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The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

A night with Topher Grace: the star talks 80s film nostalgia

By Tatiana Craine

After seven years on the hit television series “That 70s Show,” Topher Grace has worked tirelessly to move beyond the awkward, lovable everyman Eric Forman image he created so deftly. Grace has moved on seamlessly from television to film with roles in critically claimed films like “Traffic,” “P.S.,” and “Spider-Man 3.” He’s even poked fun at himself with hilarious cameos in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.” Now coming into his own, Grace helped pen and produce the newest take on the ’80s, “Take Me Home Tonight.” Starring as Matt Franklin, an MIT graduate who ends up working at Suncoast Video during his post-grad summer, Grace brings a very contemporary problem to the big screen-what do you do after college? A little like a combination of “The Graduate” with a little “Less than Zero” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” sprinkled in for good measure, “Take Me Home Tonight” sends audiences on a wild ride during one late-summer night when the characters’ lives begin to spin out of control as a result of their entering adulthood and the “real world” after school. When Matt finds out his high school crush, the popular and Barbie-beautiful Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer), returns to Los Angeles after college he suddenly realizes that his reality and his dreams are sorely divorced from each other. Under the pretense that Matt actually works for Goldman Sachs, Tori invites Matt to the biggest, hippest Labor Day party in town. This itsy-bitsy lie leaves Matt in a bind when he realizes he’ll have to keep up the front for Tori in order to score her number and maybe even a date.

Far from the typical boy-likes-girl movie, “Take Me Home Tonight” also features Anna Faris as Matt’s twin sister Wendy and Dan Fogler as his best friend Barry. Wendy, a cynical writer, has to decide whether or not she wants to go to her dream grad-school in England or stay in California with her long-time boyfriend. And after a particularly f-bombed phone call, Barry gets fired from the job he’s had since high school, finding that he’s now directionless without the car salesman gig he gave up college for. In a dire and desperate move, Barry and Matt steal a luxury car (from Barry’s former dealership) on the way to the party. By chance, they find a huge bag of cocaine in the car, which Barry promptly indulges in before strutting into the party with all the grace of a cracked-out rooster. Matt meets up with Tori, who seems to actually be attracted to the kid who used to have the best attendance record in high school. Wendy accepts her boyfriend’s proposal, but realizes it may be more than she bargained for.

“Take Me Home Tonight” chronicles the characters’ journeys from the comfort of being home to embarking on adventures into the great unknown while discovering that sometimes being to afraid to fail is worse than actually failing. Funny, heartfelt and ultimately an entertaining film, “Take Me Home Tonight” captures the essence of the Go-Go ’80s without being campy or kitschy.

I recently had the incredible chance for a one-on-one interview with Grace and jumped at the chance to chat with an actor I’ve admired for years on the big and small screen. Grace met with me at Minneapolis’ posh Graves 601 Hotel, dressed unassumingly in a grey pullover, jeans and Chuck Taylors. We talked over water about everything from his high school days, growing up in a show business environment and what he thinks of the comedic greats from the 1970s. Grace, now 32, exuded calm confidence and a discreet kind of pride for this film, a labor of love for him and his fellow actors, creative team and crew. Charismatic and gracious without being a typical, high-maintenance Hollywood personality, Grace showed that being down to earth and charming can go hand in hand.


Tatiana Craine: I’m sure you’re really busy today.

Topher Grace: No, we’re just kind of on a trip showing people [the movie]. There’re two good things that happen when the studio thinks the movie’s really good. One, they pay for me to go places and talk about it. And two, they actually show it to people. You know, if they don’t think it’s good, they’ll say, “Hey, come opening weekend!” You know what I mean? “See if it’s good or not! You know, you decide. Don’t review it.” Here, they’re really-I mean really, really-letting people see it. Did you get a chance to see it?

TC: Yeah, it’s great. I loved it.

TG: Great, thanks! It’s a really great audience participation film.

TC: For sure. When I saw it, the audience erupted into laughter so many times.

TG: Trust me, that’s like. Trust me, to be working on something and hear that from a full audience, that’s a really nice feeling.

TC: Yeah, I directed a few plays in high school, so it’s great to feel that kind of validation.

TG: Yeah, that ownership of your work is amazing.

TC: You’ve made the transition from television to film over the past few years. Can you describe the transformation that it takes to go between the two as an actor?

TG: Man, that’s really hard. And it’s a real thing. I noticed it when I tried to hire the writers of this film. There were some writers that I really liked on “That 70s Show,” and it was like, “Oh, are they sitcom writers?” There really is a prejudice against [television] people. Where I got really lucky was the first film that I did, which was “Traffic.” I think you’re in real trouble if you don’t get really far away from what you did on TV, it’s hard for people to see you as anything but what you were- and Mila just did it with “Black Swan.” I think I have the opposite problem, since I’ve played so many weird roles. I try to do romantic comedies, too, but I think my agents would be a lot happier if I just did one kind of role, because I’d make more money. They’d be able to say it’s obvious. I remember at the time, “Titanic” had just come out, ‘N Sync was a big deal. They were making all these teen movies, and I passed on all of them. I literally hadn’t acted before “70s Show.” My agents were like, “You get paid all this money! Who are you to say no to this starring role in these lame teen movies?” I’ve said that I’m not proud of taking the role in “Traffic,” that was like easy, but I’m proud I passed on all those others.

TC: You were amazing in Traffic.

TG: Thanks! Thank you!

TC: How was it growing up on “That 70’s Show” and coming into
your own as an actor? Was it difficult? Or did you just fall into place right off the bat?

TG: Well, I’d never acted before “70s,” so that was a weird environment to learn how to act, which I’d never done except for two or three high school plays. But it’s the best training ground. When I hear young actors say, “I’m on a sitcom; man, I wanna be in ‘Inception,'” I think they’re idiots. Here’s why. There’s a live audience. I still hear the live audience from “70s.” I know what people will laugh at as a group. It’s a real gift to spend seven years learning what will get a laugh from an audience. On a film set, nobody seems to know, like, “No, you know, I think this will get a laugh.” [. . .] And the nature of [television acting] is that even if you suck at the beginning, it’s kind of a batting average. You come back the next week, dust yourself off, get back on the horse again. And even though millions of people are watching you every week, they’re not watching you as intensely as a film. I’m just glad I really got about thirty of those episodes under my belt before I did anything else, because my learning curve was inverted. My brain was on fire the entire first year because I’d never acted, and I was trying to play something original on TV. It’s very hard. But the good news is that I had peers. That’s the thing about my show specifically, was that nobody knew what they were doing. Ashton had never acted before. Laura had never acted before. Wilmer had never acted before. So it was like, we were all learning together, and you kind of give yourself a break. It’s kind of fun, like a high school class kind of.

TC: You worked with Jack
ie and Jeff Filgo who you also worked with on “That 70s Show.” How was that writing process for you, especially since you came up with the idea for “Take Me Home Tonight” with Gordon Kaywin? Was it easy to switch hats from being an actor to being a writer?

TG: Sure, what I had wanted was. I just did a movie with Richard Gere, I’d done one with Dennis Quaid, I just did another one with William Hurt. With all these great actors, you learn so much from them. You kinda start going, “I wanna do something with my peers; my peer group while they’re in bloom.” The way it would’ve been to work with Richard Gere while he was doing “Days of Heaven.” Kind of finding it. So I was thinking, “I wish I was in that time that the Brat Pack was working, when John Hughes was making these films.” And they don’t make films like that anymore. They make films now that are all raunchy-and good-or all romantic. But there, he [Hughes] would do kind of all of it in one, with these young casts, and the scenes kind of bloom on set. I thought that was kind of fun, and Gordon, who was my roommate at boarding school-I mean, I’ve known this guy forever-he said, “Do you remember how in boarding school we used to watch ‘Dazed and Confused?'” That was kind of like that. That [“Dazed and Confused”] was the 90s doing the 70s, and then we thought about “American Graffiti” with the 70s doing the 50s. And both of them had amazing casts, like Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss. “Dazed and Confused” has Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich. We thought, if we do the math, that would almost make it a John Hughes movie. Think twenty years back, and maybe we can put those two ideas together. So then we made a huge 80s mixtape, and what that taught us was we realized “This is going to be cool. Like we’re not going to do ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ or ‘Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car.’ We want to play the 80s straight. Many movies have done the 80s, many TV shows have done the 80s-they’ve all been spoofs, like “How crazy was the hair, or look at this cell phone, it’s so small, or whatever.” We wanted to do one that was like we went back in time with a time machine and filmed it in the 80s like it’s real. There really is only one opportunity for a film to go back to the 80s and not spoof it, you know.

TC: Movie is mostly set at night, and you guys shot in Arizona?

TG: All night. It was a crazy shoot.

TC: How was the atmosphere on set during all those night shoots for weeks on end?

TG: Well, that’s why I wanted to do it-for the cast. You know, you get there with the cast. You do all this work on the script, casting people, but then when you’re on the set-first of all, it’s great that it’s at night. It’s kind of like this weird vampire culture [on set] with just you guys. Everyday we’re wearing the same clothes, same faces, all at one party, basically. And then in the morning, when our day was ending at 6 a.m. or something, we’d go to this IHOP. It was the only thing open, and we’d be sitting there. And you know like, if you were in ’74 in Chicago, and you were like, “Those Belushi guys are really funny. This Bill Murray guy is pretty funny. And, oh my god, there comes Gilda Radner, she’s hilarious.” That’s kind of what it was like for me, because I was sitting there at IHOP going, “Man, Dan Fogler.” I mean, you’ve seen him in the movie-there’s something going on, I mean he’s really finding it. Then Dimitri Martin and him would be doing a bit, then Anna Faris would join in. And I was like, “I got it.” I got to do my dream, which was to be able to just be there at the nexus of it, while it’s happening.

TC: What’s next for you?

TG: I just did this Richard Gere film, which I’m excited about. It’s an FBI, CIA film and we’re hunting down a killer together, and then after that a romantic comedy with Jenna Fischer and Malin Ackerman which was a lot of fun. I play a motivational speaker, kind of an antagonist in the film with shoulder-length hair; it was weird.

TC: “Take Me Home Tonight” took a few years to get off the ground due to the drug use in the film. Could you describethe obstacles you guys faced when trying to stay true to the story?

TG: Yeah, the story behind that is that it was actually made pretty quickly for how films get made. Then the studio that did it, which we’re grateful to because they gave us the money for the film. at the first test [audience], it was probably like the audience you saw it with where they really enjoyed it, but the company is owned by a corporation. It was like “There’s too much cocaine use by kids in their 20s.” Our feeling was, “You can’t do a movie about prohibition [without alcohol].” This isn’t a spoof movie, so you can’t do a real movie about prohibition and not show alcohol; and similarly, you can’t do a movie about kids in Beverly Hills in their mid-20s in the 80s and not have some [cocaine], there’s just a lot [of drug use].” We were really frustrated by [the situation], but we didn’t want to cut anything. I felt it really neutered the idea of the film. There should be something dangerous about it, the same thing in those John Hughes films-danger. So luckily, I was happy to produce the film, but Ron Howard was in that movie theater and Brian Grazer- probably the best producers of their generation-luckily are our producers, and they were really wonderful. They said, “You know what, it’s dated already. It’s not like it’s going to get more dated. It’s all the same music, you know. Don’t worry. Just sit tight, believe in the work and don’t change it.” If we cut the cocaine out of it, that would be a really severe [change]. One character would just start acting really fucking weird at this party. So we found this guy, Ryan Kavanaugh who owns Relativity [Media], who is unlike some of these studio execs who were like 60, 70 years old telling us what’s cool, and we were like, “I think I’m closer to the demo.” This guy’s only three years older than me, and he saw it and said, “I think this is amazing.” We’re actually getting a bigger release than we would have had. We’re very lucky, and unlike some movies when they get held, they’re chopped off and there’s a lot of stuff left out of them. I’m so glad I’m the one who can do the press for this because I was there at the inception of the idea, and it’s exactly what we want. We actually got to put stuff back in that we had to take out. Exactly our artistic vision of the film.

TC: You talked a bit about how you didn’t want this to be a spoof film, but there are a few other films about Los Angeles during the 80s, like “Less Than Zero.” This film is actually a lot different than “Less Than Zero” even though there’s a lot of drug use in that film, too. Did you make a conscious decision to not go down that ultra-serious, sort of gritty film path?

TG: Right, right because it’s kind of like in between. That’s a good question! I don’t know. What I love about “Dazed and Confused” and “American Graffiti,” is that there’s something that being said after twenty years have passed. It’s implicit. You can’t set something twenty years in the past for no reason. But unlike a spoof, where it’s like big guffaws as to why it was set in the past, there’s really something really subtle about what George Lucas was saying [in “American Graffiti”] or in “Dazed and Confused,” [director] Richard Linklater, does. It’s kind of like a note that you would write to your younger self. That’s how I saw it. When I saw “Dazed and Confused,” I felt it was teaching me a lot about the 90s, and that’s what we wanted with the character of Matt Franklin. He’s a beautiful swan by today’s standards; all these kids are graduating college, but 70 percent of them actually go home and live with their parents, you know, these really smart kids. But Matt is a really ugly duckling in the Go- Go 80s. So to answer your question, I think we wanted every character to ride that line between it being serious and being the kind of convention of what it is in a movie. He’s chasing a girl through a wild Labor Day party, but there’s deeper stuff going on. Same thing with Wendy, she’
s kind of a platonic best friend, but there’s deeper stuff going on with her boyfriend. And then there’s Barry, with a line where it’s not spoof, but it’s not like “Traffic” where we show up at the hospital or whatever. He didn’t go to college, he just worked straight through, and his dream kind of gave up on him. We don’t really say specifically where anyone ends in the movie, but do say that he’s had kind of a journey. A big part of the movie is just go with your gut, ride the ball.

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