Why Topher Grace Doesn't Need to Tell You How His 'Black Mirror' Episode Ends

The actor's role in the new season of Charlie Brooker's Netflix series raises relevant debate. "There are levels of ambiguity," Grace tells The Hollywood Reporter of how the "Smithereens" social media story plays out.
Courtesy of Netflix
Andrew Scott, Damson Idris and Topher Grace (inset) in "Smithereens"

[This story contains spoilers from Black Mirror's "Smithereens."]

Topher Grace was a huge fan of Black Mirror before joining the Netflix series' universe. And that's why he is holding the ending of his episode — season five's "Smithereens" — close to the chest.

"Smithereens" is one of the three stories in the sci-fi anthology's now-streaming new season and the contemporary tragedy feels like a vintage Charlie Brooker offering. In perhaps the most telling commentary of all, the social media-targeted tale includes only technology that already exists.

The 70-minute episode from creator-writer Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones is anchored by the plight of a grief-stricken rideshare driver named Chris, (played by Fleabag's Andrew Scott), who holds an employee (Snowfall's Damson Idris) at the social media company named Smithereen hostage. Chris' wife was killed by a drunk driver because Chris was checking his Smithereen app while behind the wheel. He has never shared that fact with anyone and now, with a hostage as leverage, he wants a phone call so he can confess the secret to the man responsible for creating the addictive app: Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer, played by Grace.

For the first half of the episode, Billy Bauer's name looms large. Viewers see how reticent his most trusted employees are to interrupt the founder while he is in the middle of a 10-day silent retreat at a remote location (a detail that will invoke Twitter's Jack Dorsey). But when Chris forces their hand and Billy enters the story, the humanity that Billy brings to the emotional conversation with Chris elevates him beyond a tech bro villain.

"I did think that it was important to not do an impression of one person," Grace tells The Hollywood Reporter of how Billy struggles with the evolution of his platform. "If this is a company that is this approximation of what real companies are like, this guy is an approximation of what these guys can be like."

Grace's role in "Smithereens" had been mysteriously teased ahead of launch. Since his scenes play out remotely and over the phone, the actor filmed on location in Spain after shooting had wrapped on the British set. At the end of "Smithereens," a sniper fires a shot at Chris and the screen goes black. All of the characters are privy to the outcome, but viewers are not. Eagerly awaiting the news from his remote cliff in "Furnace Valley, Utah" is Billy, who receives the update on his computer. He reads the message, closes his eyes and then retreats back into silence. Similar to the strangers who are pinged about the story via breaking news apps, Billy digests the update and then continues his day. Below, in a chat with THR, Grace reveals the secret to filming his tense phone scenes, how he developed Billy's look and why he wouldn't dream of sharing the specifics of that message.

Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer was actually a character that was foreshadowed in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which filmed around the same time but released late last year. (One of the Easter egg-heavy news tickers mentioned Billy Bauer.) How familiar were you with Black Mirror and does it excite you to get to bring someone in the universe to life? 

When I watched Bandersnatch I went, "Oh!" I didn’t know that Easter egg was going to be there. I just love the connections. There are many things that I’ve been in that I was very excited that I was in, but weren’t something I would have totally watched. But this is something — and I’m sure every actor feels this way — that I am so personally excited to be a part of. The whole experience, beginning to end, was just the most wonderful and I think this speaks to Charlie [Brooker] and Annabel [Jones] and how well they work. I’m so tickled that I can now talk to people about it! It’s been so secretive: my part maybe more than others, because it enters the episode later. And the appetite for these things. Friends of mine don’t care what I’m in. This is the first time they've tried to get information out of me. I’m like, “What would you do if I told you? It’s just going to spoil it.” And they’re like, “I gotta know!”

How long have you been keeping Billy Bauer as your secret?

I think we filmed last August. When I started reading the script, it was interesting because I actually had the same experience with reading the script to BlacKkKlansman, where my character doesn’t really enter for a while but people are talking about him. You’re reading it going, “Oh, man. This is such a great buildup for a character.” I think I was offered this role because of BlacKkKlansman, or that’s what I assumed when reading it, but then the story went in such a different direction. That’s a testament to how great Charlie’s writing is. I didn’t see it going in that direction. I thought he was going to be more — not like David Duke — but like that kind of a character.

Had you watched all of Black Mirror before you got the script? And what attracted you to "Smithereens"? [The episode was directed by James Hawes, who also helmed "Hated in the Nation."]

Yes. Not for research, just for myself. The first one I saw was “Be Right Back” with Hayley Atwell. You know an anthology series is working when people are debating what the best one is. I have this theory with, be it The Twilight Zone or whatever, that when you get into these shows you are always chasing your first high. I love that episode the most but it's also the first one I saw, so I guess I’ll never really know. I just love the show and couldn’t believe I got the call. I really do love watching all of the episodes. As a show, it’s just so intelligent and entertaining. But the ones that speak to me are the ones that, on the pie chart, are more emotional than technology-based. I love all the tech stuff, but I really love all the emotional stuff. As evidenced by that "Be Right Back" episode. I was excited to read the script, but that was my hope and it came true. I was so thrilled that this was not only that kind of episode, but that kind of character.

How was Billy Bauer explained to you by Brooker, and how was he written on the page?

The best description for a character is when every character has been talking about him. Before the description hits the page, you’ve kind of drawn your own conclusions. And there wasn’t much of a description. The first thing I said when I talked to Charlie and Annabel was, “Can I shave my head entirely bald?” But I was leaving to go do press for BlacKkKlansman and they talked me out of it by saying that might not be the best press junket to do with a shaved head. I said, "Alright, I think there’s some way [to find his look]." Whether it’s Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, these guys aren’t just moguls because they’re involved with tech. They’re also great at the media element of their job and they all have specific looks. Steve Jobs wore the same thing all the time. So I started thinking about how the looks for these guys probably all started before their company was successful. Certainly in the case with Billy, Smithereen is like a runaway train now, but there was a point where it was probably more exciting to him and that’s probably where he developed this look and this spirituality, whether he at first believed in it or not. And I love characters like that. Who doesn’t? The world is kind of obsessed with characters like that. They work to make you obsessed with them. 

All these major tech companies are nodded to or invoked in some way — there's a trending newsfeed like Twitter, profiles like Facebook, breaking news alerts like Apple, a rideshare app like Uber, a playlist like Spotify and a Los Gatos headquarters like Netflix. In your conversations with Brooker, was Smithereen meant to be an all-encompassing company? 

It’s funny, I never talked to him about what the Smithereen app would look like or the design. They had already shot that stuff at the British headquarters. But I did think that it was important to not do an impression of one person. I had just come off BlacKkKlansman where I was doing an impression of a specific person, and what was liberating about Black Mirror is that this is not a real story that happened, so I had a little bit of room. And I guess we both had the same idea, which was that if this is a company that is this approximation of what real companies are like, this guy is an approximation of what these guys can be like.

It treated them kinder than expected, I think.

(Laughs.) Good point.

How was the process different when it came to filming your scenes?

The script came in. I read it. It’s exactly like what you saw and I loved the character. And then Charlie and Annabel really went out of their way to bring me to England first. I had to shoot all my stuff in Spain, but they wanted me to get a sense of what the set was like because, in a way, he’s there and, in a way, he’s not. And then we went to Spain and [director] James Hawes — "Hated in the Nation" is another favorite — was amazing. I forget how many days the shoot was, but it was really intense. It was a lot of preparation because there’s a look and then there’s also a level that Andrew [Scott] was at that I wanted to match. To me, the preparation was harder. But then going out there, the elements were really interesting, too. I don’t know if it read as hot as it was. Luckily, I’m half-naked or whatever. But especially towards the end of our conversation when it gets really intense, I was lucky to have James there. He actually brought an actor with us to Spain to read off-camera, which he didn’t have to do. A lot of times when you’re doing a phone call scene, someone is just reading the script. It’s never an actor, really. And you’re trying to match what you imagine someone would be doing in another scene. And this is so emotional, some of the stuff between [me and Andrew Scott], so I’m really grateful to Charlie and Annabel that they brought someone there and also showed me the footage so I really knew what level we were operating at. When I saw it, I was just like, "Oh man, it cuts together so great."

I was going to ask you that because really your whole performance is on the phone, and Andrew Scott is playing it so emotional on the other end. Did you interact?

I met him briefly at the British set. We didn’t get to do any of the stuff together; that’s the unfortunate thing about being on the phone. He’s an amazing actor. I’m a huge fan of Sherlock so I knew before we started — "fun" is the wrong word for something like this, but I knew we were going to really go for it. In BlacKkKlansman, I had a lot of phone stuff also and I had just come off of that. But what Spike [Lee] did, because we could, is that he built the sets back to back. So there’s actually a camera on both of us [Grace and John David Washington] at the same time so we could interrupt each other and form that relationship. When two people are at a table in a movie, they’re actually not both on camera at the same time. We’d film my stuff and then we’d go to lunch and then we’d film your stuff across the table and kind of cut the two together. That was the only time I think I’ve ever been on film where both people are totally on camera and the performance is essentially live. I remember when [Charlie and Annabel] showed me the house they were getting on the cliff — that's really someone's house. I thought, "Ok, this is great for the character." But I was nervous about that phone stuff, and that’s why James is a great director. And I know Charlie and Annabel went way out of their way to both bring me to England first — I was out in the field and got to see the whole thing — and introduce me, and then also hire an actor. That’s an expense they just don’t have to pay. I’m doing it with someone who is teed up at that level and I’m just so grateful that they did that.

With Billy, Charlie created this complex character. You see that he's layered when he shares his own gripes about how his social platform has snowballed into something now out of his control.

Charlie is amazing. They had to continue on to the next episode and couldn't come to Spain, so they took me out to lunch and the whole thing was worth it just for that. To go out and sit with those two. At one point at lunch I said to Charlie, “Hey, what’s the idea that you can’t crack, but is like the craziest idea you’ve had?” And I won’t tell you what it was because he might figure it out someday, but it was brilliant. I sat there thinking, "This guy is so brilliant." And Annabel is a perfect partner to him. With everything they do together, I kept saying it was really farm-to-table. (Laughs.) That guy has the vision in his mind, they make it exactly like he thought it and then it comes out. There can be a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and I think the reason that Black Mirror continues to be so powerful to audiences is that there’s no one interfering with his vision.

Brooker also loves technology and shoots down how people think Black Mirror is anti-tech. In terms of Billy representing what that world has become, why was is important to make him sympathetic?

I thought that I was going to walk into the lunch and if I took out my cell phone someone would slap it out of my hands or something. And Charlie is the opposite. I think he’s using this as a vehicle to talk about human things. I thought of Billy’s relationship to technology as being what all of our relationships are with technology. If someone told you all the things that an iPhone did, how could you ever say no? And you didn't. I mean, you have an iPhone, don’t you?

Yes.

And I’m sure you’re aware of all the negative things that iPhone does to your life.

How it affects my sleep, mainly.

Right. Well, that’s not as bad as what happened to Chris, but stuff happens. I think Billy's relationship was just the way we all feel, which is that we let the devil in.

When the episode ended, the first thing I did was tell my husband to never look at his phone while driving.

Everyone is going to be saying that once this episode comes out. And by the way, that’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing. The best is at the end when everyone is looking at the news and someone is sitting there in traffic and someone honks. Because if the other thing isn’t relatable, that certainly is.

Let's talk about that ending. When the sniper fires the last shot, the screen goes black and viewers only see reactions. Your character gets a message on his computer, and you make a loaded facial expression. What was the message? 

Well, that’s what’s great. I get to go out with Charlie and get a little bit more than the viewer with what he tells you, which is great because you’re performing it. But when people ask, I think it’s probably better [to not answer]. What’s great about the system that Charlie works in is that Netflix has been so wonderful about letting him and Annabel do their thing and have their autonomy. And maybe this is more true of British broadcasting too, is that there are levels of ambiguity. And I don’t want to spoil any of that. It would be the American who would ruin it, right?

What were you trying to convey in your expression?

To tell you would be to say it, so I don’t want to. But good try!

My interpretation is that Chris was blown to smithereens, everyone sees the news and then continues to go about their day — which says a lot about how we digest things.

Good. Thanks for sharing! 

But then we do see your character returning to his silence. Can you unpack that final moment?

All I thought about was how great it feels when my wife convinces me to turn off my phone on the weekend. You go, “My gosh, I feel great.” That is some of that negative stuff we were talking about that comes along with all the good things about technology. So I’m sure Billy is experiencing that times one thousand.

Did you think about how much this experience would impact Billy, would he try to make any changes to his addictive platform?

I don’t want to speak for Charlie because I think he ended it in a really specific place.

Grief and death are themes that Black Mirror has tackled before and "Smithereens" shows how death is handled with a social media profile, exposing the trust and access people give these companies. What are your feelings about social media platforms and did this episode change how you feel about the apps you use?

I’m lucky in that I got into the business before any of that existed. I was 19 when I started on That '70s Show, and when I look at kids who are that age and on TV or in films and doing well, I just really count my lucky stars that kind of technology didn’t exist when I was there. I think there were one or two bad reviews at the beginning that I read in a newspaper and it was devastating. I was 19; it was the first thing I ever did. I felt like I was a failure and that was two things! That was it. No one has a perfect record so everyone is getting dinged for something. But at least to me it was happening later in my life, where I’m comfortable in myself as a human. Can you imagine being young and being able to hear what people are saying about you at that amplification level? I can’t.

On the flip side, Smithereen was more advanced than the police. In their ability to two-way listen and research, they were actually more helpful in the hostage situation — which brings in Brooker's appreciation for technology. Did you view some of the tech in this episode as inspiring?

I think it’s like what we were talking about with the iPhone, which is to say that just because there’s all this negative stuff that’s been brought into your life because of your iPhone doesn’t mean there isn’t also amazing stuff. There is a real double-edged sword and Charlie does a really good job of showing that.

What do you hope viewers take away about their app behavior?

What it says about looking at your phone while driving is really important. If there’s something I’m really proud of, it’s being part of an episode that might effect people when they reach for that phone while they’re driving. Maybe they won’t reach. 

How do you view Billy as a character on the spectrum of good and bad? 

Without commenting on the character, what I can say is that a couple of years ago, I just wanted to stop doing things that weren’t important to me, whether or not they translated to being important to other people. When you tell people you work with — the people who repped me then, not the people who rep me now — but when you tell them, “I want to do totally different things,” it's hard to support that, and rightfully so. Because you’re kind of saying, “I don’t want to make money.” (Laughs.) The way to make money is to do the same thing over and over and it becomes a commodity and you get why people would pay you to do it. But it was really important for me. It wasn’t that I hated anything I was doing, I just really wanted to be challenged more. And to have come right off of BlacKkKlansman to then do this, which was equally as much of something I’d never done before, I just loved it. It was so grueling and I loved every second of it.

Does your role in National Geographic's The Hot Zone continue with that streak?

Oh, yeah. These are all things that people probably wouldn’t have thought of me for and that’s what makes it so exciting. I decided that I didn’t want to care about the result, I wanted to care about what I was doing on set that day. You can actually be in a hit film where your experience wasn’t great, and everyone’s telling you how great the experience was because the film did well. I wanted to find characters like this that you’d just die to play. And this guy, Billy Bauer, when I read this thing I went, "Oh my God. Just tell me when to hop on the plane."

The fifth season of Black Mirror is streaming on Netflix. Head here for more of THR's coverage.