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INTERVIEW: Topher Grace Talks Irresistible, His Work, and Our Political Climate

Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne in Irresistible

Topher Grace is someone who my generation knows for a great many things. I say that because when I spoke with him for his new movie, Irresistible, I offhandedly brought up Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, and his response was that it made sense since his wife, Ashley Hinshaw, also knew him from that movie. (Hinshaw is a few years older than I am, but the point stands.)

Grace, much like myself, is a political liberal and jumped at the chance to work with Jon Stewart on his latest movie. Getting to talk with him, it is clear what he hopes Irresistible does for audiences and what his recent work is saying about our current social climate. (We also talked a bit about BlacKkKlansman.)

The Mary Sue: I’ll be honest: I’m 28, so I’ve seen a lot of your work. So, I really liked your role in Irresistible because it was weirdly a very “quintessential” Topher Grace role, but also very different? And I liked that, and I wanted to know what drew you into the project in the first place and what was it about Kurt that called out to you?

Topher Grace: Well thank you, by the way, I appreciate that, but look … it was not hard. You hear Jon Stewart is making a political film, a political satire—that’s about all the thinking you have to do about it, and on top of it, they say Steve Carell is going to be in it, which would be great if they didn’t know each other, right? You go, “Great movie star, great creator,” but on top of it, they have this whole relationship of having worked together on what was my favorite show maybe of all time, The Daily Show. They were on it, Stephen Colbert was on it, Ed Helms … all those amazing correspondents … The fact that they had this relationship, I just thought, “Man, I’d love to hang out with those two guys.” And I got to, every day.

TMS: Because of how everything is right now, when we get screeners, we can watch on the TV, and since I’m quarantined with my mother, she came in as I was watching it and was like, “That’s a really fun twist at the end!”

Grace: Yeah, the twist at the end is … I remember reading it and going, “Oh yeah…” What’s amazing is … what was interesting when I read the script for the first time is … I thought “Jon’s having a go at both parties.” Like, we all know that he’s liberal. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone, but the fact that he is making just as much fun of Democrats as he is Republicans, I just thought … you can’t really have a political comedy unless everybody is fair game.

And the first day I was on set, there was a joke that’s not in the film about The Daily Show and making fun of The Daily Show, and I just thought, “Oh my god, this is incredible, he’s making fun of The Daily Show in this,” and I just have to say that I’m so mad at Jon for stopping doing The Daily Show with everyone in it. He could have done it until he was 100, in my opinion. It was great that I got my own, you know, personal Daily Show every day with him.

TMS: What I really liked about the film was that it does poke fun at both sides, and that’s what makes it different. A lot of those movies are “this is a very liberal take” or “we’re glorifying the Republicans,” and this is more like “no, everyone is complacent.”

Grace: Well, the real farce is that you make fun of everybody, and there is definitely enough material to make fun of everyone on both sides of the aisle that we made fun of. And, you know, who better to do it?

TMS: Yeah, do you think that, with this movie in particular, that it is a fun way of looking at how a lot of … granted, I’m a very liberal human being, so I can’t really speak, but—

Grace: I’ll let you in on a little secret: so am I.

TMS: (laughs) Yeah, I feel like it’s weird because I feel like, “Oh, I understand middle America a little bit more now,” but also I’m very liberal, and I feel like a lot of the people who worked on this are also liberal, so I don’t know how true it is, but do you think that the movie is a good conversation starter for those kinds of topics? Because we do look at movies a lot to judge how people feel about stuff, and with one like this, it’s kind of like, “Wow I never thought about it in that way before.”

Grace: Yeah, I think the most important thing is, like you said, to make sure that you’re equally making fun of both sides—and, in this case, I mean, I haven’t run the numbers, but I think there might be more jokes about Democrats than there are about Republicans, which I think is smart because what he’s going after is our political system, not a specific person, and that’s why, you know, the people are fictionalized who are in it.

We talk about real people and what kind of put us in this place, but if you’re going to criticize the system, you can’t criticize a person because a system is more systemic than that. So, yeah, I think … my hope is that it’s a conversation starter. I mean, certainly for us it was … It’s an amazing cast, and to sit there when we weren’t filming, all we were doing was talking about what was going on in the news, about the election.

Funny, I was in BlacKkKlansman about a year and a half ago, and it was the same thing. You’re so charged up with what’s going on both on set, because of the subject matter, and then you go home and what you see on the news is totally connected to what you’re working on, so the conversation on both of those movies between takes was kind of … It was, on both, about something that was going on then, and then how fast can we get this movie out. Like, this is about something that is happening right now, and in this case, it really needed to come out before the election.

TMS: And I think … You brought up BlacKkKlansman, and I don’t know why but my mom was randomly asking me about you like three months ago—

Grace: Your mom seems great.

TMS: She is, but it was just so random, like “How is Topher Grace doing?” and I think it’s just because I love Spider-Man, so that was her reference point, but it’s funny because it’s movies like this and BlacKkKlansman that kind of bring your whole career around into now, when you are in these politically charged movies, and you’re great in them, and is that something you’ve actively kind of sought or is it just something that you’ve kind of just gone to with, I guess, our current political climate and everything?

Grace: No, it was not—look, I learned a long time ago that if you try and have an agenda with acting, it’s impossible. It’s a collection of artists—you know, directors and what this whole creative community is—so you’re at the whim of what people kind of want to talk about and explore, and hopefully, what you’re dying to talk about lines up with what they want to talk about.

When it comes to Spike Lee … Look, I don’t think a lot of actors should be talking about politics. I do think Spike Lee should be. So, I was happy to help him say what he wanted to say, because he says it so well, so artfully, and so, I feel the same way about Jon. It’s someone else that I wanted to help them make their thing.

And, by the way, I’m down to do … The second part of your question—is it a new thing or a different thing for me? The truth is, I always want to do the opposite of the last thing I did, which is not great for my agents because the way you really make money in Hollywood is you do the same thing over and over again and people can say, “Oh, that’s what that guy does,” and they can commoditize it.

But I think, for me, the thing that keeps me so interested is when I’m not entirely sure what the thing I’m doing is or I haven’t done it before, and that was true of BlacKkKlansman. I couldn’t even know how I was going to do that. And then after, I was playing a youth pastor because I really wanted to do something 180 degrees opposite of that, and then this came along and I thought, “Oh man, Steve and Jon together in a room, that’s going to be very daunting to keep up with.”

The only thing that really changed for me, career-wise, is that I really wanted to care about the experience of being on set. You can’t really think about “well, will this movie be successful or not?” You know, like I said, you’re not the director or studio or whatever, but I think, as an actor, you can say, “Will it be something new and interesting to do on set?” and all that stuff, the past couple of years for me, all that stuff has been kind of … never thought I would ever do.

I had someone ask me in Cannes when we were there for BlacKkKlansman—it was one of the first press things I did, and they said, “When you were on That ’70s Show, did you ever know that you would be back in the ’70s playing David Duke?” and I said, “WHY? NO, OH MY GOD”—

TMS: Yeah, as Eric Foreman … I’m gonna play—

Grace: Like yeah, why would I ever say that? But, I think, if you’ve had a long career, the stuff you look to sustain you is kind of new challenges and totally different.

TMS: And you have, because I was thinking about it, like … when I hear your name, I instantly think of Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, and then I’m like, “Oh, there’s that Dennis Quaid movie,” and—

Grace: You are the right age for that, because my wife is 30, and I think that’s the only film she knows me from.

TMS: Yeah but also I have family who is older so I remember going to see the movie you were in with Dennis Quaid and going “Oh man that’s Topher Grace,” and my dad going “I have no idea what you’re talking about”—

Grace: But your mom sounds like a fan so that’s good.

TMS: Yeah, you got her on your side, but I think what’s interesting is, like you said, trying to go 180 because, like you said, a lot of actors are just going to do the same thing and stick to it because it makes them money, but—and you can correct me if I’m wrong—but it sounds like you’re more about the actual storytelling aspect as well as the set experience and like bringing characters to life or stories to life that you also think are important.

Grace: Yeah, I mean look, the subject matter is important, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do something totally fictional and out of this world. I think we were all very lucky—all the kids on That ’70s Show were incredibly lucky to have a great job like that right off the bat because what it allowed me to do was not have to worry about, you know, would I be able to eat if I did something that was outside of my comfort zone.

So I guess, for me, I think about would … on that day that we’re filming it, would I be excited? Would that be something that, you know, when you’re watching the news when you’re doing BlacKkKlansman, you’re watching the news … literally Charlottesville was going—that ending of BlacKkKlansman wasn’t yet part of that film. You’re watching the coverage of Charlottesville and you’re screaming at the TV, and we just had our first child, my wife and I, and you’re going, “How do I talk my kind about this when she gets older,” and it’s co cathartic to go and make something that talks about … where did that kind of start? How is Charlottesville happening? And it’s part of your work to research that, and same thing now. I’m looking at the TV and screaming at it about the elections and our electoral system, and then you get to go work on something like this.

Not only is it cathartic because you get to talk to … you get to do the research about it and learn more about that thing, but then you have an expert like Spike Lee and Jon Stewart. When you’re talking political satire with Jon Stewart, he’s not playing around. He changed the face of political satire in our country and maybe the world forever. To be able to sit on set with him and talk with him, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like you’re both in school because that’s part of your job as an actor do to all the research, but then you’re also talking to the world’s foremost leading expert on something.

TMS: You mentioned earlier about trying to keep up with him and Steve Carrell, and a lot of your scenes are against Steve Carrell. Is that, as an actor, something that is intimidating? Like, I’m a big fan of The Office, and the idea of ever having to go back and forth with that level of comedian seems …

Grace: You’re right, and Jon was there every scene, too, so it’s not like one comedian I worship was there. It was two geniuses. Yeah, it was daunting. It helps that Steve and Jon are the nicest guys. I kind of asked Steve once, “What was The Daily Show like? Was it just like … I just always thought it was like a sweatbox or something. Like a bunch of comedians,” and he said, “No, it was amazing. Jon is like the most amazing leader, he’s very giving, the best idea won. Very much how it is on this set,” because Jon was so wonderful.

And I said “Oh, that’s why … The proof is in the pudding,” because how many people came up as correspondents on The Daily Show are now huge stars? It’s unbelievable. He just wants people who work with him to do their best work. Because it helps him and he’s a wonderful, kind human. The set was so warm. So yes, it was daunting because I worship them but it was very easygoing because I think they both know that’s the way to get good things out of everybody.

So, I was scared, and then when I got there, I wasn’t at all because they were both so wonderful and great leaders. And then we did our first scene the first day, and I improvised something, and Steve—I mean, Steve improvised all the time. I mean … I don’t want to use the word genius too much, but—

TMS: He’s one of the best.

Grace: Yeah, but I don’t think people know how many lines in his films are improvised because they’re so good that I think people think that they’re written. Like, you know, sometimes you can kind of tell “oh, they must have improvised that line” but he really, when he’s saying stuff, you’re just going, “Wait, is that in the script?” Like … so good.

And then in the first scene, I improvised something, and he was doing it back to me before I finished, like he was already in my improv faster and better than I was. And I was the one who improvised it. I mean, I was so taken with how good he is at it. I just really think he’s a genius at it. I know that’s how he kind of started, but whatever you give him, he’s just going to take it and do something, probably better, with it.

TMS: That’s incredible. So, I like to wrap up with kind of two questions: One, what do you hope this movie brings to audiences? I know we talked a little bit about making it a conversation starter, but is there anything else you hope people get out of the film when they see it?

Grace: Yeah, I certainly hope they think it is funny, and what I really hope—it’s such a tense time in our nation right now, and this does such a good job of making fun of every side that anyone is on in this country, and I hope everyone can see it and relax and just enjoy having a laugh at ourselves. Because ultimately, there are very serious matters going on right now, but the political system is very silly and we should be able to laugh at it.

TMS: And my last question is, what is one character or a storyline that you want to tell next in your career? I know you said you like to go 180, but what’s something that’s kind of calling to you?

Grace: Oh yeah, I would just say I won’t know until I read it, but I guarantee you it’s not going to be this same character. I would love to just do something different. You know, it’s funny. Jon kind of wanted me to part my hair and wear it in a style similar to how I normally wear it, but what I love—I don’t know if you saw the Black Mirror I did, but I had, like, a man bun—but just the crazier it gets, the more I like it. That’s what, when you’ve been in a career 20 some odd years, you really want to be trying things that are new, that are still freaking you out on set, like how when you started you felt, you know?

TMS: Yeah, thank you so much! I loved the movie, thought it was great, and I’m a big nerd so this was awesome.

Grace: Please say hello to your mother for me, she sounds very cool. Like she cares.

TMS: I will! I’ll let her know how you’re doing.

______

So I guess Topher Grace and my mom are best friends now.

You can watch Irresistible on demand now!

(image: Focus Features)

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Rachel is an I, Tonya stan who used to have a poster of Frank Sinatra on her wall as a kid. She loves superheroes, weird musicals, and wants Robert Downey Jr. to release a new album. She is Leslie Knope and she's okay with that. At least she gets to live in New York City though!