Making Space for Topher Grace - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Making Space for Topher Grace

Making Space for Topher Grace

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because movies are still one of the better kinds of magic.

By Eugene S. Robinson

You know the stories you hear about the artist who lived, breathed and totally embodied the spirit of their chosen calling? Well, this is not that. Topher Grace, a varsity tennis player, got hurt, decided to do a school play on a lark and BAM! Was discovered. But it’s not how you’re discovered that matters. It’s what you do after you’ve been discovered. And Grace has been a model for how to make more right moves than wrong ones, which is why he’s on this episode of The Carlos Watson Show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

The Schwab’s Soda Counter Discovery Story

Carlos Watson: And you came out to LA for school. Was that how you ended up in LA?

Topher Grace: Yeah. So, OK, I had acted in these … I mean, let me just tell you, I love your show and I hate that I’m on it because I have to be the least prolific person you’ve talked to. So, me telling my story of success is just a “Don’t do it the way I did it.” I just kind of stumbled into it. But I was in a … I liked acting, but I didn’t think it could be a job. I didn’t see how I could. And I didn’t think I was like a cutie or anything. There were people that I went to school with who I thought, “Well, that looks like a movie star.” Not my thing. And then I did have a tennis injury. I was on the varsity tennis team and I had this injury and I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to do the play.”

Although, there were these really dramatic kids who are really into the play at this boarding school I was going to. It was a real upset when I got the lead. But when we did it — and this wasn’t even a great drama program — but when we did it, the girl who did the sets, her parents were big-time Hollywood producers who I’d met, who were lovely. And they said, “Hey, since you’re going to USC next year, can we call you?”

I didn’t know what they meant. I mean, I thought maybe they meant to be their assistant or something. So I went like, I mean, this is horrible, I said, “Sure, babe. Hollywood. Have your people call my people. We’ll do lunch at Spago or whatever.” I mean, I thought I was being funny. And then she did call me. I mean, she’d just won the Golden Globe, this woman and her husband, the year before.

And she called me in my dorm and said, “We’re looking for kids who are not like the typical Hollywood kids.” And at first, I thought I was in trouble. I was like, “All right.” She said, “Hey, it’s Bonnie.” I said, “Oh, hey.” Like, “Is this some girl I hooked up with at college or something?” I didn’t know. She said, “No, it’s Lindsay’s mom.” I’m like, “Oh, my God, am I in trouble?” She said, “No, no. I want you to come audition.” And I’d never really auditioned for something outside of high school plays, so it was very … she said, “Bring your headshot and your résumé.”

I said, “OK, I know what résumé is, but what is a headshot?” She said, “It’s a picture of you so we know who the résumé [belongs to].” I said, “OK, cool.” And I showed up, and my résumé was like Dunkin’ Donuts and a Suncoast Video where I’d worked at the mall. Not the right résumé for the room. Then I took out the picture and it was just me and all my friends at Six Flags.

But I think it was nerdy enough that they were like, “Yeah, this tracks.”

Watson: So, why do you think you got it?

Grace: That’s a great question. Because for years, I didn’t really know. I worked really hard once I got it, but I didn’t really know. And I look back and I go, I remember this room of kids that they were all auditioning that day to get the role. And I’d been in a couple of times because I think when I first came, they thought, “Are we really going to cast this kid who went to school with her daughter who has zero acting experience?”

But as I look back now, I realize they were all really cool. I was intimidated by them, both that they were good at acting and also that they were so good-looking and they had lots of gel in their hair and they knew all the ways to do it. But as I look back as an adult now, or someone who now casts shows, I go, “Oh, what you’re looking for is something different.”

Because something happens where everyone kind of, even though it’s Hollywood and you have success by being different, a lot of people assimilate and do things a certain way. I didn’t know any of those rules, and I had to make up my own rules. That was the truth for a lot of people in that cast. Ashton [Kutcher] had never acted before. Laura [Prepon] had never acted. Wilmer [Valderrama] barely spoke English. It was really brave of them to find people who, they’re marching to their own drummer.

I mean, I didn’t even know if I wanted to march to someone else’s drummer, I didn’t even know the beat because I hadn’t been on the scene. So, it was actually a bumpy first couple of episodes, but then we all learned our own version of how we wanted to do it. It was the greatest, best experience of my life.

Managing the Magic

Watson: Play Sliding Doors for two seconds. What would have happened if you hadn’t gotten that?

Grace: I’ve thought about this. I imagine people who win the lottery feel the same way. It’s such a departure from what you had dreamed your life would be. My biggest dream was, I don’t know, maybe I get a date in college, you know what I mean? I hadn’t had a date yet. And then all of a sudden someone’s, “By the way, you have a show that’s coming on after The Simpsons on Fox.”

I was like, “I didn’t even think I’d be an actor.” I mean, it was too much of a dream. So for a while, I only tried to live in what would have been. I tried to live on campus still and just live in that life. It was too much for me. But my dad said something really interesting to me a couple of years ago. He’s a smart guy and he said, “You know, there are no parallel universes.”

I don’t know. Maybe there are. He’s not a scientist. I mean, I think he meant metaphorically. There’s no purpose in looking back, for both good and bad things. I mean, I can guess I would have been a total failure at almost anything else in my life. But I was completely undecided and partying and had no idea what I wanted to do. But I do understand what my dad is saying. It helps if you don’t play Sliding Doors when it’s bad … you can’t really play it when it’s good either.

Watson: How did it change the dynamic in your family?

Grace: I hear people whose interviews say, “It’s all because of my folks.” And I used to kind of … I mean, it is all because of my folks. They’re wonderful. But I used to just hate when people said that. I thought it was a trite thing to say. And now that I’m a dad, I realized how much they sacrificed and how lucky I am to be born to two people like that who … they care.

They still care so deeply about my career and what I’m going through in life, but they really don’t care about the stuff that some people get caught up into. Some people’s parents get caught up into it. I had a very healthy, separate life in Connecticut where I grew up. I don’t know how I would have done if I didn’t have that home base. When things started to get crazy and the show started getting very popular and then I was doing movies and it was a heady time, I could always hop on a plane, go back.

They still lived in my childhood home. I’d sleep in my bunk bed. And my dad would make pancakes on Sunday morning. It was like … my sister was still living there at the time. I always felt very spoiled. I thought I was spoiled for other reasons when I grew up — and I was spoiled, but that’s the way I was really spoiled: being born to those two people.

Watson: Wow. What about friendships and things like that? A writer for Rolling Stone once told me that everyone who becomes famous — he was talking about musicians at the time — but I guess my question is, does it apply in acting too? He said, “Anyone who became super famous went crazy the first year.”

Grace: Oh, I dumped all of my friends. Immediately. Unless they were really rich. I just dumped them, started over with some really impressive other famous people. No … I had an opposite reaction, which — it was too much for me. I imagine if I was one of those actors who was waiting tables and trying to get into the industry for years then it happened, I could see myself getting carried away with it, for sure. But to not have ever dreamed of something like that and then have it happen to you, what I felt was an overwhelming sense of responsibility both to the opportunity, which was coming a little younger than people normally get those kinds of opportunities in their life, and then a sense of responsibility to that show, because the role I was playing was different from the other roles.

Not a Racist. But Playing One in the Movies

Watson: Wait, what have you been like in the last year? Have you been as taken with some of the conversations around race and change and politics and all that?

Grace: I had a little bit of an early entry in that conversation before the pandemic doing BlacKkKlansman. I started to get really excited about roles that were based on novels and based on things that really happened. And I was just very political in this around the time my daughter was born and my wife is very outspoken and it’s kind of tough. We’re both actors, but we have strongly held beliefs, but also one of my beliefs is that actors, people shouldn’t really listen to actors. They’re good at saying other people’s words, but maybe they don’t always say the best things.

So I’m kind of torn between how much I should say to a dinner table and how much I should say on a talk show. But when that opportunity came, I’d been in a film called Truth, which was about Dan Rather and when he ran into an incident at CBS, and that was the first really political thing I did. Cate Blanchett starred and it’s just a great film.

Then I did War Machine because I loved that so much, which was Brad Pitt, and that was another kind of politically charged film. And I was really starting to love watching stuff that was on the news at night, and then kind of bringing it to work with you the next day both in terms of how you’re talking to your spouse about it, and then how you’re talking to your coworkers about it.

You get to put some of it into your work. But unfortunately those two films, I think they’re great, but they didn’t find that audience. Then I remember getting the call from Spike Lee and thinking, “This probably won’t have the level of success I want it to, but I mean, Spike Lee. I mean, he’s the guy to do it.” And Jordan Peele was producing it. I just thought this could be … you never know as an actor, but this could be that special thing where it’s not me saying it to the country. It’s Spike saying something on a national level, but I could be a part of helping him say that.

Then, in between when I was cast and I started doing my research and we started shooting, Charlottesville happened and it was … look, I mean, it’s one of the worst periods of time in our country’s history. But for me, it was very cathartic too. I was also having a terrible time doing this research on it and trying to become this person. But to be watching TV at night and be so angry and frustrated because I didn’t know what to say or who to say it to, but then to be able to go to set the next day and be with someone who is a great storyteller like that and know that he’s like … Jordan had done Get Out during the Obama presidency, but it came out during the Trump presidency.

And I think he’d reshot some of the ending during the Trump presidency, but it was kind of like an Obama America, just really worked in Trump America. But this was, I think, the first film that was really made in Trump’s America. And he’s even in the film at the end. And we were at rehearsals and Spike is a teacher, so we’re literally in his classroom and we’re rehearsing it. And if you have ideas, he’s so open to them.

So to be doing this terrible research, watching this news and then doing these rehearsals, then we’re changing stuff off the script and then we’re going to set, and he’s such a master. To me, it’s been a depressing time. That whole time is depressing. And that movie sadly became more and more relevant as it went, but at least there was an artistic, cathartic, experience in being able to say something about it.

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