The Austin Chronicle

Stoners, Killers, and Kissing Miss Piggy

By Richard Whittaker, August 21, 2015, 9:00am, Picture in Picture

If you're looking for someone to blame for Austin's ever-swelling population, then stop hunting. Topher Grace admits it was him. He said, "I had such an amazing time there, the way I talk about it would make people move there."

Grace was here back in 2010 while shooting the reboot of the Predator franchise out at Robert Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios. He played slice-and-dice serial killer Edwin, a ruthless murderer with a hair trigger – exactly the unstable personality that would make him a perfect target for Grace's character in American Ultra.

Grace plays ruthless CIA fixer Adrian Yates, a classic cinematic pencil pusher who unleashes a cadre of mind-controlled soldiers on a sleepy little town. Their goal: Eliminate nebbish stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg). Not as easy as it sounds, since unbeknownst to Howell's girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), the convenience store clerk in the cloud of bong smoke is actually a highly trained government assassin. The other problem? Courtesy of the mind wipe provided by the top secret program that created him, Howell doesn't know he's a killer, either. Grace said, "It feels like an indie film. You're with very real characters, but in a very unreal situation."

In a summer of movies about uncannily skilled assassins (American Ultra, Hitman: Agent 47, and the upcoming Deadpool), it's the killers that get the above-the-title credit and all the sympathy. But what about their handlers, like Yates? After all, if the killers are really the good guys, isn't the guy who sends them out to kill, secretly the good guy? Definitely not, said Grace. "That's a pretty twisted point of view. That's like, Darth Vader has some good ideas."

Rather than being the misunderstood hero, Grace portrays Yates as the worst combination of Frankenstein and careerist backstabber. He said, "Business-wise, he had some pretty twisted ideas, but he also unleashed all these psychopaths." It's a change for the man that made his reputation playing nervous nice guy Eric Foreman in That '70s Show. "It's so great to have license," he said. "When you're playing the good guys, they have boundaries. You're the audience's avatar. But if you're the bad guy, you can go any way you want."

Of course, this isn't the only ensemble that Grace has worked with recently. Footage was recently released of Grace's on-set relationship with The Muppets star Miss Piggy. He declined to discuss the details, but was quick to bury the rumor that he was just being used by the megastar to make her former partner, respected producer Kermit the Frog, jealous. He said, "Let me tell you something. What happened between me and Miss Piggy, that was about us. That wasn't about something that she was going through with an ex."

Back in reality for a second: Grace was part of the teaser for the Muppets' new behind-the-scenes mockumentary for ABC. The casting process was pretty simple: "I had a friend who said, do you want to make out with Miss Piggy, and I said what time?"

For American Ultra, Grace got one-on-one time with just about every member of the cast as Yates holds court in his control room. He said, "I've been in a lot of ensembles, but this was great. Every day I get to work with someone else great." That meant sharing screentime with Eisenberg and Stewart, which was a rare kind of pleasure. He said, "You very rarely get to work with your peers that much. In most movies, you're holding down your age group." By contrast, he got to play the whiny young company climber alongside veterans like Bill Pullman (Independence Day), Tony Hale (Veep, Arrested Development), and uncrowned queen of Austin, Friday Night Lights' Connie Britton ("She should be royalty everywhere," Grace added).

It also meant a mini-Predators reunion with Walton Goggins, who tears up the screen as hyena-cackling butcher Laugher. Acclaimed performances on The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified have made him a critics' favorite, and his upcoming turn in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight will only raise his acting profile further. "He is the definition of willing to go there," Grace said, praising Goggins as one of the most congenitally nice actors around. Any chance of a three-peat from the duo? "You write the script," Grace said, "and we'll shoot it in Austin."

American Ultra opens this weekend. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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