Topher Grace came of age on the small screen, in the hit sitcom “That ’70s Show.” Acting was never necessarily part of the grand plan when he was younger, however, so he’s leveraged the success of that experience into a more diverse portfolio on the big screen, dabbling in everything from action movies (“Predators”) and big-budget comic book adventures (“Spider-Man 3”) to political dramas (“Too Big To Fail”) and more offbeat dramedies (“In Good Company”). His new film is “The Double,” an espionage thriller in which he stars with Richard Gere, as an old-and-new pair of government operatives trying to track down a long-dormant but newly resurfaced Russian assassin. ShockYa recently had the opportunity to participate in a small roundtable press day interview with Grace, and ask him about his new movie, his affinity for filmic ensembles, and why he thinks babies hate him. The conversation is excerpted below:

Question: Given all the twists and turns in this movie, and shooting out of order, did you ever show up on set and say, “OK, wait, so this is who I am today?”

Topher Grace: With film, in its entirety, that’s the hardest thing, which I didn’t know until I started doing films — that you’re shooting all out of order. But with a film like this, it makes it even harder. When I first read the script I think I had to go back and read it again to understand what my character was really doing in certain scenes, and what Richard’s character was doing. But it’s what you anticipate when you go to see a movie like this — those kinds of twists and turns. So the best part of working with a director who’s one of the writers is that he made that map.

Question: If you’re playing multiple layers or characters with secrets or given to deceit, is it ever a challenge not to sort of tip your hand?

TG: My first audition ever was for “That ’70s Show,” and I got it, and got an agent out of it. Then I remember going to an audition in the 1990s, for some movie — and this story may not pan out, because I’ve literally never told it to anyone before — but it was [a movie with] someone who was guilty, but they wanted [the character] played innocent. But because I’d read the script I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t play it innocent. I remember thinking about that [on “The Double”], because a lot of times being an actor is just thinking about how you failed at something. (pause) And sadly some of those reruns are still airing. (laughs) But I couldn’t, in the room, make that switch 180 degrees. So now I just try to think about being a bit more spontaneous, not coming in with a firm idea of what you’re going to do. And then also trying to see what the function of my character is, maybe not what I’m specifically feeling — your utility, I believe, that’s the word I always use.

Question: Were you excited to work with Richard Gere and Martin Sheen?

TG: I had never heard of either of them. (laughs) No, absolutely. I’m a huge fan of Steven (Moyer) and Odette (Yustman) as well, and it’s so great when a cast like this one comes together. I’m obsessed with ensembles. “Cast Away” would be my nightmare film. From “That ’70s Show” to “Traffic” to “Valentine’s Day,” [acting] is a great team sport, and when you get to play with a great player like Richard, that’s just, well… I’ve been saying that if a got a time machine somehow and went back to 15-year-old me and was like, “Guess what? You become an actor…” Well, already I wouldn’t believe you. “But on top of that you’re going to be in a movie where you play Richard Gere’s partner in a political thriller.” I would say that you’re lying. But the best part of the job is being around people like him, who are like CEOs of acting. A little bit rubs off on you, hopefully. My first film was with Michael Douglas, and I spent a lot of time with Dennis Quaid on a film, and I just did a movie with Robert De Niro this summer, and that [sort of stuff] is the best classroom ever.

Question: Given that you said you have a natural affinity of ensembles, when you get a script how mindful are you of reading to that, and maybe not specifically to the character that you’re being offered?

TG: I don’t have a specific order [of interest], necessarily, although I’ve heard other actors say that they have an order at which they look at stuff. But I think first is naturally how it sits with you, which is maybe similar to how it might strike an audience the first time they see it. And I’ve learned the script is the perfect blueprint for the movie. There’s no time ever where a script has been bad and then somehow miraculously worked on set. And then somewhere in that [level of priorities] is better actors, because you’re just made so much better by them. Do you play tennis? It’s like if you play with someone worse sometimes you lose to them, and if you play with someone better sometimes your game is actually lifted, and you win.

Question: Coming out of “That ’70s Show” people might have expected you to steer more toward comedy in your film career, but you’ve really done a lot of different kinds of genres. Was that by design?

TG: Well those people you’re talking about are my agents. (laughs) And they’re certainly bummed that I didn’t, because it’s way easier to make money if you do one thing. It’s easier to commodify. And I don’t judge anyone who does do one thing. But for me — given my age when I got off the show, which was relatively young — and my appetites, [it works]. I really think that’s part of the point of doing a show that finds success is that make enough money to… Because I’d never paid my dues beforehand, I really saw it as being retroactive, and learning. I still see it that way. I did a romantic comedy right before this, and then I did a really small indie right after it, and a romantic comedy this summer. There’s no [one] thing I prefer, it’s all good — except if I had to repeat the same thing over and over again, then I just wouldn’t be as into it and wouldn’t be learning as much.

Question: Did you learn any interesting procedural information about the FBI?

TG: Sure — more research, really, on this film than anything I’ve done. There was FBI desk-work stuff, and what that’s all about. There was shooting stuff, fight stuff — these were all separate classes — and then there was Systema, which is this KGB [martial arts] style that we didn’t really know about until the end of the Cold War. There was some Russian dialect stuff, which was really difficult. And then there was holding a baby, which was the scariest of all things. And I don’t think I mastered that. Odette was so good with the kid, and then she would pass it to me and it would start crying. I’d never held a baby before. [Almost always on movies] it’s twins, so you can swap them out, but both of those babies hated me.

Written by: Brent Simon

Topher Grace in The Double

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By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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