Certain TV shows seem to breed future movie stars.
In the '50s, Steve McQueen and James Garner parlayed their small-screen success on westerns into big- screen hits. Clint Eastwood went from "Rawhide" to the top of the box office in the 1960s in a series of acclaimed spaghetti westerns. John Travolta was still appearing on "Welcome Back, Kotter" when he received his first Oscar nomination for "Saturday Night Fever." And Michael J. Fox and Bruce Willis spent their summer vacations from their respective series, "Family Ties" and "Moonlighting," making such blockbusters as "Back to the Future" and "Die Hard."
Now Fox's hit sitcom "That '70s Show" is spawning six budding film careers. The show's young stars--Topher Grace, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Laura Prepon and Wilmer Valderrama--are either appearing in features or have films set for release later this year.
Created by Bonnie and Terry Turner and Mark Brazil, "That '70s Show" has been steadily building an audience since it premiered in August 1998. The sitcom, which airs twice a week, averages more than 11 million viewers and scores heavily in the all-important teen demographic--exactly the category that powers many of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters these days.
Set in 1978, the series chronicles the exploits of high school senior Eric Forman (Grace) and his five friends; girlfriend Donna (Prepon); cute but gullible Kelso (Kutcher); his spoiled girlfriend Jackie (Kunis); conspiracy theorist Hyde (Masterson); and girl-crazy foreign-exchange student Fez (Valderrama).
Not surprisingly, most of the films that "That '70s Show" regulars are appearing in are aimed at the teen audience--Kutcher recently starred in "Dude, Where's My Car?" and Masterson in "Dracula 2000." The exception to the rule is Grace, who breaks away from his good-guy image in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," playing the manipulative preppy who turns Michael Douglas' daughter into a heroin addict.
Brazil, who is also an executive producer of "That '70s Show," isn't surprised the cast is finding success in features because they convey a kind of authenticity to young audiences.
"I think it's because they were kind of anti-casting," says Brazil. "We didn't want precious or cute or overdone. We wanted real, and that is what we went with. We got Laura off a tape in New York. She hadn't done anything before. Topher, Ashton and Wilmer hadn't either."
Recently, the cast members, who range in age from 17 to 24, gathered on the set of "That '70s Show" at the CBS/Radford Studios in Studio City to discuss their TV-to-movie transitions.
Question: Did you find it difficult to make the move to films?
Mila Kunis: I personally did. I found it easier to get roles in other areas before I did the show. I started auditioning for movies, and they kept thinking of me as that girl from "That '70s Show."
Laura Prepon: Actually for me, it's kind of rough, because this is the first thing I have basically done. People think of me as a tomboy. I was only sent scripts for the tough girl; when I auditioned they always said I was too tough.
Topher Grace: The first summer [of 1999] we had six new episodes. That is when our show became big for the first time. Like Laura, I had never done anything before, and I was not used to this environment or getting this much attention. So I liked having the summer off. I didn't work. I am glad I didn't, but by the time the second year rolled around we were doing a lot better ratings-wise. There was a lot more opportunity, and that summer everyone worked.
Q: Topher, you are almost unrecognizable in "Traffic." What was the experience like making that movie?
Grace: I just read once for Steven. He had not seen ["That '70s Show"] and that was probably in my favor. Not because I don't think this show is excellent, but Eric is just the epitome of a nice guy and this guy was such a jerk. It was so great to go 180 degrees, just like everyone else here, to do something different. But that was secondary to working with people like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas.
Danny Masterson: It was one of the best films I have ever seen.
Q: Danny, you've had the most experience of any of the group.
Masterson: I started modeling when I was 4 and then acting about a year later when I started doing commercials. I stopped modeling when I was about 14. I did "One Life to Live" for a little while and did two educational films and did "Jake and the Fatman." [The entire group starts laughing.] I played Jake's nephew. I moved to L.A. [from New York] to do "Beethoven's 2nd" when I was 16. I was lucky enough to have a show every season after that.
Q: [to Ashton Kutcher] Is there going to be a sequel to "Dude"?