Born Christopher Grace, July 19, 1978, in New York, NY. Education: Attended the University of Southern California, c. 1997-98.
Addresses: Home—New York, NY.
Actor on television, including: That '70s Show, FOX, 1998-2005. Film appearances include: Traffic, 2000; Ocean's Eleven (cameo), 2001; Pinocchio (voice), 2002; Mona Lisa Smile, 2003; Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, 2004; Ocean's Twelve (cameo), 2004; P.S., 2004; In Good Company, 2004.
Awards: Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by the Cast of a Theatrical Motion Picture, for Traffic, 2001.
Topher Grace had a year of college and some summer theater-camp experience behind him when he was cast in a new sitcom on FOX, That '70s Show, in the late 1990s. Both he and fellow castmate Ashton Kutcher emerged as stars of the hit show, and moved easily into movie careers. Grace made his impressive film debut as the drug-addicted prep-school teen in Traffic, the Steven Soderbergh drama from 2000, and has chosen his subsequent film roles carefully. His turn on That '70s Show came to an end just after his first starring role in a major Hollywood film, In Good Company, hit theaters. It seemed he had managed to avoid being locked into a teen TV-star slot, and was emerging as a credible new Hollywood talent whom critics were dubbing the next Tom Hanks. Grace had been offered a slew of movie roles, but tried to avoid the teen-comedy genre. "I still feel that I'm more proud of the 18 films I passed on before Traffic than actually doing Traffic," he told International Herald Tribune writer Alexandra Jacobs.
Grace was born in 1978 in New York City, and grew up in affluent Darien, Connecticut. "Christopher" is his given name, but he disliked its shortened version ("Chris,") so he decided to shorten it himself to "Topher" instead. In his teens, he attended a Massachusetts boarding school, where he appeared in stage productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat and The Pirates of Penzance, and spent summer breaks at a youth theater camp, where future starlet Chloë Sevigny was a fellow camper; four years his senior and from Darien as well, Sevigny sometimes babysat Grace back at home.
At his next school, the Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, Grace harbored some ambition to become a tennis pro, but still appeared in school plays. It was his performance in A Funny Thing Happenedon the Way to the Forum that attracted the attention of husband-and-wife television series creators Bonnie and Terry Turner, whose daughter was also a Brewster student. The Turners were co-writers of the 1992 comedy Wayne's World, and had also created the television sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. When introduced to the Turners, Grace mentioned he was heading to the University of Southern California for college, "so they said, 'When you're out in L.A., can we call you?'" Grace recalled in an Interview magazine profile in which actress Scarlett Johansson posed the questions. "I said, 'Sure, babe. Hollywood, yeah.' But when they started working on That '70s Show, they actually did."
The audition Grace attended for That '70s Show was his first ever, and he won the part of Eric Forman for the show's 1998 debut on FOX. Set in Wisconsin in 1976, the sitcom featured Eric's friends Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), Hyde (Danny Masterson), Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), and the girl next door, Donna (Laura Prepon). Eric's slightly overbearing parents, Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith, provided some of the comic relief, with Entertainment Weekly television critic Ken Tucker asserting that "their cartoonishness—the way they fuss and snipe and worry over their son—would be excessive were it not being played against Eric's poker-faced incredulity." Tucker also gave Grace's work high marks. "Really, I cannot praise enough [his] deftness this is his first series, and so far, he's uncorrupted by the snarky school of sneery-teen TV acting," Tucker declared.
Grace dropped out of the University of Southern California (USC) when he landed the television job, and admitted to Johansson in Interview, "Most of my freshman year at USC I'd just been partying, and I had zero direction. The only reason I'd gone to USC was because it was as far away as I could get from where I grew up. When I got That '70s Show it was such a surprise to everyone, even to the people who called me in." He also noted that because he was a complete novice, his first day on the set proved "terrifying," he told Johansson. "Nobody understood why I was there. I had by far the least experience of anyone."
That '70s Show made a star out of Kutcher almost immediately, but Grace was leery of the film roles that he was offered when the series' ratings began to soar. He realized it was perhaps risky not to capitalize on the show's popularity, as he told Entertainment Weekly's Josh Rottenberg. "You wonder if you're the guy in the bar who, in 15 years, is going to say, 'They offered me the lead in Bring It On and I turned it down,'" he joked. "Which they didn't, by the way—that was just a stupid example."
Instead Grace went after a role he very much wanted—that of Seth Abrahms in Traffic. He played the prep-school pal of Erika Christensen's character, Caroline, whose father (Michael Douglas) has become the new federal drug-policy director. Seth introduces Caroline to heroin, and her addiction quickly spirals out of control. Grace's character delivers one of the film's more scathing monologues, a treatise on the class politics of the illegal drug economy, to her father. The film earned the ensemble honor from the Screen Actors Guild awards, Grace's first industry award. He returned to the cast of That '70s Show, still a ratings success, and took only minor film work for the next couple of years. He was the voice of Leonardo in the 2002 animated feature Pinocchio, and had a supporting role in Mona Lisa Smile a year later. In Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! he was the torch-carrying pal of Kate Bosworth's supermarket checkout clerk, a girl who lands a date with a movie star (Josh Duhamel) in a publicity contest.
Grace's first lead role was in a little-seen independent film in 2004, P.S., co-written and directed by Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger). The story was based on a novel by Helen Schulman and featured Grace as F. Scott Feinstadt, who hopes to win a spot in Columbia University's graduate-arts program. He chances upon Laura Linney's Louise, a Columbia admissions director, who begins to think he may be a reincarnation of her long-ago love. New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane gave P.S. a mixed review, but concluded it was worth seeing. "Best of all, there's Topher Grace, who sounds the perfect note of skepticism when, as the kid who sees things more sanely and cloudlessly than the myopic adults around him, he plucks up courage to remonstrate with Louise," Lane wrote. "'Some guy broke your heart, and I get that—that's traumatic,' he tells her, adding, 'but that happens to everybody. It's called'—he pauses—'high school.'"
Grace's next role was also a starring one, and came in a film released later in 2004 that did much better at the box office than P.S.; it also boosted his reputation as one of Hollywood's next major players. In Good Company, written and directed by Paul Weitz of American Pie fame, was a twist on the dating-the-boss's-daughter premise. Grace played Carter Duryea, a rising young executive with a global conglomerate. Dennis Quaid played Dan Foreman, a Manhattan sports magazine ad sales executive with several years of experience, a suburban mortgage, wife, two children, and a third on the way. When the magazine is acquired by a maverick media tycoon, Carter comes aboard and takes Dan's job—but keeps him on as his assistant.
One night, Dan takes Carter home for dinner, where he meets Dan's college-age daughter, played byScarlett Johansson, who is about to transfer to New York University. The two begin dating, and Quaid's character is mortally offended by the turn of events—yet powerless to do anything about it. "With Grace's charisma," wrote Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum in her review of the film, "it's impossible to hate Carter even when he's at his most doltish, telling Dan that the veteran ad guy would make an 'awesome wingman.' Indeed, In Good Company would go all bad were it not for Grace's valuable ability to play an insensitive jerk and a joke's-on-me good sport simultaneously, with some of the best comic timing in the business."
Other reviews for In Good Company were similarly laudatory. "Quaid is particularly convincing as the man who feels his age, and Grace excels as the ambitious animal who exploits it," remarked Doris Toumarkine in Film Journal International. Grace played a hotshot wunderkind in the film, but as Newsweek writer Devin Gordon noted, he also portrays an upstart who has attained "success way too quickly, and his soul is struggling to keep up. It's a poignant, complex role, and Grace, with shades of Lemmon in The Apartment, smacks it out of the park." Gordon was referring to veteran stage and screen star Jack Lemmon, and in the same review mentioned Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart as well, predicting Grace might just follow all of the above and "inherit American cinema's Everyman throne."
Both Paul Weitz and Dylan Kidd also commended Grace's strengths and potential. In Good Company's director, who also directed Hugh Grant in About a Boy, told Jacobs in the International Herald Tribune article that there are not many "young actors who can believably be articulate," Weitz explained, but Grace's "verbal dexterity reminded me to some extent of Hugh Grant. They're both very quick-witted, but there's a slight degree of nihilism behind their wit." The P.S. director also found Grace's low-key style appealing. "A lot of young actors are acting with a capital A, begging you to pay attention," Kidd told Jacobs. "Whereas he has a total relaxed thing. He can be himself and do these lightning-fast switches from earnest to funny to mature."
The 2004-05 season of That '70s Show was Grace's final one, and he decided to return to the East Coast after many years in Los Angeles. His next film role would be a Harold Ramis comedy centering around online dating and social networks like Friendster. He bought an apartment in New York City, and a dog as well. His personal life remains off the gossip pages, and he credited this to the fact that "I'm just a boring person," he told Los Angeles Daily News writer Bob Strauss. "I really am. I'm into board games. I have a Monopoly club . We recently just bought on the board game black market an unsanctioned by Parker Brothers Triopoly, which is three boards on top of each other. When you hit Free Parking, you actually travel up. There are 50 different states on it. It took us 12 hours to finish it."
In 2005, Grace signed to play a role in Spider-3. Though he has just a handful of films to his credit, Grace also made two brief but comic cameos as himself in Ocean's 11 and its sequel, Ocean's 12, both from Soderbergh, who had directed him in Traffic. In the first, Grace chats with George Clooney's character during a poker game about his career trajectory. Danny Ocean asks if it was hard to move from television roles into film, but Grace blithely replies, "Not for me, dude." The line was something of an in-joke, for Clooney had had a difficult time making the same transition effectively. Grace realized he was fortunate to have been able to move forward from That '70s Show. "There have been a lot of great TV actors who the audience couldn't see outside their character," he told Entertainment Weekly's Rottenberg. "You kind of have one chance."
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), January 14, 2005, p. U6.
Entertainment Weekly, September 18, 1998, p. 65; June 18, 1999, p. 36; November 12, 2004, p. 37; January 21, 2005, p. 64; April 8, 2005, p. 12.
Film Journal International, February 2005, p. 45.
International Herald Tribune, October 13, 2004, p. 10.
Interview, February 2005, p. 92.
Newsweek, January 10, 2005, p. 53.
New Yorker, October 18, 2004, p. 214.