Lee Pace was just an innocent Oklahoma kid trying to make it in Hollywood. He starred in critically acclaimed works like 2006’s The Fall, in which he played a hospitalized stuntman, and as innocent Ned in TV’s Pushing Daisies, which survived on rave reviews for two seasons but couldn’t find an audience and was axed.
On the phone from a hotel in downtown Toronto, Pace is a thoughtful, polite dude. He thanks the Georgia Straight for taking the time to talk to him and gushes about how Vancouver is one of his favourite places in the world. His warmth reflects many of the characters he used to play. Yeah, used to. Because the native of a small town called Chickasha has padded his résumé lately by appearing in big productions and playing a supervillain, a shady software czar, and a vindictive elf.
It’s the latter about which Pace is talking to the Straight, as he reprises his role of Thranduil in the third edition of the Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies (opening Wednesday [December 17] ). Whether or not Thranduil is an especially evil character is up for some debate, but he certainly isn’t fond of helping the dwarves, the film’s protagonists, in their quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain from the claws of the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). The collection of morally dicey characters that Pace has been portraying, including his unrecognizable turn as Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy and the corrupt Joe MacMillan in the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire, is surprising to the actor himself.
“I don’t know what these directors are seeing in me, casting me as these bad guys,” the actor says. “I mean, Thranduil’s not a bad guy, he’s just at odds with the dwarves. He’s not their friend. I don’t know what it is: maybe I’m working something out with the universe.”
Whatever the reason, Pace admits that he has a lot of fun with these types of roles. “Having a good time is a big part of it,” he says. “Playing Ronan, he was like this big, bad, bombastic character and you have to have a good time with that. You can’t take it too seriously. And it’s the same with the Elvenking: it’s important to enjoy playing the character.”
Pace still refers to Thranduil as the Elvenking because that was his moniker in J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, which the actor read while he was still in high school. Because the novel was split into three different films, some of the characters’ story lines were expanded, and Pace, along with the elves played by Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly, got a favourable edit.
“He’s not even named in The Hobbit,” explains cowriter (with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro) Philippa Boyens over the phone while driving home in London traffic. “You don’t find out his name until The Lord of the Rings. So we always knew that there was a lot more story. We knew a lot more about him from The Lord of the Rings. So, of course, we were always going to bring that to the storytelling. And then you get a great actor like Lee Pace playing him; why wouldn’t you give him something to chew on?”
To his credit, Pace tried to stay as loyal as he could to the source material that he loved, using any small crumbs to try to gain more information about his role. “I tried to figure out who this character was with the little bit that I knew,” Pace recounts thoughtfully. “With those little clues, we kind of fleshed out the character, and I’m really excited with what we’ve come up with. He’s complicated. Tolkien’s elves are such fascinating creatures; I’ve always thought they were less like humans than they are forces of nature, like a blizzard or a dangerous big cat in the jungle.”
It’s unclear what is scarier, though, those forces of nature or Pace’s next role: Lance Armstrong’s lawyer in the upcoming biopic Icon.