It was a really rough headspace to be in. I couldn’t wait to start shooting so I could stop researching.
In the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, its protagonists moved heaven, earth, and a whole lot of computer chips to create a PC called the Giant. The season finale saw Scoot McNairy’s systems builder Gordon Clark presiding over the launch of the computer, Lee Pace’s besuited visionary Joe MacMillan embarking on a quest after torching a vanload of said computer, and Mackenzie Davis’ coder Cameron Howe recruiting Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) to help run her start-up called Mutiny. When we parachute into season 2, it will not only revolve around Mutiny, but also open its doors to a female-dominated storyline. To that end, Aleksa Pallaino joins the cast to play Joe’s love interest and the daughter of the CEO of a Texas oil conglomerate (James Cromwell).
To take us behind-the-scenes leading up to this month’s season 2 premiere, Palladino joined us for our on-going series of food and talk, This Course. Our goal with This Course is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance over lunch at Barn Joo in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, where we discuss a myriad of things concerning but not limited to joining an existing ensemble, her abstract paintings, and what it means to grow up shy. Palladino is perhaps most widely recognized for her SAG Award-winning role as Angela Darmody on Boardwalk Empire. As EXITMUSIC, she’s also an accomplished singer and musician. There are other projects on the horizon as well, including the cult thriller The Veil opposite Thomas Jane.
AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire returns for its second season on May 31.
How did you get involved with Halt and Catch Fire?
It was literally the first thing I read this pilot season, which came to me as an audition. It had one of the biggest character descriptions ever. It was the longest and the most detailed with all these words that I had to look up, words that I know when I hear them, but when you’re given them as clues to a character, what does “formidable” really mean? There were additional acting notes with the breakdown, so I knew they were looking for someone so particular. That already intimated me.
Don’t screw this up!
[Laughs] Don’t screw this up, yeah. She’s really supposed to be Joe’s [played by Lee Pace] counterweight: just as strong, just as intelligent, and independent. I wasn’t really familiar with the show, so I watched a few episodes. It seemed like the kind of role that you just really, really want. It’s like, I want to hit all of these marks for someone. Then you start to understand more of her backstory. It’s such a beautiful, three-dimensional character and I was so happy when I got it.
What’s it like to join an ensemble on an existing show like this?
I’m always prepared for things to be weird because I just assume they would be, but it really wasn’t. It’s a really small cast compared to something like Boardwalk Empire. I think there’s something really special about everybody being uprooted and shooting in Atlanta for four months. We wind up spending a lot of our off-time together. Once a week, the actors get together and we go over the script. We talk to each other about our respective roles and ask things like, “This sentence doesn’t make sense to me, how do you guys see it?” That’s such a beautiful thing and I’ve never worked with a cast that way, where we’re so involved in the overall storytelling of each episode. It’s very intimate. It’s almost like you’re shooting an indie film, but with AMC to back it.
I don’t think I’ve actually ever got around to asking you how you got into acting.
I really wasn’t going to go to film school or go to acting classes. I started young as a teenager and I was very shy. If someone told me I was doing something wrong or I was bad, I wouldn’t have gone back. I already knew that about myself. I was almost too sensitive to have anyone’s input on me. I knew I was drawn to it for a real reason. I’ve never been interested in the perks. I don’t like going to parties, that kind of stuff is actually really stressful for me. I always loved people, understanding people, and understanding myself. For some reason, the way I grew up, I never had enough time to process what was happening. Acting has always been a really great space to learn more about myself. I understood more about myself by playing those people. You really get to sit with your feelings in a way that doesn’t feel so overwhelming. There’s a big reason why I do it. It’s not because of anything other than what benefits me. [Laughs] You know what I mean?
It’s funny that actors, like all artists are, the most sensitive people, yet you’re asked to hit the world’s stage in a way that would frighten most people.
It is really hard. There are people who were born to perform and people who were born to make. I’m not a natural performer. I’m very like, “Oh my god, everybody’s looking at me… Why?” [Laughs] “God damn it.” I don’t like making mistakes in front of people and things like that. It’s not where I find my natural comfort. I’m really good one-on-one, but with a group or an audience? Forget it. These kinds of jobs allow me to feel like I understand people, which is maybe an illusion. Feeling like I understand myself is maybe the biggest illusion. But I like the feeling.
I grew up really liking Joseph Campbell and mythologies. This is my own way of understanding mythology through storytelling. I think art is our mythology. The way we tell the human story and the way we tell our own story have always been so much more interesting to me than the facts. It’s like being an emotional detective instead of an actual detective. It’s not, “Where were you when this happened?” but “What were you feeling? What do you think you saw?” We all remember things so differently. It’s such an interesting thing to never really know the truth because the truth is the space between two people’s perceptions, and neither one is accurate. The truth is untouchable.
Can I ask you what the song “The Modern Age” is about?
That song is about feeling really displaced in your current environment, which is something that I always struggled with on both macro and micro levels. I have such a passion and love for what I do, but I’m never in a circle where I feel like I really belong there. I keep thinking that the older I get, the more I’ll find the comfort to be okay, but it doesn’t happen. “The Modern Age” is about feeling disconnected from the time or the headspace you’re living in. The moment of creativity is maybe the only time I really feel connected, and just the few people that I’m really close with in my life. Other than that, I feel a little bit like a helium balloon, like, “How do I get down? How do I get down there?” [Laughs] It’s unfortunate. I wish that wasn’t the way things were.
Do you like checking out live shows?
I hate going to shows.
What if it’s one of your favorite bands playing?
I would still hate it, probably. I don’t like things that flash.
I’m learning so much about you today.
[Laughs] Every time Phantogram plays, I go because I love them and they’re my friends, but their lightshow is out of control at this point. My eyes are closed the whole time: “You guys sounded great! But I didn’t see anything.”
When do you think you do your best work? I recently had a chance to sit down with the great pianist, Seymour Bernstein, and he had something very interesting to say about the subject: We shouldn’t just recognize the good work we do, but rather, figure out what the conditions were that allowed for it to happen.
That’s really interesting. I do well in both acting and writing when there’s something going on, like, almost a crisis. It’s something that’s really going on that I need to get out of me emotionally. When I’m not going through something big, I don’t really know what to write about. I’m not a crafty person. I don’t have discipline.
Now you’re just writing the headline: Aleksa Palladino isn’t crafty, No discipline.
It’s true, though! These are things I could pretend to have, but I don’t. I write really good when I’m in chaos. There’s something so hot inside of me that has to come out, and there’s no stopping it. They just come out and it all makes sense somehow, or maybe not. I think they do. I have friends who are much more dedicated to the work ethic of being an artist, like, putting something into it every day. I agree with that, but I don’t live that at all. I’m much like a volcano. I’m silent until something huge erupts out of me. Dormant and not dormant: those are my stages. [Laughs] I don’t come from structure and everyone in my family is kind of the same.
If that’s how you operate, you’ll only make things that really mean something to you.
And if I make anything bad, no one will ever see it because I have really high standards. Even with painting, I paint a lot and only a few people know about it.
What kind of stuff do you paint?
I can’t draw at all, so I don’t paint anything real.
It is! I paint something that… I don’t know what they are. [Laughs] Damn, you stumped me. One feels like you’re inside of a cave looking out into a sort of storm? Another one looks like an explosion coming out of the water?
I think a truly creative person oscillates between different mediums. They’re not so locked into the idea of pursuing just one specific thing. There are no boundaries.
I think so, too. This goes back to me not being crafty. I’ve played guitar for over 20 years, but I’m not good. I know how to write with it and make sounds with it, but if someone asked me to play a random song, I can’t figure out anyone else’s stuff. I can barely figure out my own stuff! [Laughs] I think it’s one and the same because I’m just a creative person and I’m not actually good at any of the things that I do on their own, but I bring a lot to them.
What drew you to guitar?
When I was little, I loved The Parent Trap. The original one, not the Lindsay Lohan one. So it’s about two sisters that are separated and find out they’re twins, right? One played the piano and the other played the guitar, and I was always like, “Which one am I?” because they were so different. One was sort of the free-spirited Cali girl and the other one was the elegant Bostonian. So I chose both. Then my mom got me “Miracle Piano” on Nintendo with the little keyboard and everything. I thought it was going to be a miracle and I was going to know how to do it the next day. I was so angry because I just couldn’t learn it that way, and I wasn’t going to have a teacher. At 8 years old, I already knew that I wouldn’t be good at anything because that’s not in my cards, but I’m going to be creative with everything. I have no discipline. I turn off the minute I have to learn something, not as an adult so much but I definitely did as a kid. If I had to be taught something, I was already out the door. Any one of my high school teachers will attest to that.
What can you tell me about The Veil? Who do you play in that one?
It’s about a cult sort of like Jonestown, and it takes place in the present day and the past. In the present day, there’s a sole survivor from a mass suicide. That character is played by Lily Rabe, who’s contacted by documentary filmmakers to go back to the scene of the crime essentially. She was a kid when the massacre happened. When they get there, they start to find all of this old footage. The leader is played by Thomas Jane, who’s amazing in this role, and I play his wife. She’s sort of his right-wing man, until she starts to see that he’s using his powers for evil and throws a wrench into the whole thing. It was a really difficult role just because of the kind of research you had to do, and it was a really rough headspace to be in. I couldn’t wait to start shooting so I could stop researching. Once you start shooting, it’s just whatever, who cares. [Laughs] It’s just going to come out how it’s going to come out. I can’t put anymore in. The days leading up, I was actually scared of the movie. This is scary shit.
What if you signed on for a film that doesn’t shoot for another year? It’s like, “Uhhh, have you guys seen Aleksa? She hasn’t come out of her house.”
[Laughs] My nails would be all long, and crazy hair.
That totally sounds like a role you’d be drawn to. Not because of the cult stuff, although that’s interesting. I mean playing the character that sort of flips the whole thing upside down.
In life, there are so many times when we lose ourselves, even to an idea of our own, and we’re so invested in this ideal. And there’s always this moment where there’s a crack, some light comes in, and you’re like, “This is not the whole picture.” What you find in those moments is clarity.
What do you remember from the shoot?
Thomas Jane barefoot the entire time.
Is that how he likes to act normally?
That’s how he lives! We’re shooting in the forest with poison ivy everywhere. Everyone’s getting it except for him, who’s walking around barefoot. Go figure. He is who he is, and I love that. I almost feel like that’s a dying breed. He’s so who he is that no one even asks questions. It’s so beyond that, you know what I mean?
It’s that whole Matthew McConaughey thing. He couldn’t give two fucks.
Do you have any desire to direct?
I do. I have the desire to have the desire, you know what I mean? I really want to, I’m just not there. I feel like there are things I’ll do at other stages of my life. But I would love to.
What does your family say about your work? Do you talk to them about stuff like that?
Yeah, I do. My grandmother always wants me to do a movie like Casablanca or something where I’m like a sweet, beautiful woman. I’m like, “Grandma, they don’t make movies like Casablanca anymore.” She’s Italian, and she’s like, “They don’t really know you. They don’t know you!” [Laughs] It’s not like other people are doing Casablanca movies. It just doesn’t exist anymore.
What’s interesting is the difference in the way women are portrayed nowadays. Think of Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca and how all of her strength is internal, and she’s still so soft and lovely and sweet. There’s a strength there, but it’s not the kind of strength that we see now like, “I’m in charge of my sexuality and strength!” That’s what modern women find compelling, right? Her strength is really from knowing she can endure, knowing that she can get through tough situations and survive. That’s a very different strength and I relate to that much more.
What do you think is a particularly big lesson you learned through all of this?
Who I am and being true to that will always keep me to the left of everything I’m doing. I don’t ever expect to be mainstream in anything that I do. But that’s never been my goal anyway. Fuck everybody. It’s really interesting to grow up and discover what you find valuable about yourself because I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve always heard what people found valuable about me. And by that, what I really mean is, what people found not valuable about me. It’s like, you only have this many Tweets or followers! You’re only worth this much, so we can’t make our movie with you. You’re not worth anything overseas! You’re just like, “Okay.” [Laughs] You know not to take that to heart intellectually, but you still hear it. They’re informing you of your worth. The older I get, the more important it is to me to really have my own understanding of all that stuff and no one else’s. I really need to love myself. I’m done feeling bad about who I am.
Aleska is not only a talent, but as a whole package she is a definite, and well defined force on the horizon. Her attitudes and actions on, and with her art and herself, and the life around both remind me of a candle in the eye of a hurricane, knowing when to move, and which way to go to assure her light always burns bright in the paradox. A woman not only to be watched, but listened to, and heard. A beautiful soul, and an important artist.