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Topher Grace on His Off-Broadway Debut, Star Wars Mania, and Learning to Project

As we know from his stint as Star Wars editor, Topher Grace likes to branch out. And so, despite his initial reservations about doing theater (including a fear of hecklers), he's opening his first play, Lonely, I'm Not, at Second Stage on May 7. His character, Porter, is an ex-businessman who made seven figures at a way-too-young age and, consequently, had a nervous breakdown. Olivia Thirlby plays his eventual love interest, an ambitious upstart with baggage of her own. It's all very emo, and if it reminds you a little bit of Grace's role in In Good Company (in which he played a reluctantly sharkish ad exec), that could be because both scripts were written by Paul Weitz, whose most recent film, Being Flynn, featured Thirlby. Vulture spoke with Grace about making his off-Broadway debut, going by Topher, and learning to project.

Hi, it’s Patti.
Hi, how are you? My mom’s a Patricia. So we have a Patti in the Grace household, too.

Do people actually call her Patti though?
Pat.

Half of my family calls me Patti Jean, which makes me sound like trailer trash.
[Laughs.] My mom kind of wish she stuck with Patricia and then really pushed Christopher on me. And that’s kind of why I became Topher. Because if you say, “Hi, my name’s Christopher,” people say, “Hi, nice to meet you Chris.” And I’d go, like, “ … topher.” That’s how it started.

Do a lot of people ask you if you’ve read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius since there’s a Toph in it?
Yeah, I actually — I would be too old for it now, but I remember having some meetings [about playing author Dave Eggers] back when they were going to make it a film. I love that book. And I’ve never met Toph; but I have friends who know Toph.

Maybe he’ll come see your new play — it’s really good! I saw it in previews.
Oh, you came; oh, great. Hopefully you didn’t come too early. Yesterday I bumped into someone I know who’s on Broadway, and they said, “How many plays have you done?” And I said, “Eighteen now.” And they said, “Oh, which ones?” I was like, “No, no. Just eighteen performances.” This is my first.

And so, what do you think? How are you feeling about it?
You tell me, you saw it.

You and Olivia Thirlby carry the whole thing. You're naturals.
She’s terrific. I actually saw Olivia in the trailer of Being Flynn and have been a big fan of hers. You know, there are people you kind of keep your eye on that you want to work on that are in your peer group — I had never met her. And I saw Paul [Weitz] at a party about three months ago, and I was like, “Hey, how’s that girl in Being Flynn … ” And he just kind of smiled, because he probably knew he was going to force me to do this play.

How did he force you?
Well, first he said, “Would you mind just coming to a reading?” And I said, “Sure, I have no intentions of doing a play, but I’d be happy to” — I mean, I loved his writing. And then the reading was really great, and Olivia was there and she was terrific, and I thought, What a great piece. I can’t wait until it becomes a film. You know? I was nervous because I’d never done a play, and I didn’t know if I would have any value in terms of being an actor in a play. I actually flew myself to New York when I was considering it and went into the space and just read for a little bit with Trip [Cullman], the director. Just to see. I was having nightmares about people in the back row saying, “Speak up, sitcom boy.”

Is that a concern that you have? That people think of you as just a sitcom actor?
No, I’m kidding. But I do have a concern about projecting. I’ve never projected or had any reason to project before. In fact, the camera has only gotten closer to me going from TV to film. I guess I felt like it would be going from playing Ping-pPong to playing tennis.

Now that you’re actually doing it, are you more comfortable?
You know, when I started 70s Show, I’d never acted before. And similarly when I did Traffic, the first film I was in, I’d never shot anything outdoors before — and we started shooting that in the ghetto of Cincinnati, which is a challenging outdoors [place] to shoot. So I always feel like I’ve jumped in the deep end. I don’t have that personality that craves thrills or something, but it’s just kind of the way it’s been. I remember when we first started 70s, I did a full take and the director said, like, “Hey, good job, but we didn’t see your face at all.” And the same thing [happened] literally three weeks ago: The director said, “Topher, you’re coming out a little late.” And this is the day before our first show that’s for paying customers. And I said, “Well, I’m waiting for the cue light to turn on.” And he said, “No, it’s when it turns off.” I’d never had a cue light before. Trip had this look on his face like, Is this guy one of the leads of the play?

Your character in the play is a depressed ex-businessman, which is sort of similar to your character in In Good Company. What is it about you that you think makes Paul see that character in you?
[Laughs.] I know that that’s in other pieces of Paul’s work that I’m not in, so I think it has more to do with Paul. I do think in terms of character stuff — I did get a very early start, and both those characters kind of got very early starts in the professional world. Maybe they had very different value systems than I do, so maybe they got into a little trouble. But I was on some morning news show and they showed a clip of the whole cast of 70s, and I realized it was in ’98 — they chose a really old clip. And I thought, Wow, we were young. We thought we were old, but it was young to be 18 or 19. That stuff is a lot of pressure. So I do understand that element of what Porter’s going through.

You’ve talked a lot about your Star Wars project [Grace fan-edited all three Star Wars prequels into an 85-minute movie] —
This got a little out of hand, the Star Wars thing. I basically wanted to learn how to edit. I don’t want to be an editor — I want to be really forward about that. I would be a horrible editor. But I showed it to a bunch of my friends and some of those friends had invited bloggers. It was only 50 people in the screening. And those are the only people that will ever see it. I’m never going to show it again. But I want it to be the first in a series that we do every couple of months. I’m going to do the first one or two, and then I want to hand it off to other filmmakers and editors and every couple of months we have a screening.  

And Close Encounters is next.
Yeah. I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything amazing; it’s just kind of — my idea for that is kind of a post–Indiana Jones cut. Meaning he made [Close Encounters] pre-when-he-became-extremely-commercial. And I thought, What would it be like if it was paced as a post–Indi cut? It’s just supposed to be a fun thing with me and my friends — you know, Jason Reitman has this great group, gets friends together and does readings. It’s the same thing; it’s totally out of reverence.

What about directing or screenwriting? Are you going to try your hand at that?
Nope. I would be a terrible director, I could never write anything. One of my great strengths is that I know all of my weaknesses.

You’ve tried producing with Take Me Home Tonight, though. What do you make of that experience?
I loved it. I mean, I love that movie, too. I didn’t love that it could have done better. But I think that movie’s great. And I think it’s a mistake if you judge all your experiences by how it ends up financially at the box office.

Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images