Sneakily, Topher Grace has been playing a sort of soothsayer on your screen. Almost every role he signs up for dives into subject matter that’s either currently or about to be a part of a national or even global conversation. in BlacKkKlansmann, he played the former Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, David Duke, just as a sea of tiki torch-carrying white men swarmed Charlottesville. He was a lobbyist and media advisor in War Machine, which satirized America’s neverending war in Afghanistan. He played a tech czar in Black Mirror as conversations about accountability in Big Tech started to reach a boiling point. National Geographic’s anthology series The Hot Zone featured Grace as a virologist, and less than a year later, we were in a global pandemic.
In the new ABC sitcom Home Economics, which is cheekily being marketed as the second coming of contemporary ABC moneymakers like Modern Family, The Bachelor and Black-ish, Grace plays Tom, a struggling middle-class novelist married to a former lawyer (Karla Souza). Tom has a younger sister—the recently fired child psychologist Sarah (Caitlin McGee), who’s barely scraping by with her teacher wife (Sasheer Zamata)—and a 1% of the 1% type brother, Connor (Jimmy Tatro). The show, which is based on series creator Michael Colton’s own life, comes at a time when class and income inequality in America are constantly in the headlines.
Time will tell if the show connects with audiences, but even in its infancy, the cast of Home Economics has the type of on-screen chemistry you’d expect to emerge after a few seasons, and there are some solid running gags (like Connor’s insistence on letting everyone know he bought his house from Matt Damon). GQ got Grace on the phone to talk about Home Economics, his homemade edits of Star Wars and The Hobbit, how he chooses projects and That 70s Show.
GQ: First of all, congrats on the show. The thing that put Home Economics on my radar was the self-aware ad campaign—“Doctor, I’m suing you for malpractice because you broke my heart,” is a terrible piece of dialogue, but as a Grey’s Anatomy parody, it’s perfect.
Topher Grace: ABC promo is great, but they actually ran that line through our writer’s room. The hardest thing to do as an actor is to act badly. Someone says act like a bad actor, and it’s hard to do, and I think it’s similarly hard to do for writers, but they figured it out somehow.
It seems like shooting some of those promos where you get to be the Bachelor is almost as fun, if not more fun, than actually shooting the show.
The Bachelor stuff, dude, we have literally a full episode of footage that we’ll never be able to use. All three of those women (Caitlin McGee, Zamata, Souza ) are incredible improvisers, and if you give them such rich source material like The Bachelor to go in on, there’s 30 minute long confessionals of them crying and saying, “I’m actually in love with him” and “she’s here for the wrong reasons” and they just went nuts. We should put it out as a promo thing. I should have them cut it into an episode.
Maybe you should cut it. You have experience with editing as a hobby.
Well [laughs]. I’m not nearly as good as the manipulative editors of The Bachelor. They’re really making magic happen over there.
A pilot will obviously have growing pains, but in Home Economics, the family’s chemistry is immediately off the charts. You’re an executive producer: What part did you play in molding the perfect family for the show?
Just being able to be first on it. You look at it and go, oh, this is a great way into a story about a family. It’s very diverse. But, you don’t know until that first day on set. And I was nervous driving there. But when I drove home at the end of the second day, I was overconfident. You just know when it’s clicking. And it happened for me once before being on a dream team like that. What are the odds it’ll happen again? But this group, you get to really fan out every day, because you just love everyone you’re working with.
It seems like being a father informed your role. You seem like a natural with the kids and have the fatherly aura down to a tee.
It’s funny, before I had kids, I hated listening to actors talk about how their kids changed everything for them. And I didn’t do it for my kids. I don’t like when actors say they did a movie, like an animated movie or something, because they wanted something for their kids to like. Why don’t you just do it for you? But I did this one for me. I actually feel like the character is going through something very similar to what I’m going through. I don’t have twins. But I understood that underwater feeling you have when the kids are really young, and you’re trying to live out creative passions. My character happens to be a novelist, but he wants to make time for that but even when the series starts, the first thing you see, I’m just at a desk and writing. And then you see like there’s one crib next to the desk and you see there’s another crib and the other kid comes at you and yeah, that’s how it feels if you’re really trying to balance those two things.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you haven’t done a lot of physical comedy in your career—
A lot of people have been saying that, and I am so glad because I have all these bruises because you wind up doing it like ten times. You’re doing all these takes from different angles. It’s certainly not something I even thought of when I first read the script. But now that we’ve done a bunch of episodes, yeah, there’s a lot of getting in shape just by being on set.
You’re getting beat and battered in every episode I’ve seen so far.
Well, stick with it. It gets worse.
Some of your most recent roles are incredibly timely. David Duke in BlacKkKlansman. A tech lord in Black Mirror. The “good guy who turns out not so good” archetype in Twilight Zone and a virologist in The Hot Zone. Are these choices deliberate?
It’s probably just me growing up a little bit, and it started for me with Truth, a movie not a lot of people saw that I’m really proud of. It’s Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford and he played Dan Rather. It was about his producer at the time when they were investigating Bush [to verify if he received preferential treatment in the military]. It feels like there’s very little you can say as an actor, or probably there’s very little you should say, as an actor. A lot of actors have a big platform to say stuff, and not a lot to say. But when you’re involved with something like that, and you’re watching the news, then you’re able to put it into your work the next day on set. Then I did a similar thing with War Machine. It’s based on a book and Brad Pitt played a general in it. And I had a lot of opinions about what’s going on with our country being at war at that time. And I just started going in that direction.
The greatest thing for me was in BlacKkKlansman. We were preparing for the film, I was doing research, and then I was watching Charlottesville happen on TV. You don’t know what to do with all of that frustration. I don’t think anyone does. But the best thing that could happen is that you’re working with Spike Lee, and you go, “I’m going to be a part of something.” I mean, it’s his story that he’s telling. But I’m gonna be part of something that’s gonna be talked about on a national level. It just really deepens what you’re talking about.
It seems very different doing something like Home Economics. It’s a different subject matter, but I’ve been talking about families and talking about their finances and where people are economically or socio-economically. And that’s really something that people are talking about right now.
What was it like reacting to the past year of pandemic after playing the role of a virologist?
Well, I remember going to some kind of press conference [in June 2019], it must have been for the Emmys or something because it was an auditorium of like 300 journalists. And I made this comment where I was like, “Look, no one wants to talk about the fact that we’re about to have the big one,” you know, in terms of earthquakes in California, and the whole audience just groaned like I told some terrible joke. I was like, “Do you think not thinking about it means it’s not gonna happen?” And everyone thought I was being funny. And I thought, “Oh man, I just did a couple of months playing this character who is kind of shouting in the wind,” because no one wants to listen to the fact that something like this is gonna happen. And then [the big earthquake] happened. It was crazy. [In March 2020] I posted a picture of me and Juliana Margulies on the feed [to address COVID], and that was my only way of saying… well, no one wants to say “I told you so.” You’re not the fun guy at the party when you say that.
Circling back on editing, it’s such a unique hobby for an actor. Have you edited any movies lately?
No, all of my editing was before I had kids. I have a friend I do it with. It’s kind of like a dad band thing, except doing something even nerdier. Basically, about ten years ago, I produced my first film; I gave really terrible notes because you don’t know what you don’t know, and as an actor, you don’t know what goes on in the editing room. You’re like, “Why did that movie take so long?” And when you see it, you’re like… “That’s what we shot?” Then when you get in [the editing bay], you realize one frame could make such a difference.
You cut the Star Wars prequels into one film. Are there any other movies you think need to be re-edited?
Well, yes! A lot of them. It’s funny, I’m not actually a huge Star Wars or Hobbit fan—the first movie I did was Atonement, which I thought was brilliant. In that [movie], the characters have flashbacks that happen right after you see someone else’s point of view, so you see it from the young girl’s point of view, and then they flashback and then you see it from another character’s point of view. And I thought, what if you started with [Keira Knightly] as a nurse, it’s later in the movie and you flashback and show it all from one point of view and then from another point of view, and my friends really dug it. I had a little screening at my house. But they were like, “Why is that movie only 40 minutes long? [laughs] I said, okay I need something that has way more than one movie because after it’s all cut down, it might equal one movie. So that’s why I started learning on these big franchises.
You get asked about a That ‘70 Show reboot all the time. Do you find that annoying at this point?
I appreciate you saying that, but when I saw Boyhood I said, “That’s what it felt like for me.” I guess I was 19 to 26 or something. That was a very long time. I think 26 to 36 goes by much faster, but those years when you’re going from a teenager to a young adult are so precious, and there’s so much going on. I mean, no one gives sitcoms this kind of credit, but they span a long period of people’s lives. People saw it in Boyhood, and they thought it was amazing. But that’s what That ‘70s Show was for me and I think for the other actors too, as we were dealing with stuff. We were having all those firsts. At the same time, we were then doing shows about kind of the same things.
Actually, it’s kind of like Home Economics, to be having kids and then immediately go to work. I did a thing the other day where the kid on set was finished with something in the shot, but they were eating, and I just started eating off of his plate because that’s what happens when you become a dad. If the show goes as long as ‘70s did—it’s not a documentary, but I look back on it probably the way you would look back on photos from the yearbook in high school or something. It just feels so of that time in my life, such a snapshot. So now, when people ask me about it, I always say, “The only problem I have is I wish I could do it.” I think the good news is everyone had so much success off of that show that [a revival] would be hard to do.