STATE OF GRACE

Someday soon, Topher Grace will be an award-winning actor. He will be a movie star, one of those guys about whom directors and producers and studio chiefs say fondly, "He can do anything." If every planet aligns, he'll inherit American cinema's Everyman throne passed down from Jimmy Stewart to Jack Lemmon to Tom Hanks--actors whom Grace, 26, has long revered. But in the meantime, he'll have to settle for this: according to Scarlett Johansson, his radiant costar in the workplace comedy "In Good Company," Grace plants upon her ample lips the best on-screen kiss she's ever received. Way to go, stud. "During shooting," says Grace, "I asked her as a joke, [in a lascivious voice] 'So, who's your best movie kiss ever?' And she says, 'Oh, definitely you.' I was, like, 'Uh, what?' And then I told everyone on the set. I think I actually made an announcement."

Not to rain on Grace's parade, but Johansson, 20, hasn't gotten much action on screen. It was basically him versus Bill Murray. Still, he outslugged a legend--and surely not for the last time. As the star of Fox's hit sitcom "That '70s Show," Grace has spent seven years making Ashton Kutcher seem funny. He's become a company player for Steven Soderbergh, appearing as a spoiled druggie in "Traffic" and, hilariously, as a spoiled version of himself in "Ocean's Eleven" and "Twelve." But he bided his time selecting his first major film role, passing repeatedly, then pouncing when he read "In Good Company," by writer-director Paul Weitz ("About a Boy"). Grace plays Carter Duryea, 26, a hotshot who, after a corporate merger, becomes the boss of 51-year-old father of two Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid). It's an awkward pairing that becomes really awkward when Duryea begins schtupping Foreman's daughter (Johansson). Far from the usual sleazeball, though, Duryea is actually a decent but mixed-up kid. He's gotten success way too quickly, and his soul is struggling to keep up. It's a poignant, complex role, and Grace, with shades of Lemmon in "The Apartment," smacks it out of the park.

Of course, he had to fight just to get a turn at the plate. Director Weitz knew of the actor only from the bit part in "Traffic." Universal, meanwhile, the studio behind the film, was willing to consider someone from "That '70s Show"--Kutcher, not Grace. "With a studio," says Grace, "if you haven't opened a movie, you don't exist." Grace did not exist. Kutcher, cruising on the glory of "Dude, Where's My Car?", did. So, at Universal's request, Weitz met with Kutcher to discuss the role, but the two quickly agreed it wasn't a good fit. Then Grace auditioned. "The thing I really liked about Topher was the thing that made the studio a little scared," says Weitz. "He wasn't desperate to be liked. Most actors want to be embraced. But with Carter you need to believe, at least initially, that he would fire Dennis Quaid's character at the drop of a hat. I could tell Topher was going to be OK with being icy."

It also helped that Grace could easily have been Carter Duryea in real life. He grew up in the tony Connecticut suburb of Darien, the son of a businessman who commuted daily into New York. "I feel like I speak this language fluently," he says. "The language that I speak in Hollywood is like this crude second language to me." In high school, "That '70s Show" creators Bonnie and Terry Turner, whose daughter was a pal of Grace's, saw him in a student production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and told him to look them up if he ever came to Los Angeles. "That '70s Show," which ends in March--"11 more episodes, not that anyone's counting"--was his first-ever audition.

At the age of 18 Grace was a TV star, but instead of considering his good luck a birthright, he treated it like a debt that had to be repaid. Making his film debut in "Traffic," he says, was an exhilarating experience, "and I realized I needed to find a path that would allow me to do this for a long time, so that it wasn't like I lost my virginity to the hottest girl I'll ever sleep with." Weitz and others on "In Good Company" say Grace is earthbound and easygoing off camera, but deeply cautious--even difficult at times--about his career. (He briefly halted his NEWSWEEK photo shoot over a proposed conceit that he thought denigrated his TV peers.) "If you're just in love with the lifestyle, you have a whole different set of priorities," he says. "But if the show ended and that was it for me, I'd be heartbroken. I want this to be the beginning of my career." Rest assured, it is--and we can't wait to see where it's headed next.

STATE OF GRACE | News