“Halt and Catch Fire” is facing an uphill battle. Despite building solid buzz from its SXSW premiere and early online release, the AMC show is still battling the preconceptions associated with being a drama (really, a borderline thriller) about the 1980s PC race. After all, how many TV viewers want to spend an hour of their night watching a show about computer nerds using tech speak to craft a better PC than IBM in the ’80s?
“Hopefully it doesn’t matter what the thing is about,” said Toby Huss, who sat down with Indiewire after the show’s premiere at SXSW in March along with Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, and Kerry Bishe. “If it’s about the Korean War, who wants to see a shitty show about the Korean War? Oh, that was ‘M.A.S.H.’ That was lovely. It’s all about the characters. It’s all about the people.”
Mackenzie Davis, who plays a rebellious student prodigy, agrees. “I was never pitched a development show,” she said. “I read the script, and I was like, ‘Oh this is fascinating and much less about computers than people might think it would be.’ It’s about people and personalities and agendas and sex…”
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Scoot McNairy, who spoke with Indiewire in a Beverly Hills restaurant two weeks before the show premiered, said, “Hopefully that’s what people are interested in are the dynamics of the relationships and how the relationships work with the backdrop of a computer world. But at the end of the day, most shows […] are about relationships.”
“It’s a story about innovation, and innovation is absolutely one of the most compelling issues of our time,” said Pace. “It moves so quickly. You listen to some of the things Elon Musk is working on, and it’s a mind-boggling way to think about the future. These are people who think like that. I think the time and the place of the show give us an opportunity to think about the concept of innovation and how to stay on the wave of what’s coming next.”
What’s next is certainly on the mind of AMC executives eager to find another critical and ratings smash after losing “Breaking Bad” in 2013 and preparing to say goodbye to their original breakout series, “Mad Men” in 2015. The similarities between “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Mad Men” are evident. Both air Sunday nights on AMC. Both are period pieces. Both focus on an arrogant businessman with a secretive past who sleeps with a woman in the first episode.
“I think until the first episode airs there are obviously going to be comparisons […] but as soon as you see the show it’s nothing like ‘Mad Men’ visually, aesthetically,” Davis said. “But yeah. I hope people give it a chance.”
When asked if they worry about about all by the comparisons to such a monumental show, Huss joked, “I do. [Executive Producer] Mark Johnson said my child was going to be hurt if the ratings weren’t high enough.”
Pace, who is the de facto leading man and thus the group’s official spokesman, gave a response almost too corporate to befit the man’s character, a selfish and ruthless solo operator with his own agenda at heart. “I think it’s such a privilege to be a part of AMC because they do such unapologetic artistic things. That’s what they want, to just make a really, really interesting show.”
Joe MacMillan, the mysterious mind and driving soul behind “Halt and Catch Fire,” gives himself quite the introduction in the premiere episode. He has sex with Davis’ character in the back of a bar, talks his way into a job based on his old paycheck, and unveils surprise after surprise in a fast-paced hour of television. McNairy called Joe “an egotistical, conniving piece of shit,” an opinion the other actors accept but Pace rebuts. Pace, the man portraying the man, has a much more grounded approach to the new Don Draper.
“I’m just trying to keep it simple,” Pace said. “I think that’s the key, or my game plan anyway, to creating a character we can watch develop, hopefully, over the next few years. What does Joe MacMillan want to do? He wants to build you an awesome computer, and no where in that game plan does it mean I have to make friends with anyone. No where in that game plan does it mean I have to validate you.”
“Whenever we get together and talk about our characters, we’re each the biggest proponent of our characters,” Huss added. “So he’s looking at a scene in a completely different way. Lee will say, ‘the scene’s about this,’ and we’ll look at him in shock. ‘What the fuck are you talking about? It’s not about Joe.'”
“The work you do is your life,” Pace continued. “My dad retired this year, and now he’s got to find things to fill his day. When you’re working on something that you really believe in and care about, it’s your life. […] I think that’s very much Joe’s experience starting this endeavor down in Dallas. It’s an endeavor [he’s] passionate about and hopeful about, you know, and ready to fight and cheat and kill and lie to get it. You might say that’s a bad person. But I wouldn’t.”
“One of the things I love about doing a show instead of a movie is whatever you invest in these characters at the beginning, you know that’s going to change,” said Bishe, who plays a former computer engineer and wife of McNairy’s character (a reunion for the onscreen couple from “Argo”). “For Donna, it’s some really heavy extremes. So even just that moment when you’re faced with the question of ‘Do I support this person in a thing that I think is crazy and risky for my family, or do I protect myself and my kids?’ It’s a really great question, and I think it’s universal.”
“You know, one of the things people kept saying was, ‘Do you want to play the same character for the next 10 years?’ I don’t feel like I’m going to be playing the same character for the next however many years in this project,” McNairy said. “One of the things the creators promised me was that this character is going to change and change, and be reinvented and be reinvented, and go up and down and that’s the only thing I said to them. ‘Great. I want to be challenged as an actor. I don’t want to be stuck in something where I just show up and say the lines. I want every day to be difficult,’ and they did a great job with that for the first season.”
Pace — of course — tried to sum up the characters’ ambitions and ended up providing a broader statement on the show as a whole and the challenges it faces with viewers before it’s even seen.
“Who knows if they’re going to succeed, too? I’ve got this great picture of my mom with an Atom Osbourne computer, which is one of the first portable-ish computers. Came out in ’83. I’ve got this great picture of [her] sitting by it trying to type in a program […] and she was convinced it was a waste of money and a fad. That’s the real thing: does anyone really want to buy these things? We could make the most awesome computer in the world, but everyone’s like, ‘What’s that?'”