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While circling a role in the Jenna Fischer indie romantic dramedy The Giant Mechanical Man, Topher Grace initially considered playing the lead: a down-on-his-luck performance artist who falls in love with Fischer’s equally lost soul.
But after reading the script, another part caught his eye: Doug Duncan, a self-absorbed, delusional motivational speaker and author who trumpets his teachings on “winning conversations” but, in fact, lacks any social skills. (If you don’t know what to talk about, “talk about yourself,” he advises a crowd of brainwashed admirers).
In keeping with his general cluelessness, Doug sports unflattering shoulder-length hair (it’s a wig) and an assortment of sweaters, some with turtlenecks (gifts from Grace’s family members that he never wore).
“I’m pretty sure I’m never going to look like that as a character again, which is a relief,” Grace told THR after Monday night’s screening of Mechanical Man in downtown Manhattan.
“I thought ‘He’s a motivational speaker but he’s not a successful motivational speaker,'” the actor said of his character. “There’s an irony there. He’s kind of on the brink of suicide, telling people what to do with their lives, so I kinda thought, ‘What does that mean if you’re the third best motivational speaker in Detroit’?”
To prep for the role, he recorded late-night programming featuring various life coaches, self-help gurus and speakers.
“It’s bizarre: it’s humans telling other humans, not only do they have their so life together, that they are going to tell you how to live your better life, and I just think that’s a fallacy,” he said.
Chris Messina plays the titular “giant mechanical man”/street performer to Fischer’s Janice, a thirtysomething who sells grape juice at a zoo concession stand. Janice’s sister (Malin Ackerman) pressures her into dating Doug, whose schtick gets on her nerves.
“I read for, at the beginning stages, the protagonist, and then I read the other [part] … ‘Oh my god, I have to play the motivational speaker,'” he said, relishing the opportunity to play a “super-douchebaggy” character who “tells people how to have conversations but never has one conversation with anyone in the entire film.”
Grace and Fischer (also known as Pam from NBC’s The Office) first met when she appeared on his former Fox sitcom That 70’s Show. Fischer’s husband, Lee Kirk, wrote and directed the movie.
“I went out to dinner with them, I said ‘This is why independent film is so important. … I will never get this chance in a feature film. You know, people I would probably be playing (would be) Chris’ role. Give me the opportunity to play the antagonist, basically, and a really smarmy guy,'” he recalled.
Grace can currently be seen off Broadway and opposite Olivia Thirlby in previews for the Paul Weitz play Lonely, I’m Not, opening May 7. His film credits include Weitz’s 2004 feature In Good Company, Traffic and HBO’s Too Big to Fail.
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