Topher Grace – 20 years ago. Has it been that long?

   

June 2004 By Philip Berk

Hail Christopher* Full of Grace!

*Which happens to be his given name.

Topher may have been a fixture on television for the past seven years (as one  of the That 70’s Show ensemble) but it’s his performance in In Good Company which establishes him as Hollywood’s most promising new star.

Not that he hasn’t done fine work before.

He was the amoral drug addict in Traffic; he played the nice boy in Mona Lisa Smile, and earlier in the year he held his own against Laura Linney in P.S.

But in the Dennis Quaid movie, he’s all at once warm, personable, self deprecating, and yes, full of grace notes.

Think Fred Astaire or Jack Lemmon.

Yet surprisingly he hadn’t done any acting before he was cast in That 70’s Show.

How come? I ask him.

“In high school my ambition was to be a pro tennis player. I was Varsity for four years — I now realize how stupid that idea was having since played with professionals and not being even close —  but luckily I sprained my ankle twice going into my senior year; so I tried out for the school play because all the cute senior girls were doing it and I got the lead. And that’s where I met Lindsey Turner (a fellow student) whose parents Bonnie and Terry Turner produced the TV show Third Rock from the Sun. I was planning to go to USC, and they said ‘Can we call you,’ and I said, sure, babe, Hollywood, yeah, like, let’s do lunch. I never thought they would, and then when they did, that was my first audition.”

And right off the bat he was cast in That 70’s Show.

Still, it took a long time for him to be noticed especially when his costar on the show Ashton Kutcher became an overnight sensation.

Ironically it was a dramatic role in Traffic that turned the tables for him.

How did he get that part?

“I had read the script. I thought it so perfect. I’ll never get it. At that point I had never even been in a film. So I went in and made my case. Acting is very competitive, and it’s tough when you’re starting out because there are so many people who are more famous than you who want the job, but I felt I had something to say. There’s no substitute for passion in terms of saying to the director, ‘You won’t regret giving me the opportunity.”

Four years ago at the Golden Globes I had told him how pivotal his performance  was. Without him it wouldn’t have worked.

Where did he find that character? I ask him now.

“Going to boarding school in Connecticut I had met that drug addicted kid. Steven (Soderbergh the director) and I had a definition for him.‘He talks all the time and says nothing.’ To play him I had to be talking constantly.”

Obviously Soderbergh was equally impressed and cast him conspicuously in both the Oceans Eleven and Twelve movies, as himself.

“I was doing the post production work on Traffic and Steven said, ‘Hey, do you want to come play yourself in a movie?’ and I said ‘Yeah, only if I get to do it as the ten to a thousand assholes I’ve met out here.’ So that was the worst version of me imaginable.”

In Oceans 12 only he and Julia Roberts play themselves. Obviously he’s in good company. Didn’t he feel a little outclassed?

“But that was the joke in the first film. Now with this (In Good Company) coming out and after seven years on the show, maybe not so funny.”

How hard did he have to sell himself to get In Good Company?

“I literally had to beg for the role. Everything short of getting on my knees, prostrating myself, and then auditioning several times. There were at least ten or twenty more famous, better looking people who wanted the role. So I am very grateful that I was cast because I was by far the bottom of that list.”

Is he anything like the character he plays?

“I am very ambitious, but I find it hard to relate to him because he has no foundation. His parents were both absent when he was growing up, and he didn’t have anyone to give him that road map that says, ‘When you’ve accomplished this, you can actually stop working and enjoy your life.’ On paper he seems to have everything: the car, the girl, the job, but it’s not till he goes home with Dennis’ character that he realizes what life is really about.” 

In his own life, does he have that roadmap?

“I had a wonderful upbringing. My folks are here for the premiere tomorrow.  I’m cursed with having a functional family,” he jokes.

Where do they live? 

“In Connecticut. They still live in the house where I was born. So I go back quite a bit. My dad is much like Dennis’s character in the film, commuting to New York. He also works in advertising.”

And his mother?

“She works in a private school, in the front office.”

He also has two brothers and a sister.

But he avoids talking about them

“I have a sister,” he begins, but then gets distracted. “I just bought an apartment in New York, and she just moved there; so I am hoping, when the show ends, to be able to spend more time with my family.”

Later on I ask him his brothers’ names?

“Pat and John,” he answers.

And his sister?

“Jenny. They’re all staying in my house at the moment.”  

Is she older or younger than him?

“Three years younger.”.

Not just Ashton, but his other 70’s Show costar Wilmer Valderrama has been getting lots of tabloid attention recently.

Is there envy on the set? 

“Surprisingly very little. I can understand people assuming there is, but we’ve been together going on seven years. We were teenagers when we started. Mila Kunis was fourteen when we shot the pilot. It’s not that we’re all friends like some sitcoms say they’re all friends,” he jokes. “It’s much deeper than being friends. We really grew up together. I mean, I only have ten episodes to do, I never cry as a rule. Even Finding Nemo. I never cry. But I think I will lose it because it’s beyond being friendly.”

Has he ever offered them unsolicited advice?

“No they’re all too smart for that.”

Does he have a girl friend?

“I’ve learned from some of my peers not to talk about my personal life publicly,” he jokes, but he’s serious.

And in general?

“You must remember, in middle school I was a loser. I did slightly better in high school. I was growing into adulthood when I got this sitcom; so it kind of went from 0 to 60. Only in the past couple of years have I come to grips with it.”

How about marriage. Would he like to follow his parents example?

“Absolutely. My parents just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. I threw them a surprise party, all their friends came. I hope I’m as good a person as they are to have that kind of success. Even though the landscape has changed, I’ll try to follow their example.”

And the qualities he’d be looking for in a wife?

“I know this sounds canned, but I’d have to say intelligence and personality.  I’m finally coming into an age” (a little late at 26) “where I’m trying to date, and that really is the real stuff. I’m looking for someone who’s intelligent now.

”There is something to be said about living in Los Angeles for seven years,” he adds.

Nothing spiritual?

“Not that much.” 

What was it like working with Dennis?

“I knew him from Traffic even though we didn’t act together. but there was a three month post  awards period where we just kept showing up at parties. He had been really wonderful to me. This was four years ago, and I was going on a first date with a girl, telling him I’m not sure what to do, and he said, ‘Oh come and see me and my band play.’ His band is The Sharks. I’d be able to say, ‘That’s my buddy DQ up on stage,’ and it was the worst decision I ever made in my life, because he’s the sexiest man alive. The whole ride home was, ‘Isn’t Dennis great!’ So finally when I got this role,  the first day on the set I said, ‘Hey, screw you, man.”

Is he always this cocky, and never nervous in front of the camera?

“To quote Tom Hanks, he’s like a Joe DiMaggio player. ‘It may be churning you up inside but you got to step out there and seem confident.’ Of course I was nervous but it doesn’t help anyone for you to show it.”

So did he hit a home run right away?

“Maybe a triple the first day, but then you get better.” 

How was working with Laura Linney in P.S. in which he had some very steamy sex scenes?

“I’ve never taken an acting class, but that was it. You can’t get away with a second of bad acting in front of her. Have you ever noticed when you play tennis with someone worse than you, you lose. But if you play with someone better, you become better. So that’s my goal to work with good people. I’ve been able to play scenes with Michael Douglas, Julia Roberts, the CEOs of my industry. And I learned so much from Dennis, just observing, how he talks to the director, how he treats the crew. I just want to be a student.”

And shooting the love scenes, was he nervous?

“It was the director’s second movie; so he and I were both nervous. For  both of us, they were our first love scenes. I wanted to be the gentleman. I wanted to take her though the scenes, but she wound up holding my hand literally; I was so nervous. She’s like the most intelligent, smartest, most beautiful woman. I was so intimidated before we started shooting. I wondered if the chemistry would work, and it was a piece of cake. The only challenge was trying to keep up with her. She’s such a great actress. I found myself upping my game.”

I didn’t want to tell him he has more on-screen chemistry with Laura in P.S. than he does with (the much younger) Scarlett Johansson in In Good Company.)

With all the success he’s having and all the money he’s now making,

“By the way,” he interrupts me, “when you have to beg to get into a film, you don’t make a lot of money.”

How does he stay grounded?

“The trick is not buying into it. I have a slightly fancier car — I happen to have a Jedda that I drove here this morning. A big part of it is not reading your own press because people will frame you. They’ll instantly ordain you, and then you start to believe what you read.”

And when asked about his relationship to fashion, he’s even more revealing.

“If fashion makes the man,” he answers, “then I’m in trouble. I like to be as relaxed as possible and I dress accordingly. I am not a very fashionable person because most of my friends are not actors. They are not making the same kind of money that I make. A lot of the time I’m embarrassed when I’m around them because of the opportunities I have that they don’t have. So I try, in terms of how I dress, what car I drive, to keep it as close to someone my age who’s working a normal job as possible.”

What does he do for fun?

“I have a monopoly group, the way some people have a poker group. We all sit around and play monopoly, but I make them sign a release that we finish the game. You know how you never finish Monopoly because someone’s always winning.”

How good is he?

“I’m the reigning champion,” he brags.

Does he work out?

“For the Laura Linney sex scene I had to work out for the first time in my life, and it was awful. So I hope I never have a sex scene again,” he jokes.

Does he get a lot of weird fan mail?

“Yah, a lot of marriage proposals. All the guys on the show do. I got asked to a couple of proms, which I always thought would be hilarious if I showed up. But I try not to read a lot of fan mail because it makes your head big.”

(By the way, in person he’s not quite as handsome as he is on screen — he has one of those faces the camera loves — but he’s equally disarming.)