Credit: Joan Marcus

Topher Grace hasn’t done theater since he starred in a high school production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and was scouted for That ’70s Show. So believe him when he says it took Paul Weitz, who directed him in the 2004 film In Good Company, a while to convince him to star in his new off-Broadway play Lonely, I’m Not. The show, directed by Tripp Cullman, officially opens today at the Second Stage Theatre.

Weitz penned the story that centers on Porter (Grace), a former corporate wunderkind who thinks he might be ready to reenter both the dating and working worlds, after suffering a nervous breakdown and divorce four years earlier. Juno‘s Olivia Thirlby also appears as Heather, a blind, ambitious workaholic who appreciates Porter’s honesty after her last boyfriend lied to her. “Mostly it was my fear of being on stage. I paid for myself to fly out here and I read with the director in the space because I was having nightmares about people in the back row saying, ‘Speak up!’ I’d never had to project in any of the jobs I’d done. I wanted to project emotion, but not have to go too big. Sometimes you see an actor that you know on screen, and they’re very natural on screen, and then you see them on stage, and they’re really theatrical or loud. I wanted it to be, for a lack of a better word, real, because that’s how Paul wrote it,” Grace says. “So we read for a day in the space. Then I thought, okay, maybe. It took a while, but I’m so glad I did it. And now I’ve told Paul I’ll follow him anywhere.”

Weitz’s writing was the deciding factor. “What I love about what he does, and it’s also what it’s like to hang out with him as a person, too, is that he mixes comedy and drama in a way that a lot of people are scared to do. It’s very difficult to get jokes during a dramatic scene or get serious during a funny scene. But I think life is like that. It’s not all one day is a funny day and the next day is a dramatic day,” Grace says. “These are people with some really serious problems. Both characters are blind in a sense and really trying to find their bearings, in many ways Porter more than her. That Paul is able to make people laugh consistently through a whole play about them… It’s like my favorite James L. Brooks films.”

Grace admits he’s never been more nervous than the first night in previews. “I hosted SNL [in 2005], and I was not even close to that nervous because you have cue cards. I’m still a bit scared each night,” he says. He’s had flashbacks to his days as a novice TV star on That ’70s Show with no experience acting in front of a camera. “I remember doing full takes and the director saying to me, ‘Great job, but you didn’t face the cameras at all,'” he recalls, with a laugh. “With this [play], I kept being late on the stage during the tech rehearsal. This is the run-through right before we start showing it to paying customers. The director said, ‘Hey, you’re coming out late.’ I said, ‘I’m waiting for the cue light to go on.’ I’ve never used cue lights before. He’s like, ‘It’s when it turns off.’ Even he had the look in his eye like, ‘Is this kid starring in the show?’ And if they say ‘you go up on a line,’ that means you forgot the line. The director said it to me — ‘You went up on that line’ — and I was like [lowers voice] ‘Should I go lower on it?'”

Having seen the show, we can tell you he’s mastered his nerves. But even if he hadn’t, they would work for Porter. “Having a nervous breakdown is always fun and cathartic,” he says, describing one of his favorite scenes and chuckling again. “Every night, the audience laughs about halfway through that screaming, and then they get really quiet.” After the show, friends and strangers want to tell him how they relate to Porter. “I think everyone’s been through something like this, on some level. I like that it gets people to talk. With film, you get people’s reactions months after you shot it and you rarely get to talk to people right after they’ve seen it,” he says.

The plays runs through May 31. After that, Grace isn’t sure what he’ll be doing, other than promoting The Wedding, a big screen comedy out this October than he shot last summer. “Robert De Niro is my father, Diane Keaton is my mother, Susan Sarandon is my stepmom, Katherine Heigl’s my sister, Amanda Seyfried is my stepsister, and Robin Williams is the priest. It’s a great wedding,” he says. “It turns out Robin Williams knows a couple of jokes. I was literally wetting myself. Unfortunately, my character is doing something else, but there’s a scene where a lot of characters go into a confessional with him. I was just begging the director, ‘Please, let me go in!’ It’s like you, in a box, with Robin Williams, for five minutes.”

The movie was shot in Greenwich, Conn., next door to Grace’s and Heigl’s hometowns (Darien and New Canaan, respectively). “Katherine Heigl grew up literally five minutes away. That’s how I know her, is from the ’90s,” Grace says. “It was this really insane summer where the cast would come over and chill at the house I grew up in — I was sleeping in my bunk bed last summer — and play Ping Pong in my basement. And Katy and I would drive around and pass the elementary schools we went to. We listened to a lot of ’90s Sirius satellite stuff, like Blues Traveler. It was like time travel. It was amazing. One day we were sitting outside, and Diane started talking about Reds, which is one of my favorite movies. I was like, ‘Feel free to talk more about that. Or Annie Hall. Whatever.’ And then Robert asked me to call him ‘Bob.’ That was a big day. So now when I bump into him, I can say, ‘Hey, Bob.'”

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