In portraying the true story of Ron Stallworth–an African American detective who infiltrated the KKK in Colorado Springs in the 1970s–Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman also captures the leader of the white supremacist organization David Duke, played by Topher Grace. Depicted with a sense of queasy menace and also the target of some deserving laughs, Grace handles the difficult challenge with a subtle confidence as he eventually goes toe-to-toe with Stallworth and his team. He’s also the only real-life person portrayed that we actually see in the film during an emotional, enraging finale–one better discussed in greater detail after you see the film.
I spoke with Grace about preparing for the role, Spike Lee’s precision, working with auteurs, the recent films he’s enjoyed, and the Ocean’s trilogy, including the cameo he couldn’t shoot.
The Film Stage: I was going over the Wikipedia page of David Duke, and just that made me queasy. How did you feel after your extensive preparation for the role? I read you listened to his radio show.
Topher Grace: I did listen to his radio show, because that’s just his voice, and I think people are ageless on radio, and I do some of the radio programming that you hear in the film. I’ll go into what I did, but I got this amazing call from Spike [Lee] saying “You got the part!” And it’s just this really delicious, juicy role. And then I went into the worst month of my life which was all this research on him which was the radio show, reading My Awakening which was his autobiography and is kind of a thinly veiled Mein Kampf, and has his belief system in it. It’s a thick book, and it’s overwhelmingly negative and just hard to read. And then I watched just a bunch of Donahue, which was kind of one of the few shows on the air which had controversial figures on it, and that was the best in terms of information because then I could see a lot of his mannerisms, see how he played off a crowd. Eventually, he went into politics, and you can kind of see it on that. And then I watched a bunch of interviews with him from a little earlier, cause a lot of Donahue was in ‘83 and this takes place in ‘73. But it was just the worst month of my life… by the way it was the best month of my life because I was having a kid too. But my wife was sitting there nursing and was like, “Hey, can you stop practicing hate speech?” I love the role, but I hate the man.
When you first meet the first KKK members we’re introduced to they are kind of in your face and more direct, and when we meet you, it’s almost scarier because of how subdued and quiet you are, and it just builds and builds. Can you talk about playing that kind of psychological game?
Well, a lot of that was in the script. A lot of that Spike had told me about, which is that the first half of the film is more of an introduction to America at the time, kind of what the common conception of what a racist was, like a beer belly, redneck dude. Then the second half of the film focuses more on what racism became, and sadly, what David played a big part in helping it become, kind of the face of racism that is still around today, which is kind of more palatable. I mean, it’s still evil but it’s more palatable racism, which is David. And they say this in the movie, but he always wears three piece suits and he’s always well spoken. The most evil part of him I realized in doing all that research was seeing how intelligent he was.
I love the way Spike Lee shot your scenes, at least for the first 80% where we see you because you’re just in this lonely, isolated room and it’s kind of this perfect encapsulation for racism today. Did he talk to you at all about that element of loneliness and isolation?
Spike doesn’t walk you through his process. But I’ll tell you what we did you–which you have on very few films–is that he had John David Washington and me up to NYU to his office–and by the way is amazing, there’s like students popping in and asking him questions and then you’re rehearsing–but we had a lot more rehearsal time than most films, especially to be doing face to face. Those phone calls, to have rehearsed them with John, and also when we shot them, he built the sets next to each other so we were actually on the phone. Like, I didn’t know he gave the phone the middle finger. I didn’t know there were so many people around the phone laughing, so it was kind of separate in that way. I think he did that in Inside Man because with a lot of those phone calls you want to be able to cut at any time, so I think he did that there. I guess a lot of people don’t think about this with filmmaking, but sometimes when you’re on the phone there’s nothing there. You’re on a dead phone and there’s someone off camera that’s just like reading the sides. So you’re not even doing it with the guy, let alone not even doing the actual performance, but this was live.
I feel like it’s almost a prerequisite at the end credits in based-on-a-true-story movies nowadays to show the real-life people.
And then you’ll see like ”This is the real Babe Ruth!” But I’ve never seen it jump to the present, and still have the same person and say something that powerful.
Yeah, you’re just in tears at the end. Because you didn’t shoot with a lot of cast until the finale, what was your experience seeing the film in full and then that emotional experience at the end?
Oh man. The first time I saw the movie was in Cannes because I had been doing a movie in Canada before that. So if I saw this movie at the Focus Features screening room I would have been thrilled to have been in such an amazing movie, but to see it at the Cannes Film Festival where we got like a 10-minute standing ovation, was easily one of the best experiences I’ll probably ever have in my career. It was thrilling to hear, especially with some of the stuff with David was very risky, and to see it pay off, both in terms of getting laughs–I mean real solid laughs in what is a dramatic film–and then feel the impact of that ending. Just as a viewer of the film, forgetting I was in it was an amazing experience. For lack of a better word, I’ll call them jokes, they’re not exactly jokes, but some of the humorous moments we went for, some of them Spike and I talked about and figured out on the set. They’re so dangerous, not in terms of me caring about how I’d come off, but you wanna make sure with this kind of material it’s only taken one way. For me, before I did it I thought, “There’s only one human you can do this with: it’s Spike Lee.” When you play a role like that it’s gotta be with the greatest black director of all time, the end.
Speaking of Spike Lee, what was your first experience of seeing one of his films?
Do The Right Thing. A teacher showed it to us at a boarding school I went too for high school and it blew my mind. And then to be a part of something that he’s doing that is so vital and part of our society and about our society right now, it’s mind-blowing. I don’t know how many experiences you have where you experience the person and you’re such a fan as a young person and then you get to work with them, and he did not disappoint.
At Cannes, you also had Under The Silver Lake there.
I have a much smaller part in that, a couple scenes. It was a fun Cannes. Actually, that was the next night, so it was a really heady experience. I called my mom, because in her time zone my mom was up, and I was like, “This is what I thought Hollywood was gonna be, when you were taking me to Planet Hollywood, and you know, MGM Studios.” And then when I moved to Hollywood it was not at all what was advertised. But at Cannes everyone really loves cinema, and it was like palm trees and yachts. It was what I imagined Hollywood would be like.
It’s been exciting to see you in this movie, and the David Robert Mitchell movie, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
Chris was there. I saw him on the way out. I mean he’s a great guy. He was there to support Spike, and I love that community, especially in Cannes, that everyone really cares about cinema that much.
It seems based on these recent choices, you do know the auteurs that are out there. Are there any recent upcoming directors that you’ve been blown away by?
I mean I love Matt Spicer. I loved Ingrid Goes West, I thought that was like the funniest movie of the year. Love the Daniels. I love David Lowery. I thought A Ghost Story was like the best movie I’d seen in ten years.
I don’t think that movie got it’s due. And I just saw the trailer for his Robert Redford movie [The Old Man and the Gun.] He accessed Robert Redford from the time he was Robert Redford.
I can’t even list them because there’s a ton of people I want to work with. For me, it’s not about having a list of people I wanna work it. It’s about saying no to things I might have said yes to a couple years ago. I kind of announced to my agents that they are no longer my agents. I won’t be making money. That’s essentially what you’re saying to the corporation, “Hey I just wanna do things that get me really excited on set.” I’m very happy with the reception of this movie. I loved being in Truth, I loved being in Interstellar, even though people were like, “What’re you doing in here? It’s such a small role.” To me, being on set with geniuses like that, working on material like that–I don’t know how to describe it. I think I’m relatively young, but I’ve been doing it for a while and after a while, you go, “Well, what’s the point if not to work with people that get your pilot light lit?”
It does seem that with A Ghost Story and movies on that budget level, that is where the most interesting projects are being made. This film was produced by Jason Blum and Jordan Peele. Did you speak to them at all during the process or was it mostly just Spike Lee?
Jordan, oh my God. Jordan is the number one filmmaker I wanna work with. I mean look, it’s really Spike’s film. I mean they were really fantastic, you can’t get a better producing team. Spike’s an auteur. It’s funny, we were walking up those steps at Cannes and he had these coattails on his tuxedo and I was like “Yup, we’re all riding literally on his coattails onto the top of that red carpet.” That’s what I felt watching the film, that there was a really sure hand. Especially tonally with this film. When I was reading the script I was like, “If this could work, it could be amazing.” But there are like zero other people I’d do it with besides Spike.
Spike Lee is known to move fast on movie sets because he knows exactly what he wants. Was there any hesitation on your part because you’re playing a real-life character, you want to get it right or did you feel after every take that you were like “Alright, I’m good with leaving it here?”
First of all, I never feel at the end of any take, “Done, in the can, perfect.” [Laughs.] I did feel the same assuredness that the audience feels being taken through the film. By the way, I felt the same way working with Chris and David and lots of really great filmmakers. Here you feel these people really know what they want and it makes me so sure I don’t wanna direct because I have no idea and these people really know. That said I did a play, here in New York five or six years ago and I never rehearsed that much. Something like this, where he gives a lot of speeches, which are essentially rehearsed for the character, I hired someone to come to my house and on day one I was ready to go on each scene. I think because rehearsing sucks so much it’s just a pain in the ass, it’s really about memorizing. But that’s what I do on all these films now, rehearse it like it’s a play performance.
To jump back a few years, I think Ocean’s Twelve is a masterpiece.
It’s just getting its due now.
Well, that’s what I’m wondering.
Why is that happening just now?
I think the meta aspect turned people off initially, but now people are more accepting of it. But that opening scene you have is just incredible. I was wondering your process with coming up with that and improvising perhaps?
Ocean’s Eleven was because I was in Traffic, which was my first film. So I was in ADR and Steven was just like, “Wanna come and do Ocean’s Eleven?” And I was like “Let me think about that, yeah!” And it was great, I think I was only 21 and it was like George Clooney and Brad Pitt and by the way, quick aside, the plane we’re in War Machine is called Ocean’s Eleven and I did those scenes with Brad.
So when the next film came around I really knew Steven. The scene was always gonna be in this hotel room that I wasted but I remember on the day we figured out I was telling him about this Dennis Quaid movie and Dennis Quaid had been in Traffic. We realized that the trailer for In Good Company would be playing before Ocean’s Twelve which is a really good experience viewers probably don’t even get today. And the thing I can tell you that no one else knows is that in Ocean’s Thirteen, which I couldn’t do because of Spider-Man, I was gonna see Rusty [Pitt’s character] going into a casino and I was gonna stop him and the whole time I was going to be holding an Asian baby but we weren’t gonna say anything about it. The first was one was cars, second was wreck a hotel a room, and the third one was that.
Thank you. That is great.
No, thank you. God, I haven’t talked about that in forever.
BlacKkKlansman opens in wide release this Friday, August 10.