As Foundation enters its season-one endgame, the Apple TV+ sci-fi epic looks more and more like its own distinct creation. Isaac Asimov’s book series is definitely the bedrock of David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman’s vision, but there have been many divergences from that story. One of the most fascinating new ideas is the trio of “brothers”—played by Cassian Bilton, Terrence Mann, and Lee Pace—who sit atop the the Galactic Empire.
These siblings are actually clones of Cleon, the first Galactic Emperor; their different ages represent different stages of his life. Pace plays Brother Day, who is in the prime of his life (or, the prime of their shared life). But the Brother Day we meet in the premiere—haughty, eager to make an example of Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) and Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) for daring to suggest the Empire is in decline—isn’t the same man who sets out on a pilgrimage in the harrowing eighth episode, “The Missing Piece,” and we’re not just speaking metaphorically.
Foundation has set up the possibility for an infinite number of Lee Paces, or at least, an infinite number of Cleon clones for him to play. The Halt And Catch Fire actor was more than up to the challenge, finding ways to make what he describes as a great collaboration even more of a group effort. As a reader of Asimov’s books, Pace was also very aware of the difficulties of wrangling this sprawling story, one so dense with theory, into even a 10-hour season of TV. But when The A.V. Club spoke to Pace in the early fall, he offered some helpful insights for book readers and new fans alike, including one helluva selling point: watching those in power suffer.
The A.V. Club: Before signing on for Foundation, you had already starred in some major franchises, like the Hobbit trilogy. Here, you play another imperious ruler facing an imminent threat. Did you see a connection between Thranduil and Brother Day?
Lee Pace: The character I play in this could not be more different than that kind of wickedly wild Elven king that I played in The Hobbit—that was such a privilege, to be a part of that series of films and to play that specific character I loved. But this character, I find very different. I hesitate saying this character because I’m not really playing a man. I’m playing a series of men, who, for a time in their life are fulfilling the role of the Emperor Of The Galaxy, which is this abstract manifestation of power in the galaxy.
It’s nothing that we know on the earth right now. He’s an autocrat, who has control over the known universe, the entire Milky Way galaxy. 10,000 planets, trillions of lives. He decides who lives or dies. He decides who prospers and who suffers. But it’s held by this, as you know, a series of clones, who also live in the fantasy that they’re the same man. So I think one of the components of the riddle is that they’re becoming wise to that fantasy and starting to individuate themselves. They can’t help but individuate themselves, given the circumstances that they face.
AVC: These clone characters—Brothers Dawn, Day, and Dusk—are original creations for the show. They have this really unique shared existence; they’re kind of the same man, but at different stages of his life. Your character, Brother Day, looks the same throughout, but as the show unfolds, he almost has different personalities. How did you approach that, and how did you work with your fellow actors to maintain that continuity among your characters?
LP: Well, the first thing that we had to do was discover where they’re similar. That was kind of physical work that I did with Terrence Mann and Cassian Bilton and Cooper Carter, who plays the very youngest one. We started by mirroring each other, mirroring our movements, trying to find a cadence that’s similar, watching each other. So if I would see Terrence make a gesture in a scene, I would suddenly try to copy it in such a way that he doesn’t know that I’m doing it. We would play this little game with each other of copying each other, which I think is feels very truthful to me inside that construct that they’re living. Another part of it. My favorite thing about what I get to do is the research and just learning about diverse and different things.
I’d read the books before I even knew about the series. So when they told me the series was going to happen, I was like, there’s no way you all are going to be able to pull this off. This is too big. It’s too complicated, impossible to dramatize. But then when I read David [S.] Goyer’s script, I think he cracked it. He figured out a way to create some characters that will see us through this thousand years that we can connect with and relate with.
The research about various emperors, whether they’re Roman emperors, Incan emperors, Chinese emperors. I read this wonderful book by [Ryszard] Kapuściński called The Emperor, about the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. There’s lots of fun information that I downloaded, so that I was able to creatively approach with this autocrat was. I very much enjoy that. Then, this was a fun character. I’m going to say that we showed up to set to play, but I feel like one of the pleasures of Foundation is going to be watching this emperor suffer. It’s play, but it hurts.
AVC: There are a lot of people who felt or feel that it’s almost impossible to adapt this story for film or TV because the books have all these heady ideas, but they don’t really have many fleshed-out characters. As someone who’s read the books, was that a concern for you at all?
LP: I wouldn’t presume to critique what Isaac Asimov did with those books. I think the concepts that he introduced into our culture are pretty mind-blowing; really pivotal to our development and technology in many ways. I think that reading the books is just a different pleasure than watching the show. It’s the same story, it’s just using different tools. When you’re reading the book, it’s you and Isaac Asimov sharing a mind for a while. When you’re watching the show, we’re inviting the audience to share our many minds with us. Not only Isaac Asimov, but David Goyer and the cast and the visual effects supervisor, the music. It’s a very collaborative thing, making a show of this size. So you’ve got a lot of creative minds trying to bring this show to life. It’s not about getting the book correct. I think the book exists in a perfect form. I think we tell the story in this way. I think it’s a respect to the book to interpret it.
AVC: You mentioned that part of the appeal of the show is watching these brothers, who are called Empire, suffer. By the eighth episode, your character Brother Day has experienced a lot of very human things, including pain, for the first time. What was going through your mind when you saw the script and learned what Day would be going through?
LP: Every step along the way here, I’ve been entertained by David Goyer. When David Goyer starts giving me the story that he has in mind, as a science fiction fan, I’m like, yeah, tell me more. I want to know more. I want to know more about what is on your mind. I didn’t worry about how we would film it. I find episode eight to be such an incredible riddle. I think one of the things I like so much about this show is that, it doesn’t offer conclusions. It inspires an investigation.
So you look at that moment at the end of the episode, and the question is, does he have a soul? What was the vision that he saw? I want to give the caveat that this is only my point of view about it. This is just one person’s point of view. I want the audience to really come to our story with their own points of view about it, and to investigate these ideas that we’re working on, on their own terms, with their own politics, with their own life experience. Watch what we’re doing, start solving these riddles themselves and with their friends and community and talk about it. So take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt, basically. I’m working on Cleon. I’m in the weeds with it, but you watch what I’m doing and come up with whatever you want about it.
But my feeling about what he gets out of that episode is that he’s all alone, that he’s not actually the Emperor of the Galaxy. The Emperor of the Galaxy is an office; that’s a role that he plays. There is a human that he discovers that is flesh and blood, that could die. That it could be lights out in a second. That’s not something he understood before. I guess it’s something he understood, but it was abstract. Now he feels it. Now he feels danger. That’s interesting to me, that kind of spiritual learning and knowing.
I think that’s the stuff of this show, because it becomes about what does it mean to be a human? Who is Gaal, this character that is so full of life and enthusiasm? When she is stranded in the middle of deep space, 30 years away, everyone she’s ever known is dead. What is a life under those circumstances? You look at the character of Demerzel. She’s a robot, who’s lived thousands of years. What is her life? Does she have a soul?
AVC: That does seem to be a huge part of the show’s themes this season. I know you don’t want to narrow down an interpretation for viewers, but science fiction has traditionally reflected some aspect of the political landscape or cultural landscape that it was created in. What do you think this Foundation has to say about the world in which it was created?
LP: Rather, I would say it’s for the world that it’s created in. I know that, no matter what your politics are—and I respect everyone’s politics and their life experience and their walks in life. They can come to this show without the triggers that we experience on planet, talking about contemporary earthly concerns. We’re not talking about COVID. We’re not talking about American politics. We’re not talking about the situations that immediately face us.
But what we are talking about, like I said, is what does it mean to be a human? How do we survive? There is no guarantee that we will, that our children will survive and prosper. So I guess what this show opens is the investigation about what are our values? There’s a million different answers to that. So we’ve been working away on this show. Yes, all of the characters live unfathomable years in the future from now, on places that are invisible, even on a clear night. If you were to look up at the night sky at the stars, but they’re about us. They’re about us here, now, and today.