It's hardly a dog's life for actor Lee Pace. After ending his run on the cult fave TV series 'Pushing Daisies,' a high profile film career is certainly taking root. He's now starring in one of this summer's family friendly magillas, the live-action debut of 'Marmaduke.' Find out why he's enjoying 'living large' in this Personalities Interview.
W.C. Fields is famous for noting that no actor should work with animals or children. That didn't stop Lee Pace from joining the pack of pets at the center of the new film, "Marmaduke."
A self-professed dog lover, Pace relished co-starring with the iconic Great Dane, a comic strip favorite since 1954. 20th Century Fox, which has great success with such comfort food-slash-baby boomer reinventions as "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "Garfield," has big plans for "Marmaduke," which opens this week. With Hollywood still in the midst of its talking animals swing, Pace was non-plussed at the challenges of playing straight man to a pedigreed ensemble.
“It’s fun to watch dogs talk,” Pace laughed. “It’s fun to watch dogs go on an adventure. It’s different than just watching the same human faces yak on the screen.”
Starring in a family film for the first time, the 31-year-old Oklahoma native has earned plenty of acclaim for roles that are decidely left of center. After breaking out with his award-winning role as a transsexual in the 2003 Showtime film "Soldier's Girl," Pace has registered on Hollywood's radar ever since. However, it was his starring role in the ABC series "Pushing Daisies" that allowed mainstream audiences to catch up. The acclaimed series only lasted two seasons (2007-2009), but it brought Pace an Emmy nomination and a broader choice of roles to his attention.
With "Marmaduke" now about to be unleashed, Pace said he was charmed by the material. Sensing a kinship wth his role as befuddled patriarch Phil Winslow, he also found something in common with the awkwardness of Marmaduke's exuberent largesse. And it's true. Much like his role on "Daisies," Pace's clean-cut good looks seemed at odds with his goofy persona.
"I was that “awkward-didn't-understand-his body-kind of-uncomfortable teen,” Pace confessed.
During our conversation on the "Marmaduke" set, it was interesting to be surrounded by quite an array of well-trained canines. All were calmly enjoying a shady break in between takes at a beautifully transformed public garden-into-a California dog park outside of Vancouver. It made for a rare interview setting away from the press junket worlds of hotel suites. What was evident from the start was that Pace clearly enjoying this new turn in his career.
"I felt like I didn't know what my character was or what I was doing without being attached to this dog," he laughed. "A family movie doesn’t mean that it has to be played at a certain level."
"Marmaduke" marks the first time he's playing a parent on film, the same for co-star Judy Greer ("Arrested Development"). As Phil Winslow, he's battling top dogs in his marketing job plus the mischievous Great Dane that threatens to derail his goal of improving the Midwestern family's new life in sunny Orange County, CA. After forging a career with edgier fare, Pace was quick to recognize the place "Marmaduke" has in popular culture, which he found comforting.
“Before you read the paper you read the funny pages,” Pace said. “Marmaduke’s been there since the 50’s. I got a lot of joy out of doing this as a family movie because it is spreading a good thing out there.
Will "Marmaduke" indeed prove a new breed of hit in a very challenging summer? That's for audiences to decide during an extremely competitive release weekend on June 4. In the meantime, from under a shady tree, here's more of my conversation with Lee Pace on the making of "Marmaduke."
JORGE CARREON: Both you and Judy Greer are making such a unique transition in terms of film roles. How has it been portraying a traditional parental figure after such non-traditional TV roles?
LEE PACE: I wouldn’t lie. There was a moment in the trailer when the cast had gotten together for the first time. We were doing camera tests and the kids came in and me and Judy, neither one of us have kids. We both looked at them and we’re like, “Wow we’re parents.” [LAUGHS] We’ve got a teenage daughter. [LAUGHS] that was a little shocking, but then I saw us all together and you know it kind of makes sense in a really organic way. My parents had me pretty young so you know it makes sense.
CARREON: It must be a little weird having to be a commanding adult presence with both animal and child actors, who are already known for being unpredictable co-stars.
PACE: It’s a little weird, but it’s really nice. I love that you work out relationships with people as you're filming just to get something real to play on screen. With the kids it comes so easy. Like Finley Jacobsen, who plays my son, we were joking around and playing all day long and it just really gave us a good chemistry when we got on set.
CARREON: "Marmaduke" is actually a coming-of-age story for everyone, pets and humans. How do the adults fare in this dog's tale, pardon the pun.
PACE: Phil really just wants to get control of his life. He’s fighting for all the right things. He’s fighting to get his family a better home, to advance his career. He’s fighting to more money for his family to make life more comfortable. The problem is he’s got this out of control dog. He is about to ruin everything for him so he just has to get control of that dog. The big message of the movie is that it’s not about asserting dominance; rather it’s about learning to take care. And that’s what Phil’s got to learn by the end of the story.
CARREON: You mentioned that you shared a lot with Marmaduke. Why?
PACE: I understand Marmaduke and I added a lot of that to Phil. I think Phil and Marmaduke are a lot alike. They both want to make it right. They both want to make it good, but they’re they’re struggling. [LAUGHS]
CARREON: Now, you are the proud friend of a pointer named Carl. What is it about our current dog culture that is so passionate?
PACE: He's a lot like Marmaduke. He's a big, naughty dog with a lot of energy. He's a lot of dog! There is a bond you have with your pets that you don’t have with anything else in the world. You take care of them and they give you unconditional love. I don’t know what it’s about, but it’s true, dog lovers go nuts for their dogs, yeah. I grew up in a house with dogs. We always had dogs. We always had a bunch of dogs, actually. Those stories in the Marmaduke comic strip were stories that actually went on in my house.
CARREON: After being part of a project like "Marmaduke," do you feel a certain responsibility to project a positive image of family on screen?
PACE: It’s the writers’ job to make it positive. It’s my job to make it real. That said, I do think it’s important to make this family story real and grounded; to make the stakes real and not just some sketch of what a family looks like. Phil really cares about his family. The only way that can be real is if those feelings are real and that relationship is grounded.
CARREON: Time for the Barbara Walters question. If you could be a breed of dog, what would it be?
PACE: The Great Dane is pretty close. I’m kind of big and clumsy and sometimes I’ve got too much energy. And, sometimes I’ve got no energy at all. That’s like George (who played Marmaduke in the film). Sometimes he’s just done. He’ll take a couple of loops around the park and then he’s like, “See you suckers! I’m out.” [LAUGHS]