Lee Pace Is Living In His Golden Age of Acting

The adventurous actor discusses his passion for Terrence McNally’s new play about bisexual composer Vincent Bellini and loving working on Lincoln.

Lee Pace
Lee Pace
© David Gordon

Yes, Lee Pace is tall, dark, and handsome, but what’s just as noticeable – at least to those who have seen his work — is his versatility and courage as an actor.

Beginning with his transfixing performance as a transgendered performer in the TV movie Soldier’s Girl through his Emmy-nominated work as the nerdy, love struck Ned on ABC’s Pushing Daisies and his Drama Desk Award-winning performance as semi-closeted gay activist Bruce Niles in last year’s award-winning Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Pace has shown the ability to take risks that most leading men might avoid.

He’s continuing to pursue his artistic vision, as well as raising his profile, by appearing in three prominent films: as racist New York Congressman Fernando Wood (Lincoln); Garrett (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part Two); and Thranduil (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). While audiences can see him on the big screen, it’s even more exciting to see him in-person, playing the leading role of bisexual opera composer Vincent Bellini in Terrence McNally’s stirring drama Golden Age at Manhattan Theatre Club-Stage I.

TheaterMania sat down with Pace during previews to discuss his role in this fascinating play, working with his famed co-star, two-time Tony Award winner Bebe Neuwirth (Chicago), and his thoughts on working on Lincoln with two-time Oscar winner Daniel-Day Lewis (My Left Foot).

Where would you put your knowledge of opera on a 1-10 scale before you started Golden Age?

Well, I went to Juilliard, so you can’t help but get a little dose of opera when you go to that school. I’d seen a couple of things at the Met. And I had heard Bellini’s Norma. So it’s hard to say — but I guess 2, maybe 3.

Did that lack of expertise make this job harder for you?

I had a good month ahead of rehearsals to just listen to music and work on the research about Bellini. There’s so much fascinating research about this man, and I love doing research. My favorite thing about being an actor is to learn new things. But it wasn’t just about listening to the rest of Bellini’s stuff ; it was also listening to Donizetti’s stuff, Rossini’s stuff, Wagner’s stuff just to kind of get a real sense of what it was that Bellini was trying to do artistically, what musical information he had, and what influence he had on others.

Was exploring the music the most interesting part of the process for you?

One of the most fascinating things about the play to me was Terrence’s point of view on what it takes to make not just art, but to make an event out of an evening of opera. And that’s what Bellini does– the opera is not just the music, it is an event. It is all of the people in the boxes waiting to see the show and it’s the stars who step up on the stage and perform this incredible athletic feat of singing these notes. And it’s about arranging that kind of night and figuring out a way to make that night emotionally poignant and meaningful.

I think one of the more fascinating things about the play is that it creates this picture of Bellini as someone who is sexually adventurous and voracious — there is even a line in the play that he’s probably had sex with a goat – but who is really interested in more than just sex. Do you agree?

I think he’s addicted to love in a way, and not just love, but adoration. And just like any addict, they get their high and then they crash. He’s definitely a romantic soul. So I think for me as an actor to think about Bellini’s sexuality in terms of the way we think about sexuality in the 21st Century would really have been beside the point, because that 19th-century romantic ideal is a bit freer than ours. Of course, the play is a work of imagination, and the Bellini that I researched had a lot of different colors. He definitely had all these affairs with women. He was obsessed with finding a wife in the last years of his life when he was in Paris, so he could live comfortably. There were all these rich, young, beautiful women and they were available to him and interested in him. But one of the tricks of learning about Bellini is that a lot of 19th-century biographers weren’t particularly interested in the truth. They were interested in making a hero out of their subjects. So I had to make a real effort to cut away all of the other stuff to really figure out what he felt about Florimo (his male companion, played by Will Rogers). And Florimo was actually responsible for destroying a lot of the letters they wrote back and forth. Or sometimes, he would just rewrite them and make Bellini seem more intelligent than he was.

Lee Pace and Bebe Neuwirth in <I>Golden Age</i>
Lee Pace and Bebe Neuwirth in Golden Age
© Joan Marcus

What can you tell me about working with your co-star, Bebe Neuwirth?

We get along really, really well. Bebe is such a fascinating, intelligent woman, as is her character, Maria Malibran. Vincent finds this woman who has got incredible skill and star power, and in the show, they come together again at a time when her voice is going. I think that’s a fascinating thing to him — to catch this star at this moment when her voice is technically rough, but as a person, she is so alive and dangerous. That’s very much what his operas are all about.

You’ve got three movies out right now: Lincoln, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, and The Hobbit. That’s a lot of Lee Pace at one time. Were they all good experiences?

Absolutely! I had a fantastic time working on Twilight. I loved our director Bill Condon. He was an absolute pleasure to work with. The Hobbit was also a fantastic experience. It’s just mind-blowing how beautiful it is. Peter Jackson has the sort of imagination that no one else has. As for Lincoln, that was a real pinnacle of what I’ve done as an actor — to be on that set with Steven Spielberg and working with Tommy Lee Jones was just awesome. It was very different than theater. We didn’t rehearse at all. We’d literally just come to the set and Steven was like, “OK, are you ready to shoot his?” I had this big, long speech my first day on the set, and there were hundreds of people in the room, and he was like, “Well, why don’t we just shoot one take? I’ve got the camera back there.” And I was just like, “Alright!”

Were you upset you didn’t get to work with Daniel Day-Lewis on Lincoln?

It’s true. I never was on the set with him. I only worked about a week on the film and all my scenes are in the House of Representatives. But I got to see the film last month and he’s just extraordinary in the movie. He’s such an incredible actor. At the very best of what we do as actors, we become experts on humanity, how people are, how people fall in love, how they do great things. And Daniel is the expert on people and how to portray them in a profound way. He is just as good as it gets, and a true inspiration to all of us.

Looking back at all these people you’ve gotten to work with this past year, does it seem surreal?

Yeah, I feel very fortunate. I am a very lucky man!

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Golden Age

Closed: January 13, 2013