Rehearsing, says Grace, is already "my favorite thing — just to have so much time to think about the character and the text and to get to know your fellow cast members and run the scene so many times. Already I'm worried about how much fun this is."
Movie-making is different: "You do a run-through for the actors and the director. Then the crew comes in and watches you pace through it once. Then you get in hair and makeup and come back and do it. You're maybe rehearsing on take one or two."
It's times like then — and times like now, at Second Stage — that he's happy he's Trainer-trained. Before becoming known for directing all 200 episodes of "That '70s Show" (1998-2006), David Trainer directed the original Playwrights Horizons production of The Dining Room and steered Jessica Tandy to a Tony for Foxfire. "He was a great teacher — the only teacher I've had — and I'm so lucky he was someone who came from the stage. He taught me a lot of habits I'd have to be learning now.
"I always thought that kids who arrived in Hollywood couldn't wait to get off their sitcoms to do films, and I'd get really mad when they talk like that because there's no better bootcamp-slash-graduate school for film or stage. For the kids on that show, that was all of our school. Basically, David had four or five of the six kids on 'That '70s Show' starting to act the day the show started rehearsing. I was not good at the beginning. I had, literally, zero training.
"There's a similarity to theatre — repetition and rehearsal time — that happens in sitcoms. It is a period where you have a shorter rehearsal, but you have a full week to rehearse, and then you got to do it on Show Night. You do do it in front of an audience — probably the same size audiences as here at Second Stage — and you get only so many takes until that audience is no longer responding, really. We tried to keep it to two takes. I can see now how David made it more like the stage than other sitcoms. 'How I Met Your Mother' doesn't have an audience. They add in the laughs afterward. But David fixed it so if we wanted to get a laugh, we had to earn it."
Coming east again, says Grace, has created "a weird flashback thing for me. It's been bringing me back before I started 'That '70s Show.' What that's doing is that I can't believe that any of this stuff happened. I can't believe I'm in New York and doing a show. Knowing people like Paul and Trip, being able to work with them in something Paul wrote — that seems like a daydream I'd have of my life. It's an experience everyone should have in the theatre — a play they believe in, and writing they really love."
(This article appears in the May 2012 issue of Playbill.)
Olivia Thirlby and Topher Grace in Lonely, I'm Not.