Topher Grace will probably never live his role as the wholesome Eric Forman on That 70’s Show down. But, the reality is that he doesn’t mind. The cast has become his family with an active group text, and along the way, he has carved out a nice niche for himself in Hollywood with production and writing credits, along with working along heavyweights such as Spike Lee. Topher Grace is the proud racist David Duke in Spike Lee’s Academy Award winning BlacKkKlansman and he quickly shows how mercurial racism can exist in society, while still being incredibly entertaining. Oh, he also has a pretty entertaining podcast with Anna Faris on the way. Eric Forman has grown up, but still pretty wholesome.
You’ve been in Hollywood for over 20 years, a lifetime for some actors, do you still get recognized as Eric Forman?
Oh sure, and I love it. It is s a nice reminder of such a great time in my life.
That 70’s Show did a terrific job of combining nostalgia, wholesomeness, and teen banter. Was that inherent in the script or the natural camaraderie of the cast?
Well, first of all, the writers were amazing. And there’s this symbiotic thing that happens on sitcoms where—I think because the writers and the actors are in such close proximity over so many years—the characters take on more and more traits of the actors that play them. The writers favor your strengths, so by the end, I found I was kind of playing a version of myself. And yes, being very close with the cast helped too (and we still are—we’re still all on a group text! (Laughs)
Congratulations on BlacKkKlansman winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay! How did you approach the idea of putting a comedic spin on something as touchy as the KKK?
I’ve played characters that are based on real people before, but never someone so well known. And never someone as terrible as David Duke. The only thing that made me feel safe about taking such a huge risk was that it was a Spike Lee joint. There isn’t another director I would have done it for. In a way, the film as a whole had the same challenge I did—looking at an incredibly heavy subject humorously.
The month of research I had to do before we started shooting was borderline depressing but once I arrived on set, Spike lightened things up for me. The environment he creates is kind of like what it feels like to watch the movie—he doesn’t pull any punches, but he’s also not afraid to let something that’s innately funny be funny. If you think about it, the entire premise of the film is so ridiculous that no one would believe it happened if it wasn’t a true story.
Considering the political climate after the 2016 election, BlacKkKlansman became really effective at showcasing the history of racism, but also painting it in a light that was readily approachable. Similarly, that is how your character, David Duke, a leader of the local KKK is perceived. How did you prepare to play such a controversial role?
That’s exactly what is so evil about that guy—he makes it palatable. He’s educated, he’s well dressed. One of the things that the script does so brilliantly is mirroring the evolution of racism in America. The first half of the film focuses on the typical idea of a racist was at the time, a bunch of beer-belly redneck dudes. When Duke enters the plot, he’s found a way to “re-brand” racism and make it more acceptable. He kind of does to the movie, what Duke did to America. One of the reasons I was so passionate about being a part of this movie is that I think we’re still feeling the effects of that perception change today.
The preparation was difficult. I read his autobiography, which is really more a thinly veiled version of his Mein Kampf. I watched different filmed interviews he did in the 70s, I listened to his radio show to get his voice down. But the most insightful thing was his handful of appearances on Donahue in the early 80s. The audience would boo him when he came out and then he had this politician way of calming them down (it’s no surprise that he actually went into politics soon after). They weren’t exactly on his side by the end of the interview, but he had charmed them a little. That’s where I realized what made him truly dangerous.
Spike Lee’s reputation as a filmmaker and storyteller is legendary. What were some things you picked up from him through the film?
Besides his amazing craftsmanship and artistry, I’ve never had a filmmaker be so available. He would call me all the time before production started and whenever I called him, there were no assistants or anything creating a bubble around him. His production office isn’t behind some fancy gate in the Hollywood Hills, it’s right in the heart of Brooklyn. It would be impossible for him to lose touch with what’s going on in the world because he’s so immersed in it. In fact, when JD, Adam Driver and I were rehearsing at his offices on the NYU campus, his students would pop in from time to time to ask questions.
Besides television and the silver-screen, you have some writing and producing credits. Take Me Home Tonight is one of my favorite “sit and relax” type films. What inspired the story of an MIT dropout in a Suncoast Video store?
I’m so glad to hear you like that film! I’m very proud of it but it didn’t do well when it came out. We just wanted to make one of those John Hughes-type movies that we loved “sitting and relaxing” and watching growing up. And that cast is insane! Chris Pratt, Dan Fogler, Anna Faris, Teresa Palmer. One of the most fun moviemaking experiences I’ll ever have.
The commute across Southern California is terrible, and I recently found my drives more bearable with podcasts. You will have your own with Minor Adventures With Topher Grace. How did that come about?
Anna and I remained friends after Take Me Home Tonight, and when I went on her podcast Unqualified, her producer Sim Sarna approached me about doing something. I never saw myself having a podcast, but he had the coolest idea ever: Every week, me and a celebrity guest catch-up for a few minutes and then we go on a different mini-adventure, like having a seance or doing telemarketing or being hypnotized or speed dating. We recorded the first season already and it is insanely fun. The best part is that my guests never know what they’re going to have to do. And just two days ago, I was hooked up to a polygraph machine with Whitney Cummings. It was hilarious.
I watched the trailer of your edited version of the prequels—Star Wars: Episode III.5: The Editor Strikes Back. It was fantastic. Is there a story as how it all started?
I love Star Wars, but I’m not actually a mega-fan. I started editing as a hobby because I was so bad with notes in post-production—As an actor I’d never actually been in an editing suite before! I would never cut on something that I was in, so I needed a ton of footage of something that I had nothing to do with. When I was done we only had one small screening but the word just kind of got out and now it’s like some kind of urban legend. I wish I could show more people, but I doubt Lucasfilm feels the same way.