In the Black Mirror episode “Smithereens,” Topher Grace plays a character named Billy Bauer, the founder and head of a social media company called Smithereen. Billy is on a meditation retreat when he gets a call that a man with a gun (Chris, played by Andrew Scott) has taken a Smithereen employee hostage, demanding to speak to Billy so he can explain how the company has destroyed his life.
Grace’s Billy is well-intentioned and empathetic about what’s happened to Chris, but he also feels just as powerless to control Smithereen’s role in his life as Chris does. Vulture spoke with Grace about whether his character is based on any particular person, the pleasure of working on Black Mirror, and the parallels between his Black Mirror character and his BlacKkKlansman character David Duke.
Your character in “Smithereens,” Billy, is someone we hear about for the whole first half of the episode before he appears, and when he shows up he’s this wealthy founder of a giant tech company who’s on a meditative retreat. Is he based on anyone in particular?
You know it’s funny, I just finished BlacKkKlansman, and it’s kind of the same thing. It’s a character you’re hearing about for the first half, so the legend of this person is getting filled up. When I was reading the Black Mirror script, I wasn’t expecting him to be as evil as David Duke, but I was bracing myself. It’s a testament to how great a writer Charlie [Brooker, Black Mirror co-creator] is that [Billy] is nothing like what I was picturing. I was psyched to play the character anyhow, but then when I got there I thought, Oh man, only a genius writer like Charlie could go the other direction with it.
In terms of who it’s based on, what I liked was that it was different from BlacKkKlansman. That was a real thing, based on a real person, someone that people know. Smithereen is not a specific company, and I felt like Charlie was doing the same thing with [Billy].
When I came into it, I was thinking that what all of these guys have in common is that they’ve created their own legend. They’re good at it. All these tech guys — we didn’t know about their platform and now it’s all we use in every part of our life, and we didn’t know about them, and now they’re like some kind of digital god. The thing they all have in common is they branded themselves beforehand, made it very easy to leap into everyone’s mind very quickly. Richard Branson, the first time I saw him … they just know how to look different in a crowd. Steve Jobs had a different way of standing out. The purpose is to maneuver through the media easily. So I thought this guy, not only would he look like that, but also his relationship with spirituality is probably like that, too.
We don’t get a lot of detail about how exactly Smithereen works as a platform, but I was looking at the costume design for Billy and the idea that he’s on this retreat —
Charlie pointed out to me, which I think is so great, the fact that they can’t get in touch with this guy is just the height of irony.
Ha, yes. To me he seemed a lot like Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, who got so much blowback for this retreat he went on where he was fasting and trying to get away from it all, but also tweeting about it.
[Laughs.] Yeah. What I thought reading the script was that I was glad it wasn’t one specific person. By the way, I wanted to shave my head bald at first, and they talked me out of it. I really wanted to go at it with a Bic razor, because I think all of these guys have a look. But I was going to do press for BlacKkKlansman after that and it was pointed out to me that I probably shouldn’t do press for BlacKkKlansman with a shaved head.
That does seem wise.
You know, I don’t want to talk about anyone in particular, but Billy’s relationship with the company and the technology he created is very similar to all our relationships to technology. What I loved about this episode specifically is that it showed the double-edged sword of how much easier it is for this tech company to figure out what’s going on than it is for the government. So that’s helpful. But then there are the inner workings of what’s wrong with the company. He has this relationship with the company where it’s a runaway train for him.
Ten years ago if I told you what all an iPhone would be able to do, you’d be like, “Give me one right now!” And your mind would be blown, right? And you have an iPhone, don’t you?
I am talking to you on one right now.
Exactly! But you could probably now tell me how that phone has also made your life worse. Not to pick on any one company, but what’s great about the episode is that it shows both sides.
By the end of the episode, you get to this place where there’s a deeply traumatized, suicidal guy who Billy’s trying to talk down —
And by the way, Andrew Scott? Like, c’mon. He was signed when I read the script, and I just saw this a couple weeks ago and couldn’t believe his performance.
Oh, yeah, fantastic. And so good in Fleabag! But Billy is trying to calm him down, and Billy ends up telling this story about how he also feels trapped by the company, about how he’s also incapable of escaping. Do you think of Billy as sympathetic? Or are we meant to find him ridiculous?
I was just the actor, you know, and when you’re working with a writer like Charlie and the director James Hawes, you’re putting yourself in their hands and they’re really telling the story. What I can say about it for me is that I just don’t care what the audience’s opinion of the character is. There was a time when I did care more if the character was likable, but maybe I’m older and more secure with myself now. I had a moment a couple years ago where I decided I wanted to play characters who were really challenging. And part of what you’re talking about is the challenge. There’s not just one facet to this character. It’s really confusing when you start to work on them, and rewarding.
I’m still curious about whether you think he actually is as trapped as he says he is.
Oh, I mean, I don’t know! It’s like one guy is an asshole and to someone else that same person is a savior. That’s just how it is — we’re all right for people and wrong to other people. Who am I to judge? I guess personally, I don’t like people like this! Someone who portrays himself like a mogul, he probably deserves what Billy’s going through, at the very least.
From the outside it’s a fascinating way of trying to get inside his mind. You can imagine once this thing has started, the company would start rolling along and you could start to feel like you’d lost control. But he still has more control than the users, right? It becomes a lie he tells himself.
You know, what I will tell you, in terms of the ambiguity of a character like that, it’s the hardest thing to find! The reason they’re so sparse is because people’s visions become compromised. What’s amazing about what Charlie and Annabel [Jones, Black Mirror co-creator] have going on there, I kept calling it “farm to table.” What you see on the screen is exactly like the script I read. Not every project you’re in — there can be too many cooks in the kitchen. This was exactly Charlie’s vision, and Annabel’s a part of that. It’s such a pleasure to see it up onscreen and say, “That’s what it’s supposed to be!”
You were thinking about shaving your head. How did you end up with the man bun instead?
It was just talking to them about how these guys always stand out. I don’t know whether his relationship with spirituality or whatever he’s into up there is a real thing or not. Who knows how in touch he is with reality. But I just thought, this guy is on the way up. They find some way to separate themselves from the crowd.
Was it a wig?
Oh, that is not my hair.
So you’ve now played a white supremacist (in BlacKkKlansman) and a tech mogul of a company that ruins peoples’ lives. Which one do you think is more dangerous?
What a loaded question! Well, definitely the white supremacist. There’s no question. But I understand what you’re saying! Everyone has to look at themselves in the mirror. It’s really about — well, it’s there in the title!