Stage and Screen Actor Lee Pace Talks Shop

Lee Pace had me at “Hello.” Or, rather, the film equivalent, which was 2006’s The Fall. Spectacularly strange and visually arresting, that movie made an instant devotee out of me. Though the tall, dark, and handsome actor had been in the biz for a few years prior to this weird and wonderful discovery, I’ve followed the 33-year-old’s trajectory ever since—and re-watched The Fall more than a few times.

Fast forward to 2012, which has been especially packed for Pace, featuring roles in Lincoln, Breaking Dawn: Part 2, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Indeed, it’s safe to say that he’s had a good year, especially considering all three titles hit theaters (for all intents and purposes) simultaneously. This triple whammy of sorts simply must bode well on the success scale. 

From indie flicks like A Single Man and Ceremony, to blockbuster franchises, this guy’s got that special something that attracts casting directors and keeps crowds captivated. Beyond the big screen, New Yorkers can currently catch Pace as Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini in Terrence McNally’s Golden Age, a play directed by Walter Bobbie with performances through January 13 at Manhattan Theatre Club. Age audiences are granted a backstage pass to listen in and look on, taking in behind-the-scenes goings-on during opening night of Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani, at the ThéâtreItalien in Paris. Part comedy, part drama, the two-and-a-half-hour-long performance paints a living picture of what it might have been like to be there. 

The charming and approachable Pace was sweet enough to take time before taking the stage recently to talk about a few things. From his privileged yet hectic career to memorable moments, from his stance on New York to his “heartthrob” status, Pace provides a refreshingly sincere look at his life. 

So, you’ve had a super busy year…
It has been a busy year. I’m really feeling it now that the year’s coming to an end. These movies came out this past month and now we[’re] doing eight shows a week [for Golden Age]. It’s been a lot of work, so I’ll to be looking forward to a quiet new year. But, it’s been great. It’s good to be busy. There’s nothing I like more than being busy. Good characters to play and good people to work with. There’s been a lot of that this year, so I couldn’t be more grateful.

Is there any reprieve during the holiday?
Theater schedules through the holidays are relentless. I guess I figured we’d still be doing eight shows a week, but it’s tough. There’s so many shows. But, it’s good. It’s a privilege to be able to do the show for people. That people want to come is awesome.  

Given your recent roster, are there any standout moments of 2012?
Shooting scenes with Steven Spielberg in the Congress (sic) [for Lincoln], that was pretty incredible. Big scenes, lots of extras, a couple cameras moving. You really feel like, Wow, I’ll remember this. It kinda doesn’t get better than this. Then, I went to New Zealand to work on The Hobbit for a couple months. To be on those sets, which [were] equally incredible, and to collaborate on and play a character that is the product of so many people’s imaginations—Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and the costume designers—[was] very, very special. 

Any funny stories that you recall?
Funny things happened, but I always forget them. I am such an idiot. 

[Laughs] Okay, any instances on stage where you feel compelled to burst out laughing?
We really like each other a lot. All of the guys [in Golden Age] shar[e] a dressing room. We have so much fun during the half hour, talking. Ethan Phillips is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and he keeps us going all through the half hour, so there are times I’ll look at him on stage and remember a joke he told and I have a hard time not laughing. 

I can imagine. What’s it like portraying a real life character versus a fictional one?
Both Fernando Wood [of Lincoln] and [Bellini of] Golden Age are based on real men. You want to have a certain respect for who they were. You want to find a connection to the real person. Understand them from an actor’s point of view, which is different from a historian’s point of view and different from a writer’s point of view. 

For sure.
In Golden Age, it’s a character. It isn’t a biopic of Bellini. This is a work of art. Terrence McNally is using the character to tell a story. I see it as my job to connect the dots between Terrence and me and Bellini, who wrote this beautiful music. I tried to figure out what it was about him, who he was, the details. There’s so many things that go into making a character.

I bet. Your Bellini also displays distinct mannerisms, tending to twitch and putter a bunch…
[Laughs] Twitch and putter. I’ll remember that tonight when I’m twitching and puttering. [Laughs]

It’s not intended as an insult!
No, he is very twitchy and putter-y. Where I started with my research was listening to the music and really trying to understand that music and believe that that music was coming out of me, that I’d written it. Before I started, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to create something like that, to write music as complicated as this music. Just trying to get myself into that headspace, being backstage listening to it, that’s where I really started working out the physicality and how I moved. It kind of grew from that, so that the nervous energy finds its way into keeping the beat with the opera. He’s not a neurotic man. He’s concerned about how this artistic effort is going to be received by a discerning audience of people that he respects. He wants to do something that will be meaningful to them. It’s all about the music. He takes this opera that he has created extremely seriously. 

As you do your own work…
On the good days! No, I do. When you work with people like Daniel Day-Lewis, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, you see how they take it seriously. It’s meaningful. They’re so talented. On set with Steven Spielberg, everyone felt how much that story meant to him, the story of the 16th president. Everyone on that set felt it and [was] inspired by it. And that’s how we all found ourselves on his page, because he’s inspiring. 

Wish I could have been there! So, theater versus film? Is there one you prefer?
They’re very, very different. I can’t say I prefer either one because I love both for different reasons. In film, you have very little time to get it right. And it’s not even about getting it right, because it’s important to let go of that way of thinking about it. You get what you get and move onto the next setup, onto the next scene. On stage, George C. Wolfe, who directed me in [the play] The Normal Heart, called it the actors’ revenge, because you have to step onstage every night and tell the story yourself. You just have to do it yourself. 

In a movie, you turn over your performance to the director and the editors to edit and to layer in sound and everything else that makes the performance emotional or funny or whatever. In theater, you have to land the jokes yourself. You have to understand what’s funny about it. You have to kind of feel the audience. What they’re about on any given night. With a movie, you don’t have that. You can’t do that. In The Hobbit, we can’t feel what the house is going to be like before we do it. 

Of course not. So, onto something still loftier, what’s been the greatest challenge of your career?
If I could name a challenge, it would be laughable compared to the challenges so many other people face. It’s the “funnest” job in the world. I guess the biggest challenge I could say these days is just taking it seriously. When you’re in your thirties, the parts get good for men. You get really interesting characters. That’s what I’ve noticed. Complicated men dealing with complicated things. Seeing that there’s so [much] more to investigate about the way people are, and communicat[ing] those things to an audience, that’s the challenge. You want [the] stories to be good and you want them to be truthful and that’s a challenge. 

Seeing as this is an NYC-centric outlet, where exactly are you based?
I’ve been living here while I do the play. But, I live outside the city now. I live up in the country. It was a new move. I’d lived [in New York City] for a long time, since I was 17. 

How do you like living off-island?
I like it a lot. I love New York City. I’ve spent my adult life in New York City. I have a really complicated relationship with New York City, as every New Yorker does. You can’t go through almost 15 years [here] and not have a complicated relationship with it. Part of that relationship is, I’m going to take a little break and live in the country. [Laughs]

I hear that. Lastly, any thoughts on being considered by some to be heartthrob, a sex symbol?
Oh god no. What does that mean? I have no comment about that. I don’t know what to say about that. It’s news to me. 

The Rise (and The Fall) of Tarsem

The India-born director is most recognized as “the guy who directed The Cell,” a serial killer movie starring Jennifer Lopez, with intimations of Jodorowsky. Few outside the industry recognize Tarsem as an award-winning commercial and music video director, and while The Cell came and went at the box-office, it has since amassed a cult following for its Dali disturbances and hideous theatrics. Now, after a lengthy odyssey that led him across the globe, the nomadic director is finally back with his self-financed passion project, The Fall. The film stars Lee Pace (of ABC’s “Pushing Daisies”) as an injured stuntman, holed up in a hospital, who tells fantastical tales to a little girl. Much like The Cell, the film oscillates between the real world and one of fantasy, evoked by Tarsem through stark, poetic photography and dreamlike images (slow-motion underwater shots of swimming elephants come to mind). It took Tarsem over four years to finish the film. He insisted that Pace lie to the crew, and maintain his paralysis in real life (Pace wheeled around onset and stayed in a different hotel to maintain the illusion). “I got really depressed,” Pace says of his director’s extreme experiment. Screened two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Fall divided audiences and has since found the road to theatrical release an arduous one. In swooped friends Spike Jonze and David Fincher, who branded the film, lending it some much-needed campus legitimacy. We sat down with the director—decked out in traditional Indian garb—at the Regency hotel to discuss the madness of making movies.

BLACKBOOK: I wanted to ask you about the swimming elephants, but the damn press release already answered my questions.

TARSEM: All elephants swim, usually in an ocean. They can smell a female on another island and they’ll swim there.

BB: David Fincher once said that the world is your “back lot.” What do you think he meant by that?

T: That’s a great line, and it’s true. I’ve got to thank him for that! As you can tell from the film, I live in airplanes.


BB: So you’re anathema to Lars Von Trier, who is terrified of flying.

T: Absolutely. The year before I shot the The Cell, someone took my passport to calculate how many planes I’ve caught. It was more than a pilot can legally fly—six planes per week.

BB: Wow. So where do you live?

T: Any airport you can think of. [Laughs.] I have a place in L.A. and, because of my girlfriend, one in London.

BB: When you’re traveling, are you always scouting locations, thinking, I could shoot something here?

T: Much to my girlfriend’s disappointment, yes. I’m not a guy who can chill and read. I like places that are difficult to access, that you don’t see in Hollywood films, because if they were easy, everyone would go there in a heartbeat. There are no parking lots where I shoot. You shit, and you pick up your own shit.

BB: You shot this film independent of a studio, on your own dollar. How liberating was that?

T: There was no time limit to what I was doing. I told my brother, Before you sell the house, call me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime mad obsession, and I was going to go make this film no matter the risks. Thankfully, the call never came. But in the end, I asked him, How close were we? And he said, “Closer than you think.” I had no money left, but I was fucking happy.

BB: How did David Fincher and Spike Jonze get involved with the project?

T: They were very key in getting me off my ass to make it. We started out in commercials and music videos together. Fincher was already making the films he needed to make, Spike had already made two of them, and I needed to make something too.

BB: How would you compare your directing style to theirs?

T: My work doesn’t look anything like theirs, but I kind of find I’m in between the two. For Spike, it’s all about character. He doesn’t give a shit about what the image looks like. And for Fincher, if someone’s head isn’t cropped right, no matter how good the performance is, he’ll toss it.


BB: Were you apprehensive about risking everything to make a film without any guarantees?

T: Absolutely not. This is not an old man’s film. If I grew older, I would not have made this film. I either had to make this movie now, or not go there, because I would have sobered down, like most people do. The real “Oh, my God” moment came when I realized how polarizing the movie was. There are people who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, and others who think it’s absolute shit. It’s a pill that you give people and they either swallow it or they don’t. They think it’s indulgent, and I keep thinking, It’s my own money, so of course it’s indulgent!

BB: I assume you make a great living from your work on commercials. Do you enjoy making them?

T: I’m a prostitute in love with her profession. That’s the best analogy I can think of. I’d sleep with them for free, but they pay me, so I say thank you.

BB: Both The Cell and The Fall take place in parallel worlds, one being real, the other being the world inside a character’s head. Was that a coincidence?

T: Big coincidence. The Fall was supposed to be made before The Cell. When The Cell came long, however, it was so set up, and they asked if I’d like to do it, and I thought, Why not? I used a completely different visual style for the two. The Cell was all CGI and theater, on a stage, whereas The Fall was all landscapes. The only similarity was that I used the same desert in both films, because I couldn’t find another one quit like it. [Ed. note: The desert is in Namibia.]


BB: Your brother had a hand in The Fall’s production. Is he your producing partner?

T: My brother is a lawyer with only one client, and that client is me. He came to the country and my dad wouldn’t support his education, so he took a janitor job and put me through college. So when I earned enough money to put him through college to become a lawyer, I did.

BB: How did you develop your visual flair?

T: If I could put a finger on it, I would. I would say that I travel a lot and that my visual references tend to come from all over the place. They’re not so focused. I wouldn’t say I’m original, but the sources that inspire me are alien to everyone else, so I seem original.

BB: Lee Pace plays a crippled stuntman in the film, and you deceived the cast and crew into thinking he was paralyzed in real life. Why put him and the crew through that?

T: It had to be done, less for Lee and more for everyone else. It wasn’t about that cliché for actors, that in order to get into character, they need to live the part. It was more like, no matter how dire a situation, if you play it long enough, it becomes banal. I didn’t want anyone jumping on a cripple’s bed, or telling cripple jokes. And I knew no one would do that if they thought he really was crippled. It was quite a traumatic experience for people at the end.