With BlacKkKlansman, visionary filmmaker Spike Lee is telling the in-your-face, fearless story of real-life American hero Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, in a truly stand-out performance that will have audiences talking), the first African American detective to service in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s. Set on making a name for himself, Stallworth devises a mission to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan, sending his more seasoned colleague (Adam Driver) right into the middle of the investigation, to help take down the extremist hate group as they attempt to go mainstream.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Topher Grace (who gives a chillingly charismatic performance as the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke) talked about why BlacKkKlansman is the movie we all need right now, why he wanted to be a part of this film, what David Duke represented for the Ku Klux Klan, how they shot all of the phone conversations, shaking off such a despicable character, what it was like to put on the Klan robe, and what makes Spike Lee such an icon. He also talked about what’s next for him, along with the type of projects he’d like to continue to do.
Collider: First, I have to tell you that I loved this movie and I thought you were just unbelievable in it! Great job!
GRACE: Thank you!
With the world that we’re currently living in, there are endless things to feel mad, sad and anxious about, and this was just really the movie I needed to see right now, so thank you for that.
GRACE: Just write that. Let’s skip the interview. That’s exactly how I feel! Thank you. By the way, I’m just as proud to be a part of it. Spike did it. We were walking up the stairs in Cannes, and he had this bright tuxedo on that had these coattails and I was like, “That’s right, we’re all riding his coattails up these stairs.”
What’s it like to do something like this, where you take such a huge risk, playing this character, and then you take it to Cannes and you receive a 10-minute standing ovation?
GRACE: Yeah, I’d never been to Cannes before, so I didn’t really know what to think the experience would be like. Somebody told me that they boo films, sometimes. I was braced for it to go badly. But, it’s more important to me than a film that I’m in doing well. I felt the same way you did. It’s time for an important film like this. I read it, and then when I was on set, I was so thankful, but the tone was so difficult. I was like, “Man, I really hope this works ‘cause I really believe in what it’s saying.” If I had watched this film, for the first time, in the Focus Features screening room in Studio City, I would have been so thrilled to get to be a part of the national conversation. That would have been great. But then, on top of it, I was at Cannes when it get that kind of reaction. Because of the time zone, my mom was up, so I called my parents. I was feeling emotional and I said, “Mom, this is actually what I thought acting was gonna be like when I was younger, before I moved to Hollywood.” My mom took me to Planet Hollywood and MGM Studios in Florida, where there’s palm trees and people love cinema so much. It was just magical.
This was a role that it sounds like a lot of people maybe didn’t necessarily think you should do. What was it that made you so driven about getting this role and proving that you could do a role like this? What was it about playing David Duke that made you want to pursue it?
GRACE: Well, it certainly wasn’t David Duke. When I read the script, I understood his function, totally knew that character, and thought that was really important. Something that Spike teased out more, as we went into rehearsals and production, is the idea that racism in America in the ‘70s was just redneck, beer belly guys. As they talk about in the film, David not only wore three-piece suits, but he was well-educated. He was far more successful, in his reach, and far more dangerous. I saw what Spike was trying to do, in the sense that the film begins with a shot of the Civil War and ends with a shot from 2017, to show that straight line to how we got there, and David played a big part in how we got there.
A big portion of your performance in this is through conversations on the phone. What’s it like to have a phone receiver, as a scene partner, and what are the challenges of making that work?
GRACE: This is all thanks to Spike because not only did he have me and John David do a bunch of rehearsal together, but I got to experience it before America, who will experience it now. This guy is a huge star, and he was amazing to work with. First, we rehearsed it eye to eye, so we knew where we were going with the scenes. Then, and this has never happened for me in a film, the phones were connected and there were cameras in both rooms. People don’t really think about it, but normally, when people are on the phone, you have a grip off camera, reading lines for the other actor. Maybe sometimes it’s the actor, but it’s very rare that you’re both being filmed, at the same time. It’s actually hard to do, but we did it. We could talk over each other or interrupt each other, just the way someone would on a phone call. It felt like a normal scene opposite someone. In some ways, it was easier than doing a normal scene because, when you’re doing a scene, the camera is only on one of the two people, most of the time. Even if you’re facing each other, the other person is just replicating what their performance would be. But in this case, we were both giving our performances while it was happening.
That’s really cool! I would imagine when you’re playing someone like David Duke, it’s probably hard to forget that you’re playing David Duke. Were there things that you did to shake him off? Did you try to find puppies to pet or pictures of unicorns to look at?
GRACE: I’m not method. An example of method would be Jim Carey, in that movie about Andy Kaufman. I shudder to think anyone playing David Duke would be method. That would be terrible. I’m not very method, at all, but I’ve worked with actors who are. There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat. Some people, when their character is mad at you, the actor is mad at you, all day. I have a very light touch. That doesn’t help me. But that said, this was the first time that I got affected by it. I’ve been working for about 20 years. They inter-cut scenes, where we were at the Klan induction rally, or when we were watching The Birth of a Nation. We just did a couple of days in a row, of all Klan rally stuff where I’m leading people in that hate, and I don’t have much of a process to point out how affecting it must have been that I was doing that, but that’s where you gotta be with a great director like Spike. First of all, I felt safe under him. I believe he is the greatest black director of all time, so working on this kind of stuff with him, I felt safe, anyway. But then, on top of that, I’d be in the corner bummed out and he’d come over and say, “Hey, man, what you’re doing is really important. You’re servicing me and my message, and I know what I’m saying here. I know what I’m doing. So sorry this is a really overwhelmingly negative day, but when it’s all cut together, you’re gonna understand this and love it.” And he was absolutely right. We were just so lucky to have had him, as a leader.
What’s it like to be in a Klan robe, in a room full of people wearing the robes and the hoods? Is it just bizarre to look at that?
GRACE: Adam Driver was in the robes for that scene and he was like, “These guys are so stupid. This whole thing is so goofy. The outfits look stupid and the whole thing is so moronic, with the rituals and all that stuff.” When you step back, you go, “What a bunch of idiots.” The place where they’re coming from is so horrible and negative. I would never normally get affected by stuff like that. I’ve done a lot of different things, in my career, but this was the closest that I’ve ever felt to being depressed and going home a little sad.
If you had been given the opportunity, would you have wanted to meet or talk to David Duke, or are you glad that was not an option that you had?
GRACE: No, and had it been an option, I wouldn’t have done it. No, I don’t have a yen to ever meet that guy or talk to him.
It seems like his words speak perfectly for him.
GRACE: That’s right. Well said.
Spike Lee is one of those people who is as iconic as a person as he is as a filmmaker. What do you think it is about him that really gets people to that place where they can feel the freedom, safety and trust that lets him take you where he needs you to go?