Lee Pace. He’s that guy. The one you’ve seen in more movies than you realize. The one whose name might not ring a bell, but the face does. That is, when it hasn’t been altered beyond recognition to play a character of another species.
That very face, with its easy smile and aw-shucks affability, has been the one behind some of the most memorable heroes – and villains – of both film and television in recent years. Yes, I’m cheating and including TV roles this time around, because it’s where some of his best work can be found. So, let’s take a look at just some of the highlights in the career of this Oklahoma-born, Juilliard-trained, Broadway-forged actor.
The Fall (2006)
Prepare your eyes for a visual feast. Helmed by visionary director Tarsem Singh, this extraordinarily beautiful film takes you through the deepest parts of a man’s soul, and the farthest reaches of a child’s imagination.
1920s, Los Angeles. A lonely little girl named Alexandria is in the hospital, nursing a broken arm. Looking for something to stimulate her vivid imagination, she sneaks out of her room and wanders the halls until she happens upon Roy Walker, Hollywood stuntman, paralyzed from the waist down after a stunt gone wrong. He’s just as lonely as she is, but for very different reasons. He only wants to wallow in his own misery. But, after some prodding, he finally begins to tell the little girl a story.
This is where the extraordinary visuals come into play. We hear Roy telling the story, but we see it through the eyes of little Alexandria’s mind. And what a mind she has. The tale of the masked bandit (who just so happens to look like Roy) and his adventuring companions spans decades, continents, and layers of reality. It is a tale of crime and redemption, of love and hate, of a man desperately searching for the will to live.
Alexandria returns to Roy’s room each day to continue the story, and the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred beyond recognition. As Roy’s state of mind becomes more fragile, the story becomes darker, more hopeless. The little girl eventually realizes that she must change the ending of the story in order to save Roy’s life.
As young Alexandria, Romanian actress Catinca Untaru is beyond precocious or prodigious. Somehow, this tiny child is able to convey every necessary emotion as if they were her own.But it’s Pace’s dual performances, as both Roy Walker and the unnamed masked bandit, that truly shine here. He heartbreakingly conveys Roy’s despair, his pain, his desire to be free of the torment of life – and conversely, the bandit’s regret, determination, heroism, and love. The bandit has the courage Roy does not, and through him, Roy must find the strength to carry on, both for himself, and for the little girl he never expected to love.
Pushing Daisies (2007-2009)
This was an absolute gem of a show, and the fact that it fell victim to the infamous Hollywood writers’ strike is one I’m still not entirely over. Still, for two seasons, we were treated to the unique, quirky, and endlessly charming world created by TV genius Bryan Fuller.
In this bizarre reality, there lives a man named Ned. Ned makes pies. He works at The Pie Hole, and his pies are loved far and wide. He is known to most simply as The Piemaker.
Ned also brings the dead back to life. He discovered this ability as a child, while tearfully cradling his beloved dog after he was hit by a car. The lifeless canine suddenly perked up, and he was good as new. Ned used this ability for the greater good several times throughout his life, but one time was more important than all the rest. That was the time he resurrected Chuck.
Charlotte, aka Chuck, was the girl next door, and the girl of his dreams. But eventually, she moved away, and the two lost touch. But Ned never forgot her. Many years later, he saw on the TV news that Chuck had died in a bizarre cruise ship accident. Heartbroken, he goes to the funeral home to say his goodbyes. But suddenly, he can’t resist. One touch of her lovely face, and her eyes spring open. She is delighted to be alive, and to see her dear old friend. In fact, as it turns out, Chuck had been pining away for Ned as well. This should have been the beginning of happily ever after. But there’s just one problem, and it’s a doozy.
Once Ned has brought someone back, he can never touch them again – ever – or they will be dead for good. This is where the unique premise teams up with the adorably quirky charm, as the absolutely perfect (seriously, if you aren’t in love with him by the end of the first episode, you need to check your pulse) Ned and his undead sweetheart go through the rituals of courtship in extremely creative ways. (There’s a lot of saran wrap, gloves, and plexiglass involved.)
Along the way, Ned also uses his abilities to help a cynical detective solve murders – by touching the victim, listening to their own account of their death, then touching them again to send them back to the pearly gates. And he continues to make his beloved pies. But the most important thing in his life is the pursuit of a way to somehow get rid of his strange power, so that he and Chuck can finally be together in the way they’ve always dreamed of.
The humor, the fantastical, color-saturated world, and the hilariously twisted cast of supporting characters all bring to the table plenty of reasons to watch the award-winning show. But the biggest by far is Pace’s portrayal of Ned. Despite being sweet, smart, handsome, shy, kind, talented, and literally any other positive quality you could wish for in a man, his perfection somehow seems genuine. He never believes himself to be worthy of his beloved Chuck. And his pursuit of a way to be with his one true love makes every woman wish she could find her very own Piemaker.
The Hobbit Trilogy (2012, 13, 14)
In the first film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, we briefly met Thranduil, immortal King of Mirkwood, when he refused to help the dwarves of Erebor in their fight to reclaim their ancestral home, the Lonely Mountain.
In the second film, though, you get to know him much better than you ever wanted to. With his white-blond hair, his pale skin, and his frozen heart, Thranduil seems to be made of solid ice. Nothing can make him care about the dwarves’ plight, about their lost gold or their fabled dragon foe. The only things he still cares about are protecting his woodland realm, his elven kin, and most of all, his son, Legolas.
But even in these matters, one has to look very, very closely to see the Elvenking’s unique brand of concern. On the outside, we see only his cool, aloof manner; the haughtiness with which he treats pretty much everyone; and the staggering number of fucks he does not give. A clue as to the reason behind his frosty demeanor is seen when he tells dwarven leader Thorin, “Do not speak to me of dragon fire!” and deep, black burn scars, acquired in the first war to defeat Sauron, are briefly seen on his face. But he quickly recovers his composure, and resumes showing the world the face he wishes it to see.
The character opens up a bit more in the third installment, when the ancient king must go to war once more. In his gleaming silver armor, with his delicately lethal sword, standing nearly seven feet tall and riding a massive woodland elk, he’s an incredibly intimidating figure on the battlefield.
Thranduil slices through the army of orcs like a man possessed, slaying scores of the horrible creatures by the time the battle is over. But it’s two scenes, in the war’s aftermath, that finally give a tiny glimpse into who he really is beneath the frigid façade.
Saying goodbye to Legolas, who has decided not to return to Mirkwood, he tells his son just how much his mother loved him – and that she was killed by orcs in another battle, many centuries before. The tear that threatens to escape from the king’s eye is just as telling as the blinding rage with which he dispatched the orcs. Most of his soul is dead, having perished with his beloved queen a millennium ago. The only thing that keeps the last part clinging to life is his son. Her son. And he knows he may never see him again.
The second scene, just minutes later, finds him standing over the grieving elf Tauriel, mourning the loss of her love, killed in the battle. He had previously told her, in his infuriatingly condescending way, that she had no idea what love was, and that, in fact, it didn’t exist at all. She sobs, “If this is love, I do not want it. Take it away, please!……….Why does it hurt so much?” He looks at her with genuine sympathy and quietly replies, “Because it was real.”
The range of emotions (and the lack of any emotion at all) necessary to play this character convincingly were quite large, but it’s the two extremes that best showcase the skill used in bringing the Elvenking to life. His icy demeanor, hardened by centuries of desolation, is the only thing protecting the last few precious shreds of his fragile heart. And when the frost finally cracks, he realizes that he can use his pain to help Tauriel to bear the weight of her own.
Ironically, Thranduil’s aloof and haughty disposition somehow turned the character into a meme sensation. Just google “Thranduil meme” and you’ll find humorous pictures expounding his beauty, grace, fabulosity, and even dancing skills, as the disco king aboard his party moose. Thanks, internet.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
It’s always cool when you find out one of your favorite actors is joining the MCU, so I was happy to hear that Pace was going to have a big part in Guardians. However, once I learned just who he was going to play, I thought there was no way it could work.
Ronan the Accuser is a fanatical, psychopathic Kree, who literally bathes in the blood of his enemies. Whether murdering one person or destroying an entire planet, the screams of his victims are equally music to his ears. How in the world would James Gunn manage to pull such a sadistic performance out of my precious Piemaker? The answer, of course, is pure talent, on both ends. Gunn delivered a brilliant film, and Pace shocked everyone with how legitimately intimidating he was in the role.
Some villains are easy to pull for. People love Loki for his charm and cunning. He can say whatever he needs to, in order to twist a situation to his will, or suddenly seem sympathetic. Or Magneto, whose moral ambiguity lends a surprising air of relatability to a man who wants to make an entire species cower in fear.
Ronan has none of these pesky redeeming qualities to water down his obsession with destruction. In fact, his current passion is the annihilation of the peaceful planet Xandar, with the assistance of Thanos. However, he has no idea that he is about to encounter one of the few ever to live through one of his murderous rampages. Ronan is determined that the being known as Drax the Destroyer (who witnessed the Accuser killing his family) won’t survive his wrath a second time.
After a decidedly one-sided fight scene, Ronan presumes that Drax is dead, having left him in a pool of Celestial spinal fluid. (Eww, right?) Now in possession of the Infinity Stone known as the Power Gem, Ronan double-crosses Thanos (whoops) and absorbs its power. He is now capable of obliterating Xandar without the assistance of the Mad Titan.
However, Drax is still alive, and so is his desire for vengeance. He is determined that Ronan will die by his hand. So he and the rest of the Guardians sneak onboard Ronan’s ship, the Dark Aster, to stop him once and for all. Of course, they’re unsuccessful. Dude has an Infinity Stone. No mortal being can kill him.
What follows is one of the funniest movie scenes I’ve seen in a very long time. Ronan’s sheer consternation when faced with the ridiculosity of the moment is priceless – and it’s also just enough of a distraction to render him vulnerable. The Guardians manage to seperate him from the Power Gem, and then inflict its massive energy back onto him. Suddenly, Ronan the Accuser is naught but a pile of dust, Xandar is safe, and Drax’s family is avenged.
But we’re about to get more of our favorite blue maniac, thanks to Captain Marvel. (The latest MCU fim takes place a few decades before Ronan got dusted.) So let’s enjoy his genocidal fanaticism one more time.
Halt and Catch Fire (2014-2017)
Dallas, 1983. A small but successful company, Cardiff Electric, sells computer software to other companies. Nothing too ambitious, just the essentials. But they’re capable of so much more. They just don’t know it yet.
Enter Joe MacMillan – a man with ambition for days, balls to spare, and one single, brilliant idea. Cardiff is going to design and manufacture their own personal computer, putting them in direct competition with tech behemoth IBM. No one believes it will work except for Joe. So he uses some less-than-ethical tactics to force their hand, putting all of Cardiff’s eggs in the basket of his one risky, brave, impossible idea.
There’s just one problem. He has no idea how he’s actually going to make this happen. Not the first clue. Fortunately, he has a nose for talent.
Cardiff drone Gordon Clark is an electronics genius who feels buried under endless paperwork. He has brilliant ideas, but zero confidence. If only someone believed in him……….Gordon’s wife, Donna, is just as smart as her husband. But women in business, especially in the tech world, weren’t taken seriously at the time. The only person who has ever listened to her is Gordon – until now………Cameron Howe is an electronic engineering student whose mind is almost as smart as her mouth. Everyone puts up with her terrible attitude because she’s a coding prodigy, and therefore vital to the process.
But, always at the center of the ragtag group is Joe, a force of nature who sucks them all into his orbit by whatever means he deems necessary. He’s an immensely complicated character with seemingly innumerable layers: an obsessive, narcissistic, misogynistic, sociopathic control freak; a little boy whose own mother tried to kill him, and whose father blamed him for the loss of her; a condescending tyrant who will rip you to shreds in front of God and everyone else; a lonely soul who wants only for these people to believe in him as much as he believes in them; a pathological liar who believes that the end always justifies the means.
In short, he is a character who could only be played by an absolutely phenomenal actor. Nothing but the best for Joe MacMillan.
This criminally underrated show lasted four seasons on AMC. They’re all available on Netflix, and we highly recommend a binge session.
So, let’s recap.
Lee Pace is a truly gifted actor with an extraordinary range. No matter your preferred genre of film or television, you can always find an amazing performance of his to enjoy. But at the end of the day, when the cameras stop rolling and the persona of the moment gets left on the set, what’s left is the same charming, awkward theater kid from Oklahoma. No Hollywood here; just God-given talent and the drive to succeed doing what he loves. And that’s why he’s one of my favorite actors – and will likely become one of yours too.