EXCLUSIVE: Lee Pace on AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire': Season 3 Is Everyone's 'Biggest Test Yet'

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Halt and Catch Fire
is setting up shop in Silicon Valley.

AMC’s critically acclaimed 1980s tech drama returns for its third season, picking up in March 1986 with MacMillan Utility founder Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) settled into a cushy life in the Bay Area, as he readies a shocking (and bold) move in an effort to expand his empire. Meanwhile, his former cohorts -- Mutiny’s Donna Clark (Kerry Bishe), Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) -- face an uphill battle in their attempt to turn their company into a major contender.

“This season is definitely his biggest test yet,” Pace, 37, tells ET of Joe’s journey in the upcoming season. “It’s a big story for Joe. He is tested in ways that he never anticipated he would be tested. The Joe that we end with on this season is something that he never could have crafted on his own. He’s so fixated on manipulating the world around him to fit this vision that he’s created.”

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At the start of the season, Joe is “very isolated in a tower,” Pace says -- and he means it quite literally: The tech exec lives atop the City by the Bay in a swanky, expensive loft. “I think about him like Gatsby,” he observes. “He’s a hollow, heartbroken person who is surrounding himself with an illusion. He’s a notorious person and his reputation has gotten around. In a way, maybe that’s what he always was.”

It’s been quite a journey for the showman, and season three sees the former IBM-er reverting back to his old ways without the aid of Donna, Cameron or Gordon alongside him to steer him past choppy waters.

“In the first season, [Joe] was a machine who was operating a very specific program, and the program included wearing a mask and behaving like the man he thought he needed to behave like so that he could get the job done,” Pace says. “At the beginning of this third season, he is the machine again. He is trying to create value.”

The forthcoming season will welcome new additions Annabeth Gish, playing Diane Gould, a proven Silicon Valley venture capitalist; Matthew Lillard, portraying Ken Diebold, a key investor in Joe’s new company; and Manish Dyal, who plays ambitious programmer Ryan Ray. ET exclusively premieres a scene from the two-hour premiere, wherein Ryan tracks Joe down after a morning surf and attempts to impress him with his tech expertise.

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“I have a lot of work with Manish and Matthew this season, and it’s like we’ve created our own little microcosm together,” Pace says of his new co-stars.

After a bitter divorce from Sara (Aleksa Palladino) and a failed courtship with Cameron, expect things in the romance department to be messier than usual for Joe.

“I can’t say anything. It’s too great,” Pace says with a laugh. “Romance is a funny thing for Joe, so I don’t think he knows how to be loved. He doesn’t know how to love, so romance becomes very complicated for him.”

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It takes a while for viewers to see Joe for the first time; nearly an entire episode passes before you catch a glimpse of the man in question, a move Pace sees as particularly appropriate. “It’s just as Joe would want it,” he says. “He wants to keep at arm’s length.”

Pace promises it’s not all gloom and doom for Joe. The Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls alum hinted that there may be light at the end of the tunnel for the tragic hero by season’s end.

“As someone who’s close to him, I’m proud of Joe,” Pace teases.

Halt and Catch Fire
returns for season three with a two-hour premiere on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.