As part of his “Diverse Thinkers” podcast series, Head of School, Craig Gemmell, met with Topher Grace ’97 at the fashionable NeueHouse venue in Los Angeles, where Grace was to participate later in the evening in a Q&A session after a screening of BlacKkKlansman. Gemmell was eager to talk with Grace about his decision to play Klan leader David Duke, but before the conversation could focus on him, Grace was determined to explain the seminal role Brewster played in his career trajectory. What he shared is not only a reflection of his gratitude and humility but also a fascinating take on the power of the Brewster Model, the creativity it inspired, and the importance of learning how to collaborate.
Grace is unambiguous about Brewster being the soil in which the seed of his “big break” was planted. For it was on Brewster’s main stage in the Rogers building that he was first scouted by celebrated screenwriters and producers, Bonnie and Terry Turner—who were then current Brewster parents of Lindsey ‘97. Recognized widely for their work on Saturday Night Live, the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, and movies such as Wayne’s World and Tommy Boy, the Turners approached Grace during his first semester at University of Southern California to audition for a role in their new sitcom, That 70s Show. Despite having only auditioned for theatrical roles in Brewster’s gym, Grace leapt at the opportunity and never looked back. He established a name for himself playing Eric Forman in That 70s Show from 1998-2005 and since then has worked steadily in the television and film industry in a rich variety of roles and genres.
In his discussion with Gemmell, Grace emphasized that the benefits he garnered from Brewster were not merely those of connections. When he arrived on the set of That 70s Show, he had zero professional experience, but he had three years of experience jumping into new endeavors, confronting failure, and struggling to understand how best to collaborate. Grace had entered Brewster just as educator Alan Bain had introduced the “Brewster Model” to the Academy, an approach that foregrounds the ideas of student-centeredness and collaboration—ideas that remain the backbone of Brewster’s educational practice. For Grace, this meant that he and fellow actors on the Brewster stage were encouraged to experiment with a script, to voice their opinions about how the production should unfold. The introduction of the model also meant that quite unlike what Grace was familiar with at his former school in Connecticut, he now found himself having to work in groups continually—in classes, on projects, in the theater, during Winter Carnival, etc. Teachers were leaving it up to the students to work together and find solutions. The experience was challenging. He recounted: “I would be in these group exercises and would fail really badly, in different ways too … I tried every wrong way to work in a group.” What Grace now understands is how beneficial all of that failure was. He not only learned to “put himself out there,” testing new ideas, but also he came to see that his (or anyone else’s) failure to collaborate effectively dooms the work. His many failures allowed him to understand better what was necessary for success and prepared him to thrive in his first professional cast and all that has followed.
Along with an open-minded approach to creative endeavors and burgeoning collaborative skills, Grace landed on the set of That 70s Show buoyed by the strong relationships with trusted adults that he had forged at Brewster. “A lot of teaching happened in between the cracks,” he explained, nodding to the relationships he developed with dorm heads and faculty he never had in class but who still managed to guide him both creatively and morally. Now more than 20 years into his career, he is still developing those relationships in Hollywood, and he is proud that the success of That 70s Show has allowed him to focus almost exclusively on film projects that matter to him, such as Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. “I am so lucky I get to help Spike say what he is saying,” Grace explains. And as he talks about his work with the Oscar-nominated director, Grace reveals how profoundly skilled in collaboration he now is. Although researching David Duke proved to be a devastatingly painful experience for Grace, he understood his utility in the film. He had to be a convincing and charismatic figure of hate for the larger narrative of the film to have its power, so that is what he focused on. “I don’t need to produce the movie, but I need to produce my performance. As long as I take care of my part, then I leave it to Spike or whoever to do the rest, and hopefully every actor feels that way, and it all comes together.” The whole emerges from the best efforts of each part; a compelling, suspenseful, and illuminating film emerges to guide us toward greater understanding and moral action.
This coming Sunday Topher Grace will walk across the red carpet and into the Academy Award ceremony with his fellow cast members. The Brewster community will be cheering for all who participated in the making of the film, but regardless of whether it wins any of the six Oscars for which it is nominated (including Best Picture), Brewster is proud of Grace and proud to know that the model and our devoted faculty played a role in preparing him for his impressive success.
This past summer Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman and David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake were the only two American films competing at Cannes, the world’s most prestigious film festival. Topher Grace was the only American to star in both of them. The man who admitted to “failing badly in so many different ways” is clearly now succeeding in a host of ways.
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