Some actors can experience a successful career playing various characters, but somehow you always see them for who they are, the actor playing the role. And then there are others that seamlessly inhabit their roles, and you let go of who they are as people and simply engage with their character’s wants, needs and narrative trajectory.
Lee Pace is a particular talent that perfectly fits the latter description, with a versatile range of diverse and interesting roles to his name, and the rare feat of succeeding in TV, film and theatre simultaneously. Even at a handsome 6ft 5in, with an arresting presence, he somehow manages to disappear into his roles.
Born in Oklahoma, the 42-year-old actor lived a nomadic childhood between America and the Middle East as his engineer father traveled for work. Aged 17, Lee was accepted at Juilliard in New York, and then landed his breakout performance right out of drama school as a transgender showgirl in ‘A Soldier’s Girl’, for which he was nominated for his first Golden Globe.
It’s easy to get lost in Lee’s make-believe worlds, such are his deft skills, honed over two decades, whether on Broadway in 2018 playing Joe Pitt, a closeted lawyer in a personal battle to come out in Tony Kushner’s multi-award winning ‘Angels in America’, or as the humble and adored Ned in TV’s cult favorite ‘Pushing Daisies’. His other notable credits include parts in ‘The Hobbit’, Marvel’s ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ movies, Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, Tom Ford’s ‘A Single Man’, as John DeLorean in ‘Driven’, and Joe MacMillan in the long running ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ series, all the while balancing appearances in numerous on and off Broadway plays.
Most recently Lee, a true aficionado of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, has brought life and a sinister yet charismatic danger to the screen in playing galactic tyrant Emperor Cleon (aka Brother Day, one of three ruling clones) in Apple TV+’s acclaimed new series ‘Foundation’, based on the classic 1951 science fiction novel by Issac Asimov, which has just been picked up for a second season.
Meanwhile, in his downtime, this modest and measured man has been busying himself working the land, spending his lockdown time on the upstate New York farm he purchased as his retreat in 2010, tending his garden, his crops, and happily putting his tractor to work. This is no superficial facade, but rather a man committed and engaged, who learnt how to carve wood and literally built his own home, a reflection of how he has built his celebrated career, from the ground up.
Here, we ask Lee the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are for our latest ‘Who The F*** Are You?’ interview.
Who the f*** are you?
What a riddle that is. I’m not the same person I was five minutes ago, nor am I the same person I will be five minutes from now. Constantly shifting sands. I’m an actor. Shifting sands would be my answer.
I’ve got a government name that is Lee Pace. I am legal. But I wouldn’t know how to sum myself up in that way. I’m a very modest person. So I would want to say, well, I’ve done this and that, and here is my resume and stuff, but I don’t know if that would answer your question.
The thing is, when I read this question the first time. I thought of this David Brooks book, ‘The Road to Character’. It’s basically about what is character? And it talks a lot about how, in our contemporary life, we put so much value on: What do we have? What is our resume? But that doesn’t really speak to who you are. It doesn’t actually speak to what your character is. That doesn’t speak to what someone will say about you, at your funeral, for example. What kind of man you were.
How are you feeling right now?
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up all over. Born in Oklahoma, and then my father took us to the Middle East, and we all bounced around there for a while. And then we moved between Houston and Louisiana. Then I went to high school outside Houston, Texas. And then I moved to New York when I was about 17.
And I would say, yeah, a very happy childhood. I’m very close with my family. Probably, it was all the constant moving around, because there was a period of time when we weren’t in the same place for more than a year. So we very much just had each other. My sister is 11 months younger than me, so we’re very close. It’s the only childhood I knew. So it would be inaccurate if I tried to say it was all rosy, but I feel pretty fortunate.
What excites you?
New ideas, new perspectives, fresh things. Ways of thinking that I hadn’t anticipated. And I have to say, coming out of this pandemic, it was such a time of being able to reflect. And in that reflection, to take on fresh perspectives.
What scares you?
Well, what scares everyone? Death.
What is your proudest achievement?
About 10 years ago, I bought this land that my farm is on [in upstate New York], and I built a house. I wasn’t working. And I learned how to carve a timber frame. I carved the frame throughout the summer, designed it, did the math, carved it. And then I got a bunch of my friends together right before Thanksgiving. This would have been right before 2011. And we pegged it together and pushed it up over a weekend. It wasn’t that big, but it was a timber A-frame. No nails. In designing it, you have to figure out how you’re going to get it assembled, without a crane and any big equipment. We just did it with pulleys and ropes.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
A few years ago, I did ‘Angels in America’ on Broadway. And that was, I would say, professionally, personally, the biggest mountain I’ve climbed. A challenging role, a challenging environment. I would do it again in a heartbeat, absolutely. I mean, it was hard but I definitely came out of it learning a lot about myself, learning a little bit more about people. So yeah. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but it was hard. I lived through it and I think I understand my craft a bit better for having shown up every night.
Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
If I’m going to single out a single person, I have to say my father. Throughout my whole life, he has always just been there, quietly guiding my thinking in one way or the other. When I got this farm, he absolutely helped me figure out how to manage this land. He helped me pick out my tractor. He taught me how to drive it without rolling it over — which is very dangerous with tractors, you don’t want to end up underneath one in the middle of a field. So I have to say my dad for this, because he’s constantly got a perspective that will shift my thinking.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
Walt Whitman. I mean, he’s not a fictional hero, but my favorite, favorite writer. I would also say Ursula K Le Guin and many of the things that she weighs into the world. She writes science fiction, and her short stories are also very cool. There’s a book she wrote [in 1974] called ‘The Dispossessed’. And I would say that the hero in that would be one of my fictional heroes. It’s about these two different worlds. One of them is very much like our world, and the other is a world that has no laws or money. And there’s an emphasis placed on your individual sovereignty and contribution. So it’s kind of about this anarchic commune.
Real life heroes? God, isn’t everyone sort of a hero? If you’re getting through it, you’re just waking up every day and doing it.
I can actually give you a more specific answer for this. I was very touched over the pandemic by all of the nurses and the health care professionals who continually put themselves in harm’s way to take care of other people. One of my neighbors down the street, Maddie, who I’ve watched grow up, she’s about to enter college and she wants to become a nurse. And after this past year, it’s moving to hear her say, “That’s what I want to be. That’s what I want to do with my life.”
What is your favorite piece of clothing in your wardrobe?
It always shifts around, but I’m wearing three of them right now. I’m wearing this hoodie that I just got by Aimé Leon Dore, which I love. Underneath it is this like old Tiva t-shirt that I’ve probably had for about 10 years. And there was this great brand named Childs… [created by] Rob Childs. Every day, I’m still wearing Childs socks. Every day, I wear something by Childs. It was kind of a very easy to wear version of Carhartt.
What music did you love aged 13, and do you still love it now?
I wouldn’t even know what I was listening to at 13. I was probably listening to whatever was on the radio. It was before I had really developed a taste of my own. So I was probably listening, honestly, to whatever Top 40 was on the radio, which I very rarely listen to now. But what I’ve been listening to lately, basically on repeat, is Pink Floyd ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘The Wall’. I listen to them for the workouts. The way I work out, lately, is pretty relaxed. Put a little Pink Floyd on, and think about what I want to think about.
What is the most inspiring book you have ever read?
I would say ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
My answer to a favorite movie is always ‘Kill Bill’, but that’s because I keep saying it. I haven’t seen it in a long time. A movie that has left a lasting impression? I mean, I did watch ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’ again recently and I was like, ‘This is such a great movie!’ It’s wicked. It looked so cool. It’s such a stylish, interesting movie on all levels.
What is your favorite word or saying?
“It’ll be fine.” Yeah, it’s the way I calm myself down, if I get anxious. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry, it always works out. It’s okay.”
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
Oh, I hope they comment on my dazzling sense of humor! No, I hope that I’ve lived the life that I’ve given enough to other people, been selfless enough, that that is remembered. That I’ve made a good impact on the people I’ve come in contact with. And I’ve contributed in such a way that I’ve left the world a better place for being a part of it.
And finally, a quickfire five favorites…
I’ll say my tractor. But I was going to say… I had this great ’83 Chevy Shortbed Pickup that was so great. Bright blue. Whoever I bought it off had just souped it up, lifted it up. It was like a 13-year-old’s wet dream. So loud, it drank gas. I couldn’t justify driving it around anymore because it was so bad on gas mileage, but I loved that car. I gave it to a friend of mine because I couldn’t take care of it anymore.
I don’t really pay attention to sports. I like the Olympics every four years. That’s the sport I can give my attention to.
I love steak, like a filet, the way we cook it in our kitchen. On the skillet, and a roast sweet potato and some lettuce from our garden.
Honestly, I don’t really have one… I use whatever I’m given. When I go into Tracie Martyn, they give me some stuff to take care of my skin