It's been over 12 years since Topher Grace said goodbye to his That '70s Show alter-ego Eric Forman and made his way to the silver screen, working with directors like Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 3), Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight, which he co-wrote) and Christopher Nolan (2014's Interstellar).
Now, he's set to star alongside Brad Pitt in one of the biggest and buzziest movies of his career: David Michôd's War Machine, a pointed and hilarious look at counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan, America's meddling in foreign affairs and one of the strangest stories to ever appear in the pages of Rolling Stone (and how it cost one U.S. general his job).
Based on an article (and later a non-fiction book) by the late-war correspondent Michael Hastings, War Machine tells the story of Glen McMahon (Pitt), a four-star general living in a post-George W. Bush world who wants to win the War in Afghanistan, no matter the cost. His government has other plans.
Grace plays Matt Little, the high-priced and equally egotistical press officer attached to his unit to help keep things in order.
"It's always fun playing a real shallow jerk. It comes naturally," Grace jokes with Exclaim! while in Toronto promoting the movie.
In reality, most of the fun on set came from the people assembled around him; not just his fellow actors — including Sir Ben Kingsley, Anthony Michael Hall, Meg Tilly, RJ Cyler, Alan Ruck and Will Poulter — but the specialists recruited to help make the movie as accurate as possible, from the cast's dialogue all the way to their wardrobe.
"These kind of movies are so great to be on because it's like an interactive history lesson," he says, comparing it to 2015 TIFF selection Truth, a film he starred in alongside Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and Dennis Quaid about Dan Rather's fall from grace.
That being said, there were exceptions: "I remember on my first day I popped my collar on my outfit because I thought it looked cool, and the military advisor goes, 'Oh, no. They would never do that.' And the director goes, 'No, no. He should, because he's a civilian press officer and he's an idiot.' And I went, 'Oh, not knowing anything is gonna be a gift for me on this.'"
At the centre of the movie is Pitt's portrayal of McMahon, an absurd, over-the-top take on real life general Stanley McChrystal that's sure to ruffle a few purist's feathers. But Pitt's take on the character is an instant classic, right up there with Peter Sellers' once-divisive and similarly ridiculous Dr. Strangelove.
Grace had previously worked with the megastar briefly on Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve, but said working with the actor this time around was an entirely different experience.
"I met him really briefly on both those Ocean's movies, and he was so wonderful. I was really nervous, especially that first one. It was me, him and [George] Clooney in my first scene and I was like, 'Whoa, I just got to Hollywood, like, three years ago,'" Grace says. "This film was an opportunity for me to watch him in action for a much longer amount of time. And he's so good; I mean, it's not a coincidence he's been doing so well for so long."
And not just in the world of acting, but producing as well. In recent years, Pitt has played a hand in helping finance a number of award-winning films, including 12 Years a Slave, Selma and Moonlight. ("It's not like Brad doesn't know how to produce Academy Award-level films," Grace adds. "It's all he does now, year after year.")
Armed with that knowledge, some may be confused why Pitt and Michôd opted to go straight to on-demand with their movie over traditional theatres, but Grace says War Machine couldn't have been made properly anywhere else.
"Every actor should be thrilled that there's a place that's willing to give this much money to have a film like this exist," he says. "I just saw it last night at the premiere, and no complaints: We got to make the film, the director got make it in his vision, it's the script that I read. I remember reading the script and going, 'Can they do all this with this major movie star?' Netflix is a place where they can."
War Machine hits Netflix on May 26.