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Whether playing a raging Kree conqueror or an aloof Elven monarch, Lee Pace isn’t looking exactly himself on the big screen lately. However, that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a major force in some seasonal blockbusters.
Hot off his turn as Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy, Pace is back in the makeup chair, reprising his role as Thranduil, the ice-cold leader of the Woodland Elves of Middle-earth for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. And as Pace, star of the AMC period drama Halt and Catch Fire, revealed to SPINOFF ONLINE, it doesn’t matter how many hours he logs donning wigs, prosthetics and otherworldly regalia: he’s having the time of his life.
Spinoff Online: Working with Peter Jackson on the movies in this series had to be a truly one-of-a-kind experience. Tell me what was the surprise of it for you, once you got to work?
Lee Pace: I guess how much fun it was going to be [laughs]. I mean, Pete makes it look effortless because it actually is – he’s just trying to have a good time. He’s trying to make the movie that he wants to see. And there’s no pulling your hair out. There’s no wringing your hands. He’s cast actors that he’s excited about, and people who are just game to have a good time with it, and you know, collaborate and roll with it. And just to have fun is such an important part of this.
We’re making a movie here. Yes, the movie’s emotional, but that’s part of the fun. That’s part of the enjoyment of it, is to use what Tolkien had written and explore it, explore it within this movie. I mean so much of this movie we made in Philippa Boyens’ kitchen, around dinner, drinks, kind of talking about what we find interesting about the relationship between Thorin and Thranduil.
How much did the makeup and the costume help you in the transformation?
It absolutely helped. I got to play two characters this year, between this and Guardians of the Galaxy that are just so far from myself, and you can create symbols, work with symbols about who the character is. You know, he’s like a panther in the woods. He’s like a great, big tree. But nothing puts you in the character like looking in the mirror and seeing yourself completely transformed. I just look so different from myself in this movie with the long blonde hair and the piercing blue eyes, in clothes – which are just so different than the sweat pants that I wear every day [laughs].
So it changes the way that you move. It changes the way you speak. It changes the way people look at you when you walk onto set. So that informs the way that you behave as well, so it’s actually effortless, the transformation into the character, because I mean, people are behaving differently around you when you look at the way that the Elven king looks than they do when it’s just boring me.
And working on the Hobbit films and Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ve really entered a world of a certain type of acting that involves the green screen and digging a little deeper into your imagination as to what’s actually physically surrounding you. How have you made that transition from the more traditional acting?
Well, I actually haven’t found it that much different to it. I mean, you have to trust your director. The most key part of the way that I work is that I’m doing it for the director. I want to help them make the film that they’re trying to make, and I trust them. I trust them to guide me into the performance that they want to see, that they want to put into the movie. So it was all about trusting Peter, trusting James [Gunn] to kind of put my performance where it needs to be when you can’t see what the Dark Aster looks like. When you can’t see what the Gates of Erebor look like, you just rely on your director and trust him to bring you there. It’s all an act of imagination. It always was. So that’s that.
But then, really, it’s teamwork. It’s characters talking to each other. It is a little different because looking at an army of Orcs descending on the battlefield – and obviously, I’m not really looking at an army of Orcs, but I understand what that moment is. I understand after lots of conversations with people, and after kind of studying Lord of the Rings and understanding his cinematic vocabulary, what that’s going to be.
Is it nice to be able to step out of these big fantasy worlds and do something like Halt and Catch Fire, which is very grounded in reality?
In ways, it’s exactly the same, and in other ways, it’s completely different. Like you said, it’s just scene work, really. It’s just playing a character, but with Halt and Catch Fire, I find that the job is actually letting the character touch the truth of who I am. And revealing myself in ways that it’s just not required for Ronan the Accuser or Thranduil. You don’t get a mask, actually. It’s more important to peel the layers of the masks we all wear away, so that through the ten hours we spent with Joe in the first season, the ten episodes – we’re about to start another season – and I guess I just want to understand him better.
I want him to kind of stand naked before you, to understand clearly who this very complicated person is. He’s not an elf. He’s not an alien. He’s just a man. He’s an ambitious man. He’s a flawed man, and I just want to see that. I want to understand that. I want to feel the connection to that. And the challenge I’m setting for myself going into this second season, this kind of laying it bare, letting it be as honestly who I am as I can. And it is a challenge, after playing these characters where the work is about wearing a mask and playing a characterization of an elf or an alien. So there is a challenge to it. It’s a change of process.
How much of a research nerd are you? Did you delve deep into Tolkien, or the Marvel comics, or do you work from the screenplay in front of you?
Both. I mean, research is the fun of it – to me, I think. I want to know as much as I can about it because I like doing it. Tolkien is a fascinating writer. This world that he’s created is fascinating. But the Marvel Universe is so complex and so creative, so it’s not like arithmetic that we’re working on here [laughs]. It’s really fun. Like, we’re learning about the computers for Halt and Catch Fire, learning about that moment in time. It’s like an endless amount of research you can do. But anything that can kind of get you there, it’s just enjoyable and fun.
And given that you were buried under so much makeup as Ronan, would you be interested in working with Marvel again, finding another character where you’re not so hidden?
Oh, I love those guys. I love those movies. It was such a privilege to be a part of that world. I would do anything. I’d be hidden completely again. I mean, I’ll do anything that they want to do. I mean, you just get so few opportunities to be creative like that. I’ve been lucky to have two this year, but I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I’ll do anything they want to do, and no one doesn’t like the guys that do those movies. It’s just so creative – Kevin Feige and the whole team, they just make fun movies. I mean, with big characters in them and real performances. I’ll do anything, anything they want.
From talking to different actors that have worked on different Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, besides the great professional fun, there always seems to be this deep personal journey that everybody goes on and comes out of a great place. Did you have that experience?
Through Middle-earth, you mean? Every movie kind of you reflect the story that you’re telling. And this story is the story of a little Hobbit crossing over to the other side of the Wild and coming back. It’s there and back again. And we all feel that. We all kind of felt that, getting on the plane, landing in New Zealand – like, “Jesus. What is this stunning place?” And going into costumes and kind of learning who our characters are and finding ourselves looking at Ian McKellen dressed as Gandalf the Grey, and then having a drink with Ian McKellen later that week and hear his incredible stories of his life in the theater, and hearing Billy Connolly, who I could listen to tell stories and jokes for hours and hours, and kind of taking a walk on the beach with Evangeline Lilly. I mean, it just takes on that kind of “there and back again” quality. You have this kind of incredible adventure, and then you go back to Hobbit den.
But it’s like that with every movie. Your life kind of absorbs a little bit of the themes of the thing that you’re doing in a way that is really interesting. I’m grateful that the themes of this movie were kind of so uplifting. I do feel like I’ve kind of come out of it with a little bit of courage and a bit of – I trust myself as an actor a little bit more because I had someone I respect like Peter Jackson enjoying what I was doing. You know what I mean? Enjoying the character that I was coming up with. It’s a very special experience going to New Zealand to make these movies.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens Wednesday nationwide.