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That '80s Movie: Topher Grace Rewinds the Clock for 'Take Me Home Tonight'

Mike Dowse (left) and Topher Grace on the set of Take Me Home Tonight, which opens Friday.

If Topher Grace seems a natural fit in Take Me Home Tonight, an ’80s-themed coming-of-age comedy in which he plays an underachieving M.I.T. grad stuck in a dead-end job at the mall, the reasons could be twofold.
 
For one, Grace, 32 – who chose the nickname “Topher” over his birth name, Christopher – starred for eight years in That ’70s Show, the TV comedy in which he played Eric Forman, a bright but directionless teen hanging out with his hapless friends and struggling to find his way in the world. Matt Franklin, his character in Tonight, could be Eric a decade removed.
 
Grace has filled out since his rail-thin sitcom days. So has his résumé. He was the menacing Venom in Spider-Man 3 (2007) and a cunning serial killer in last year’s Predators. In person, he speaks with the confidence of a onetime kid star now writing and producing his own movies, Tonight being the first.
 
But Grace knows guys like Matt, or at least he did, growing up in suburban Darien, Connecticut, where he chaperoned a ski trip attended by future Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! co-star Kate Bosworth, and where his first crush was his babysitter, Chloë Sevigny. In the movie, Matt spends his days idling behind the cash register of a Suncoast Video. So did Grace.
 
“I worked at a Suncoast in the Stamford mall for two summers, and my theory was that I would just watch movies all summer long – I wasn’t that social at the time,” he says. “Then I got there and they played one movie the whole time, [the Michael Jordan-Looney Tunes collaboration] Space Jam.
 
“One of the finest films ever made,” he adds drily. “I’m really lucky I got to watch it 3,000 times.”
 
When Grace, who has since relocated to Los Angeles, wanted to recreate his Suncoast days in Tonight, he papered the store with posters for his favorite ’80s movies. (Back to the Future tops his list.) But when it came time to program the video playing next to the register, he didn’t pick Space Jam.
 
“We chose Harry and the Hendersons – that’s not a movie you’d make now,” he says, understating the obvious. “But I’d like to announce that I’ll be starring in the reboot.”
 
Joking aside, Grace took his nostalgia trip seriously, preferring to celebrate the ‘80s rather than hold them up to mockery. For the soundtrack to his character’s wild evening of partying and self-discovery, he wanted a mix of big hits and less obvious choices, including N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton.”
 
“I have vivid memories of being a white kid driving around in Calgary pretending to be a gangsta rapper and really responding to that music,” says Canadian-born director Mike Dowse, 37, whom Grace credits for allowing the audience to “feel” Matt’s journey, not just witness it. “I’m also a big rock ’n’ roll fan. And then there are some signature songs we couldn’t leave out, like [Dexys Midnight Runners’ 1982 hit] ‘Come On, Eileen.’”
 
“We wanted the soundtrack to have a synthesizer in it,” adds Grace, who will next star as a young FBI agent opposite Martin Sheen and Richard Gere in the crime drama The Double. “We wanted the movie to feel as if it had been locked away in a vault, to feel the way films felt in the ’80s. Yet we also wanted it to have an undercurrent of what we know happened in the 20 years following.”

One number you won’t hear, despite the nostalgia? Eddie Money’s bombastic rocker “Take Me Home Tonight,” featured in the film’s TV commercials.
 
“We felt like we already burned people out on that song,” says Grace. “To play it in the movie would have been overkill.”

Take Me Home Tonight opens Friday at the AMC Loews Metreon. For tickets and showtimes, click here.