BEVERLY HILLS, California — At first look, Topher Grace is absolutely nothing like Venom. But he's been trying really hard to get there.
"How much am I geeking out right now?!?" the actor beamed last week, emphatically professing his love for the evil gelatinous blob that feeds off him like a leech in "Spider-Man 3" (see " 'Spider-Man 3' Details: Musical Mary Jane, Jared Leto-Like Spidey"). "Isn't that your dream? Isn't that, like, everyone's dream? That's why we all buy that bus ticket out to Hollywood."
While it may be doubtful that, say, Dame Judi Dench got into show business so she could battle Spider-Man, Grace is part of a new generation of actors who grew up wishing for that very thing (see "Topher Grace Joins Cast Of 'Spider-Man 3' ... But As Who?"). Now, the affable 28-year-old has become arguably the geekiest star to ever live out a comic book fantasy (sorry, Kevin Smith — "Daredevil" cameos don't count). And in order to do so, all he had to do was become everything he's not.
"I didn't know I was going to Sony," the "That '70s Show" actor remembered of the day he was summoned to a secretive meeting to discuss a movie no one would name. "Sam Raimi walked into the room and I thought, 'Uh oh, here we go! I think I know what this is!'
"I had been a big fan of the first two films. I thought the first one was great, and I thought the second one was even better," he continued. "But I had to be cool and not say yes immediately, so that I could negotiate salary."
"At first I was really nervous, because I'm not similar to my character in the comic book," Grace remembered of the panic that set in after he landed the role. "[Venom's human host, Eddie Brock] is much older and much beefier. ... But you soon realize it is a case study as to what would happen if someone got the same powers that Peter got but didn't have someone like Uncle Ben to say, 'You have to take responsibility for this power.' "
While searching for a commonality that would allow the proudly down-to-earth actor to get inside the head of a Daily Bugle photographer whose greed, jealousy and hatred of Peter Parker attracts the suit that gives him an evil dose of Spidey's powers, he finally realized what they had in common: " 'With great power comes great fun,' " Grace said. "I always felt that was Eddie's motto."
With that in mind, Grace set out to embrace his own newfound power — as a star in one of the most anticipated films ever — and parallel that same sense of fun to what Brock feels as he's consumed by the Venom suit. As the months went by working alongside series veterans Raimi, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco, the motto found Grace becoming more like Venom every day — but without the squiggly tongue.
"I had to put on about 20 pounds, which for me was really hard because I'm a really skinny dude," he remembered. "I had to dye my hair blond, and the suit took an hour to put on, and the makeup took four hours to put on every day. The fangs were painful, and then they would string you up in these wires; you would get a nuclear wedgie."
Still, the responsibility of playing one of Marvel Comics' best-known villains — who Grace fell for at age 10, when Venom was introduced in "The Amazing Spider-Man" issue #299 — gave him an emotion actors rarely associate with a role: pure joy. So much of it, in fact, that he was driven to a devilish performance few would expect from the lovable star of flicks like "In Good Company" and "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!"
"Todd McFarland was so new and such a radical illustrator back in the late '80s that Marvel said, 'Don't touch any of our classic supervillains!' So he created his own," grinned Grace, who was teased by his Spidey co-stars after similarly geeking out at a Comic-Con press conference last summer (see "Comic-Con Recap: 'Spider-Man 3' Surprises; Snoop, Samuel L. Reveal Inner Geeks"). "After Venom, there was Carnage, another great villain. But the back story, because of that, was a little muddled. It was told in a flashback, and what Sam wanted to do [with Venom] is from another comic book, which is 'Ultimate Spider-Man.' "
As if needing to punctuate the point, Grace reined himself back in with a remembrance of the recent red-carpet premiere. "I'd be psyched to see 'Spider-Man 3' if I weren't in it," he grinned. "But I am in it! And I'm sitting next to Tobey Maguire! We're high-fiving!"
Now that the transformation was complete, and Grace had seen himself slinging, slugging and spewing ooze all over the screen, all that remained was the 5-inch plastic cherry on top. Sure enough, during the recent MTV News interview, Grace finally embraced his very own action figure.
"Oh yeah," Grace grinned, reaching out for a buff Venom figure and a decidedly smaller Spidey.
"Get this," he said, acting out a battle between himself and Maguire, then tossing the defeated web-slinger aside. "What a joke."
With great power comes great fun — and Topher Grace is enjoying a whole bunch of both these days.
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