David Duke’s arrival in BlacKkKlansman signals a changing of the guard—his manicured hair, three-piece suit and urbane banter standing in stark contrast to the scuzzy, inbred weirdos comprising the local chapter of Colorado Springs’ Ku Klux Klan. His is the new face of American racism, slick and college-educated. That he’s played by Topher Grace is a stroke of genius on the part of filmmaker Spike Lee.
Grace, 40, is best known to audiences as Eric Forman on the long-running sitcom That ‘70s Show—a genial dweeb with kind, wide-set eyes and a foreign best friend who left his buddies in Wisconsin to teach in Africa. And here he’s emerged, in roughly the same time period, as the devil incarnate.
Based on the real-life saga of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black cop who posed as a white racist over the phone and, with the help of his undercover-cop colleague (Adam Driver), infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK in the early ‘70s, Lee’s film is one of the year’s timeliest—a film that, according to Grace, “is talking about racism in America today.”
It ends with footage of last year’s tragedy in Charlottesville, wherein a neo-Nazi mowed down protesters, claiming the life of activist Heather Heyer. We all know what happened next: President Donald Trump notoriously equivocated, saying there were “very fine people on both sides”—the sides being neo-Nazis, including none other than David Duke, and anti-fascist protesters. Trump had previously taken several days to denounce the presidential endorsement of Duke, even refusing to do so during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper; and Trump’s father, Fred, was once arrested following a Klan riot in Queens.
“He’s a terrible, evil man that I personally hate,” Grace says of Duke. “The real challenge of this was to pace myself, and show what he was like to America. He’s very seductive, and that’s what makes him so evil.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Grace about his stunning turn as Duke and how he’s entered the most creatively-fulfilling chapter of his career.
This is big. You’re playing KKK Grand Wizard David Duke in a Spike Lee film.
A couple of years ago, I said to my then-agents—they’re not my agents anymore—I said, “Hey, I want to do things that are really challenging and different.” I had just done Valentine’s Day. And that’s a terrible thing to say in Hollywood, because what you’re saying is, “I don’t want to make you money anymore.” The thing that gets commoditized is the thing you’ve done over and over again, you’ve proven you can do it, and people show up for it.
But I had just met the woman who would become my wife, I felt comfortable and was lucky enough to have made some money on That ‘70s, and had a lot of support from my managers, so the first film I did was Interstellar. I wanted to work with auteurs—to feel that when I was on set, I felt that fire burning. Another one of the films, Truth, with Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, I thought was gonna hit and it didn’t, but my experience on that film was like putting your phone in the charger and it fully recharges. I loved being on that set and being around those great actors.
It must be difficult to play a hatemonger like David Duke. You have to not only be comfortable saying horrific things, including the most awful word ever, but do so convincingly.
I remember looking at interviews with people who were in Django Unchained to try to see what it was like on set saying these crazy things, and there were no answers. When I first read the script, I thought, OK, I’m open to playing this character but only because it’s being directed by the greatest black filmmaker of all time. And then when I told people I wanted to play David Duke, well, there was a little bit of head-scratching.
I read that you had to audition. What was that experience like?
The night before, I was sitting in my office alone at home and my wife and daughter were asleep. I was trying to run the lines for the next day, and I was swallowing the words—and it wasn’t just the N-word. When I went in the next day, I met Spike and said, “Hey, I don’t know if this is going to sound annoying or not, but I have to say it: I’m really uncomfortable with this dialogue. I’ve never been in this position before.” And he immediately made me feel comfortable. He said, “It’s my message. You’re serving my message here. It’s going to be a terrible scene, but we’re going to shoot it.” And he expressed that with so much warmth and humor, that I immediately felt comfortable, and felt like I delivered a good performance. In a weird way, I think I got this role because of Spike.
And then came the preparation.
I got a call from Spike Lee saying, “You’re the guy,” which is one of the best calls you can get in your career. And the next month was probably the worst month of my life. I read [Duke’s] autobiography, My Awakening, which is his version of Mein Kampf. You just feel gross reading it. It’s the opposite of an awakening. Then I watched old movie clips of him from the ‘70s and his appearances on Donahue. From the Donahue appearances, I figured out what makes David Duke so evil: he was pretty good with that audience.
The racist in a suit with a college degree, much like Richard Spencer.
The early parts of the film show what an idea of a racist was—beer-bellied, redneck dudes—and when David enters the film, he really changes the face of racism. He’s got the three-piece suit, he’s well-spoken, well-educated, and when I started seeing him handle that audience on Donahue, I got why this guy was so evil: he was making the message spread that much wider. And when I watched Donahue, Duke used the terms “America First” and “Make America Great Again” a lot. Those dog-whistles. So I actually told Spike, and he put a little bit of that into the film. But you know, especially having just had a daughter where you’re wondering, “What kind of world am I bringing this young girl into?”, it was cathartic to turn on the news and know that you’d be helping Spike spread this message that you agree with. He tweeted about me too.
I saw that. After your interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
I do this interview at Cannes and it’s basically all about how I think David Duke is a monster. One morning I wake up and my wife says, “By the way, David Duke just tweeted about you.” And from that article—and this shows you how evil his smarts are—he said, “Thank you, Topher. I agree. Donald Trump did steal those slogans from me. Maybe I should sue him.” I didn’t respond because I didn’t want to get in a back-and-forth with this monster, but fuck, the fact that he took anything in this overly-negative article and found a positive, and framed it like he was agreeing with me, was so evil and smart.
How difficult was it to play Duke? Did it eat away at you a bit?
It’s tough, because not only is he a real person but he’s still out there in world. You’re going home and putting on the news and you’re affected by something that he did that day, or something he contributed to. I’m not someone who takes my work home with me, but there was one week where we shot all the Klan stuff and I was in a really bad place. I was so overwhelmed.
Shooting that scene where everyone is hooting and hollering along to Birth of a Nation must have been a tough one.
That was my worst day. Having to sit and watch Birth of a Nation for hours was terrible, and then I’m leading hundreds of people in this chant that’s so negative. That’s why you need a leader like Spike Lee. He could see that it was affecting me. So he’d come over and say, “I got you. This feels negative because we shot all this stuff together, but in the film we’ll be going back and forth in time.” And when I saw the film at Cannes, he was right.
The film ends with footage of the neo-Nazi march on Charlottesville, and a neo-Nazi mowing down protesters, killing Heather Heyer. Do you think that when people look back on Donald Trump’s presidency, his Charlottesville reaction—“very fine people on both sides”—will end up being a low point?
Who knows what the next couple of years will provide, but I think that will be one of the low points of his presidency when all is said and done. I’ve rarely—if ever—been emotionally moved by a film I’m in. But it blew my mind at Cannes. There were 2,000 people there, and it was a foreign audience so they didn’t realize it was Charlottesville at first. And then there was this gasp. It had suddenly turned into a horror movie. And then there was silence.
Does the That ‘70s Show gang still all get together? It’s pretty amazing how well everyone from the cast has fared professionally since then.
We get together every once in a while. I had dinner with Wilmer [Valderrama] a few months ago. But everyone has kids and stuff now, so it’s difficult to get us all in the same room. Everyone’s so successful from that show though. It’s really wonderful.
Pretty wild too that Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis are married with children. I’d read that Ashton was Mila’s first kiss?
I was there. I was in the scene! I think of it as being wonderful, because they’re both wonderful people. It’s like if you knew two friends from high school who were friends but never hooked up in high school, and then they tell you, hey, we got together! It’s so great.
There have been some disturbing allegations against your co-star Danny Masterson, which I feel obligated to ask you about.
With that, I am hesitant to say I never saw any of that behavior, because I think it sounds like I’m defending him, but the truth is I never saw any of that behavior. I don’t know if I want to go much deeper in it, to be honest.
I’ve done some writing on Scientology, and they’ve hosted a bunch of fundraisers at their Celebrity Centre out in Los Angeles. I’ve seen photos of your other That ‘70s co-stars there with Danny, but you are noticeably absent. Was that a conscious choice?
You know, it’s hard now, twenty years after that show, to be asked about that. If you were in my position I think you’d feel the same way.
A few years back, there was a television pilot featuring you and Sarah Silverman as a brother-sister duo in New Jersey. It sounded great. How tough was it when HBO passed?
We shot the pilot for it, Paul Feig directed it, Sarah Silverman is so talented. I saw the pilot and thought it was really fantastic but HBO is tough. You know, I used to have more of a feeling about Hollywood where I wanted a sense of control. I started off on ‘70s at 19, had a day job, did movies in the summer. It was great. And you crave that level of consistency. But you realize that you’re in the wrong job if you want consistency. Part of my move to work with great auteurs is that, even with great auteurs, some films work and some films don’t. So I can try to guess what would be successful, which is impossible, or I can just work with people and on projects like this that I really respect, not really care about the result, and every once in a while have a Cannes screening like we had with this where you go, “This is fantastic.”