NEW YORK — Topher Grace enjoys the non-linear route his career has taken since making his acting debut as the gangly, witty teen Eric Forman on the Fox sitcom "That '70s Show."
"I love it all," said Grace in a recent interview. "I love playing good guys. I love playing bad guys. I love theater. I love film. I love watching TV. I want a passport to everywhere. I don't want to be exclusive to one thing. That is a huge problem for my agents because I think I would make more money if I focused on one specific type of character or genre... but especially while I'm young and single I really want to explore everything."
His latest ventures, the lead in the off Broadway play "Lonely, I'm Not" and an independent film called "The Giant Mechanical Man" are examples of the varied roles he's done.
In "Lonely, I'm Not," which is now playing off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre, Grace plays Porter, a guy who's had a really bad few years. He got divorced, lost his corporate job and had a nervous breakdown. Things start to change when he falls in love with a blind businesswoman played by Olivia Thirlby. The play is written by Paul Weitz who directed Grace in the 2004 film "In Good Company."
It's the 33-year-old's professional theater debut although his performance in a boarding school production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is what got him discovered. The parents of a classmate happened to be Bonnie and Terry Turner, who ended up creating "That '70s Show."
"I promise you, I was not that good in the musical," he insisted. "I still don't know what the producers saw in me."
He may be new to theater but Grace is used to performing for a live audience thanks to seven seasons on "That '70s Show."
"It's great to get back in front of an audience and hear that reaction or more importantly what they don't react to. There's nothing louder than 300 people not laughing."
Thirlby says the production benefits from Grace's knack for comedic timing.
"I think he's doing tremendously well," she said. "It must be his experience having worked on a sitcom with a live audience because he is very in tune with what it means to be in front of an audience. He's doing an amazing job of creating a character that's deeply relatable and also so funny. One of his strengths is definitely his talent as a comedian."
Even though Grace said he was more nervous about live theater than anything he's ever done, he's starting to realize why people get hooked on it.
"Everything that I always thought was a cliche that every actor said about the theater — how connective it is and how it gets you back to your roots or how it's like using an acting muscle — everything they say is true. I'll do a lot of films where I haven't met the other people that are in the film until the premiere. Here you're a really tight company and it doesn't hurt that it's spring time in New York, you know?"
In "The Giant Mechanical Man," Grace plays a self-obsessed, self-help guru who dates a woman searching for meaning played by Jenna Fischer of "The Office." He sports long hair in the movie, which is directed by Fischer's real-life husband Lee Kirk, and basically spends all of his scenes talking about himself.
Besides a varied career, Grace likes to pick projects with directors he admires and he tends to prefer ensembles. His next film has a list of impressive co-stars. In "The Wedding," out in January, Robert De Niro plays his father, Diane Keaton plays his mom and Susan Sarandon is his stepmom.
"I love team sports. I love when you get a rhythm with a group of people... although I was terrible at team sports so I can't believe that I'm drawing this analogy," he deadpanned.
http://www.2st.com/subscribers/renew_2011-12_seasonAlicia Rancilio covers entertainment for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/aliciar