After leaping to TV stardom as smart-alecky high schooler Eric Forman in the hit sitcom That ’70s Show, Topher Grace moved on to feature films including Traffic, Mona Lisa Smile, Spider-Man 3 and Paul Weitz's In Good Company. Now Grace has re-teamed with Weitz to make his off-Broadway acting debut opposite Juno alum Olivia Thirlby in Lonely, I’m Not. In this Second Stage production, Grace plays Porter, a former corporate “ninja” who falls in love with a blind businesswoman (Thirlby) after having a nervous breakdown. Broadway.com recently chatted with Grace about his Six Flags roller coaster ride to That '70s Show, savoring spring in New York and playing son to Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton in the forthcoming film comedy The Wedding.
You’re making your off-Broadway debut in Lonely, I’m Not! Is it exciting to be the new guy?
Exciting is not the word—I’m so nervous! I’m relaxing a little bit more into it, but at our tech rehearsal, someone said, “You went up on that line.” I said, “I went up with my voice?” I don’t understand anything. In the middle of rehearsal, I asked our director Trip [Cullman], who’s amazing, “What happens if you forget a line?” In film you just call out for it. Even on [That '70s Show] you could start over. And Trip got this look in his eyes like, “Is this kid one of the leads in the show?” [Laughs.]
You and playwright Paul Weitz have worked together on a movie [In Good Company] and now a play. What's that been like?
[Paul] has written some insane roles for me, so I’ve been honored to know him. I auditioned for In Good Company. For Lonely, I’m Not, I think he had me in mind. The fact that he might be thinking about me when he’s writing something blows my mind. I think he’s one of the best American writers. This guy understands how to connect with audiences in an honest sense without—pardon the pun—being too theatrical. To work with him more than once is the ultimate compliment.
You have such great chemistry with your co-star, Olivia Thirlby.
Olivia is someone I really wanted to work with. She just did Paul’s last film [Being Flynn], and I remember asking him about her. I said, “That girl, she’s so amazing in Juno and The Wackness, what’s she like to work with?” He just smiled and said, “She’s great.” And we were at the reading [of Lonely, I’m Not] a couple weeks later! I guess he was already writing the play [when we talked].
Olivia plays a blind woman in Lonely, I’m Not—what has it been like establishing a connection with her?
I have nothing but respect for what she’s done. She either closes her eyes or blurs her eyes the whole play. It’s funny, because I’ve worked with her so much on this, but I didn’t know her beforehand. When she looks at me now after the show, it freaks me out because I’m not used to making eye contact with her.
Do you remember the last role you had in a play?
Oh, I’ll tell you exactly what it was. I [was Pseudolus in] A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum senior year of boarding school in New Hampshire. The parents of the girl who did the sets were Bonnie and Terry Turner, who had just created Third Rock From the Sun. And they said, “We know you’re gonna be in Los Angeles next year,” 'cause I was going to USC. They said, “Can we call you?” Which is, when I look back, ridiculous because I’m sure that play was just terrible. I don’t know what they saw in me. But they called me in [for That ’70s Show] the next year.
What was the audition for That ’70s Show like?
I remember meeting Ashton [Kutcher] in the audition room, and it was crazy. They made me audition like 40 times, because I don’t think the creators of the show really thought they would give the role to their daughter’s friend from boarding school. They said bring in a picture and a resume, and I brought in a picture of me and my friends at Six Flags. And my resume had Suncoast [Video] and Dunkin’ Donuts [laughs].
What did your parents think of your new career?
I remember my folks saying, “It’s really important that you finish college. This can’t be that much of a distraction.” And when I did the first week, it was much like my first week here rehearsing for Lonely, I’m Not. I realized that I could get good at it, but it would take a long time. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.
So you really went straight from high school plays to starring on TV. That must have been so crazy.
What’s really crazy is that those first episodes where I was learning how to hit a mark are still on the air! The early ones are too painful to watch. I’m literally learning how to act as the camera’s rolling. We were all like that, and that was the great thing about being on that show: It was a great boot camp for these other mediums. It was a live audience, so it was a little bit like theater. You can kind of suck, which I certainly did, and come back the next week and try to get better and learn from the mistakes you made. It was like graduate school.
Do you still keep in touch with your old ’70s co-stars?
Oh, I’m close with all of them. And I’m really bummed because I was in such intensive rehearsals for [Lonely, I’m Not], I didn’t get to be part of a TV show celebrating the last 25 years of FOX. Danny Masterson couldn’t make it either, but the rest of the kids got together. I wish I could’ve been there. I feel like I missed my high school reunion! But we really hang out. Right before I came [to New York] I went to Disneyland with Wilmer [Valderrama].
Did you guys go on Space Mountain?
Yeah, we did, we went on all the rides. He’s the voice of Handy Manny, so we got a crazy tour there. It was really cool.
You’ve got a lot going on right now! Your film The Wedding is coming out this fall.
That was insane, ’cause we filmed in my hometown [in Connecticut], and De Niro was my dad and Diane Keaton was my mom. Katherine Heigl, who is from the next town over—that’s how I know her—and I were brother and sister. I was living with my real-life folks during [the filming], and I was literally sleeping in my bunk bed all summer. It was great, and it’s got a sick cast. Robin Williams had just finished Bengal Tiger here and Susan Sarandon was in it…
What was it like working with that unbelievable cast?
I just saw Susan recently, and she was telling me about her first theater experience. You want, through osmosis, for some of their stuff to rub off on you. My dad was a businessman and he would say, “Work for free at the best company. Don’t get paid a lot of money to work with the worst people.” And that’s exactly how I see my career.
Let’s talk about The Giant Mechanical Man, your other new film.
I have shoulder-length hair and I play a real d-bag in it. He’s a motivational speaker and talks about having winning conversations. Already you gotta hate a guy who tells you how to talk. He goes on a couple dates with Jenna Fisher, and all he does is talk about having conversations but they never actually converse. I’m psyched that I get to do [Lonely, I’m Not], and then on my one day off I’m gonna go to the premiere of that with my parents. It feels like a fun New York indie spring.
In Lonely, I’m Not, Porter has to choose between staying in L.A. and living in New York. Which would you pick?
Luckily I have an apartment here, so I’ve done both for the past six years. And that’s the way I would like to keep it. Sometimes I get mad when I think that I only have maybe 40 or 50 more springs in New York. When I miss one, ’cause I’m on location for a film, I wanna go, “That’s it, that just cost me one of my 50!” Working on Lonely, I’m Not—I love the material so much and it’s spring in New York, so I’m walking home whistling every day.
See Topher Grace in Lonely, I’m Not at Second Stage Theatre.