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Topher Grace: Leaving normal

Young actor's ability to transform persona helps him cope with stardom, land roles

NEW YORK -- Topher Grace will not say he's normal.

What's more, he really hates it when other people claim to be.

The star of "That '70s Show" and "P.S.," which opens Friday, says actors who claim to have ordinary lives are simply lying.

"Whenever someone says in an interview, 'I'm normal,' I want to know what they really mean," Grace says. "First of all, they're not, because nobody who's normal says they are. But also, what is the alternative? Do people think Tom Cruise gets dressed by a robotic butler? What are they comparing themselves to?"

The youthful star suddenly cuts himself off. "I'm getting too weird, aren't I?"

Actually, he's sounding like F. Scott Feinstadt, his sometimes flighty and sometimes grounded character in "P.S." In the film, which was directed by Dylan Kidd and adapted from Helen Schulman's novel, Grace plays a young artist who applies to Columbia University's School of Fine Arts and lands in a passionate relationship with the school's much-older admissions director, played by Laura Linney.

Grace's ability to shift moods and transform his persona was what helped land him the role, according to Kidd. "The whole point of this kid -- F. Scott -- is that he's different every time [Linney's character] looks at him," Kidd says. "In one scene he's a savior, and in another he's a threat. He's mature, then he's immature. He's an old soul and then a child. What's great about Topher is that he's just on the cusp of manhood. Depending on how the light hits him, he's a boy or a man."

After reading the script and learning that Linney was slated to star in the film, Grace says he "literally begged for the role." During his reading with Linney, Grace and Kidd say they all knew the chemistry was spot on and that the two would make a credible and likable on-screen couple.

"It was one of those great casting moments when two people really clicked," Kidd says. The vagaries and nuances of F. Scott's character allowed Grace to put his own spin on the role. "I wanted to be youth personified," Grace says. "Her world is so dark, so I wanted to be this ray of light. I've never felt so free in a character."

Playing youth seems to come naturally to the wholesome-looking Grace. The 26-year-old star was plucked from obscurity while he was a senior at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. Bonnie and Terry Turner, the producers of "That '70s Show," were visiting their daughter at Brewster and caught Grace's performance in a school production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." When the Turners approached Grace, who was planning to enter the University of Southern California the following fall, he says he was skeptical.

"When they asked if they could call me the next year, when I'd be in L.A., I said, 'Yeah, sure babe, Hollywood, whatever.' I thought they were full of it," Grace says.

It turns out they weren't. By the end of his freshman year, Grace had begun filming the pilot of "That '70s Show." The Fox program, which began its run in 1998, is in its final season.

When filming wraps, Grace, who grew up in Darien, Conn., plans to move from Los Angeles to New York City, where he can be closer to his family and, he hopes, escape the fishbowl of fame.

"I've started to realize my personal life is the most valuable thing I have," he says. "It actually makes your public life possible because you draw on it so much as an actor."

Grace is vehement about his refusal to disclose details of his romantic life, adding that actors who share that kind of information are simply showing weakness.

"I know what the juicy bits are, and they help people become celebrities," he says. "You know, you can use a thing in your personal life to draw attention to a film, and in that way you can validate discussing private details. But I won't do it. Because once you give it away, it's gone, and the public owns it."

Despite his absence from celebrity gossip columns, Grace is doing a fine job of becoming a star. He was well received in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," in which he made his film debut. Earlier this year he starred in "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!" And Grace stars with Dennis Quaid and Scarlett Johansson in "In Good Company," directed by Paul Weitz, scheduled to open in December.

If fame has its pitfalls, Grace is certainly aware of the upside. Although he regrets leaving college after his freshman year, he values the education he's received from the smart, talented people who have surrounded him so far in his career.

Furthermore, Grace says, a sweet fallout of success is extracting revenge on all the girls who rejected him in high school. Although it's hard for some people to believe, Grace says he looked so young as an adolescent that most girls wouldn't consider him as boyfriend material.

"I'm not trying to say 'poor me' -- not like the way supermodels say, 'I had a terrible childhood, everyone made fun of me' -- but I was very small in high school and nobody wanted to date me," he says. "I had a growth spurt right before college. Unfortunately, I'll never know if I would have done better in college as I grew into myself or if I became popular because I got a TV show."

Either way, the fact that a lot of women are undoubtedly kicking themselves for turning Grace down all those years ago brings him a tremendous amount of comfort. "I think about it and I really hope it's happening," he says. "I could even name names."

As Grace thinks about future roles, he says he will be careful to choose parts that are well written and not get caught up in projecting an image. "A lot of my peers get into these independent movies where they stare off in the distance and do a moody, dark thing -- you don't have to do that," he says.

Kidd credits Grace for keeping F. Scott's character from being sullen and inward, as other young actors would have been inclined to play the part.

"Something that impressed me about Topher is that he doesn't do that tortured young actor thing," Kidd says. "We knew Laura was going to bring a real intensity to her part, so I really wanted F. Scott to be sort of a breeze that enters into a stagnant situation. And something Topher does really well is appear relaxed."

But Grace says he could "do tortured" if the part called for it.

"Certainly, I feel tortured at times," he says. "I'm tortured by the fact that people are wondering whether or not I can play tortured."

And there's another, more immediate problem that's torturing Grace. His parents will be at the New York premiere of "P.S.," where they will witness their son's first on-screen sex scene.

"I literally asked them not to come," he says, grimacing. "They said they could handle it, but I don't think they realize -- it's real-time, there's no music. It's just what it is."

Judy Abel can be reached at Jabel1000@aol.com. 

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