Biff Bam Pop! Founder and Contributing Writer Andy Burns, and other interviewers, had a chance recently to chat with actor Topher Grace, who folks might remember from That ’70s Show and as Venom in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, and now stars in Netflix’sWar Machine with Brad Pitt. Come join us for this fascinating discussion after the jump.
Topher Grace plays the civil press advisor to General Stanley McChrystal in the film’s fictionalized account of those true events during the United States’ war in Afghanistan. He was asked at the start of the interview if his experience as a Hollywood star with publicists helped him with the role.
Topher Grace: And I keep having to answer questions from publicists about this terrible publicist I’m playing. But yeah that guy blew it, I mean what did you guys feel like watching it like if you got that kind of access, even think of it as the narrator is like how the narrator is like I don’t even know why that guy is here. It would be weird if that didn’t exactly happen, right? And that’s what happened.
You’re kind of on the same page like the Rolling Stone reporters is in those two people who emphatically should not be there.
Topher Grace: Well, you know when I read about it the first time in 2008 or something, I was like how did this happen? I mean Rolling Stone is a great magazine, but like what? What? But I guess you know the truth is stranger than fiction.
Andy Burns: Did you read it at the time when the…?
Topher Grace: No, you know I was just talking about I did a film like last year that was about Dan Rather (Truth) and he got fired, kind of the same thing. I kind of like knew about it. When you get the script you’re like, oh shit, I should have like you know at the time. There’s only so many stories, you kind of want to investigate more. And you guys get to investigate way more than I do. So, I had the same thing with the Dan Rather thing there was a book so you can read the script then you read the book which is like a deeper dive then you know. In that case Mary Mapes (the author) came to set, Dan Rather came to set, but here unfortunately the reporter died a couple of years before he shot it. But there were still a lot of experts on set. And the best thing about it was we go to this, there was only a hotel. We were only three hours outside Abu Dhabi, where they shot that Star Wars new movie and there’s nothing. So we come back from like a long day’s work and so we’re all just sitting around a table for dinner and we’re all just so fascinating. We’re talking about what we shot that day and then what it meant in the book, and the next day is you know we kind of feed off that to go on to the next day and it’s more interesting to talk about now to you guys. You know like it’s just the coolest kind of film to be in. And they don’t make a lot of them anymore.
How do you balance the line between, obviously you’re playing someone who’s real at the same time. The film has such a dark sort of satirical bent, so how do you sort of tow the line between respecting the person but also leaning into the entertainment value of the whole thing?
Topher Grace: Well, that was the great thing, David (Michod) the director, he wrote it, and he changed all the characters’ names, which I think he did selfishly so that he could talk about it. Truly, it’s kind of it’s kind of brilliant. Never heard of that where you name check the book but don’t use the names. Because first of all it allows Brad more freedom to really create a character and not to do it like a biopic. And he was also, I think it worked for all of us that we didn’t feel indebted to that we were playing one specific person. It was more like I think what David wanted to do is get to the emotion of what the situation was, not the facts… Yeah. What a brilliant move… I kind of understood it because of what it was for me doing it but asked what it was for him. I mean Mike Flynn is one of those people, but no one had to play Mike Flynn. It allows you to clear away the stuff that really doesn’t matter and really tell the story.
Okay, going back to Brad (Pitt), you’ve worked with him three times now. What’s it like working with boy?
Topher Grace: I had only done one film, and then (Steven) Soderbergh who had done Traffic and he was like do you want to come and do a couple of days with George Clooney and I’m like let me check my calendar. I had only been in Hollywood like two and a half years or something at the time, and he went out of his way to go look in on a 19 year old, to come into the makeup trailer and say, I just wanted to introduce myself, I’m Brad and like, I loved what you did in Traffic, and Clooney was the same way. I was so nervous. I hadn’t met that many celebrities you know in life, they just all these guys who are like of titans of this industry, they have a great way of making you feel very comfortable very quickly. So, your best work gets on camera too and their films are as good as they can be. The only difference now being that Brad has become like one of the biggest producers in Hollywood. I don’t think people really pay attention to that, you know, Moonlight, The Big Short, 12 Years a Slave, like none of these would even exist if it weren’t for his company. So, he had that kind of great leadership he had as an actor and now I kind of was noticing on set that he really is taking care of everyone, and just him as an actor today. I had a lot more time with him on this film, I mean like alone in the desert. For a lot of these younger actors, it’s like an acting master class, I mean, just looking at him during rehearsal. You know, how he kind of found the character and when he’s doing it – all I think when I saw him last night at the premiere, this isn’t a coincidence that he just happened to be in a bunch of great films. The guy is just really brilliant, and also just really generous too.
One of the things I love about your career, and this film sort of speaks to it, is you often show up in a lot of films that I really like because you can tell that a lot of the members of the cast are in the same scene, like you get to interact with a lot of the people that are there. I mean it sounds funny, but it’s actually kind of true.
Topher Grace: Castaway would be my nightmare. I’ve been in Valentine’s Day, That ’70s Show, I love comedic ensembles. The jokes are only better when you’re bouncing them off, and it’s exactly the same thing for dramas like Traffic and Interstellar. You know like it’s always better. I really think it would be a nightmare. You’d have to be as good as Tom Hanks basically, which I’m not. But you’re only better when you’re on a team and when you’re passing the ball you know what I mean you’re setting each other up and that poster is really what it was really like – Brad was our leader and everyone was like we were all hanging out in the desert together. You really get to know each other. Last night was the premiere, that’s why I’m so wiped today. Such a great group of guys. We got really close.
And when you look at all the people that show up for a premiere like that is it weird to look at them, and go there are a lot of people, what they were all about?
Topher Grace: I mean the bubble, which is that group on the poster around them, we would like spending again. The trailers were like so far away and desert like, we just stayed on set all the time. I really got to know some of those cats and they are all really great actors too, like since we wrapped to now, you know, Lakeith (Stanfield) was in Get Out, and John (Magaro) was in Carol, and Emory (Cohen) was in Brooklyn and
living. RJ (Cyler) was in Power Rangers. Yeah, it was great. It’s like an actor’s dream, watching a great actor and learning from him, and everyone’s great around you, it’s great.
Andy Burns: You mentioned being in the desert, and you also mentioned being a 19-20 year old guy winding up in Hollywood for a first time. What’s it like going from that to shooting in a place that most of us have heard about, but I don’t think any of us are going to wind up there at any point in time?
Topher Grace: If so, you made a serious wrong turn. (laughter)
Andy Burns: Is it weird for you, is it surreal?
Topher Grace I kind of end up being negative, but there’s no getting there from here. We weren’t in Afghanistan, we were in Abu Dhabi and it was great, we went way far out in the desert and… what was it like, was the question?
Andy Burns: Yeah, you know, just in your trajectory as an actor like would you have expected to be a place like that?
Topher Grace: Oh well, that’s the fun of it, man, you just don’t know. I mean for Truth, I made a tape, because I wasn’t going to get it. I could tell. It was going to go to someone more famous, I just knew it. But there’s that scene where I have to scream for eight minutes I was like I can do that. So I made a video, and it was like magic. So I sent it to the director and the guy called me and said, you ready to come to Australia? And I was at Cate Blanchett’s house having dinner and a week ago I wouldn’t have known I would be here. That’s the fun of being an actor. I had more prep time with this, we were running a boot camp kind of when we first got there, and I was like you never know. I mean that’s the fun of it. You never know.
What’s it like being a part of the Netflix family?
Topher Grace: It’s great. I mean, actually a lot of these interviews have been talking about Brad is a huge star to be on Netflix, and I just love the movie so much. I don’t know if it would have been made at a studio. And I’m just so glad I got to be in it. And I don’t know, maybe it could have been made by a studio, but I don’t know if it would have been neutered or not by like you know is this the right way to sell tickets. Truly if you’re neuter this movie it’s nothing. The point of that is what it’s saying, so I’m just so grateful that the technology is going away that someone have the money to pay for this.
We joke that you you’ve been around a lot of publicists. You’re playing a publicist, but the publicist that you’re playing is a very specific kind, on a whole other level than the ones that you would even normally have to deal with. Did you have to look into that background at all to sort of figure out how someone like that would operate because there’s a very specific kind of arrogance that sort of goes with that. But well there’s also a very specific skill set that goes with that.
Topher Grace: Yes. I met one or two, but I want to say that the worst aspects came from them, but the worst came from living in Hollywood for eighteen years. And there’s kind of a, it’s like I called the character an idiot earlier, and then someone was saying, well, is he an idiot, and I was like well, what is the definition of idiot? (laughter) Is it a person that acts without knowing the consequences. I don’t think it’s just a job though. I think he specifically really wanted to prove himself and did get something done. But there are consequences.
Andy Burns: I wanted to bring back the Netflix question because I think it’s actually really a perfect film for Netflix and I enjoyed watching it in that form. Maybe it wouldn’t have been made in the studio system or maybe it would have been too cerebral for a larger audience. What do you think about the way that we’re consuming media these days and you know the way you know if a show comes on and you come from network television where it was you know weekly episodes, and now we’re getting we’re binge-watching.
Topher Grace: I had this great experience over Thanksgiving. I went up and was getting my seven year old niece, and was telling her a story, and she goes, what’s Blockbuster Video? Not like I barely remember it, but I was like whoa, and I looked at her. Well, I kind of explained it a function of the technology of the time which was that’s how it worked and it wasn’t really the greatest picture or sound and there wasn’t even a rectangle, so the thing had to like pan and scan. I was really getting nostalgic about it, you go and you could see the movie, and you know, sometimes they were out of the movie. She was like that sounds like it was open 24 hours a day, I was like, no, no, there were hours. So I realized, isn’t it better that you can get any movie you ever wanted at the click of a button. I was like it does sound better. I don’t know why I’m nostalgic about that time. I think you know all I can speak to is a big debate about cinema. I’m not a filmmaker, but as to being an actor, this is like the best time yet that I’ve been alive. I mean I was watching The Handmaid’s Tale, by the way, Elisabeth Moss was in the Dan Rather film, and we hung out a lot, and now I’m looking at her, it’s like who is this lady, she’s so unbelievable. I just think watching this is better than any movie. That’s a different thing, this is a show, but I’m not sure if I tuned in to Hulu before, but I am now. The whole thing is changing, but all I know is for actors it’s a really exciting time, because, look, she gets to sink her teeth into that role in that role that’s an Academy Award, but you shouldn’t put that label on any more. I actually think, this is my prediction is that MTV is like brilliant for combining the acting, and I don’t know if that happened up here, but our movie awards they made it the Movie and Television Awards, and I was like, yeah. I actually think they will predate the Oscars without choice because ultimately like there’s just too much good in what we like. Great filmmaking, very exciting time for actors so I have no problem with that. It’s great.
What are you watching? You’re talking about all these different things, I’m curious what you watch.
Topher Grace: I watch Westworld, I watch Stranger Things. I guess I do watch Hulu because I watch that James Franco, 11.22.63. Yeah, I’m just like, I mean, what else am I watching?
Do you find yourself leaning towards one type. I mean this obviously is very almost documentary slash you know.
Topher Grace: War Machine? Well, the subject matter is very real but the style is pretty classic I think. No, I don’t I like it all. I mean it’s not like the golden age of television, it’s like the platinum age of television, or just like it’s great for actors. I mean Brad’s really been a leader in terms of, remember when he first signed on to this, before I got the script. And I think now people are kind of lining up to have that experience.
Andy Burns: You play a member of the press and there are some issues going on in the
US right now with members of the press. Does it change your perspective having
played someone in the press? Do you think playing a role affects the way that you perceive things?
Topher Grace: Well, big time, when I did Truth. I mean that was like you’re also doing it with not just Dan Rather but the guy who starred in All the President’s Men and really you know Bob (Robert Redford) and he said I could call him Bob. He had a lot to do with that film, he wasn’t just an actor. Plus he’s just been in media for so many years, Sundance Channel, you know. So like that would have been for me like you know I was just going nuts. This isn’t as geared in that direction. I think of all the junkets for Truth It was interesting going from that to this because it was there were some similarities. This is more of a different kind of comedy, I think.
War Machine, starring Bard Pitt, Anthony Hayes, John Magaro, and Topher Grace, directed by David Michod, is available to watch on Netflix right now. Check it out.