CHICAGO — When actress Kerry Bishe heard she landed the part of computer engineer Donna Clark on AMC’s new drama “Halt and Catch Fire,” she went where many great tech geniuses go: the garage.
She and a software engineer friend holed up in his Pasadena, California garage and tinkered as she peppered him with questions in an attempt to understand the minutiae of computer technology.
“We ordered some Speak & Spells (a computerized toy that factors heavily in the show’s pilot episode) off eBay and took them apart and soldered stuff,” she said. “It literally gave me a migraine headache one day because I was trying so hard to grasp the concepts.”
For Bishe, the time she spent getting “close to the metal,” or deep in the guts of a machine’s system, was important to her mastery of the role. For the show’s producers, it was another example of the dedication that made Bishe the right actress to embody this multifaceted character.
“Is she going to become a true engineer in a week of exposure? No, obviously not,” said Jonathan Lisco, the series’ showrunner and executive producer. “However, as a very astute, very precise actress, is she going to subconsciously absorb things that are going to inform her performance and make it more credible? There is no doubt. But only someone with her level of sensitivity would be able to have that experience bear fruit.”
“Halt and Catch Fire,” which premieres Sunday and is available online, is set in 1983 during the personal computer revolution. (The show’s title comes from a command that essentially forces a computer to self-destruct.)
Lee Pace, best known for his work on “Pushing Daises,” plays Joe MacMillan, a Gordon Gekko-like tech salesman. In the pilot he partners with a hapless, lost computer engineer named Gordon Clark, played by Scoot McNairy, to reverse-engineer an IBM PC and attempt to make it better. For Clark, it’s a second chance; he has harbored dreams of technical grandeur since he and his wife built a computer that failed and left his family deep in debt.
Bishe’s portrayal of Gordon’s wife, Donna, a talented engineer who works at Texas Instruments, is powerful in its emotional variation. From stressed working mom to deeply scarred wife to loving, extremely giving partner to tech genius, Bishe gives each persona its due, creating a character that reflects the intricacies of everyday life. In the pilot’s 47 minutes, Bishe carries serious narrative weight, adding a human touch to the tech-heavy story.
“That’s really just the tip of the iceberg,” Bishe (pronounced “bi-shea”) said coyly during a phone interview from New York. Bishe, 30, speaks quickly and seems upbeat and excited – and she’s got plenty to be excited about.
This is arguably her most visible, meatiest role. A Northwestern alumna, Bishe spent ample time doing live theater, including a stint on Broadway alongside Claire Danes in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and off-Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape.” On film, she appeared in Kevin Smith’s “Red State,” and played Kathy Stafford, one of the imperiled American diplomats in “Argo.” On TV, Bishe took over for Zach Braff as the protagonist during the last season of “Scrubs.”
The Clarks’ garage is a hub of activity in the pilot of “Halt and Catch Fire.” Gordon Clark begins to take an IBM apart in the garage.
It’s there that Donna Clark discovers that not only has Gordon bought a computer, a purchase the family certainly cannot afford, he has entered into a partnership with MacMillan without consulting her. In the last moments of the episode, Donna stands over the guts of the computer, the remnants of Gordon and Joe’s work, and stares longingly, as though she wants to get in on the tech action.
In this silent look, Donna is revealed. She’s the steadfast wife and the levelheaded one, yes, but “you learn throughout the pilot that she’s really intelligent, she has her own work life,” Bishe said. The Clarks “built a computer together, and you get an inkling that she had to sacrifice some stuff in order to be that rational homemaking wife and mother, and maybe she made sacrifices that he didn’t. There are all these little suggestions that tease what could be possible for this person.”
When producers began to cast the role of Donna Clark, they searched for an actress who could embody dichotomies and “project intellect, ambition and incredible emotional nuance.”
“As soon as we saw Kerry on tape, we knew she was Donna,” fellow co-creator Christopher Cantwell wrote in an email. “She has a very strong intellect that’s apparent even when she’s discussing more mundane matters in dialogue. With Kerry, we can do scenes of Donna that are domestic on the surface, while keeping the character dimensional and layered. … We wanted Donna to be smart and capable, and Kerry is naturally very much both of those things.”
Many of Bishe’s colleagues lauded her fearlessness in taking scenes in new directions or putting a different spin on a moment.
“Her technique is wonderful, but she is also a jazz player who is able to do things on the spot and try new things and go into new terrain,” Lisco said. “The results are just dynamic and compelling.”
McNairy agreed: “She is very natural and very open to new ideas. It’s seldom that you get to work with people (like Kerry) who are that collaborative.” (Interestingly, this is not the first time that McNairy and Bishe have been fictionally married; in “Argo” the pair played Joe and Kathy Stafford.)
The rest of the show’s 10-episode first season promises to feature Donna dealing with questions of personal and professional fulfillment, producers said. She’ll struggle with loneliness and jealousy as she allows her husband to go after his dreams. She’ll hope that his journey will rejuvenate him.