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Topher Grace had to take the long road in order to get Take Me Home Tonight to arrive in theaters. Though it was made three years ago under the titled Kids in America, the original studio balked at some of the film’s content and decided to keep it on a shelf. Now the film is set to be released and Grace, who is credited as the star, executive producer and story developer, couldn’t be happier.
A few weeks back I was given the opportunity to speak with Topher Grace one-on-one about the project, his relationship with the character he plays, what it was like being back in a Suncoast Video store and how classic 80s music helped map out the film’s progression. Check it out below!
You guys made this movie three years ago, but playing such a large role in the film’s development, what is it like seeing it finally hit theaters?
Well, the wonderful thing is that it is what our original idea for the movie was. It was always going to be dated, so that wasn’t really an issue for the film. It’s kind of idiot logic that we happened upon that, but it was really frustrating when our original studio on the film, who we really respect because they paid for the film, they let us make it, but they felt there was too much drug use and our feeling was if you’re doing a film about the prohibition, gotta show people drinking alcohol. It was the prohibition, but guess what? There was even more drinking going on. Similarly, if you’re doing a movie about kids who are in their 20s, in Beverley Hills, partying their ass off, they’re doing cocaine – or at least one of them is. And it would have hurt the structure of the film had we cut it out. It would have been like one character starts acting really weird in the middle of the movie for no reason.
So we were really lucky to have Ron Howard and Brian Grazer – Ron who was in one of these kind of films, which I think had its own issues. I heard Francis Ford Coppola, I didn’t hear this from Ron, but Francis Ford Coppola offered to kind of just buy [American Graffiti] at the first test screening. The studio wasn’t behind it; it will always be this way, that people want to make movies about 20 years in the past because the filmmakers are starting to have a view of that time, it’s a little clearer because they’re not so close to it, and I’m sure they weren’t happy with American Graffiti, that there was so much drinking and cigarette smoking and they weren’t happy with Dazed and Confused, there was so much marijuana and in ten years they won’t be happy with the 90s film where there’s so much extacy in it. But you can’t pull punches or the whole thing falls apart. The romance isn’t as real because the other parts of the film aren’t real.
It’s like looking back on history with rose colored glasses.
Yeah. It’s not a documentary, but you have to look back and be real about what it is or else it’s kind of a pointless exercise. The thing that we’re really lucky about is that Ron and Brian said, “Why don’t you not change it?” [Relativity CEO] Ryan Kavanaugh is about three years older than me, most of the executives in town are 60 or 70 and it’s ironic when they’re telling you what kids want and you feel like you’re a lot closer. Ryan saw it and he’s the only with money in Hollywood anyway, and he said “Let’s do this! This is amazing! I think it’s hilarious!” So then it was like it was the right thing to do. The best thing to do for the movie is the best thing to do for the movie, not for ego or any other…when I want it to come out. The best thing to do is to wait for the best artistic moment for it.
Well, we thought about those generation movies like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused and we thought the 80s are so ripe, and we love those John Hughes movies so much. There are a lot of movies now that are all raunch, which are great, which are big hits, or all romantic, but those John Hughes movies with those great casts, what if we did it as a cast with all my peers? They don’t do it where it has everything and it’s like a fun, fully round movie. So we had that and then we thought, “Let’s make a mixtape.” And we made it, it’s very indicative, specific to that time – so the ultimate 80s mixtape. And we started getting into songs that were just good, instead of… what’s that one? [singing] “I always feel like somebody’s watching me”? You go, “I can’t believe people listened to this.” So we listened to “Betty Davis Eyes” [by Kim Carnes] and went, “This would be a hit if it were on the radio now.” “Hungry Like The Wolf,” [by Duran Duran], “Video Killed The Radio Star” [by The Buggles], and they stood the test of time anyway. So we had this mix, and before we hired the writers we kind of started thinking about key plot points that could go with the music. I think this is the worst way to sell the movie possible, it has a lot of tits and cocaine, but we kind of wanted to make it like a musical in the sense that the music comes of the characters and the situation, it’s not laid over it afterwards. You could do a movie set in the 80s and go, “Oh, we’ll figure out the song later.” But most of the time the song was playing while we were shooting the scene.
You can tell.
It bleeds into the film, you go, “This really took place that time.” So we had those plot points. “We gotta have a dance off!” He goes to the bathroom and there’s this Grace Jones song, “It’s gotta be a threesome!” Something like that.
Obviously a lot of people got to know you as an actor thanks to your time on That 70s Show. Was there ever any hesitation about taking on another period comedy?
No, they served different purposes. 70s was a great experience, but I wasn’t really that big a part of it. We were actors for hire on that, and you couldn’t get a better gig, it was totally fun. But on this one there were some things that I wanted to say about who Matt Franklin is, and I shared some of those experiences. So, at least for me, it feels different because I really wanted to say some different things.
None. Well when you’re perfect like me… I’m sure people do have self-doubt issues, but [laughs]. Yeah, I was working at Suncoast when I was in high school. I couldn’t get laid in high school. I certainly thought there was something special about me, but I couldn’t figure out how to access it. So in that way I really understood that, but, on the flip side, I didn’t get out of college and not know what I wanted to do with my life. By the time my friends were getting out of college we were in season four or five. But I did look at my friends and think, “That’s really interesting.” Obviously it’s a much bigger deal now because a much bigger percentage of kids are getting out of college without jobs.
That was me [laughs].
Yeah! I thin there’s a part of everyone that understands. It’s why I really wanted to make him really bright, though. It’s wasn’t like he’s an average dude – he’s well above average but hasn’t figured out… he’s almost so smart he’s talked himself out of everything.
You mentioned that you worked at Suncoast video and share characteristics with the character, but when this movie is set, 1988, you were 10 years old. Were you still able to bring any of your own memories from the decade to your part?
No. I just didn’t understand that it was the 80s. There were things on the periphery, that I go, “I remember hearing that in the 80s,” I guess. Like that song, or seeing Reagan or whatever, but it’s more about how our society looks back on the 80s now. So they watch I Love The 80s on VH1.
On that same idea, there is dialogue in this movie that isn’t around any more…
“To the max!”
“To the max,” “That was choice”… Was there a lot of improvisation in making the film and, if so, was it ever a challenge to keep the conversations decade-centric?
Not really. The things we have were really written in on purpose. I think we went through and the movie’s frontloaded with more 80s pop stuff than the end, which was by design, in terms of songs and language and all of that stuff. That first scene we really wanted to have in the mall so you’re really time-stamping it all the time, and then first couple songs were very 80s. But then by the end we had some in there that were kind of like…these movies are all really a trick, Dazed and Confused, American Grafitti, whatever, because they’re all really about timeless issues that anyone can appreciate at any time. But they have this great window dressing of a very specific period of time.
Because it was a Suncoast it was bizarre, but to see all of the posters up, like Better Off Dead, Three O'Clock High, Howard The Duck, there’s a Howard The Duck poster.
I definitely noticed that.
It’s great. Look, I’ve done other decades. I was in the 50s for Mona Lisa Smile and that was really fun. And I’m not sure what decade we were in for Predators. I don’t know what that was.
I think there were a couple clues that were not from the present or something. But I think I read that on the internet. It just helps. It helps put you in another place, which is part of the job, you know?
Another aspect that I really like about this movie was the relationship between Matt and his father, who was played by Michael Biehn. What was it like working with him, because the guy cuts a pretty intimidating figure.
Yeah. Did you see the music video?
I did. It’s fantastic.
He’s great. He’s really funny. That’s something that people don’t really know about Michael Biehn. He’s a really funny guy, he gets it. He needed to have humor for that turn at the end. But he’s also super intimidating. The design with his character was to find someone who was synonymous with the 80s, but someone who wasn’t only synonymous with the 80s. He’s done great work in The Rock and the Grindhouse movie that Robert Rodriguez did. The guy’s a great actor. The Abyss…maybe that was the 80s, I don’t know [Note: it is]. That’s what I’m saying. He’s in these movies that kind of transcend the 80s and other stuff and he was fantastic in this, but we didn’t want it to be someone who didn’t act outside of the 80s, but it was cool to have the guy who helped kill the Terminator. Come on!
Bob and Michael Ian Black are my two favorite actors from my two favorite comedy troupes, which are Stella and Mr. Show. Bob did an amazing scene where he fires Dan, and just because of time we had to cut it, and I called and he was so wonderful about it, he couldn’t have been cooler. “I know what it is, the movie we made, go with it.” He even sends me texts once in a while, “I saw the poster, I’m so psyched for you.” But I just can’t believe that we had to lose that scene, A) because he’s my comedy idol, and B) because the scene’s fantastic. It’s on the DVD, it’s the first one up on the DVD. It’s ready to go. He is so great, and unfortunately his character is… is was just a long first act, basically. But, man, he was so good. He does this whole thing where he fires Barry, he’s kind of being nice and he goes, “You have the lowest record of all time here, which is a record in itself. Congrats!” Yelling at Barry, he’s hilarious.
Does he go over the top with it?
No! It’s like Michael Ian Black’s thing. These guys are great actors so they understand their utility in any given thing. Michael Ian Black, he’s done some really over the top stuff, but he was great, great kind of antagonist in that scene. He’s such a great guy, they’re both great. The way he kind of checks [Teresa Palmer] out [laughs].
Speaking of that scene, I’m personally absolutely horrible with math, probably one of reasons why I got into journalism…
Acting, by the way [laughs].
There’s a great deal of number crunching in that scene and obviously it’s scripted, but was that a hard scene to film? There’s also a small sample of it in the scene with Demetri Martin.
No, that was incredibly hard, more because of memorization. We took a lot of takes, man, and I got one of them finally, and you know it only takes one! But yeah, there’s a camera move and it’s very hard to figure it all out, but that’s the beauty and magic of Hollywood. You know what’s also amazing is Demetri, did we talk about him? Demetri is also a third in that comedy trifecta there. I’m a huge fan of his and he came on and he wrote about half of that thing. He just kills it, it’s amazing.
What was harder, the math or the ball?
Probably the math, to be honest [laughs]. The ball was a pain in the ass too. I really got beat up on this one. I went running after Tori to show her I had this car and I fall down? That was for real! That was just one take, I can’t believe they used it, but it does look pretty pathetic. I had to dance that 80s dance. A lot of rough stuff.
It is just coincidence, and I don’t have any scenes with them, which is such a bummer because I love both of them so much. Bob was gone by the time I was down there. They had to squeeze me in at the end of the film because I was doing another film, but I went out to dinner with Lucy and she couldn’t be cooler or funnier. She’s doing so great. She was in that Woody Allen movie [You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger].
Can you talk a little bit about your role in that movie?
Sure. I’m a motivational speaker and I have shoulder length hair.
Like you had in Oceans 12?
Longer, and more kind of quaffed. And I only wear cable knit sweaters. That’s a really special movie. [Lee Kirk] did such a great job and Jenna [Fischer] did an amazing job producing. I’m a motivational speaker about conversation, but I never really have a conversation with her. We have some great date scenes and we filmed my entire seminar in the hotel we were staying in, we went and filmed this two hour seminar where I helped people. It was a really great experience.
Speaking on Jenna producing that movie, did producing Take Me Home Tonight change your perspective on the whole movie making process?
In the best way. I did this Richard Gere film where it’s a big to-do, FBI-CIA…
Yeah. We’re hunting down a killer, so there’d be a day where we’re kind of losing light and one of the producers will come and talk to the director and at first I would kind of go in there and be a part of the conversation, and I’d go [claps] “Nope. I’ll be in my trailer. Peace!” [laughs] It’s great to do all of the work to be able to not do it. I’m happy to just act.
That movie has another stacked cast with Richard Gere and Martin Sheen. What was making that movie like?
Oh my God. Doing scenes with Martin Sheen that are dramatic, and Richard Gere… most of the film is me and Richard, and, man, that’s a great way to spend a summer. I’ve worked with guys like Dennis Quaid and Michael Douglas and you go, “Oh, I’m like with a CEO of acting.” One of the great, top ten CEOs of acting and just through osmosis you learn so much. By the way, it’s what makes a movie like this so sweet, is that I really wanted to work with a group of my peers. At the end of our day, we’d go to an IHOP because it was six in the morning, that was the end of our film day, we shot at night. We were, Anna and Demetri would start doing a bit and Dan would join in and it was like, I’m here, I’m at one of these places in the past – in the future this will be the past – and it will be like someone’s sitting at a table and there’s [John] Belushi and Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. These people are all really funny together! It’s really great. I really like working with people that I have a lot of stuff to learn from and my peer group. When they’re this good it’s amazing.
On the subject of amazing casts, last summer you signed on for a project with Paul Rudd and Kristin Wiig called Bobby Blue Sky.
I don’t know if the funding has come together on that, but that is an amazing script. It has to get funded to get made, but really, really great script written by Emily Kapnek, who’s a great writer.
What kind of a part is it for you?
That was a kid named Bobby Blue Sky who’s like the Christopher Robin Milne of his generation. His father wrote a book, but the family is incredibly screwed up because of it. And there are two other kids who he didn’t make parts for, so they have a really bad family dynamic. It’s a little bit like The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s great, great idea and I hope it gets made.
Is it more of a drama or just a dark comedy?
It’s a “comeda” or a “dramedy” as they call it.
You have a lot of comedies on your record, but you’ve also branched out to do dramas.
I just love doing the opposite of the last one that I did. It’s good for your longevity, I guess, it’s bad for my agents, because they wish I did the same thing and made more money. But it’s good for the audience, they don’t get blown off from me doing one kind of role. It’s really good for you as an actor, because you get challenged and you’re working out different muscles all the time. It’s a full body workout instead of just working one muscle all the time.