Topher Grace unfailingly seems like an all-right dude, self-deprecating in spite of his talent, but a genuinely good actor. So it makes sense that he’s carved out a place for himself in Hollywood, popping up everywhere from That ’70s Show to Predators. With this month’s Take Me Home Tonight—he executive-produced and has a story credit—Grace takes his first step behind the camera. That step had its conflicts, though. The movie has been languishing in studio purgatory since 2007, when it was filmed. The A.V. Club caught up with Grace on a press-tour stop in Chicago to talk about the delay, why he wanted to make his own American Graffiti, and why he never gets the giggles on camera.
The A.V. Club: Take Me Home Tonight is ’80s to the core, including the Shermer High references, which we appreciate here in Chicago—
Topher Grace: Yeah, no one is getting that! We didn’t want to have any other references, though. There was a moment at the banker’s house where everything I was going to talk about was going to be stocks from Wall Street. We had lots of little plans like that, and then we cut them all. The first thing we did when we were thinking about this movie is cut the obvious jokes, which are like “How tiny is this cell phone?” and “Can you even imagine the year 2000?” There have been movies about the ’80s, but they’ve all been spoofs, and we wanted this to be the one… I mean, there’s only one chance to make the first movie that’s like you went back in a time machine and actually made it in the ’80s. By the way, no one in the ’80s was like “How crazy is the way we’re all dressing?”
Also, we wanted to do… Like, Dazed And Confused was the ’90s doing the ’70s, and American Graffiti was the ’70s doing the ’50s. We thought “We really love these John Hughes movies, and no one’s done that look back 20 years,” so it’s a perfect way to do both things.
AVC: It has to be daunting, though, to say, “Let’s do Dazed And Confused. Let’s do John Hughes.” These are movies and people that are really on a pedestal.
TG: It was only daunting when we set it up with Ron Howard’s company, because he did a sitcom that took place 20 years in the past, and he did this kind of movie with American Graffiti, but, you know, not really.
My dream, my real passion with it, was to work with a big cast that was my age. I just did a movie with Richard Gere. I’d done this movie with Dennis Quaid and Michael Douglas, I’ve worked with these actors, and it’s amazing to have this one-on-one time. I just spent the whole summer with Richard Gere, and that’s amazing! To be able to work with someone who you learn so much from is a really valuable experience, but if you look at American Graffiti, there’s Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss before they were Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss. There’s Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers, I’m forgetting others… Dazed And Confused: Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Renée Zellweger, Milla Jovovich. I know that there are those people in this cast. Demetri [Martin] is one of them. There are, like, five $20 million actors from the year 2019 in the movie, I think.
I read that Saturday Night Live book, and it’s like “I was hanging out in Chicago, and it was Belushi and Bill Murray, and then Gilda Radner walked up…” We had moments like that. I was telling this story last night at the Q&A, but we had an IHOP that we’d go to at 6 a.m. because we’d filmed all night. There’d be Dan Fogler and Demetri doing a bit, and Anna Faris would walk up, and I’m like “This is happening,” you know? I got to be in one of those moments with my peer group. It’s a little lonely, film. I loved having a big ensemble on ’70s, but I really wanted that experience. It wasn’t daunting as much as I was really psyched to get the band together.
AVC: This is the movie where Chris Pratt and Anna Faris got together, right?
TG: That’s right. We all really hang out. Dan rooms with me when he comes to L.A. I mean, Anna’s a huge star, but we’re still not in that place where… There was then a time when Belushi and Bill Murray didn’t talk, but I want to be in that moment where everyone was a rock star in bloom.
AVC: The big story with this movie was that it was allegedly unreleased because it featured too much cocaine. Why do you think that was such a big deal?
TG: The really big deal is that it’s a good movie and the audiences all really enjoyed it, so it’d be one thing if there was cocaine and it wasn’t working. The story is that originally we had a really fast development period, the film went really well, and we were really excited, and it tested really well. The studio had some reservations about seeing the drug use happen with people in their mid-twenties. Our feeling was, you know, if you’re doing a movie about Prohibition, you can’t not show alcohol. You’re pulling punches. It’s just not true, if you’re doing a cross-section of kids at a party who are in their mid-twenties in the late ’80s, there’s more cocaine use than there was in the film.
We were really lucky at that moment that we were with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. They’re the most prolific producers maybe of all time, and Ron had been in one of these films. That film had a problem with drinking and driving, kids out cruising in the ’50s. Dazed And Confused, same studio, actually, had real problems with people smoking huge joints. There will be a kid in 10 years, probably one of these kids on Wizards Of Waverly Place, who will be starring in the ’90s movie, and the studio will have a problem with all of the Ecstasy. It’s just how it goes. So we were very lucky that Ron and Brian said, “Believe in this movie. It’s not going to get dated, because it is all entirely dated.” They told us “Don’t cut out the cocaine.” We were being put in a position where if Dan’s character would show up at the party and just start acting crazy, it would really neuter the film.
So we took their advice and waited. Ryan Kavanaugh, who owns Relativity, is only three years older than me. A lot of these studio execs are, like, 70, and they’re telling you what kids in your demo want to see. It’s a good lesson for me when I’m 70, to not tell anyone “No one wants to see that.” So we waited, and about two months ago, we started screening it, and it was this overwhelming relief. People aren’t that worried about it, and there is a lesson. It’s not totally irresponsible. I mean, Dan certainly goes through some weird, dark times, but people are really enjoying it. I’m really glad to be doing publicity for it, personally, because I was there during the inception of the idea. A lot of times, when a film is being held, it’s because stuff is being cut out and it’s being neutered, and in this case, we got to put stuff back in and add stuff. It’s the exact artistic idea of what we wanted when we started.
AVC: Were you at all surprised by the studio reaction?
TG: It was annoying, especially when I saw the other films they were making. They weren’t exactly the greatest. We had to do the best thing for the movie. Did I want it to be released earlier? Yeah, but the truth is that it’s just as sweet now. People are enjoying it just as much as I thought they would. It was the right thing for the movie artistically.
AVC: In the movie, you work at Suncoast Video. Did you ever actually have a job like Suncoast Video?
TG: I worked at Suncoast Video for two years during the summer in high school. My weird story about Suncoast is I thought “Oh, this’ll be brilliant, I can just watch movies all summer, which is what I’m going to wind up doing anyway.” When I got there, I realized they only show one movie all summer, and that one movie was Space Jam, and Space Jam is the worst film ever made. The best part of that movie is that Bill Murray is in it for two minutes, so those were the best four minutes of my day, when it ran twice and I’d watch those two minutes.
AVC: Do you know the now-defunct Videogum column “What’s up with Topher Grace?”
TG: Sure. Everyone like you always brings that up to me. What I’ve been saying to people is that I write it, but I don’t.
AVC: It seems like people—Videogum included—look at you and think, “Oh, he’s a regular working actor, but he seems to have a good sense of humor about himself.” Like, everything you do is so dry, but still a little funny.
TG: Yeah, I have a really dry sense of humor. I don’t think it’s funny when people wink at the camera. That’s more of an actor thing, just committing to whatever the thing is.
AVC: You didn’t have any problems filming with Demetri Martin because of that?
TG: Demetri is one of the funniest people alive. That’s a nice exception. I used to hate on ’70s, like how people on SNL break and you see it all the time. It was like that on ’70s Show. There was a live audience, so if you break, the audience loves it. They love nothing more. It’s not healthy to break, because it’s like giving the audience dessert, and they’re not having their nutritious comedy salad. They won’t have an appetite for that once you do that.
So I used to hate it, and would never break. I mean I’ve probably done it three times in my career, and one of them was with Demetri, in the first scene of the movie. All that stuff was improv. I really can’t believe his mind, even here, being on tour with him. He’ll say something, and I can’t believe someone’s mind can work that fast. It’s pure invention. It’s not like he’s got this joke from before and he’s cramming it in. The guy is a real writer.
AVC: So is there a secret to not breaking?
TG: I just think about how not funny it’s going to be if I laugh. I just don’t do it.