Because we can’t get enough of Lee Pace

Photo-Illustration: JJ Geiger

In the opening scene of Lee Pace’s first major film, 2003 The soldier’s girl, her character Calpernia Addams comes in with voiceover: “You might think I’m the center of this story, the main character, as they say, but I’m not.” The film is based on true events: Calpernia is a trans woman who falls in love with a foot soldier stationed at Fort Campbell, and her first few lines are at least a little fake. You wouldn’t need to tell her unless there was some tension about who was the center. “I admit I’ve always wanted the spotlight,” she says Calpernia. “They are the rhinestones of this story.”

This year, Pace received the Vulture Festival’s third annual honorary degree, a very uncredited honor given to those whose work we love so much that we just have to reward them. From The soldier’s girlThe actor’s career took off in TV, film and stage, as Roy in the indie fantasy film The fall, Ned in the ABC fairy tale series pushing daisies, Joe Pitt inside Angels in America, and as part of a group of 1980s tech entrepreneurs in the show Stop and catch fire. Last summer he played Greg, Rachel Sennott’s mysterious older boyfriend Bodies Bodies Bodies. Pace has become known not only for his work as an actor but also for his ability to arouse an overwhelming thirst from his fans. In a profile for The Cut last year, Pace was asked about the intensity of the fan response to his Instagram. “I’m aware,” he says; in the accompanying photos, he stares at the camera, half inviting, half opaque. In August, GQ published a story titled “Welcome to Lee Pace Summer”; last year Squire he stated “The world may end but at least we have Lee Pace”.

Even so, even with the charisma and talent of a leading man, many of his biggest roles come from stepping into a small part within a huge franchise and delivering a performance just on the right side of magnetic in an inattentive way. . See his role as Thranduil, the king of the elves in The hobbits. That film trilogy may feel too long and leaden, yet Pace brings an otherworldly nastiness, a lightwell of petulance that cuts through the sweetness. “An inexplicably cool guy reluctantly agrees to participate in someone else’s story”—this version of Pace is juicy. She has friction. Thranduil nearly throws the film with the pain of his buried pain and his deep desire for revenge. Her eyes sparkle as she looms over the grimy dwarves who need her help. Yet it’s impossible to imagine a Thranduil story in its own right: a protagonist with so much glare and spite would be exhausting. These types of roles reveal something paradoxical about Pace, the actor: he becomes more visible when seen from the side.

His most emotional leading performances are built on the same dissonance. He’s best as a protagonist in contrast to his own centrality, one who can’t stop obsessing over someone else. Calpernia claims he is not the protagonist of The soldier’s girl; she keeps insisting we look elsewhere. But her love for her transforms her into the person we care about the most. Pace played that role (and won a Breakthrough Gotham Award for it) a decade before shows like Transparent opened the conversation about cis actors playing trans characters. In retrospect, her choosing to confront him seems like a remarkable first step toward portrayals of him in works of the queer canon, including on Broadway, in The normal heart And Angels in America. When he came out to the press himself, it was only after years of knee-jerk and self-protective coverage in interviews about his sexuality.

In pushing daisies, arguably the role that turned him into a heartthrob, Pace plays Ned the Piemaker, the show’s straight man. (An ironic twist for a show chock-full of metaphors for gay desire.) Ned is a simple, unassuming person who happens to be in love with a dead woman whom he brought back to life and now can never touch again, or her will kill . He’s so in love with this girl, who’s called Chuck, that she can barely function. Pace transmutes that pain into something adorable, as if the planes of his face had been reshaped just so that Ned could smile wistfully at the one he adores. Beyond that, he clings to every scrap of a normal life he can find, battling an avalanche of oddballs: private detectives, one-eyed agoraphobic aunts, taxidermists and nuns and beekeeper killers. Pace is never allowed to get big and goofy like his co-stars. What makes him so irresistible is the way he absorbs them and still reflects them all.

His role as Joe MacMillan in Stop and catch fire it is constructed from a darker inversion of that same formula. Joe MacMillan is a doer, salesman and visionary who wants to be the most special person in his world than he is and hopes no one realizes he’s making it up. He walks into the series confidently, a Don Draper in a world of people who just don’t get him. Over the course of the show’s four seasons, Joe is knocked down, over and over again, by the realization that he himself isn’t the thing: he’s the thing that leads other people to the thing. He can see the genius, but he can’t reach it. He swings from acceptance to righteousness and back again, surrounded by people who have the qualities he wants and he doesn’t have. Pace knows how to interpret debilitating desire. The role may be the best of him.

Pace is also a consummate interpreter of his own life. He gives interviews occasionally. He posts pictures of himself sometimes. The best-known facts about his personal life are concrete details: He lives on a farm in Dutchess County, New York. He built a house there himself. He has a dog named Gus. He is both a rugged outdoorsman and a high fashion esthete. All of this hints at the kind of person Pace might be inside, so suggestive that it’s easy to forget it’s just a suggestion. You can’t be thirsty for something you have in abundance.

This matches what may be his strongest quality as an actor: his restraint. Pace’s gaze can look like a tractor beam. You can’t see it all, but it seems like it sees you. Pace’s biggest trick is that he makes everyone in the audience feel like the main character. Looking at him, we consider ourselves the object of his consideration, and because of this we feel more worthy and attractive.

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