Topher Grace is aware of what a juicy role David Duke is, at least in a Spike Lee movie. Duke is after all a former leader and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who’s been one of the most successful—to use such a word—faces of white supremacy after decades of denying the Holocaust and advocating white nationalism and Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He even has his preferred choice of president currently in the White House. It’s something Grace and Lee got to explore in incredible true life story BlacKkKlansman in detail. For while the film mocks Duke’s smiling, bigoted ignorance, it also sees his politics’ slow ascension back into the mainstream more than 30 years after Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington in the movie) tricked Duke into thinking an African American over the phone was prime KKK material.
Our sister publication in the US sat down with Grace last month to talk BlacKkKlansman.
“I read his autobiography, which is My Awakening, which is like his version of Mein Kampf,” Grace says. “It’s horrible, just reading that is an overwhelmingly negative thing to do. I watched a lot of filmed interviews with him in the ‘70s. He was actually on a lot of episodes of Donahue in the early ‘80s. And I just realized what made him so evil is that he’s very intelligent and very well spoken, and he kind of knows how to read a room, and that kind of makes him more evil than the common idea of a racist.”
It’s something that he was excited to partner with Lee on. Grace’s worst fear might’ve been finding sympathy for a man he describes as evil in a sort of “TV movie of the week” biopic. Rather Lee offered him the chance to depict the danger of those like Duke, who might peddle in anger and emotional foolishness, but do so with cunning. Along with the recent birth of his daughter, it was a therapeutic act given the direction of civil discourse and governance in this country.
Says Grace, “I just had a daughter. It was a very confusing time in our culture to bring someone into the world, and it was cathartic for me to get a script like this and be a part of Spike saying something like this. They say if you don’t study history you’re condemned to repeat it, that’s why I think films like this are so important.”
It’s also why he first pursued the movie. Primarily recognized for his comedic acting in roles like That ‘70s Show or the bittersweet In Good Company, Grace needed to audition for the part, which considering it was for Lee proved very worthwhile.
“No one was considering me for this role,” Grace recalls. “I got the new Spike Lee joint as a script and I’m reading it, and I’m like, ‘I think I have a take on this character.’ There was a lot of head-scratching when I kind of told my people this. They said, ‘You have to go read for Spike,’ which is not something I do a lot of. But I was happy to go do it, because when you’re doing something that’s unlike anything you’ve done before, it’s up to you to show the director what you can. But I went in there and I was so nervous, especially because I kind of said I’m uncomfortable saying a lot of this dialogue.” Luckily for Grace, Lee was able to make the actor more comfortable in playing such a person.
He later adds, “I felt comfortable, and that is where you need to be when you’re trying stuff that is tonally not all one thing. Spike knows what he wants, and I would say to any young actor, if you’re worried about something like this, what I’ve learned in my time acting is: ‘Who’s the director?’”
BlacKkKlansman opens in UK cinemas on 24 August.
Special nationwide screenings + Live Satellite Q&A with Spike Lee on August 20th