ABOVE: LEE PACE IN NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2014. PHOTOGRAPHY: VAN SARKI/BRIDGE ARTISTS. STYLING: DIANNA LUNT/ART DEPARTMENT. GROOMER: JOANNA PENSINGER FORD FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS USING SKINCEUTICALS. STYLING ASSISTANT: ANA LI MRAOVITCH.
Lee Pace knows how to pick a project. In the last few years alone, the 35-year-old Texas-raised actor has appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Lincoln, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit franchise, and Guardians of the Galaxy. He also fronts AMC’s hour-long drama about the birth of computers in Silicon Prairie, Halt and Catchfire, which will film its second season next year, and recently wrapped Stephen Frears’ Lance Armstrong biopic Icon (he plays Armstrong’s former team manager Bill Stapleton).
Over Thanksgiving break, Pace spoke to his good friend Jim Parsons, with whom he acted in The Normal Heart on Broadway.
LEE PACE: Hey Jim.
JIM PARSONS: Hi Lee, how are you?
PACE: I’m good. Thank you so much for doing this.
PARSONS: Are you kidding? Any chance to talk to you is always an opportunity worth taking. Interview is here. We have spoken. They do exist, but if you need them please call, otherwise I guess I’ll be your guide. Good luck to you.
PACE: [laughs] God help me.
PARSONS: Where are you right now?
PACE: I’m in Austin.
PARSONS: So you’re with your family.
PACE: Yeah, I am. I came down to my folks’ farm. Just got in last night. It’s always lots of kids, lots of dogs.
PARSONS: When you are in Austin with your family, do you work? I don’t mean acting, although you have that covered fine. Do you bale hay or feed cows?
PACE: Well, there’s no hay or cows, but my dad is always working on projects for me to do. He’s got lots for me to carry to and from. He usually has some equipment that he either needs me to watch him operate or he needs me to boss around, whether it’s a new tractor, sawmill.
PARSONS: But you’re handy. It’s one of the things I like about you.
PACE: Oh, thanks.
PARSONS: I thought I should say that upfront, for what little insight it might give people to you, that you are one of my favorite people I’ve ever gotten to know through work. I would say you’re the favorite, but I feel like that would alienate certain people so I’ll just put you in a group of favorites. You came out and stayed with me and Todd [Spivak, Parson’s boyfriend] in L.A. for a week about a year after we did Normal Heart, the play. I never, at any point, got ready for you to leave. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a guest stay and I wasn’t like, “Well, thank god that’s over.” Even if you love them.
PACE: I’ll be honest, Jim, I didn’t want to leave.
PARSONS: Normally I don’t like to talk to people in the morning and that was oddly my favorite time while you were there— having coffee in the morning.
PACE: We’d try to talk news stuff, have coffee, and then Todd would come up.
PARSONS: There were these periods of silence where you’d kind of journal while I was in my morning routine or whatever and then we’d talk again.
PACE: This is us.
PARSONS: It was good rhythm. We have things in common, obviously, like Texas. We both went to the same school district for high school and our birthdays are really close—not in years. I’m your elder, don’t forget it.
PARSONS: So we have those things in common, but we’ve got these differences, like you being handy, more outdoorsy. Frankly, I think you’re more fun than I am. This is true. Do you not feel the same way?
PACE: You’re very levelheaded. Sometimes I can get hotter, more angry about something. I think you avoid this path generally.
PARSONS: Yeah, probably, but that’s because I don’t like confrontation. It’s not because I’m some sort of princely royalty that manages to keep his emotions in check.
PACE: Yeah, I don’t like confrontation.
PARSONS: We’ve had few to none, which is nice. How did we actually meet? Do you have any idea?
PACE: I feel like we meet before either one of us had gone out to L.A., in New York. It could’ve been an audition or something.
PARSONS: I don’t know what we were auditioning for, but I think you had just booked a pilot that was going to be a remake of The Monkeys.
PARSONS: Oh yes.
PACE: I think I was auditioning for it. Did I book that?
PARSONS: Well, maybe you didn’t, but we were talking about it.
PACE: I remember our paths would cross on the Warner Brothers lot because I was shooting Pushing Daises, and you were shooting Big Bang Theory and the stages were next to each other.
PARSONS: But it was Normal Heart when we got to really talk-talk.
PACE: That could not have been a more unique or extreme experience.
PARSON: And funny, too, because it was a situation that normally you don’t dream about, which is sharing dressing rooms as an adult. In this case, I count myself almost as lucky with the dressing room situation as I was to get cast in that play. It was you and John Benjamin Hickey, and on the same floor Joe Mantello and Ellen Barkin. There couldn’t have been a more entertaining group of people to spend the run of the show backstage with then on that floor.
PACE: It was unbelievable. We would play music until about five minutes before the show would begin—we had a disco [to] Nicki Minaj—and then the show would begin and it was a very serious play. Then the play was over and we’d turn up the music again and people would be backstage.
PARSONS: You could see the jolt in them between what had happened on stage and coming backstage where the music was playing and some sort of alcohol was being offered to them. But there was no choice in a situation like that. You can’t swim in that 24/7—those feelings.
I’ve heard—it’s been given to me in notes, I’ll be honest with you—that Peter Jackson cast you in The Hobbit after he saw your performance in The Fall (2006). Is that true?
PACE: That is true. He and Fran Walsh, his wife, and [writer and producer] Philippa Boyens, they saw The Fall and figured I’d be good for it. Then we all met in New York and discussed it and they chose me to do it. It’s going to be very sad that it comes to an end this year when we show this final piece.
PARSONS: Are you sad about it?
PACE: I think it’s bittersweet. It’s this incredible group of people and we’ve come up with something that we’re all very proud of. And it’s the end of a long, long journey. Peter Jackson has achieved something very impressive, and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.
PARSONS: When we were working on Normal Heart, I at one point told you, “You get involved with the best class of projects!” I don’t remember if you were about to do The Hobbit or if you just finished one movie, and were about to do another.
PACE: I was about to start working on it.
PARSONS: And during our run you got cast in Spielberg’s Lincoln. And then at some point, you actually did a print ad, which is—let’s call it what it is—commercial work, and goddammit if it wasn’t for Tiffany’s. I was like, “He can’t even slum it and do commercial work like a normal actor; it’s the highest class.” It’s a combination of you being you and, I think, the old adage of work gets work.
PACE: Oh yeah, it absolutely does. We’re actors, we depend on being cast. It’s one of the things I love about my job: it’s my job to help a director tell the story, to just be willing to help. What do I need to do for you to make your story more clear?
PARSONS: Absolutely. Somebody young asked me recently what makes a good director. The only thing that I can come up with is it’s the person who has the clearest understanding of what the story is we’re telling. There’s no feeling like knowing that the guy or gal in command has a crystal-clear vision of the story and won’t let you tell it wrong. You can feel free to fly at that point, I think, and be as creative as you want because you’ll get reigned in or pushed in the right direction if it’s not leading from b to c, from c to d, for the sake of the project.
PACE: It’s an incredibly creative person like Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg or George C. Wolfe, who did Normal Heart. He had such a clear understanding of the space of the world these people were facing was. He collected this very diverse group of actors and we were all a part of that one unit.
PARSONS: Let’s go back in time, because I feel like we probably should. Did you really go to prom every year of high school?
PACE: I have never mentioned that before. I don’t know how people know that.
PARSONS: Does that mean it’s not true?
PACE: I did. It’s true.
PARSONS: You were asked to prom freshman?
PACE: I got asked. There was this senior girl who asked me my freshman year. Then second year I went with the girl I was seeing. I’m trying to remember how I ended up going my third year. I feel like we crashed that year. I had been twice before.
PARSONS: Did you ask someone to go your senior year?
PACE: I left school at that point. I may have gone anyway. I feel like I was a little child back then.
PARSONS: That’s what’s so impressive about this. I was a child back then too, and I figured that one of the many reasons I wasn’t asked to a prom until I went to my own was clearly, I didn’t exude some level of confidence that you had. People were thinking, “I’d like to take that freshman to prom.” That’s insane! Does it sound crazy to you looking back?
PACE: Probably. I wasn’t 17 years old.
PARSONS: Does that mean that you didn’t graduate in the normal way?
PACE: I left school my senior year to do a play at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. Then, while I was doing a play, I auditioned for Juilliard. I got in over the summer and they told me, you have to graduate high school to come here. You don’t need the SATs, but you do need to graduate high school. I finished over the summer through correspondence. I was missing, like, two credits.
PARSONS: What play were you doing at the Alley?
PACE: I was doing this presentation of Greek plays. Gregory Boyd directed it. It was great. It was my first professional job. I was so grateful for them to have taken a shot on me at the time. I was like a kid in this very grown-up cast of actors and I guess it started me on the road. Then I went to drama school. After a certain point, it was the only thing I knew how to do.
PARSONS: I did not feel my life commitment yet to acting or theater at that age, and I’m curious when did you, or do you ever remember not feeling that commitment?
PACE: I suppose I was more interested in it. I was fascinated by the way people transform their ideas into a performance.
PARSONS: Did you have any reservations or fear leaving to go to New York to go to Julliard?
PACE: No. They were such great opportunities. A new experience and fascinating people. I felt like I belonged for the first time—I found my people. I was a big reader all through high school and would relate to the people I read [about] in books and the authors that I was excited about. And then suddenly I found that community of people among real people. [laughs] People who I could have a conversation with. That’s one of my favorite things about doing this—you just meet the most fascinating people. You meet people who are interested in humanity. And the really good ones—the really good actors, the really good directors and writers—it’s beyond the plays and beyond the movie. It’s more about life and the way people think, the way people fall in love, the way they cope with the tragedy of death and knowing that they’re going to die.
PARSONS: You’re going to guest star on The Mindy Project. I do follow her on Instagram, so now I’m hoping that she’ll post. Have you already finished it?
PACE: No, no, we shoot in a couple weeks. I just find her hilarious. And it’s really incredible what she’s done with that show. She’s super cool and she called and asked if I could do this. And it just happened to be when I was in the middle of The Hobbit press tour stuff and we’ve worked it out with the schedule in L.A. in the middle of Peter [Jackson] getting his star on the Walk of Fame and the L.A. premiere to shoot the scenes I need to do. That’ll be really fun. I’m really looking forward to it.
PARSONS: She must take a picture of you for Instagram.
PACE: I can’t believe Instagram. People love it.
PARSONS: I enjoy it.
PACE: Once or twice a week I’ll pick it up and look at it.
PARSONS: We also have less filed away online then the youth of today. I think about it every time I post something on Instagram: “Well, here forever. Alright.” That is a natural segue, if we want to go there, into your wonderful performance in Halt and Catch Fire—the early days.
PACE: We go back to our second season in January. I’ll talk to you later about what we have planned for the second season—it’s going to be really, really cool. The show becomes less and less about computers the more we work on it and think about it and develop it. That’s always a part of it, because that’s what the characters are interested in.
PARSONS: Right. That’s the key word: the characters. For a TV show—maybe for any project, but certainly for a continuing TV show—it is the people, the characters, that people want to see.
PACE: It’s about this American identity of the hunger for success and ambition and failure. We live in this culture where everyone’s just trying to get it right all the time: You’re trying to get right with God, you’re trying to be the right person, you’re trying to do this right, that right. And no one ever will. I really applaud the writers for writing these characters who are in the thick of trying to weed through the competition of their ambition versus their heart and their fallibility and their inadequacies and mediocrity and their desire to be more than they are. It’s the greys on this show that I find most interesting. You find yourself trying to categorize things—it’s this; it’s that—but it’s not that. It’s a grey thing that we all live through with the passage of time and our faulty record of memory.
PARSONS: And like you say, anything that I can think of that any human is trying to do, is aim for some sort of “perfection,” and that’s not going to happen.
PACE: The show is about innovation, the march into the future. It’s impossible to think about that without really weighing the lasting impact of the past and the complicated conditions of the present.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES IS OUT TODAY, DECEMBER 17. JIM PARSONS IS AN ACTOR WHOSE RECENT CREDITS INCLUDE HBO’S ADAPTATION OF THE NORMAL HEART AND WISH I WAS HERE. HE ALSO STARS ON THE BIG BANG THEORY AS SHELDON COOPER.