Topher Grace has had a charmed few years, with roles in BlacKkKlansman, The Hot Zone and Black Mirror under his belt. And he returns to sitcoms this season with Home Economics, about a group of adult siblings dealing with very different financial situations. It’s his first sitcom lead since breaking through with That ’70s Show, more than 20 years ago. Here, he muses on his career memories and recalls some film and TV favorites.
My First Film Lesson
My mom would only let me watch black and white movies. I wasn’t allowed to watch television as a kid. At the time, I was mad at her, because everyone was talking about whatever happened on The Wonder Years. But I look back now and think that was great. She also took us to MGM Studios in Orlando, which is a fictional mini version of Hollywood. I thought, Could it be this wonderful? When I was cast on That ’70s Show straight out of high school, the set was built so they could close off the whole house, because they wanted to do a long tracking shot in the opening. It was kind of like that fictional Hollywood experience brought to life. The opposite happened when I did my first movie, Traffic, because Steven Soderbergh comes from documentaries. There wasn’t one light on that film—he used available light—and I’d never shot anything outdoors before. So here I was in dicey parts of Cincinnati, and that was the lesson: sometimes filmmaking is artifice and sometimes it’s reality, and there’s no wrong way to do it.
The Masters I’ve Studied
Nobody ever takes you aside and says, “Here’s how to wear a costume,” or whatever. But whenever you have a chance to work with great actors at the top of their game you learn by osmosis. Watching Brad Pitt, or Cate Blanchett or Julia Roberts do their thing. I had to take dance lessons with Julia Roberts on Mona Lisa Smile, and just seeing how she handled herself was a lesson for an idiot like me who kept stepping on her feet. The first I really remember was on Traffic, and I was nervous because Soderbergh isn’t the sort of director who tells you what he wants you to do. On maybe the second day of shooting I said, “Should I be doing anything differently?” And he went, “Oh, I don’t know,” and just kind of walked away. Then, one day, he did have a note for me. I must have been really off-base with something, and he made his way toward me as I was standing with Michael Douglas, who was the first big star I’d ever worked with. As Steven came up, Michael just kind of whistled and walked away. It was a while before I realized how gracious that was because he was such a consummate professional that he knew the moment could be embarrassing for me. So, he stepped away and let me have my time.
The Part I Always Wanted
I don’t have a lot of those, but I did try out for Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones. At the time, someone had seen me in a school play, and I’d only been cast in That ’70s Show, and I thought, Oh my god, this is obviously meant to be. I guess I’m less sad I didn’t get that now [laughs]. But I think I’d still have taken it because it would have been fun. I was there basically because my haircut looked like Jake Lloyd’s, I think. And I’d still love to be in a Star Wars movie someday, but I can’t imagine I’m the right guy for them. I guess I’ll have to make do with riding the ride at Disneyland.
My Toughest Role
Playing David Duke in BlacKkKlansman wasn’t as hard as doing the research for David Duke, which was just terrible. I read his autobiography, which is basically like his Mein Kampf, and I watched a lot of footage. Watching and reading these things, you feel complicit just by engaging with it. Spike Lee actually maintains a fun set for how heavy the material is, but the research of those two months prior was heavy, and my wife, Ashley, was very kind to just let me be in a funk. Charlottesville happened at that time also, so it was very present in our lives. But when I eventually saw how Spike brought the film together, and how powerfully he said what he was saying, I was so proud to have been a part of it.
The Film That Makes Me Cry
I’m not a big crier. I went to boarding school at a young age, so you kind of learn not to cry. But I saw Inside Out with my wife on one of our early dates, and that Bing Bong part… Oh man, I was weeping. And when you hold it in a lot, let me tell you, when it goes, it really goes. The faucet turns all the way on. Pixar knows how to get you.
My Most Tortured Co-Stars
I’ll always be sorry to Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp, who played the parents on That ’70s Show. That was literally my first audition, Wilmer [Valderrama] barely spoke English, Laura [Preppon] and Ashton [Kutcher] had never acted, they were models. Now that I have a bunch of years on me, I can see how brave it was for them to choose these kids who had zero experience. It was brave, and kind of smart because we had the time to really learn. And when we learned, we were fresh and ready to learn. The only people who got caught in the middle of that were these wonderful professionals playing our parents. Every time I see them now I apologize, not for anything in particular, just because I was so green.
The Most Fun I’ve Had On Set
I’m not just saying this: it is truly while doing Home Economics. You can tell, I think, too. Acting is faking it—you should be able to have chemistry with people—but I’ve done things where it just kind of doesn’t come. I remember driving to set on our first day and thinking, Oh man, who knows? But maybe 48 hours later, I was overconfident. Everyone’s individually talented, which I knew going in, but then we all sort of clicked instantly. The last day of shooting Season 1 was like the last day of camp. When you feel comfortable with people like that in comedy, it’s just an elixir. When we got renewed, I’m telling you, you’ve never seen five adults more excited.
The Characters That Are Most Like Me
I was very similar to Eric Forman when we were doing That ’70s Show, obviously. And I’m a very different person now, but I think I’m very similar to Tom Hayward in Home Economics. He has twins—I don’t, but we had a second baby during the pandemic—and it was like, is this even acting? I’d be home changing diapers, and then I’d clock in at work and they’d hand me two diapers. I think whenever you’re doing a show like this, where you’re working for so many months out of a year, you can’t help there being crossover with your real life. You steal from it.
My Most Quoted Role
Oh, it’s probably people calling me a dumbass from That ’70s Show. It’s not the greatest thing to have yelled at you on the street. But I guess it could be worse.
My Guilty Pleasure
My wife is really into The Bachelor, and she got me into it. Now, when she’s out of town, I’m like, “Well, I’ll just watch it so I can keep up with what you’re watching.” But I’m on an ABC show myself now, so I think I can admit it: I love it.
Who’d Play Me In My Biopic
Well, I think everyone would agree it should be Harry Styles. I mean, I don’t even have to explain why, it’s so obvious. Everyone knows, why even go into it?
My Karaoke Playlist
I love karaoke. I’m not saying I’m good at it, but I like doing it. But if I’m in a competitive karaoke situation, which breaks out sometimes, especially with me around, then my go-to is “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. I pull up my wife to duet with me. The trick with it is to point out all the cities you’re seeing from the magic carpet. Really sell the emotion. “Oh look, there are the pyramids! There’s the Great Wall!” It gets a big crowd.