Theres two shades of white supremacist in Spike Lees new movie, BlacKkKlansman. The first is the obvious, stereotypical kind: the cartoonish hick, as brought to life with sloppy, gleeful bigotry by actors like Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen. These are characters whose racism is their entire personality; as the film tells us through callbacks to movies like Gone with the Wind and D.W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation, they represent the white supremacist of yore.
And then theres David Duke. Duke, played here by Topher Grace, is a polished-up, suit-and-tie type, with a gracious manner and a neighborly Howdy Doody chuckle—that is, if youre white. Hes got a well-spoken intelligence invoking not only the real David Duke of the 1970s and 80s—the David Duke who has an eye on running for political office—but also the likes of our own eras more outwardly respectable white supremacists, like Richard Spencer.
This is the new white supremacy: not the vicious, lawless hooting and hollering of burning crosses and nighttime raids, but a more insidious variety, one that wants to work its way into our political system and fight for the public trust. Those virulently backward racists may have seemed scarier, but Dukes brand of racism was infinitely more dangerous. In 2015, the Daily Beast, tracking this shift in Dukes career, called him “the most charming bigot you ever met.”
Grace knows as much. “This really intelligent, really evil guy kind of figured out this rebranding,” he said in an interview this summer. “Obviously David Duke is a horrible person. But the role was so juicy.”
Grace has but one of the major performances in BlacKkKlansman, which also stars John David Washington and Adam Driver. The film is Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmotts adaptation of Ron Stallworths 2014 memoir of the same name, which depicts Stallworths time as the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. With the help of a Jewish officer, Stallworth infiltrated the K.K.K. to get a handle on their terrorist schemes.
The movie is set in the 70s—which means, among other things, that it takes place just a decade before Duke would attempt a presidential run in 1988. Its contemporaneous with his two attempts to run for Louisiana State Senate in 1975 and 1979, as well as his reign as the Grand Wizard of the K.K.K. from 1975 to 1980.
Grace, who is still best known for starring as the witty but geeky—and not at all white supremacist—Eric Forman on That 70s Show, knows that taking this part was a risk. “When your agents tell you that there is going to be a new Spike Lee movie, you are reading it hoping that theres going to be something in it for you,” he said in an interview. “Then, when I said to my agents what I wanted to play, it was a little bit of a head-scratcher, I think. Its not like something Ive done before. But they were very supportive.”
Grace was also eager to take a role that felt topical—and BlacKkKlansman does not shy away from comparing Duke, and what he represents, to Donald Trump. For a lengthy period over the course of his campaign, Trump memorably danced around the question of Dukes support, even initially pretending not to know who Duke was: “I dont know anything about him,” he said, when pressed by John Heilemann, then of Bloomberg Television, in 2015. A specious denial, at best; in 2000, Trump had refused to run for president with the backing of the Reform Party, on the grounds that the party had grown to include Duke, who was “not company I wish to keep.”
Flash forward to last years Charlottesville riots: an occasion whose one-year anniversary is marked, almost to the day, by the release of BlacKkKlansman. The Charlottesville riots gave Duke respite from relative political obscurity, proving how his vicious ideas had been mainstreamed: “We are determined to take our country back,” he said then, in footage included at the end of BlacKkKlansman. “Were going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. Thats what we believed in. Thats why we voted for Donald Trump.” The connection couldnt be clearer: “We”—white supremacists—“voted for Donald Trump.” Trump eventually did disavow Dukes support, but hes never disavowed Dukes supporters—which is to say, his own supporters.
The parallels between past and present were a boon to Graces preparation—and to the film itself. “Theres a moment at the end of the trailer where I say America First,” he said. “Im leading everyone in a toast. That came out of rehearsals. I had watched so much [Phil] Donahue at this point. I was like, Spike, all he says is America First and make America great again. This pre-dates the last election by like 30 years or more.”
Hes talking about the Donahue interviews Duke did in 1991, while on the campaign trail as a gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana. In the interviews, he claims to have softened some of the more odious views while doubling down on, among other things, segregation.
Grace told me he studied those Donahue interviews and listened to Dukes current radio show intently; he also read My Awakening, Dukes autobiography, which Grace described as “a thinly veiled Mein Kampf.”
“Ordering it is really tough off of Amazon,” he said. “There are a couple of questions, like, Are you sure you want to order this product? or whatever.”
The hardest part, perhaps, was actually saying Dukes racist rhetoric aloud. “Its a scary thing as a performer, especially if you are really, really liberal or have very different values, as I do, than that character,” he said. At first, Grace practiced alone in his office. “I was swallowing the words. I thought, Well, I got to get comfortable with it. The character is obviously very comfortable with it.” Before meeting up with Lee, he rehearsed a speech to the tune of, “Im really uncomfortable saying this dialogue.”
But Lee, he said, was sympathetic to his plight. “Theres a terrible scene we are about to do,” he remembered the director saying, “but its in service of a message Im trying to say, and this thing really happened.”
This was typical of his experience with Lee—one of Graces movie heroes. “When we were on set, we talked,” he said. “I realized he would talk about [Martin] Scorsese, and how he felt about Scorsese in high school, the way that I felt about him. I remember a teacher showed Do the Right Thing in high school to our class, and my mind was just blown.”
In the end, Lees openness to Graces ideas, and his prioritizing of his actors comfort, made the movie better. “When I went in to read with him, I felt safe,” Grace said. “When we were doing it, I felt safe. When we were at Cannes, I felt safe.” That paid off for Grace in a big way at Cannes—his first time premiering a movie at the esteemed festival, and his first time seeing the final cut of BlacKkKlansman.
“There was a great reaction to when I said that America has to achieve its greatness again. That was the first time I saw the film. To hear people kind of laughing at it, but also being like Ooo.” For Grace, that was a sign that the movie was hitting the right chord—and that his performance was essential to its effect. “I wanted to be to the film what David Duke was to America,” he said. Astonishingly, thats precisely what he accomplishes.
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