Not that Topher Grace wasn’t a cute and totally respectable actor before but with his new film War Machine, a Netflix original about the business, politics and public relations of war (out May 26), everyone’s favourite scrawny 1970s basement stoner is grown the eff up and holding his own among a cast of Serious Actors that includes Brad Pitt, Sir Ben Kingsley and Tilda Swinton. War Machine, a satirical film about the war on terror, revolves around a four-star U.S. General—played by a stiff-armed Brad Pitt—brought in to “clean up” the Afghanistan war.
The film is based on The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings, the bestselling book about Stanley McChrystal, the IRL army general on which Pitt’s character Glen McMahon is based. McChrystal had to resign from his position as leader of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after doing an epically tone-deaf interview with Rolling Stone. In War Machine, Grace plays Matt Little, a PR exec who swaps suave suits for military garb to act as McMahon’s media advisor in Afghanistan.
Here, we chat with an all grown-up Grace about filming in the Abu Dhabi desert with mostly dudes, the on-set bromances that blossomed and whether or not he’d be down for a That ’70s Show reunion.
Is this a traditional war movie?
This might actually be more of a war film than a traditional war film. The writer-director David Michôd (of
And tell me a little bit about the role of Matt Little, “civilian PR consultant.” Did you experience as an actor working with PR people inform how you crafted this character?
Certainly. I wouldn’t say I based it off any one publicist I’ve worked with, but there are a couple Hollywood types that influenced it. What was great for me personally was there was a lot of fear going into this as an actor because you’re portraying someone in the military and you don’t really have enough time to learn as much as you should about the military. So they had a boot camp for us, and we had two weeks of rehearsal, and they tried to immerse us as much as possible. But I remember on the first day I tried to pop my collar to look cool, my character had shades, and the military advisor on the film say No no no, you’d never do that and the director was like No, no he would. His character would do that. Going in not knowing anything was kind of good for this movie.
What was the mood like on set with all these dudes?
It was what it looks like on the poster—Brad was our leader, and he’s really such a kind, great leader, and it was just this group of close guys We were in the middle of the desert so we got really close. Last night was the premier so if I look a little tired, it’s because the guys are really fun and it was great to see them.
You filmed in the desert. What was it really like when you weren’t filming? Were you shuttled to a swank hotel?
We were filming two hours outside of Abu Dhabi where there is one luxury hotel, but that’s it. It’s literally surrounded by desert, it’s where they shot all of the desert scenes in Star Wars. One of the great things about being on location with a big group like that is we’d come home at the end of the day and all sit around the dinner table, the whole cast, crew and everything, and talk about what we had shot that day and these big issues the film brings up, and the next day we’d go out shooting and be informed about what we talked about the day before. I love all types of films, but the best is when it’s based on something specific and you’re exploring it while you make it.
What do you hope people will get out of the film, regardless of their political leanings?
It’s tough because it is a political film made by someone who’s not American, which gave him a really unique perspective. But politics aside, what’s amazing about this script is the emotional journey. It’s funny at times, and very serious at times, but ultimately you feel what it means to be the character going through this. It’s not just a biopic, you actually feel what it might be like to be in that position.
You’ve been in a lot of different kinds of films, what is your favourite kind of role to dig into?
Lately, and it might be because I’m getting older, but I really like these kinds of films. I did a film last year, Truth, that was about when Dan Rather was fired, and [played a similar character] who works in media. And what makes the process so interesting is you’re doing all this research that’s so fascinating. I didn’t know enough about the Dan Rather story and I got to read the book the movie is based on (American journalist and television news producer Mary Mapes’ memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power). Then on set, Dan Rather was there. There were a lot of experts on the field who were teaching us. And then afterwards when you’re promoting it, it’s so much more interesting when people want to discuss it. When War Machine ends, people want to talk about how they felt about it. And those are my favourite types of films—when you’re a part of an immediate history conversation about something that just happened.
Is there a theme emerging in the conversations you’re having about War Machine?
I’ve been trying to not bring my political leanings into it as I’m doing publicity for this, but what I think is so smart about the movie is it starts off with a political point of view but ultimately it gets way more emotional, which I think is a smarter, more effective way to reach people.
People love to remember you as Eric Forman from That ’70s Show, does that warm your heart?
Oh yeah, we spent a lot of time doing that show and we all loved it, and the people loved it. I still love it, I love the character, I love all those kids. I love seeing them whenever I have the chance and most of them are now on Netflix (laughs).
A lot of people like to think of you as long-time friends.
In a way, it’s kind of like your friends in high school—you’ll never have better friends. I had never acted before, so I’ll never have a better, deeper experience than doing my first job.
Would you consider a reunion?
Yes, absolutely, if everyone else was in. Just to hang out with those guys for a couple days would be great.
What’s next for you?
I did a film called Under the Silver Lake with Andrew Garfield (as well as Riley Keough and Zosia Mamet) and I think it’s dope, so maybe I’ll be talking to you about that in a little while!