Standing alongside Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, Halt and Catch Fire has become AMC’s little engine that could. Despite low ratings (and lower ratings the second season), Halt and Catch Fire is back for a third season, once again with high praise from critics. It’s understandable that Halt and Catch Fire has struggled to find a larger audience; it’s an intimate drama about the rise of the computer age that doesn’t shy away from tech-jargon and is atypical in its approach to onscreen relationships. However, for those who have invested in the series, the show has proven to be highly rewarding cable watch. Besides A-level writing, the show features brilliant performances from stars Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, and Toby Huss. Huss plays older businessman John “Bos” Bosworth, who has gone from hardnosed Texas businessman who hired Pace’s Joe McMillian to build a computer (and was sent to prison for embezzlement) to loyal employee of Mutiny, Davis and Bishé Cameron and Donna’s internet company. The evolution of Bos seems fitting considering the show represents a bit of professional transformation for an actor primarily known for comedies. We spoke about returning to Bos for a third season, what to expect from season three, and his return to weird comedy with his new movie In The Valley of Violence.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.
I was so happy when the show got picked up for a third season, but it felt to me it got renewed pretty late in the game, and a lot of people assumed it had essentially been canceled. When did you find out AMC had ordered a 3rd season?
Well, it was pretty long after the second season aired, but the reason for that is, most networks only renew shows that get ratings. We didn’t, at least when episodes aired on Sunday nights. But they looked at some different algorithms and to their credit, brought the show back and gave us a new night. It helped that we found a loyal audience when people who found us online.
The main relationship that is central to your character in the show is the one you share with Mackenzie Davis’s character Cameron, which started in the first season, but really blossomed into a very close, paternal friendship in the second season. How do you feel the show evolved that relationship, particularly in the third?
The writers did a great job keeping that relationship vital for the characters. They never made it an extreme relationship and it’s always felt completely believable. She really cares about the way he sees her, and she offers him some redemption as a man who wasn’t there for his own son when he was growing up. Bos really wants to make up for that and sees his chance with Cameron. I think their friendship is a really deep and important relationship for the show. And it gets tested pretty heavily in season three, about as much as a relationship can. It gets pretty heavy. But to Mackenzie’s credit, she’s such a gifted actresses we could go there and really tackle that stuff.
Because of the way the show has evolved in the third season, particularly the move that took place in the last episode of season two, you have a lot more scene with Donna. And that’s a very different relationship Bos has with her than with Cameron. How would you describe their relationship and what was it like doing more scenes with Kerry this season?
I think Bos and Donna have a great respect for one another on a professional level. Bos isn’t so personally invested in Donna’s life, the way he is with Cameron. But he’s had the opportunity to watch and observe Donna become a formidable businesswoman all on her own, and I think he’s very impressed by her. He sits back in awe and watches her construct this company, and I think he knows that she’s doing it as well as anyone one he’s ever done business with, even when he was at the top of Cardiff Electric. He has a lot of respect for her, and to Bos’s credit and the way they wrote him, I think he knows when someone’s a little more talented than he is and he’s pretty secure with that knowledge.
The Bos we met in the first season is a very different guy from the man we have in season three. Do you think he had to evolve into the guy that can have that respect for women in the business world?
He wouldn’t have been able to see it, and if he were made aware of it, I don’t think he would have had the respect for them he has now. I think he’s a vastly different man than he was, even though it’s a very short timeline we’re dealing within on the show. Between season one and season two, it became a completely different world for him. He lost everything he had and hit the reset button on his life. But to his credit, he was sort of weirdly malleable, this old Texas Republican, and sees the world from a completely different perspective now. He has a whole new lease on life, and they could have easily written the character differently, kept him as Joe’s foil or the grumpy old guy standing in the way of Mutiny. But the writers didn’t want to do that, they wanted to give this guy some redemption and they wrote him beautifully.
The show’s creators have taken on the position of show runners this season. Were there any big changes to the way they work and produce episodes?
No, it was pretty seamless because they are the creators. Jonathan Lisco was brought in not only to run the show’s day to day, but also to teach them how to run their show. So this season Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers were ready to take over and they did a great job. From what I heard about the writers’ room, they set up a great tone in there, and they did the same on the set in Atlanta for the crew and actors. They did a great job this season.
I have to say, watching all three seasons and seeing how each season uses the different business settings to tell a different kind of story, Halt and Catch Fire is one of the best looking shows on TV. It’s on a smaller scale than something like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but the show is still cinematic but in a really subtle way.
I was watching that show The Night Of, and it’s so beautiful and well filmed, I find myself almost getting overwhelmed watching it, there’s a real noir saturation to that show. I think the look of our show is really informed by the story and time, the look of the show is treated as just one more element of the entire overall story.
How do you feel about the way the show incorporates the 80s time period?
There’s nothing ironic about the way we use the time period. This isn’t Stranger Things, where we’re taking a trip down memory lane. And we’re not paying homage to anyone. I think we’re just showing the era as it was, and sometime it was sort of awful to look at. But we’re also not using the camera to sexy things up, because the 80s often looked a little bleak. People wore a lot of beige in the 80s, and we don’t shy away from that. They really committed to showing the world they live in with honesty. I think their choice of music really helps convey the era. We don’t use a lot of music, it’s pretty sparse and they choose music carefully. We aren’t a show with a massive budget for music, costumes sets, but I think the show maximizes everything we have.
You grew up in the era being reflected, and Bos seems like such a realistic guy from this era. A smart businessman who sees what the future holds, even if he knows he won’t be the person developing it. And a guy who was providing for his kids, but might not have been around very much. Did you base your performance on people you knew growing up?
John Bosworth is based to some extent on my Uncle Tom Roland, who’s still around and is an executive over at Pembrook in Houston. He’s an old Montana guy and was that kind of business man from that era. Uncle Tom left a big impression on me as a kid, he was a no-nonsense kind of man and if he had to go through the kind of journey Bosworth had to, he probably would have responded in a similar way. He’s that malleable a guy and would have adjusted his perspective in order to succeed in a new business world. He didn’t have to and my Uncle Tom is still married and has a son, but I think he would have said “well, I guess I have to reinvent myself, I didn’t see that coming” and then made the adjustments. He’s a great guy, and there are ways I walk that I based on him and patterns of speech I took from him. Bos’s accent is basically a combination of my Uncle Tom and my father.
The accent you use is interesting because speaking with you now, it’s not your voice, but Bosworth also isn’t a stereotypical, Texas accent we’ve heard a lot, particularly older characters. He has his own unique voice, very different from the voice you used on King of Hill.
Yeah, Tom was from Montana, so his accent was something he picked up when he moved to Houston. My father’s from Iowa, but I also know a lot of Texas guys. And Texas doesn’t have one specific accent, there are a lot of different accents in Texas. When you play Texas on TV, there’s a tendency to make the characters a little cornpone and I wanted to get away from that. I love playing those cornpone characters too, but not in this show. I didn’t want too much Cotton Hill in Bosworth.
I have seen In The Valley of Violence, and that character’s accent in that film is a little closer than Bosworth. Your character in that film’s probably the subtlest in the movie, although unlike Bos, he’s a total follower. But that movie is so over the top in terms of violence and black humor. James Ransone is hilarious as this terrifying buffoon.
James is hilarious, he’s so awful in it. Yeah, the characters is one of his followers, and he’s kind of pathetic. But I tried to give him a little humanity. It was written that he has a daughter, and wants to see her again. It’s a small part, but I loved that movie. It is such a weird outlier in the western genre. I think Ti West did a great job with it and I think that’s one of Travolta’s best performances.
Were you looking for a chance to do a western?
Oh yeah. That’s a childhood dream, to do a western.
I remember being a kid a watching The Adventures of Pete & Pete and that kind of being my introduction to surreal humor. And you’ve done so much comedy and so many of the characters are truly weird. Was it hard to move into characters like Bos that are more serious and straight-laced?
I don’t know what came first sometimes, if they created the characters and thought I’d be best to play the, or if they knew me as the guy that played weird characters and just let me go crazy. But even starting out, I really wanted to do more serious roles. Carnivale was really a great opportunity to try my hand at drama, and I really loved doing that show. It was just ahead of its time I think. Had it premiered around the time Halt and Catch Fire had, I think it would have found a loyal audience because they would have had the internet to support it.
One of the guest stars from this seasons, Annabeth Gish, plays a woman who works with Donna and Cameron, and is another highly successful business woman that he has a lot of respectful for. And she also has a little crush on Bos. I think she fits perfectly into the show and is a really nice part of the ensemble. What was it like work with her?
I thought the casting was great. I’d never worked with her before, but she couldn’t have fit any better into the show, and is a huge asset. She’s a great actress, but there’s also just something about the woman she is in her own life that makes that character fit and become something really special. She’s a great addition to the show for Bos to play off of, but she’s also so important to have on the show because of Donna. Donna sees her and know she can be a really successful businesswoman and working mother. They really bonded this season. And Annabeth is just a great person to have on set. She’s a great actress and comes in with no ego and couldn’t be any sweeter as a person.
Was there anything in the third season that you got really excited about when they talked to you about Bos’s arc this season?
His relationship with Diane, Annabeth’s character, and a chance that Bos wouldn’t have a relationship with a kid. It seems strange to say, but it seemed pretty exciting that he would have an adult relationship with a real woman. But we don’t see a lot of those in film or TV. We’re not used to a guy in his 40s or 50s have a relationship with a woman even 10 years within his age, because showbiz is so obsessed with youth, and particularly hard on women. But I think it’s refreshing to see a relationship between a mature man and woman, and I think it adds dimensions to Bosworth that I like.
I know that you do a Sinatra impression in your free time. Are you still doing that show?
I am. I’m hoping to do it at the old Steve Allen Theater around Christmas Time. I think they wrote in that scene of me singing in the first episode because of it. I was pretty excited when I saw that in the first episode. They All Laughed isn’t a cheap song either, so I have to thank them for writing that in for me. They broke the AMC bank for that scene.
Halt and Catch Fire airs on AMC Tuesdays at 9/8c (the first two episodes of season three air back to back tonight).