Foundation's Lee Pace And Laura Birn On Their Characters' Contradictory Relationship [Exclusive Interview]


The second season of "Foundation" gives us new iterations of Cleons, the clones of the first of that name who rule over a crumbling galactic empire. Three Cleons of different ages exist at one time: the young Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), Brother Day (Lee Pace), and Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann). Supporting those Cleons (or, perhaps, manipulating them?) is the ageless robot Demerzel, played by Laura Birn.

I had the chance to talk with Birn and Pace about their characters' relationship in the upcoming episodes, where we also learn a little bit more about how Demerzel became connected to the Cleons. "There is a marriage here, there is a marriage that is full of contradictions," Pace explained to me about his character and Demerzel. Birn readily agreed: "You can have deep love, but also you can be so disappointed in the other one," she told me, adding that "you can have an ego fight inside a beautiful marriage." 

No marriage is simple, but add in the sci-fi wrinkle of an artificial intelligence being the primary relationship for over a dozen clones of the same person from birth through death, and things get even more complicated. I talked with the two actors about what their characters face in season 2, when Birn knew certain secrets about Demerzel, as well as what Pace likes to read on his own time.

'I think love is a very powerful emotion'

No spoilers, but there's a complexity that we find out about Demerzel and the Cleons' relationship in season 2. When did you both become aware of that aspect of your two characters' history? And Laura specifically for you, I remember you said in a previous interview that [showrunner David S. Goyer] told you a secret about your character in season 1. Do we find out that secret in season 2?

Laura Birn: We do find out the secret, yes, with season 2. But I think already in season 1, we got to explore a little bit of the relationship with that. She's their mother, she teaches them everything they know. She coaches them to become the emperor of the galaxy. And at the same time, she controls them, kind of like she controls everything they know. They live in this bubble inside the empire. They don't have any other people. It is very small and controlled.

Lee Pace: And I would say that Cleon, there's no one he trusts more than her. There's no one he loves more than her. She's raised him, she's conditioned him. She's made him believe he's the emperor of the galaxy and that he is justified and this is his rightful place in the world. So I think none of that backstory ever becomes clear to my character. I think he's moving forward in this plan that he has, of ending the dynasty, believing that this is a plan that they share. That I'm working with her blessing, that she's his soulmate in many ways.

That's a way I find my way into the character, because I think love is a very powerful emotion, and I think it's also a very complex one. They love each other deeply, but she's also a machine. They love each other deeply, but he owns her. They love each other deeply, but she owns him. I think that all of those things can be true. It's exciting to play a relationship where that is the case.

'I want to punch you, but I can't be without you'

And Lee, I know you mentioned Cleon's love of Demerzel is a constant no matter what version of Cleon you're playing. Obviously, we've seen different versions of the character. When you get into the character and when you're playing these different Cleons, beyond that love for Demerzel, is there any constant you try to bring to the character, even though they're different versions of Cleon?

Pace: The ego. He's got an ego the size of the galaxy. And I think this Cleon [in season 2] believes that his ego is unique, that he is unique, that he is writing his own path. That he is an individual, he's not just one of the clones. There was a first Cleon and he will be the last Cleon. He thinks there's a greatness inside of him. Now, I guess I would leave it to the audience because what I find so interesting about him, inside that ego, is all of his blind spots. All of the things that he doesn't understand because that takes up so much space.

I guess one of the things I think when I step outside of him and look at him, is how much that is like all of the Cleons who came before him. But I think the trick would be for the character to not know that. To actually think that he is unique, to think that he is the greatest of them. But they all think that. They all think that, because we all do in our life. We think that we're the hero of our story. We're the hero of all the stories. I guess that's how I would answer it. And [Demerzel] plays an important part of that because her intellect so far surpasses what his intellect is capable of, that her wisdom is thousands of years deep. He's so out of his depth with her, and yet he feels as though he's her superior.

Birn: I think part of that is why also he wants to hurt her, because there's also fear of this unbalance, because she ... like season 1, where we end up with the characters when he really makes her suffer. Because there's also this ... she's maybe even too powerful for them. It's intriguing. It's intimidating.

Pace: We would talk about it, and we'd create a way that we could understand it in a terrestrial earth way, is that it is very much like a marriage. There is a marriage here, there is a marriage that is full of contradictions.

Birn: Yeah, and you can have deep love, but also you can be so disappointed in the other one. Or you can have an ego fight inside a beautiful marriage, also. And all that can exist at the same time.

Pace: Yeah. In a sense of, "I thought you thought I was the greatest. I thought you thought I was the emperor of the galaxy. Was that a lie?"

Birn: And at the same time, knowing that I'm not going to survive without you, kind of like that — I want to punch you, but I can't be without you.

Pace: It's so much fun as an actor to be given this Rubik's cube of a character.

'I also would be curious to see how the character responds to an even weaker empire'

Totally. And that actually leads nicely to my next question: If there's a potential season 3, are there any aspects of your characters you would love to explore?

Pace: No, I would leave that to [showrunner David S. Goyer.] He's given me such fun characters to play, so I'd be curious to know what's on his mind. I also would be curious to see how the character responds to an even weaker empire. And then, because it all seems like it's going in one direction, and I wonder how that will be expressed in the Cleons.

What about you, Laura?

Birn: Yeah, I'm super happy exploring whatever comes her way. I don't want to ... I keep my secrets to myself.

Oh, do you have more secrets that you know about your character?

Birn: Well, I do have some vague ideas what could happen, maybe possibly, if we were to continue.

Exciting. And Lee, I have to ask, for my last question: I'm also an avid sci-fi reader, and I was wondering, have you read any good books lately in sci-fi?

Pace: I have been in a deep study of Ursula Le Guin. I am going through a lot of her short stories right now, ["The Birthday of the World and Other Stories."] There's this one that takes place on a slow ship, a generational ship [a novella titled "Paradises Lost"], and it takes five generations to get to the planet that they're going. So you're with this one generation that's only known the ship. That's their world. I love her. I love everything about what she writes. I love her, this world of respect and consent that she creates. I happily go back to her again and again. You agree, right?

I agree. She's one of the greats for a reason. For sure.

The second season of "Foundation" premieres on Apple TV+ on July 14, 2023.