Although he's best known for his role as Eric Foreman on the long-running series That ‘70s Show, Topher Grace has slowly, quietly, but effectively built a body of work for himself that offers audiences different sides of his personality. In his latest film, Take Me Home Tonight, Grace plays a recent college graduate who gets a little help figuring out his life with the help of his best friend Barry (Dan Fogler) and especially his high school crush Tori (Teresa Palmer). Boxoffice sat down with Grace at the recent Los Angeles press day for Take Me Home Tonight, where the 32-year-old actor offered some insights about showcasing the iconography of the ‘80s in a movie made today, and reflected on the challenges of continuing to play the same sort of character—or changing things up—throughout an extended period in your career.
This character is probably maybe no so far out of your wheelhouse, but how tough is it to find the right balance between charming insecurity and being full-blown neurotic?
I don't know, I guess it's up to the viewer, but I think I struck a balance of hopefully not being too annoying. Because you're right, there is a line you cross when people can no longer relate to you. And really the point of being vulnerable, which is what we're really talking about, is that there are two types of actors that we watch. There's Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks. And if you're Tom Cruise, that's great. You watch him and you go "Man, I wish I was like that," or you try to put yourself in that position, but in reality we all know we probably couldn't hang on that rock ledge. But the thing about Tom Hanks is you really feel like you are him. And I would wager that even brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, when they watch a movie, they relate to the Tom Hanks character more. So I the thing I have the most fun with is understanding that the audience is putting themselves in your shoes even if you are showing a side of you that isn't flattering, and that they are really right there with you and what's happening. Like in the trampoline scene, I feel like the audience is so with Matt Franklin, there's a line where she goes "dare—come over here and put your lips as close to mine as possible without touching." I go "truth," and before I get the line out people [laugh] because they're [going] ‘what the fuck is happening here? This is crazy!' I love that, that they're kind of with that character so much.
You actually wrote the story for this, correct?
Yeah, it was a fancy way of saying we had a bunch of ideas and the writers did the real work.
Did you study the mechanics of ‘80s movies or what parts of those stories that were told that you wanted to emulate or take inspiration from?
That's all we talked about for a couple of months. Imagine is an amazing place; a lot of amazing people work there and worked on the film, and Ron [Howard] was in American Graffiti, which was a prototype of this. I grew up watching Dazed and Confused, which was ‘90s for ‘70s, and [American Graffiti] was ‘70s for ‘50s. But we liked John Hughes movies and we were so fond of ‘80s movies in general, because it's what we grew up with. So when we started developing it, we did say "yeah they've got to steal a car at some point," or things like that—"he's got to be after some girl" or "he has a platonic friend." But as we got deeper in development, we challenged all of those conventions so it would nod at these movies, but be different; like they steal a car, but they get caught. Or he actually tells her, yeah, I lied to you, instead of like his boss walking in and saying "Hey! You're supposed to be at work on Monday!" Or the girl best friend is actually his twin, so you know they're not actually going to hook up. We wanted you to enter it like a classic ‘80s movie, but then those clichés are dead ends, so you have to figure out new ways to navigate your way through the story.
You guys went for the R. Was there a temptation to go further whether with, say, Teresa's character, who's a little bit like the Phoebe Cates character in Fast Times At Ridgemont High?
Oh, you wanted to see those boobs, huh? That was my choice. That's like a big deal if you think about ‘80s movies—it was very important for us to have Angie [Everhart] do that because that was very important to that scene; that scene has to go all the way to that place. But I'm a huge Spielberg fan, and in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you've seen the version where they go in the ship, and then you've seen the version where they don't go in the ship. And the version where they don't go in the ship is so much better. Nothing can match your imagination, and that was kind of where we came from. And also, those two scenes are when the movie kind of crescendos and they're back to back, and the job, the utility of that scene on the trampoline is very different than the utility of the other scenes in the movie. And I think I had some people fighting me on that, but I think we thought that you actually don't want to see it. If you saw it you would be psyched, but you would also be like, "I don't want to see the inside of the ship."
The cocaine, with the exception of something like Less Than Zero, was something infrequently dealt with in teen movies. Was there anything you came up with that was either too bawdy or too far that you cut out, even in the development process?
Well, it's tough, because it's kind of equal parts raunch and heart, but that's what we were going for... [and] I just wanted to work with a young ensemble. I just did a movie with Richard Gere, I worked with Dennis Quaid, and I love working with those guys, because you learn so much, but then you actually go kind of like, I want to work with [a group] like it's 1974 and you're sitting at a table with John Belushi and Bill Murray and then Gilda Radner joins, and you're like, "Fuck! We're at the beginning of something that's in bloom." There were mornings where we finished at like six in the morning, and we would go to IHOP for dinner, basically, and Dan and Dmitri would be doing a bit, and then Anna [Faris] would jump in, and I was like, "I'm here!" But in terms of the R, in order to get a cast like that, there has to be truth to the filmmaking. It's not literally a John Hughes film; those films I think skewed a lot younger, although I think at the time when we watched them, they were very challenging. Hell, when the penis fell off of the statue in The Goonies, I was like, "what!" And that's sort of the feeling you have when Angie takes off her top, so we wanted it to just be exactly what that feeling was when we were eight or nine watching that stuff, but it's different but heightened at the same level for us now.
Did you have to be careful when choosing the music, to pick songs that were or were not used in ‘80s movies?
We wanted to use some songs from movies; I mean, we went back and forth on the Simple Minds song from The Breakfast Club, ...and we had to cut out a lot of our options immediately by saying "that was the song from [this movie or that one]." Ghostbusters, we immediately took out (laughs). But I think we mostly wanted to be the lost ‘80s film. But if you were made back then, you certainly would use, oh, what's the one from Pretty in Pink?
"If You Leave?"
Yeah—that would have been the perfect song for this movie.
"Straight Outta Compton," you guys handle the right way by not actually saying the words. Did you have to figure out the safest way to do that, to have it be funny, but not offensive?
We weren't actually that nervous about that, because really I think that was what that song was about when it came out, which is dorky white kids in the suburbs feeling bad ass. I mean, that sold way better in the suburbs than anywhere else, ironically, so we thought that was kind of what that was. And also, the first thing we did was make a mix tape, before we went out to writers, because we kind of wanted the songs to be of the characters and their situations, because I think most films made about a [specific] period in time, the songs are kind of peppered over it or laid over it afterwards. Like, "let's put in ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go!'" And you go, whoo, this is ‘80s, but it's not really of what's going on. But in a lot of these scenes we are playing the songs, like when [Teresa] walks in to "Bette Davis Eyes," we were playing that on the set when she came out. Or obviously we played "Straight Outta Compton" when we were rapping to it. Or in the first party when we're dancing on the dancefloor and he gets kind of crazy on cocaine, we had that Men Without Hats song. That mix CD that I have at home, about 90 percent of it is on the actual soundtrack.
You mentioned that in 10 years somebody is going to be making a ‘90s movie. Why do you think they aren't doing that now? For the last 20 years it seems like we've used the ‘80s as the template for our cultural memory.
I think it seems slow, and I understand why it feels that way now, but I think with those two films, American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, I think it takes about 20 years for a decade to come into focus, I mean real sharp focus. I love The Wedding Singer—it's a great romantic comedy—but it was only eight years out of the ‘80s. All the jokes were like, I mean, I don't think anyone besides Michael Jackson wear a white glove on their hand. Or there is a scene where this guy goes, it's like the middle of the day, it's not even prime time, "I just want to see who shot JR!" So if you made a ‘90s movie now, I think it would be grunge, there would be some Nirvana, but it's a little too close. I think when people first leave a decade they're psyched, but then after a while they have seller's remorse - but it takes a while to have that. I mean, this is really the first movie that is not making fun of the ‘80s that's about the ‘80s. All of them are kind of about mocking it, or being in the ‘80s isn't an issue. But to really say, we are going to make an ‘80s movie and use that template, that means immediately we need to cut out like "How small is this cell phone?" or "The compact disc will never work out." Lines like that which really are tempting. There was a line in the film where I say, "look, by 1999 we are just going to be eating food in pill form anyway." I thought it was so funny and get a laugh, but I actually think it's a groan. What we wanted to do was be of the ‘80s, like you made the film in the ‘80s and then put it in a vault, and we just took it out, blew the dust off it and put it in.
How important is it for you to be a self-starter with this kind of stuff?
It's not important-slash-I probably shouldn't be spending so much time doing it, but it's important in the sense that when I was doing That ‘70s Show, I had never acted before, and it's great when you're learning, actively learning. You don't want to be resting on your laurels, you want to work out all of the muscles in your brain. But there was nothing better than being on this next film I did. and seeing the director have some kind of issue with the location and see the producers run over there. I'd have an idea from what I learned on this movie, and then I'd just go, "okay—I'll be in my trailer."
Do you have to be strategic in order to show different sides of yourself, be it for creative or career reasons?
You do for two reasons—one, the less important reason, is longevity. You don't want to blow up your own spot by playing the same role over and over again and people saying, "I'm sick of seeing it." But much more importantly, you want it for your workout; you want to be challenging yourself, and after this, I did this FBI movie, and I did a straight-up drama, and then I did this indie romantic comedy where I'm the antagonist basically, I'm like the douche in it, and it was great. You feel like there was some stuff in that, like the shoulder-length hair, I play a motivational speaker, and I'm really like a bad dude in it. And I thought, I've never really done anything like this, and there was an excitement; it's really important to change it up for you more than anyone. But also, there's a career element to it—but I would say that the real strategy, if you wanted to have a strategy, would be to play the same character over and over again, because you would make a lot more money (laughs). Like my agents are bummed that I'm so into—like if I did another one right after this that was a romantic comedy, they would be happier because a pattern would form for viewers.