Topher Grace’s foray into show business began at the ripe old age of 20 at a time when he was a student at USC. He was cast as the role of Eric Forman in “That ‘70s Show” and thus embarked on the road to a successful acting career. Without any formal training, Grace has racked up an impressive resume in both television and film including “Spider-Man 3,” “Valentine’s Day,” “Predators,” “Too Big to Fail,” and his latest, “The Double,” a cat-and-mouse spy thriller written by Derek Haas and Michael Brandt and also directed by Brandt. Grace, who plays an FBI agent, co-stars with Richard Gere and Martin Sheen. The young star recently sat down for an interview that has been edited for continuity and print purposes.
What lured you into doing the role of Ben?
Topher: It’s an amazing script and I liked the character a lot. Every boy plays secret agent so I feel like I’ve been in training for a long time. The script has so many twists and turns and I knew one of the writers was directing it. It was confusing when I first read the script and I had to go back and re-read it in terms of what my intentions were in each scene. And there was Richard Gere and the other wonderful actors signing on.
Did you do your own stunts?
Topher: I did the scene where I jump off the train tracks, but you can only see my back so you would never know it was me. But I promise you that it’s me.
What do you think the overall narrative arc of the film is trying to say?
Topher: I’m not one of the writers, but my guess is it’s about a nostalgia for a certain type of filmmaking that isn’t around anymore – more of a thinking man’s action suspense movie and maybe kind of a nostalgia for a time when things were a little simpler, even in terms of our enemies, and how people are actually nostalgic for the black and white chess game of the Cold War. “The Double” is in the same genre of films that I love such as, “No Way Out,” “The Parallax View,” and “Three Days of the Condor.” They don’t make enough of those kinds of films anymore.
Is there a correlation between the “Cold War” events in the film and current espionage activities?
Topher: When we were shooting this film, 10 Russian Intelligence Officers were arrested for spying in the United States. No one talks about it, but I think we all know that we have people over there as well.
You play characters that are nice guys and some who are not so nice. Do you have a game plan for future roles you’d like to play?
Topher: I don’t know what’s driving it, but I’m very proud of playing both. My agents absolutely hate it and would be much happier if I just did romantic comedies or decided on one thing to do. I went right from “Valentine’s Day” to “Predators.” I remember leaving the set of “Predators,” in which I played a serial killer, with blood under my nails, and went to a screening of “Valentine’s Day.” I thought, wow, this is really different (laughs). That, to me, is my favorite part of the job and I probably have less money because of it. You’re a better “commodity” if you do one thing and say this is what I do. But I figure I’m relatively young and I like learning. I had new experiences in this film in terms of shooting and the Russian dialect and FBI stuff. I had never shot a gun in a movie or did a chase scene. All that stuff was appealing. I did a romantic comedy this summer called “The Wedding” with Academy Award winners Robert Di Nero, Diane Keaton, Robin Williams, and Susan Sarandon. That was awesome as they all have very interesting acting styles and it was an awesome experience.
You worked with two incredible actors in this film – Richard Gere and Martin Sheen. Did you pick up anything that you could apply to your own acting technique?
Topher: Oh yes. That’s the best part of being in films that are really different – especially films that attract great ensembles. You steal a little bit from everyone.
What did you steal?
Topher: Money (laughter). To say that Richard is Zen-like is an understatement. He’s buddies with the Dalai Lama and brings a calm to his characters, but the expression, ‘Still waters run deep” might apply to him. He grounds his characters so forcefully with that. Richard and I were in a scene with Odette (Yustman). I had been swatting away a lot of bugs and he said, “Don’t worry, I’m saying prayers for all of them.” He was doing a scene and a bug landed on his cheek and started pumping blood out of him. You’re not suppose to cut a scene when an actor is on camera so we sat there and at the end of the scene he said “I have a mosquito on my cheek, don’t I.” He lifted it off like it was welcome to have the snack. It’s a really interesting level of power to bring into a scene and was great to play off of it, especially since my character was the opposite.
What was it like working with Martin Sheen?
Topher: Martin might be the nicest actor I’ve ever met. He is so wonderful and sort of made me feel like a jerk, and I think I’m pretty good on sets. He talks to absolutely everyone. There were some firefighters helping us out in a scene and he went over and spent time with their families and had dinner with them. He’s an amazing guy. Even though he has heavy dramatic stuff, he’s very light coming into a scene, like when he was playing the president of the United States. I love working with him.
What did you draw on to create Ben who is a duplicitous character?
Topher: I think it can get confusing, but you have to think about what the scene is in the context of the movie and the utility you serve in that scene – especially when there are as many twists and turns. There were times that maybe realistically the character would be doing something else but there’s a little bit of slight of hand in these kinds of film. The director (Michael Brandt) really helped me figure that out because at some points I thought this is what the character would be doing, but you have to walk a fine line between doing that, and also serving another purpose. Part of the enjoyment of watching these films is getting the rug pulled out from underneath you as an audience.
Do you do a lot of research for your characters and what kind of specific research did you do in preparation for this role?
Topher: I think the more you can do the better in terms of research. I’m not a method actor, but I went to a shooting range a couple of times. I researched what it would be like to be at your desk at the FBI. What it’s like to go outside. My character speaks Russian, which was really hard for me to speak and so early on I worked on it phonetically because I thought that was going to be so foreign to me and I had to nail it down. The hardest thing for me, in terms of learning, was holding a baby (laughter). I had never done that before and it was terrifying. The twins that stood in for my baby were only three months old and I thought ‘I don’t want to mess this up.’
How much freedom did you get in developing your character?
Topher: It’s great to work with the people who wrote such a complex script – basically who drew the map there with you. A lot of times the writer or writers are not on the set, which would have been impossible with this film. Michael’s writing partner Derek was there every day and was very involved and that was great. What is really impressive about Michael is that he steps back and doesn’t tell you that you have to do something in a certain way. He gives you freedom to explore.
Did go through fight training?
Topher: Oh yes, I did fight training. But my training was American FBI fight training, not Systema (Russian Martial Art). The guy who trained me understood that I would be fighting someone using Systema so he taught me some of the mistakes I could make and pointed out how fluid Systema is. That fascinated me. I don’t think we knew about that system of fighting until after the Cold War.
Any war wounds?
Topher: Yes. There’s a scene where I get lifted up and thrown into a mirror and guess what, it hurt (laughs). It caught me at a weird angle, but I think that was our last day. Richard dislocated his shoulder and we had to shut down for a day. That was really scary because he’s in so much of the film, but he’s such a pro, he got back right into it, and was fighting with a dislocated shoulder.
Ben has a duplicitous nature so during the filming did you find any change in your own nature?
Topher: No. I was already there (laughs). Not really. I wanted to focus on what happened before the last 10 pages. A lot of these types of films have a loaded last 10 pages that’s why you go. So I wanted to serve the function of what someone’s first viewing would be.
Your bio says you’ve never had formal acting training. Did you ever fill in that gap?
Topher: You know, I’ve worked with incredible actors like Richard (Gere). The first film I did was with Michael Douglas and I’ve worked with Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid. I can’t imagine there being better training than working with these actors. There’s probably different training, but that’s the best kind of training.
Have you developed a specific technique of your own?
Topher: I remember seeing Conan O’Brian on Charlie Rose once and Charlie asked him what is it to be funny and Conan said that he couldn’t answer that question because to talk about it is to take the piss out of the whole thing. I feel the same about acting. I don’t sit around with my actor friends and talk about how they do it or how I do it. Everyone has different opinions and to me there’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat. So everything is right if it works for you.
Given the cross section of roles you’ve played, what is it you look for in a script now?
Topher: Sex scenes (laughs). Something that’s different from the last thing I’ve done. Changing the roles you select all the time is not really the best recipe for success in Hollywood, at least in terms of celebrity, but I really like doing the opposite of the last thing I did because it’s like working different muscles in your mind.
Do you see yourself doing more television?
Topher: No. I’m staying with film.
What do your fans associate you the most with?
Topher: I’d say mostly “Spider Man” stuff. Sometimes they’ll say, “Are you that guy?” (laughs).
Editor’s Note: In case you’re wondering about the name “Topher,” his given name was Christopher, but he didn’t like being called Chris, so he chopped off the first five letters and hence the name “Topher.”