The TV movie Too Big To Fail (HBO, debuts Monday at 9 p.m. ET), based on New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin's book about the 2008 financial crisis performs above the market average: It manages to cleanly explain the complicated interplay between CEOs and the Department of Treasury during that profoundly tense period without being pedantic or boring. What results is a fast-paced yet still informative movie, helped along by great performances from its star-packed cast, including William Hurt as tightly wound Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Paul Giamatti as a solemn Ben Bernanke, and a smarmy, hubristic James Woods as erstwhile Lehman Brothers head Dick Fuld.
In this musky mix is Topher Grace, who plays Paulson's chief of staff, Jim Wilkinson. Grace, who is probably still best-known as adorable Wisconsin teen Eric Foreman from That '70s Show, has shed some of that boyishness, and his turn as Wilkinson comes off as acerbic and highly competent. Slate talked to Grace about the challenges of playing a real person (his first time), living back at home while he films the family drama Gently Down the Stream with Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton in Connecticut, and why he joined Facebook only three days ago.
Slate: Did you follow the financial crisis closely? Were you reading a ton of stuff about it as it happened?
Topher Grace: I don't think any more than anyone who has money in the stock market, which I do, but certainly I learned a lot more about it when I got the role. I had read Too Big to Fail, but I hadn't read On the Brink, which is [Hank] Paulson's account of what happened, and I think everyone who played people on his team in the movie read that. I read The Big Short, which I had heard a lot about but hadn't read, and I read a lot of Sorkin's New York Times pieces, too, from after when the book came out.
But what I loved about taking the role—it's great to get educated. That's the best thing about being an actor. If you're in a baseball movie, you walk away knowing way more about baseball, or if you're in a sci-fi film, you learn way more about Comic-Con, and so I loved all that. The really great part about the film is that Curtis [the director, Curtis Hanson] made it emotional. In those moments, it doesn't really matter what side of the politics someone is on, or what their opinion is of what happened, you can't deny that these people were under massive pressure.
Slate: Some of the financiers and officials who were portrayed in the movie were at the premiere. Were they happy with the way they were depicted?
Grace: I went and had lunch with Jim Wilkinson and I know that everyone who is on Hank's team met their person. William spent—I'm calling him Hank, like I know him—a week or two with Paulson on his nature preserve, like, snake hunting or something. They really became close. I had lunch with Jim because he contacted my agent, he wanted to meet me. This was before we filmed. I've never played someone who was a real person before. And I immediately got to lunch, and was like, "I'm so sorry, for the rest of time people are going to associate you with me. You're going to look a lot more like that kid from That '70s Show, I'm sorry."
Slate: Like a lot of people, the coverage of the financial crisis inspired some populist rage in me, so I was surprised how the movie humanized pretty much everyone.
Grace: That's Curtis Hanson. That's why you want to go do a film with a great director. When I read the script, that element wasn't entirely there. I especially liked the scene where I kind of beg Hank to take sleeping pills even though he's a Christian Scientist. That kind of emotion, that's not something we associate with that period. We associate our emotion with that period of time, not the people who were going through it.
Slate: And did you have feelings and prejudices about what had gone on during the crisis?
Grace: That's the hardest part, and something I've been really not wanting to talk about in interviews. I have my own political beliefs, and I have my own beliefs about what happened, but when I met with Curtis, what I really loved about what he's trying to do was not about that—he was trying to make it an account of what happened, and then the emotions of the people that were going through it.
Slate: You grew up in Darien, Conn. Were there a lot of financial execs floating around?
Grace: Yes, and that town was really rocked in 2008. It was great to have a movie that my dad really loved. My mom loved Valentine's Day, but this one was for my dad.
Slate: You're playing a young FBI agent in the upcoming movie The Double. Do you think there's something about you that screams government employee?
Grace: I don't know if that's a compliment or not!
Slate: I mean there's a certain clean-cut, New England preppiness about you.
Grace: Well I played a serial killer in Predators, where I was trying to cannibalize this girl. After that movie I always hope that I don't take any of my work home with me. It's kind of like, I love doing tons of different things. The only thing I hate is not being in ensembles. Whether its '70s Show or Traffic or Valentine's Day. [Too Big To Fail] had an insane ensemble. You get to work with this kind of dream team.
Slate: I read that you were just cast in the movie Gently Down the Stream with Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton. That sounds like it's shaping up to be quite the ensemble. What's your character?
Grace: I play their son, and Katherine Heigl plays my sister, and Susan Sarandon is our stepmom. I just hope they all come ready to learn. I've got a lot to teach! …No I'm just kidding. I'm excited to film with Katherine, who I knew from when I was younger because we both grew up in Connecticut. We're actually shooting it in Connecticut, so we were talking the other day about how excited we were about that.
I love just kind of absorbing and learning from these experiences. That's sounds so lame, you can't put that in writing! But that's really how I feel. I am just as excited to go do this movie—by the way I'm actually going to live at home with my folks, I haven't done that for so long. I went to boarding school really early.
Slate: Are you going to regress completely, just going to be in pajamas on your parents couch?
Grace: Yes! I hope so. My mom says—jokingly—she's going to drive me in the morning like she did in middle school. Like, Mom, Robert's making fun of you dropping me off! You've got to drop me off a block before! But it's a really great gypsy lifestyle, acting, where you get to change it up all the time. I really loved when I started doing '70s Show though I had never acted before, so it was a great training ground being on a sitcom. You have a live audience, but it's kind of filmic. And when you stink—which I did, frequently at the beginning—I literally never acted before the audition professionally. You get to come back the next week and get better. Then you get months off during the summer to go try stuff. So I played a crack head.
Slate: You had never really acted before That '70s Show. Was it weird to go from a typical college experience to being recognizably famous in such a short span of time?
Grace: It is strange when you're a loser in college, which I was, to then get your own show. It was weird for all of us. We're all still friends, we're all texting each other about everyone's new TV show. We all went through it together, and I really didn't know at the time how important that was. I can't imagine the other way, which is you're doing it alone, figuring it all out alone. I was talking to Wilmer this morning. I just saw this thing on NBC.com, about Awake, his show. It's like a straight-up drama, he plays a cop, it looks so good. And Ashton [Kutcher]'s going to kill it on Two and a Half Men. And Laura playing Chelsea Handler? It's inspired.
Slate: That segues nicely to my last question—best thing you've seen on the Internet this week
What else? I'm pretty bad. But I only got on Facebook,—literally, literally!—three days ago. I was staying at a friend's house in New York, and he had what can only be described as an intervention to get me more onto my computer, and more connected. I really heard what he was saying, and I thought, alright, I'll give this a shot. And now I've gone down the rabbit hole. I get that movie finally.
Slate: The Social Network? Were there a lot of references you didn't understand?
Grace: Yeah … no I thought it was a fantastic movie anyway. I'm slow. I'm what's called a late adopter.
Interview has been condensed and edited.