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That 80's Movie

Actor/writer/producer Topher Grace on the long-delayed release of Take Me Home Tonight

“Anyone going should know it’s a realistic look at the ’80s. We didn’t want to pull any punches,” says Topher Grace, who not only stars in but co-produced and wrote the original story for Take Me Home Tonight. Known at various points as Kids in America, Tonight, Young Americans, and American Youths since it was filmed in 2007, the nostalgic comedy has been sitting on a shelf because the studio that originally had rights to it was afraid to release it, even with an appropriate R rating. The reason? It shows some characters using drugs.

Naming the films he sees as key inspirations, Grace notes that “Dazed and Confused has a lot of marijuana use, which is very apropos for the ’70s. In American Graffiti, there’s a lot of drinking and cigarettes. If you were a 20something at a party in Beverly Hills in the ’80s, I’m going to go out on a limb and say there was a lot of coke there. We wanted it to be a real process, and there was a lot of…trepidation at the studio about that.

“Luckily we had another studio come in. And Ron Howard and Brian Grazer helped navigate so that instead of cutting stuff out and neutering the film, we embraced it. I don’t think [the film] is actually that bad, but it is real, and I think when you make one of these films, if you’re going to talk about one night in someone’s life that’s amazing, you can’t pull any punches.”

Sitting for an interview in a sunny Beverly Hills mansion not unlike the ones in the movie, the young actor strikes a rare serious note about a movie that mostly just wants to make people laugh. Set in 1988, the film stars Grace as Matt, a brainy guy who has spent the summer after graduating from MIT working at a mall video store, unable to decide what he wants to do with his life.

Opportunity of a different sort materializes when Tori (Teresa Palmer), the girl he had a crush on through high school, walks into the store and mentions that she’ll be going to a reunion party this weekend. Matt sees this as an opportunity finally to get into her good graces, even if he has to lie about his accomplishments to do so.

The movie is being promoted as being in the spirit of John Hughes comedies like Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink, but it’s closer to John Cusack vehicles like Better Off Dead, with Dan Fogler in the Curtis Armstrong oddball buddy role, Anna Faris as a twin sister a la Joan Cusack, and Chris Pratt as the yuppie jock.

Despite the time it took the film to get to theaters (ironically arriving the same weekend as another comedy, Cedar Rapids, that features substantial drug use), Grace is solidly behind it, answering questions in a self-deprecating tone that doesn’t always come through in print. (Asked if there’s any autobiographical aspect to the story, he says, “You’re not gonna believe this, but I was not that smooth with ladies when I was younger. Unbelievable, right?”)

While the film should do well with audiences who flocked to last year’s ’80s comedy Hot Tub Time Machine, Graces stresses that the intent of Take Me Home Tonight was not to lampoon the era. “This film is in the creative spirit of American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, which didn’t make fun of the decades they were about, they were celebrating them. We wanted to be the first movie about the ’80s that wasn’t spoofing it.”

Nor is the film mean to play only to audiences who remember the ’80s. Recalling the sitcom where he first made his name, he says “I learned on That 70s Show that there were two audiences for it. There were [viewers] who lived through the ’70s, so they’re watching it and swimming in nostalgia. And then there’s an audience that is the age of the characters, and they’re just discovering it. I didn’t know anything about the ’70s [when I was making the show, but] I certainly learned a lot.

“It’s a trick. You think you’re going to escape your time, and you do, yet the protagonists and the situations are completely timeless.”

Of course, you can’t have a movie about the 1980s—certainly not one which takes place almost entirely at a pair of parties—without lots of tunes. That’s where Grace the producer groans. “With American Graffiti, George Lucas could only use oldies—[they were inexpensive because] there was no market for them and that was all he could afford. Now, a soundtrack of oldies, trust me, it’s insanely expensive.

“The one song we couldn’t get was ‘Hot for Teacher,’ which was literally half a million dollars. So, way to go, Van Halen—you don’t get to be in the seminal film about the ’80s! But we didn’t want to be making fun of the era with stuff like ‘Rock Me Amadeus,’ we wanted songs that were great back then and also stood the test of time.”

As the film’s producer, Grace says he most wanted to have a chance to put together a showcase for young talent. “American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, there are a ton of people who came out of those movies in a big way—Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Renée Zellweger, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich. With this movie there are three or four actors who will be $20 million movie stars in the year 2020.”

That said, he had no trouble relinquishing control afterward and going back to being a non-hyphenate. “Right after this I did a movie with Richard Gere, a CIA/FBI thriller, and there is nothing more fun than when the producer and director start talking about some budget problem, and I can be like, ‘I’ll be in the trailer.’”

Watch the trailer for Take Me Home Tonight

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