It was just a small moment.
But then again, who appreciates more than Topher Grace how much truth, comedic or otherwise, can be gleaned from a small moment?
It happened two summers ago, during the filming of The Big Wedding in Greenwich. Grace, who grew up in Darien, found himself part of an A-list ensemble. The cast included four Academy Award winners—Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams—and younger stars like Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried and Ben Barnes. Though Grace himself has been in the public eye his entire adult life—starting with his central role on the sitcom That ’70s Show, and then in movies like In Good Company, Spider-Man 3 and Valentine’s Day—he couldn’t help but feel starstruck. At one point, Grace sidled over to director Justin Zackham, who was also raised in Fairfield County (Greenwich) and who was making his first feature film. “That’s Robert De Niro over there,” Grace said, his voice filled with awe. “I know,” Zackham replied, catching his drift. “What the hell are we doing here?” “I don’t know,” said Grace. “But it’s sure cool.”
That exchange says something about Grace. In a business in which humility is in short supply, he’s a humble guy. He’s also a respectful guy, especially of the great actors who came before him. And of all the factors Grace takes into account when deciding to take on a project, “it’s sure cool” is probably the most important.
“Film is my preferred medium, but I love it all,” he says. “I love big-budget film, very small-budget film, good guys, bad guys, TV, stage, the whole thing. I’ve yet to have a bad experience.”
His name may not always ring a bell, but most people know the face, thanks to the success of Fox’s That ’70s Show, on which he starred for seven years. It’s an amiable-enough face, perfect to mask his trademark deadpan delivery. It’s also one that allowed him to play a teenager on television when he was well into manhood. Now thirty-four, he has less the Don Knottsian physique that he had on the show and in his early films, when merely taking off his shirt to swing an axe alongside a buff Josh Duhamel in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton had audiences chuckling. This past year, he was even sporting a moustache and beard.
Many have wondered why, given his considerable talents, Grace has yet to break out as a major star. He has been touted, kindly but perhaps unfairly, as the next Tom Hanks, James Stewart or Jack Lemmon. And though Grace undoubtedly could have taken the type of character he played on That ’70s Show—the smart-alecky but vulnerable Eric Forman—to the bank, he made a conscious decision to go in a different direction. “I’m sure I could have repeated the same thing all the time and done the same kind of movie,” he says. “My agents would be a lot happier and I’d be richer. But that’s not something I’m interested in doing. And not always because of the acting, but because of who I get to meet. I remember doing Traffic. I literally had to fly myself out there [to Cincinnati, for filming, at minimal pay]. But what an amazing experience working with [director] Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas.”
Grace’s stint on That ’70s Show allowed him to be discriminating in the projects he took on. His early movies, starting with that small role as a private-school druggie in the acclaimed drama Traffic, were shot during breaks from the show. With a standing income and a safe place to land, he could afford to work for less. And when Grace finally walked away from the sitcom in 2005, he had enough money—reportedly he was paid as much as $8 million in his final season – that he felt no need to accept unsatisfying roles. “I always thought I was doing myself a disservice to take money jobs,” Grace says. “And by the way, you almost know when something is not great because they pay you more for it. At least that’s been my experience.”
For now at least, Grace seems more at home as a character actor than as a leading man. He’s played everything from FBI agent to arch villain. He’s traded lines with stars like Julia Roberts (Mona Lisa Smile), Richard Gere (The Double) and Dennis Quaid (In Good Company), not to mention George Clooney and Brad Pitt (Oceans’ Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve). In the Oceans’ films, Grace cracked up audiences with an over-the-top, cocky version of himself. “I totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie,” he says in one scene.
He’s also had onscreen romances with some of the most talented and desirable actresses on the planet, including Laura Linney (P.S.); Anne Hathaway (Valentine’s Day); Scarlett Johansson (In Good Company); Julia Stiles (Mona Lisa Smile) and Kate Bosworth (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton), who’s also from Darien.
That, of course, speaks to his likeability. Self-deprecation is Grace’s default mode. Tell him that you’ve watched some of his movies recently, for instance, and he offers his condolences. Make some inquiries around Darien and you’ll hear how accommodating he is when it comes to signing autographs and talking with young fans when he’s in town to see his family. Talk with a family friend who’s chatted with him at holiday parties and she’ll tell you he was more interested in learning about her pursuits than going on about his own. And forget about trying to dig up any unsavory morsels. You’ll never hear of Grace storming off a movie set or getting into a ruckus at a nightclub. Even in his thirties he has a certain geek-appeal. (Comic-book fans argued deep into the lonely Internet night about whether he was the right choice to play bad-guy Venom in Spider-Man 3.) While the Hollywood club scene is not for him—Monopoly is his game of choice—he has made at least one sojourn to the Playboy Mansion, to screen a film for Hugh Hefner. As for his love life, Grace has been linked to Ivanka Trump as well as actresses Ginnifer Goodwin, Teresa Palmer and Katie Cassidy, among others over the years.
“A lot of people get into the entertainment industry for the wrong reasons,” says Zackham. “They’re looking for validation. They’re looking for popularity. Or they want attention. And then there’s the .005 percent of people in the business who do it because they love it. Topher does it because he loves it. Because of that he’s not susceptible to all the other sort of Hollywood Us magazine stuff you often see. His friends have been his friends for a long time. He’s super-close with his family. I don’t know what else to say. He’s just a good dude.”
In The Big Wedding, which opens April 26, Grace plays Jared Griffin, the son of Don (Robert De Niro) and Ellie Griffin (Diane Keaton). The movie, a dramatic comedy, centers around the nuptials of the now-divorced couple’s adopted son, Alejandro (Ben Barnes). In an effort to avoid upsetting his biological mother, the young man asks the pair to pretend they’re still married, which as one might guess, raises problems. Grace’s character, a young doctor, has his own issues. Long ago, he vowed to refrain from having sex until he was in love. But now he’s getting older and he’s still a virgin. Enter his adopted brother’s ravishing biological sister, Nuria (Ana Ayora) to test his resolve.
Accepting the part was a “no-brainer,” Grace says. Besides having the opportunity to work with actors whom he calls “the CEOs of my business,” this was the kind of group effort that he finds invigorating. “I love big movies where you get to be on what feels like a great professional sports team, where everyone passes the ball and everyone is psyched to see everyone else’s moves.”
Grace tells of one scene in which he was seated at a table for five, only to realize that he was the only actor there without an Oscar. In the filming of another scene, he remembers sitting with Katherine Heigl—who plays his biological sister—and watching De Niro and Keaton play off of one another in a mesmerizing display of their craft. “It was like an acting lesson,” he says.
Others could gain from watching Grace as well. Along with his impeccable comic timing, he has a knack for getting big laughs from what seems like just a slight effort, whether it’s a short jolt when Michael Douglas gives him a hard stare in Traffic, or reflexively spewing a drink back into a glass when he learns he’s been sipping from someone else’s glass in Valentine’s Day. In The Big Wedding, there’s a moment when the object of his character’s desire tells him she not only wants him to show her around while she’s in town but to make love to her as well. As an actor, Grace could have responded to that setup in many different ways, but he chose to go small. “Topher sort of does this (shuddering) ‘Ohhh,’ like basically his entire moral structure just got thrown out the door,” says Zackham. “You see every last conviction flying out of his body.”
That’s the kind of performance that suits Grace best. “I love it when the smallest action has the greatest reaction,” he says. “That to me is a very thrifty, healthy way to act.”
For Grace, the movie was a homecoming of sorts. With filming taking place in Greenwich, he stayed at his parents’ home in Darien, sleeping in the bunk bed he used as a youngster, in a room still plastered with his old Star Wars posters. Before shooting began, he brought Zackham and producer Clay Pecorin to the Sugar Bowl on the Post Road to discuss the script over milkshakes. “I’ve been going there since I was negative one,” Grace says. (“Everyone knows him here,” says owner Bob Mazza. “He likes our black-and-white milkshakes.”) Then there was the surreal experience of having some of the cast, including one of his childhood favorites, Robin Williams, over to the house. “I had a picture of Robin Williams up on a bulletin board from when I was a kid,”
Grace says. “I certainly didn’t think he’d be coming over one day, that there was any danger of him ever seeing it.”
Grace lived in the same house in Darien until he went off to boarding school at age thirteen. His father, John, was in advertising and then later moved into brand strategy consulting. His mother, Patricia, worked at New Canaan Country School. Grace also has a younger sister, Jenny. Los Angeles is his home now, but Grace speaks fondly of his days playing tennis at the Tokeneke Club and frequenting places like Post Corner Pizza. He had his first acting experiences in plays at Royle Elementary and Middlesex School. From there, he went onto Fay School in Massachusetts and Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. It was at Brewster, during a 1997 performance of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, that Grace was more or less discovered. In the audience were Hollywood producers Bonnie and Terry Turner, the parents of a classmate. Approaching him after the show, they promised to call him when he got out to the University of Southern California for college. Grace, however, failed to grasp the significance of what they were saying. Nor did he intend to become an actor. By the time he got to USC, in fact, he had set theater aside.
So when the Turners finally called, asking him to audition for a new show they were working on, he mostly took it as just something to do. Back then, he lacked even the most basic awareness of what it took to be a professional actor. “They told me to bring a picture and résumé to the audition,” Grace recalls. “My picture was of me and friends at Six Flags and my résumé listed Dunkin’ Donuts and Suncoast Video.”
As everyone knows, he landed the gig. For Grace, That ’70s Show would prove life-changing. From it, his career and life would unfold in unexpected and delightful ways. Grace had a part in an episode of The Simpsons. He got to host Saturday Night Live. Last spring, he made his theater debut starring with Olivia Thirlby in an off-Broadway production called Lonely, I’m Not. He and a friend from boarding school, meanwhile, made the movie Take Me Home Tonight, which sat in limbo for a few years but was ultimately produced by Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. Most recently, filming wrapped on A Many Splintered Thing, in which Grace joins Chris Evans in what’s billed as an “anti-romantic comedy.” It’s scheduled for release later this year.
“Life is short,” Grace says. “I want to be able to do a lot of things. If you continue to do something over and over again, you don’t learn anything new.”
Sometimes Grace is struck by how curious his life has become, from posing for a GQ photo shoot with a Victoria’s Secret model draped around him to working alongside the film industry icons he met doing The Big Wedding. “I’m still amazed that I can call these people by their first names,” he says.
“I saw Diane Keaton somewhere not long ago and I said, ‘Hello, Diane.’ And she said, ‘Oh, hi, Topher.’ I thought, ‘Wow, I really live in the alternate universe.”