PHOENIX — For eight years, America watched him laugh, love and live his way through the '70s. Now, Topher Grace is finally moving from Sasson jeans to Swatch watches.
"I'm always 20 years behind," marvels the star, dressed in a Don Johnson suit coat while surveying a mass of partygoers in shoulder pads, leg warmers and A Flock of Seagulls haircuts. "Welcome to 1988."
To balance out his big-budget "Spider-Man 3" gig (see "Topher Grace Says He Had To Suffer 'Nuclear Wedgie' For 'Spidey 3' "), Grace is following up his venomous villain with "Kids in America," a personal project that will mark his debut as a writer and producer when it hits theaters next year. These days, the star is surrounded by co-stars Anna Faris (in a brown wig) and Michelle Trachtenberg (in a black one), all clad in '80s attire and recounting the story of one wild night near the end of the Reagan era.
"When we sat down, we thought about what movies they aren't making anymore that we really liked," Grace says of a team that includes himself and writers Jeff and Jackie Filgo from "That '70s Show." "We thought: 'American Graffiti' was a movie that took place in the '60s but was shot in the '70s, and 'Dazed and Confused' is one of my favorite movies, and it took place in the '70s but was shot in the '90s — no one had really done that for my generation."
Now, Grace is determined to correct that generational gap with "Kids," and there's a lot more to this story than jokes about Max Headroom and New Coke. Like "Graffiti" and "Dazed," the flick is a mix of drama, comedy and remembrance, one that casts Grace as a confused college grad-turned-video-store-clerk determined to land his dream girl at a Labor Day party.
"I play Tori, his love interest in the film," says Australian stunner Teresa Palmer. "He comes to this party one night, and his aim for the night is to get her phone number. He acts like a bit of an ass, which is pretty funny, and he mucks it up — he gets pretty nervous."
On this night, the cast is assembled at a massive home on a hillside overlooking the city lights; '80s muscle cars are parked out front in the driveway while Grace stares into Palmer's eyes on the dance floor. Just moments after he "saves her life" by applying the Heimlich maneuver (he mistakes her for another girl who's choking nearby), she indulges him with a dance, watching him hopelessly engage in a basic 1-2-3 shuffle with elbow accents, as they dance to one of the decade's most profound statements: "Everybody have fun tonight/ Everybody Wang Chung tonight."
"We all go through our own emotional journey," Faris says of the script, which casts her as Grace's twin sister and the recipient of an indecent wedding proposal from her preppy paramour mid-party. "My character has been in a relationship with her high school boyfriend for six years, and tonight we get engaged."
"It's a radical party," grins Chris Pratt, wearing a Polo shirt with the collar flipped up, signifying to fans of '80s flicks that Faris' fiance is a jerk. "[My character's name is] Kyle Masterson, and this is my family's house. It's 1988, everyone is making money and the future is new. My family has done extremely well in the blinds business; it's because there's been some scientific studies that prove that sunlight is kind of bad for your skin!"
Delivering his proposal in front of the cameras, Pratt says to a stunned Faris: "You're my little Venetian, and I love the way you hang in my window. You open up to show me the world, and close to shield and protect me."
Everybody at this party seems to have their own story — and if you spend a few minutes with Trachtenberg, you'll learn that Pratt isn't the only person engaged in the battle of light vs. dark. "They just don't know what's going on — this is how you do the '80s," the actress says, flashing a rare grin from beneath her all-black goth-girl visage. "[I'm influenced by] the Cure, a little Depeche Mode ... when I first walked on set, everyone was like, 'Where is Michelle? Can we get Michelle to set?' "
"There are a lot of lessons," Grace says of his script. "We get into a lot of trouble — I don't know if the studio is too happy about it, because we wanted to make a very true-to-life depiction of the '80s. But the best is Dan, did you talk to Dan?"
Grace is referring to Dan Fogler, the Tony Award-winning actor who has included "Kids" in an upcoming Hollywood onslaught that will have the Jack Black-like funnyman stealing scenes in a half-dozen movies. "[My character] is a salesman of Porsches," Fogler reveals. "He gets fired, and then he's got nothing. And then, of course, throughout the night, through sex and drugs and rock and roll, he unravels."
In tonight's scene, the full-figured Fogler goes toe-to-toe with another partygoer in a dance-off. After chugging a few wine coolers, he improvises a pathetic routine owing equally to Michael Jackson and the bunny hop, culminating in a "Karate Kid" crane move that delivers a swift kick to his opponent's crotch.
"He gets fired and he's just like, 'F--- it!' " Grace laughs. "He's like, 'I'm just going to do whatever I want to do tonight, because I never went to college.' We're all on different journeys here, and they all intersect with each other."
"Topher was like, 'Do you want to just come down and party?' " Trachtenberg says of how she became involved. "[This movie] is a big party — we're having a blast."
"It took a little while to get over the feeling of being mildly humiliated every day," grins Faris, tugging at her puffy '80s ensemble. "And it's funny that Topher and I are playing twins in the movie, because we actually always finish each other's ... "
" ... sandwiches!" finishes Grace, looking at his puzzled leading lady. "Oh, sorry. Where were we going with that? Let's do it again."
What with being writer, producer and star, this much is certain on the set of "Kids in America": Topher gets as many takes as he wants.
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