Lee Pace doesn’t seem human. I don’t mean that as an appraisal of the 42-year-old actor’s physique—which, frankly, seems too tall to also be so muscular, too unfairly topped by a face that is too matinee-idol handsome. I don’t even mean it as the kind of bitter rejoinder I offer to my wife whenever she remarks on those things, or casually points out that he’s only a year younger than me. I mean that Lee Pace just doesn’t seem like he suffers from any of the vulnerabilities or gross afflictions of humanity, such as self-doubt or lower intestines.
Supposedly, Pace grew up in Spring, attending high school there and acting in plays at Houston’s Alley Theatre before he finally ascended to Juilliard, Broadway, and Hollywood. But it also seems plausible that Pace was grown in a lab by extremely horny scientists, who were out to create an Übermensch that could maybe smack them around a little, like the pathetic worms that they are. Pace isn’t just good-looking. He has an aura of superiority that borders on cruel (something my wife will happily tell me is also part of his appeal). It’s why Pace is often called upon to play kings, super-beings, and other creatures who look down on us mere mortals: Thranduil the Elvenking in The Hobbit. The vampire Garrett in Twilight: Breaking Dawn. Ronan the Accuser in both Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel. Even Pace’s “regular guy” roles seem to float above the rabble—like Pushing Daisies’ Ned, a humble piemaker who can also reanimate the dead; or Halt and Catch Fire’s Joe MacMillan, an icy-veined tech guru with godlike charisma.
Casting Pace as a preening intergalactic emperor is one of the more obvious choices made by the new Apple TV+ series Foundation, as well as one of its best. In the adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic, eponymous science-fiction series, Pace plays Brother Day, one of three clones who preside over a vast, technologically advanced kingdom in decline. Day—along with his younger clone-brother, Dawn, and the elder Dusk—is warned of their empire’s inevitable collapse by Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), a genius mathematician and “psychohistorian” whose calculations all point toward certain doom. Understandably, Day doesn’t take the news well.
Brother Day doesn’t appear in any of Asimov’s novels. He was invented for the show by writer David S. Goyer as a way of providing some continuity to a story that takes place over a thousand years—one that, by its nature, doesn’t put a premium on characterization. Asimov was more interested in societies than individuals, and the way civilizations develop and disintegrate over vast stretches of time. Brother Day gives Foundation a more traditional, TV-friendly villain to follow across its epic sprawl. He’s the smug embodiment of imperial hubris, clad in a shiny blue breastplate-and-tunic combo that suggests the Tick attending the Met Gala. He’s also the most obvious reason to keep coming back—to watch Pace put all his natural haughtiness into playing this big, hammy space-emperor, who’s royally pissed that his days of eating roast peacock are nearing an end.
Frankly, the show needs Pace. Foundation is tedious stuff—ponderous and humorless in a way that not even a hard sci-fi saga about hero mathematicians might suggest. Its first, world-building three episodes are especially slow going, weighed down by far too many characters having deathly serious, yet philosophically empty talks about destiny and algorithms. It’s certainly stunning to look at: Apple sank untold millions into its spare-no-expense phantasmagoria of pulp paperback otherworlds, Brutalist space stations, and glittering holograms that swirl and dissipate into pointillist hallucinations. But it’s also pretty stultifying. A lot of its run time so far has been devoted to simply staring at these lovely lock-screen interstitials, watching and waiting for the plot to load while spaceships and characters slowly drift through all that expensive beauty.
That’s why it’s good to have Pace around. Every time Foundation circles back to Brother Day and Pace’s bombastic performance, it feels briefly reinvigorated—and it comes much closer to the outer-space Game of Thrones that the show clearly longs to be. Pace was simply born to play a tyrant. His Brother Day comes off like a cross between the Roman emperor Commodus and the Marquis de Sade, a narcissist with swept-back Bradley Cooper hair and a wicked smile that perpetually curls his lips. Pace imbues every line with aristocratic menace, all delivered in his stentorian, Shakespeare in the Park projection, and he punctuates his words by thrusting two fingers into the air, which creates a nearly audible crack. He’s also prone to strutting about with his shoulders comically squared, like he just finished banging out bench presses. Naturally, the show also finds several excuses for Pace to take his shirt off, revealing Brother Day’s lack of a belly button (he’s a clone, after all), but mostly just to revel in the actor’s brick house build.
It’s little wonder that Foundation’s early trailers set off a sweaty social media clamor over Pace’s “Intergalactic Emperor Daddy.” Fans who long to have Brother Day, uh, appropriate their resources have flowed into the broader, already entrenched tributaries of thirst from people who want Pace to step on them, choke them, punch them in the face and throat, etc.—mewling pleas to be dominated by the actor, who is “deeply flattered,” as he recently told Esquire, adding, “My mother would be so proud.” It’s the kind of bemused, surely you jest attitude that the actor routinely pulls in his interviews—and it’s the key to why he appeals to so many, despite playing such icily arrogant characters.
There’s a tacit belief that Pace, despite his superhuman appearance, is a humble, introspective softie at heart: He’s a self-professed sci-fi and fantasy obsessive who loves Dune and Ursula K. Le Guin, and who grew up reading The Lord of the Rings, he tells Esquire. He was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and raised in Texas, and he keeps one foot planted in his rustic roots by retreating to his farmland in upstate New York; selfies of the actor snuggling chickens are all over Google Images. This allows viewers to sense the vulnerability behind the armor of his characters; inevitably we see that there’s a deep inner pain that informs nearly all of them, from Joe MacMillan to Ronan the Accuser. And this allows fans to feel like they really know Pace, even as they fantasize about being crushed by him.
It’s too soon to tell whether Foundation’s Brother Day will be similarly exposed (although apparently, he spends a future episode in nothing but a loincloth). Still, there’s already a palpable hint of terror lurking behind Day’s tirades, a righteous woundedness to his anger. In his softer moments, Pace conveys Day’s growing awareness of his own impermanence with the subtlest pause or slightest knit of those genetically improbable eyebrows. On a show that boasts such a yawningly epic scope, and that threatens to discard entire casts as it sweeps through the centuries, Pace’s Brother Day is one of the few characters that we’re actually allowed to connect with. Is that enough for viewers to cling to amid this vast universe of tedium—especially if Goyer makes good on his threat for Foundation to run for eight seasons? Lee Pace might seem extraordinary, but even that’s probably asking too much.