In the new thriller THE DOUBLE, Topher Grace plays Ben Geary, a young FBI agent who is assigned to his dream case, tracking down the Russian assassin known only as Cassius. Ben is teamed with former CIA operative Paul Shepherdson, played by Richard Gere, who has been reluctantly dragged back into the field due to his expertise in this matter. Family man Ben and loner Paul would seem to be polar opposites, but they turn out to have a few things in common.
Grace, a New Yorker by birth, got his feature film start in Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC, then went on to TV stardom as Eric Forman in the long-running sitcom THAT ‘70S SHOW. Since then, Grace feels he’s probably best known for his work in romantic comedies including VALENTINE’S DAY and TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT, but he’s also played a smarmy killer in PREDATORS. His role as Ben in THE DOUBLE is another departure for the actor, which, he says, makes him very happy.
The writing was what initially attracted Grace to THE DOUBLE and notes it had an “amazing script.”
“I liked the character a lot,” he says. “Every boy plays secret agent, so you feel like you’ve been in training for [the role] a long time. But then the script had so many twists and turns, and I knew that one of the writers [Michael Brandt] was directing it, so he had the map. I finished the script and I’d go back and reread it in terms of what [Ben’s] intentions actually are in each scene. It’s great to have the person who wrote such a complex script, basically who drew the map, there with you. A lot of times [on films], the writer’s not on the set, and that would have been just impossible for this film. And his partner Derek was there every day, so it was great to have them there in a writer sense. But what’s really impressive about Michael is, he steps back and doesn’t tell you that you have to do something a certain way. And for someone who’s that involved with it for that many years, developing and writing the script and casting it, to then sit back and let you have freedom with it, that’s all you can ask for.”
Other reasons for signing on, Grace adds was that he missed the spy genre.
“And it was Richard Gere,” he adds. “And then when I heard about the other people signing on, it was too good to [pass up]. I’d never shot a gun in a movie, I’d never done a chase scene [before].”
THE DOUBLE even gave Grace the chance to do a few of his own stunts. “Did you see my jump off the train tracks?” he asks with a laugh. “It’s me, but it’s on my back, so you’ll never know, but I promise you, it’s me.”
What would Grace say THE DOUBLE is about? “It’s my guess, because I’m not one of the writers – I think it’s about a nostalgia for a certain type of filmmaking that isn’t around any more, more of a thinking man’s action movie, suspense movie,” he observes. “Maybe kind of nostalgia for a time when things were a little simpler, even in terms of our enemies and the black and white chess of the Cold War, people becoming nostalgic for that. That’s my takeaway.”
Due to current events, THE DOUBLE has turned out to be unexpectedly timely, which has not gone unnoticed by Grace.
“When we were shooting this film, that’s when there were six Russian agents found inside the [U.S.],” he says. “There’s someone involved with British politics Steve [Moyer, who plays Russian agent Brutus] was telling me about who was just found. And we’ve got people over there. No one talks about it, we don’t think about it as much, but I think there’s some stuff going on in Russia that might kind of careen back into that. I think [THE DOUBLE] was a great way into something that I love, which is films like NO WAY OUT, THE PARALLAX VIEW, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, films that they don’t make enough of any more.”
Getting to play both the action side and the romantic side is something Grace is enjoying with his on-screen choices – though he admits, he doesn’t think anyone is “tracking it.”
“I’m very proud of playing in both, which is very different, because one is like purely a good person, and the other one is putting [a nice persona] on and just the opposite, but I know that my agents absolutely hate it, and it would be much better if I just did romantic comedies or decided on one thing to do,” he says. “But I went right from VALENTINE’S DAY into PREDATORS, and in PREDATORS, there was blood, I was literally a serial killer at the end of that and then still with blood under my nails, I went to the screening of VALENTINE’S DAY and I thought, ‘Well, this is different.’” He laughs. “That to me is my favorite part of the job, and I probably make less money because of it. Because it’s better if you kind of commoditize one thing and say, ‘This is what I do.’ But I figure, I’m relatively young, and I like the learning of it, all the learning I did in terms of shooting and Russian dialect and FBI stuff on this film. I just did a romantic comedy this summer [THE WEDDING] and it’s Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton. They have very interesting acting styles. That is kind of a family comedy. Hold onto your hats – De Niro’s my dad, Diane Keaton’s my mom, Katherine Heigl is my sister, my new in-law is Amanda Seyfried and my mother-in-law is Susan Sarandon. [laughs] And Robin Williams is in it.. One day I was at a table for five, and I was the only one without an Academy Award. It was a great film. Everything is a learning experience, if you’re doing different things all the time.”
Getting a chance to work with Gere and Martin Sheen in THE DOUBLE also taught him a lot as an actor as well.
“That’s the best part of being in these films that are really different, especially being in films that attract great ensembles, is that you steal a little bit from everyone,” he says. “Richard is – to say Zen-like is an understatement. He’s buddies with the Dalai Lama. He brings a calm to his characters, but there’s – what’s that expression, still waters run deep? He grounds his characters so forcefully with that. We were doing a scene with Odette [Yustman]. I had been swatting away a lot of bugs. And I realized, oops. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m saying prayers for all of them.’ And then he was doing the scene, and a bug landed on his cheek and started pumping blood out of him. You’re not supposed to cut a scene when another actor is on camera, so we just sat there, and at the end of the scene, he said, ‘I have a mosquito on my cheek, don’t I?’ And he just lifted it off, ‘You’re welcome for the snack’ or whatever. I thought that’s a really interesting level of power to bring into a scene. And my character is very opposite, so it was a great thing to play off of.”
As for Sheen, Grace says that he may be the “nicest actor I’ve ever met.”
“I’m used to seeing him in APOCALYPSE NOW and WEST WING and really heavy fare, but he is so wonderful,” says Grace. “He talks to absolutely everyone. There were some firefighters helping us out in a scene and he went over and spent time with their families and was having dinner with them later. He’s an amazing guy, and that bleeds in in its own way, too. Even though he has heavy dramatic stuff, he’s very light coming into a scene if it’s something heavy, playing the President of the United States or whatever. So I loved working with him. He’s the most wonderful guy.”
Playing Ben called for Grace to learn a number of new skills, like firing a gun and speaking Russian.
“I think the more you can do, the better, in terms of research,” Grace relates. “I’m not a Method actor, but I went to the shooting range a couple of times, which was something I’d never done. Someone worked with me on what it is to be at your desk at the FBI, what it’s like to go outside. Russian was really hard for me. My character speaks Russian, and I started that early, because I thought, ‘I have to nail this down phonetically.’”
Grace also underwent fight training for the role. “But my training was American FBI training, not Systema [the Russian style that Moyer’s character employs],” explains Grace. “The guy who walked me through it, Martin Wheeler [fight coordinator and Gere’s stunt double on the film], understood that I would be fighting someone [who used] Systema, taught me some of the mistakes I could make to point out how fluid Systema is. I was fascinated by that. I don’t think we [in America] knew about Systema, really, until after the Cold War.”
Some of Ben’s hairier-looking stunts are actually performed by Grace, the actor reveals.
“There’s a scene where I get lifted up and go into a mirror and guess what? It hurt,” he says. “But it caught me at kind of a weird angle. [In another scene], Richard dislocated his shoulder and actually we just shut down for a day. It was really scary, because he’s in so much of the film. He was such a pro. He just got right back into it, and you think, ‘This guy’s fighting with a dislocated shoulder.’ It’s crazy. I had a fight where the other guy was three hundred pounds. I got to get a couple in there and I said, ‘Thank you.’”
However, Grace says that playing the father of an infant was the biggest challenge by far.
“The hardest thing for me, in terms of the whole film, was holding a baby,” he laughs. “I’d never done that before and it was terrifying. The parents of these twins that stood in for my baby [were on set]. I just thought, ‘I don’t want to mess this up, because that would be bad.’ We just spent some with [the babies] and it was really hard. You think, ‘They’re going to participate in the scene somehow,’ and they’re not, they’re just on their own. They’re three months old.”
Formal acting training isn’t a part of Grace’s background, but he doesn’t feel he’s missed out. “Working with great people like Richard and Michael Douglas, I’ve been able to work with Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid,” says Grace. “I can’t imagine there being better training. There are probably different kinds of training, but that’s the best kind of training.”
Grace says he’d rather not over-analyze acting technique either. “I remember seeing Conan O’Brien on Charlie Rose once,” says Grace. “And Charlie said, ‘What is it to be funny?’ And Conan just said, ‘No, Charlie, I can’t answer that question. To even talk about it is to take the piss out of the whole thing.’ I feel the same about acting. I certainly don’t sit around with my actor friends and talk about how they do it or how I do it. Everyone has different opinions – there are a lot of different ways. So everything’s right in my opinion, if it works for you.”
As far as what he looks for in a project, Grace relates, “Something that’s different from the last thing I’ve done.”
“And I mean it,” he adds. “It’s not really the best recipe for success in Hollywood is changing it up all the time, at least in terms of celebrity. It’s not the smartest thing to do. But I really like just doing the opposite of the last thing I did, only because if you think of your mind having different muscles, if you work out the romantic comedy muscle, and you work out – this is a completely different set of skills. I just love having the good, healthy four food groups.”
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Article: Interview with THE DOUBLE star Topher Grace