteen. He’s just constantly changing and I think he feels the power of being able to change. He can change the way he presents himself. He can change how other people perceive him. I think those are probably the big sources of his problems. I look at the first season and I saw that character that was always wearing a red power tie and speaking to people in a way that would make them compelled to do something that he wanted them to do. I just saw someone who didn’t know them self. Someone who’s trying to wear a mask. He’s pretending. He’s trying to be one of the big boys, but now I think he actually is, and I think he knows it. 

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I think he’s dealt with some real heartbreak and been burned really bad, but now he’s got a corporation that’s built around his ideas. He’s got the support of an entire company behind him now, and he’s considered a leader in the Silicon Valley because this antivirus software also brings these democratic ideas to the table that he’s always been interested in. He’s always been about taking technology out of the corporations.

It’s definitely exciting to see him played as this sort of Steve Jobs-like visionary now where all of these ideas of his are finally connecting with an audience.

Yeah! The thing about Joe is that he’s built a company on the anecdote that Gordon wrote for the virus that he created. This antivirus stuff isn’t even really his idea! I’ve always thought that the thing about Joe—especially this season—is that he’s didactic in a way. He’s not a very interesting person. He surrounds himself with interesting people. That’s what he did with Gordon and Cameron. He knew that he wasn’t the interesting one and that’s why he needed them. That’s very much what’s happening this season, but now he’s at the top of the hill so there’s lots of people to surround him. 

I also think he’s become more cautious than he’s ever been. Something that he has learned personally is that if you open the door and step out of your house you actually start to connect with people and you become at risk of someone coming in and destroying everything. So I think who he is right now is someone who’s been hurt very recently. He’s very lonely. His marriage has just fallen apart and he’s had to start all over again. 

There’s a telling scene where Joe goes on about how he believes security and protection should be free, but that we don’t live in a perfect world. What do you think that speech of his says about his ideals and how he operates?

I think he’s trying to work with his investors, and he wants to promise people something, but he also has to make his investors happy so he doesn’t get kicked out. The thing is, he doesn’t have the idea yet. Until Ryan shows up he doesn’t know how to receive the idea. He never has the idea! Before that Gordon had the idea. He needs Ryan to inspire him because he’s not excited about this antivirus software. He wants to do something bigger but he has to still make money for the company. He doesn’t want to get fired! He’s trying to play nice because he has a real problem with making a mess of things, which he’s trying not to do this time. 

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You mention Ryan, and I think one of the most fascinating things about this season is that mentor/protégé relationship between Joe and him. Do you see Joe as more of a mentor this season or someone that’s still using others to propel himself forward?

I don’t think he’s trying to propel himself forward, but rather push the technology forward. That’s what he’s trying to do. I think he uses himself because he doesn’t have the technology. That’s what Ryan’s for. He knows that he can get the thing done—he can get the big, complicated project done—but he just needs someone to bring it to him. So he needs to keep Ryan around to get the idea. I think he just loves Ryan. I think he thinks Ryan is great. He’s smart, he’s ambitious, he adores Joe. Obviously they just want to hang out and see what’s on each other’s minds. That’s what they’re doing in that apartment. They’re up all night long trying to create technology. They don’t care about the stupid antivirus software, they just want to figure out something awesome to do. It’s like me throwing a stick to my dog and him going crazy for it. That’s Joe and Ryan together, and he loves Ryan for it. 

One of the aspects I love the most about the show is seeing how the series almost re-appropriates milestones from the tech world. Is it fun to be playing with all of that history?

Yeah, it’s so fun. It’s really, really fun. This season in particular when I saw what the characters are getting into—and then at the end of the season when I saw what they get into—it’s like wow. I learned things, too. You use the Internet every single day but I now actually get to see the steps that went into building it and the process of how it got to where it is now. 

So much of the first half of this season has Joe separated from the rest of the cast. What was that dynamic like?

He is segregated, and it’s a drag because I love working with everyone. In the story though, he’s still very much around. He’s calling Bosworth. He knows what everyone’s doing. I think deep down he believes they’re all “his.” He found Cameron out of the back of a classroom so anything she comes up with is basically his. She hates that idea, but he thinks she’s hers. And Gordon, too! “I love you guys, but that’s why you’re mine.”

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It even ends up giving more impact to the scenes were you do collide with Cameron or Bosworth because of how infrequent they are.

Yeah, absolutely. I love that scene between Joe and Bosworth at the party—and it might be our only one together all season. But it’s definitely Joe looking at him and being like, “I remember when you treated me like shit and now here you are at a party with my friends.”

It’s crazy to see Gordon and Joe continuing to get tangled up with each other and working together. What do you think it is about the two of them and the poisonous relationship that they share?

Well it’s just unfinished business. I guess it’s poisonous on one hand, but Gordon’s also Joe’s best friend. Gordon is a genius and I think Joe believes he has one of those golden minds. The other thing that Gordon has though is a bunch of problems. He will bungle things. If he and Donna Clark hadn’t been sloppy for the plans with the Giant, then Mutiny would have never been made. They let their plans get out, the computer got copied, and they were done. It’s that simple. That’s all that happened. The Clarks were idiots in Joe’s mind. 

On the other side of things then, what do you think of Joe’s relationship with Cameron? Are they worst people for each other, or the best?

I think that they’re very honest with each other. Last season when she uses the disk to crash the program, you hear her say, “What if we were to have held onto each other instead of fighting? I wonder what that would have been?” I think that’s just the truth of their situation. There was another way to do this but they’re not capable of doing it. I think Joe can’t get enough of Cameron. He thinks she’s a genius, inspiring, and a powerful person. But he also feels a huge amount of guilt because he knows how many times he’s lied to her or manipulated her. Now she doesn’t trust him and there’s nothing that he can do about that. Sure, she cares about him, but she doesn’t trust him. I think in Joe’s evolution of a person that when he leaves for California he’s like, “I’m done with bullshit and I’m not going to carry a grudge anymore or get involved with your business. I wish you well, I forgive you, it’s good to see you.”

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Lastly, is there a particular scene that you’re especially excited for people to see this season?

The last episode is really something else. I don’t want to say too much but it’s just big and satisfying.

Halt and Catch Fire’s third season returns to AMC on August 23rd