While the biggest draw of the new season of Black Mirror was Miley Cyrus playing a pop star struggling against technological subjugation, another episode of the Netflix series featured an even more captivating casting decision. “Smithereens” centers around a rideshare driver who camps out in front of the London offices of a Twitter-ish social network called Smithereen, hoping to pick up one of its employees. After weeks of waiting, he gets a ping from one of the company’s interns, and ends up kidnapping him. The next thing you know, his car is wrecked in a field and he’s telling a squad of cops that he’s going to shoot the intern unless he can talk to Smithereen’s CEO, a guy named Billy Bauer who’s played by Topher Grace.
By the time the Smithereen top brass, who are based in the Bay Area because of course they are, get wind of the situation, they have two goals: one, to use the digital paper trail left by the driver to put together a psychological profile they can use to hopefully keep him from killing the intern, and two, to prevent him from talking to Billy because he’s on a ten-day silent meditation retreat in Utah.
When we meet Billy, he’s sitting shirtless on the floor of a glass cube overlooking a barren desert vista, a man bun plastered on his head. A young employee explains the situation to him as he stares into the distance, as if contemplating whether or not this is a problem worth breaking his focus for. And then, he says, “Fuck.”
Billy, as Grace plays him, isn’t quietly evil like Mark Zuckerberg. On the surface, he’s a blissed-out libertarian in the mode of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, his voice cut with a note of airiness that implies a personal history involving ayahuasca use and utopian speeches delivered during corporate earnings calls. But as the episode unravels [Note: Light spoilers ahead.], we learn Grace ceded day-to-day control over his business long ago and now functions as something of a figurehead. After overruling his underlings, who by no means want him to talk to the driver under any circumstances, he hops on the phone with the guy and discovers that Smithereen’s inherent addictiveness has caused him a horrible personal tragedy. He breaks down, dropping his pretense of enlightenment to deliver a neurotic monologue about how he hates what Smithereen has become and that he wishes he could change it but he can’t and he’s sorry.
You get the sense that he feels isolated and is hoping to make a genuine connection with someone, even a person who’s holding one of his interns hostage, only for the kidnapper to tell him he doesn’t care what he has to say and hang up. You feel a little bad for Grace’s character, but then he sighs, and goes back to meditating. He tried, he really did. What else do you want him to do?
In the past decade or so, Topher Grace has established himself as a reliable presence in film and television, moving on from his defining role in That ’70s Show to carve out a career as a working actor. That means he tends to spend a lot of time appearing in unmemorable fare like the Christian melodrama Breakthrough and the “trapped in a scary house” thriller Delirium, stuff where he shows up, reads his lines, collects his check, and moves on. Every once in a while, however, Grace links up with a director who really lets him lean into the Topher Grace that seems to simmer just below the surface, transforming himself into a self-satisfied smarmy shit that only people with bullshitty prep-school names like “Topher” can truly access.
When he enters Topher Mode, Grace excels at capturing the true banality of evil. His characters are rarely overtly malicious, instead just selfish and clueless, impressed with their own mediocrity, and deluded enough to think that the fact that they suck at life shouldn’t stop them from living it to the fullest. His characters are all grown adults still driving the Range Rover their dad bought them in high school, willing to do anything to preserve what they view as a god-given right to be remarkably below-average yet still cruise comfortably through life.
Grace’s portrayal of David Duke in Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman is perhaps the purest expression of Topher Mode on film. He plays the notorious white supremacist as an utter idiot masquerading as a sophisticated, self-educated intellectual, a simpering coward who’s so blindly confident in his own superiority that he’s wholly unaware that everyone not sucking up to him sees right through his schtick. It’s a remarkably accurate portrayal of how prominent hatemongers such as the real-life Duke, Richard Spencer, and Steve King comport themselves. These guys take great pains to cover up their racism and xenophobia, bending over backwards to dress up hate in a sheen of intellectual respectability and snide doublespeak. Their self-satisfaction comes in part from the fact that they’ve convinced themselves that they’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, when in reality they really, really, really haven’t. Grace captures this perfectly, adding on just enough charm that you end up hating his character even more.
While his Black Mirror and BlacKKKlansman roles are the latest and greatest examples of Topher Mode, they are not without their antecedents. We can find an early example of Topher Mode in Ocean’s Eleven, where Grace plays a version of himself with a Justin Timberlake goatee who gnaws on a toothpick and triumphantly claims victory in a poker game with a hand of “all reds.” Before Tom Hardy played the world’s least believable out-of-work journalist turned symbiote-enabled-superhuman in Venom, Grace took a stab at the same character in Spider-Man 3 (a.k.a. the one where Pete Parker becomes a goth). In the movie, Grace’s Eddie Brock beats out Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker for a job at The Daily Planet by doctoring some photos, but then gets fired and somehow becomes Venom, all of which is less important than this scene of Topher Grace sitting in a church very earnestly asking God to kill Peter Parker. If his character didn’t already have frosted blonde tips, we all would have mass-hallucinated them.
Meanwhile, the Wikipedia entry for his character in Robert Rodriguez’s Predators (a movie I haven’t seen, sorry) literally describes him as, “A doctor who does not seem to belong amongst the group of hardened killers until he reveals that he is a psychopathic murderer.” Along similar lines, he plays a media strategist trying to help a full-of-shit general control the narrative of a war in the 2017 Brad Pitt vehicle War Machine, delivering his lines as if he’s a grown toddler trying to explain diapers to a baby.
In real life, very few people are evil just for its own sake. Instead, they’ve convinced themselves that they’re right and everyone else is wrong, that that their lofty goals justify their sociopathic actions. They’re so focused on doing their job well that they’ve become too myopic to consider the big picture — or maybe they’re just obsessed with money and status, and truly don’t care how they get it. These are the people whose shittiness Topher Grace channels with ease and just a tinge of a Mid-Atlantic accent that just positively drips with unearned privilege.
“What I can say about it for me is that I just don’t care what the audience’s opinion of the character is. ” he told Vulture shortly after his episode of Black Mirror aired. “There was a time when I did care more if the character was likable, but maybe I’m older and more secure with myself now.” He stands apathetic to your feelings, just like all of his great villains.