Mila Kunis: On The Brink of Movie Stardom
By Ben Barna
I first met Mila Kunis nearly 10 years ago on the set of the generic teen comedy Get Over It. We were fake high school classmates in a fake high school. She and co-star Kirsten Dunst were inseparable and I was an invisible extra. There were husky crew members on hand to remind us of the prevailing social order: extras were not to fraternize with movie stars. It was just like high school, actually. When Dunst once caught me gawking, she pantomimed one of those rickety movie cameras you crank during a game of charades and, in a voice reserved for children, said mockingly, “We’re making a movie!” Kunis, still just the cute one from That ’70s Show, stood next to her more established co-star and giggled.
It’s 10 years later, and I’m with Kunis again. The 26-year-old actress sits curled up in a 1950s-style diner booth at Manhattan’s BBar and Grill, looking like she’s aged approximately three days since our last encounter. Sporting a post-workout outfit—billowing gray hoodie, cut-off black tights and trainers, her chestnut brown hair pinned back tightly against her head—she sends a quick text and coils her white headphones around her iPhone. She complains about a torn muscle in her left arm, orders a glass of Shiraz and readies herself for the talk at hand.
With the words “Get Over It” barely out of my mouth, she covers hers and lets out a lengthy squeal: “I haven’t seen that movie in years!” And indeed, that Mila Kunis, an embryonic TV star whose career was still in question, was an entirely different person than the one sitting in front of me, the one set to co-star in Denzel Washington’s next film, The Book of Eli.
At 15, Kunis became a pin-up for keg-swilling frat boys as Jackie Burkhart, the spoiled gossip on Fox’s That ’70s Show, a role she inhabited for eight years. (She was hired when she was 14, a fact she hid from casting directors who were reluctant to employ a minor.) Jackie was pretty, looked good in bell-bottoms and used her high-pitched voice to wheedle, gripe, whine and manipulate. You’d be forgiven for assuming, based on her performance, that she was destined to remain Ashton Kutcher’s arm candy forever.
Kunis didn’t do much to burnish her credibility, posing half-nude, at all of 16, on the cover of Stuff magazine under the barely legal headline, “Mila Kunis Dares You to Look.” (These days, she claims she would never be photographed in a bikini unless “someone air-brushed the shit out of it.”) On hiatus from the show, Kunis appeared in iffy movies like American Psycho 2, a bargain-bin sequel to the Christian Bale cult classic. “I didn’t think this was going to be my career at 16,” Kunis says without apology, twirling the drawstrings on her hoodie between her slender fingers. “Any movie I did prior to the age of 20, I did because I could.”
Then came Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the movie that upended everything we thought we knew about Kunis’ talent. Yet another offering from the Judd Apatow Institute of Comedic Learning, this one about a heartbroken sap’s romantic recovery, Sarah Marshall co-starred a laundry list of likeable comedians, including Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Jack McBrayer and Russell Brand. And yet, in scene after scene, it’s Kunis, as the hotel clerk Rachel, who steals the show. Grounded, funny, appealing and gorgeous, she was a revelation. Who knew she had it in her? When the final credits rolled, audiences found themselves entertaining a thought they would have laughed away two hours earlier: Mila Kunis is going to be a movie star.
While carefully smothering a plate of raw oysters in cocktail sauce, Kunis talks about why Sarah Marshall worked. “It’s one of those movies that comes around once in a blue moon. You just go with it and don’t ask questions,” she says. “When [co-star] Kristen Bell and I got the script, we met with [screenwriter] Jason Segel and [director] Nick Stoller, and we talked about what these characters would do in different situations, how they would react. We talked and talked, and then they tailor-made the characters for us. Rachel is very close to me. To my personality, she’s the closest of any character I’ve played by far.”
Even Segel, who also starred in the film, was surprised by Kunis’ knockout performance. “When I wrote Mila’s part, I tried to imagine the perfect woman to meet at the wrong time,” he says. “I had no idea Mila would come in and not only be the perfect woman, but also add depth and complexity to the male fantasy of ‘the perfect woman.’ She made me look like a good writer.”
The film’s effect on her career has been palpable. “The quality of work I was able to get and fight for increased,” Kunis says, as proved by her next project, Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s top-secret follow-up to last year’s Mickey Rourke-resurrector, The Wrestler. “I first saw Mila in Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Aronofsky says of his casting choice. “She electrified me and made the screen sizzle. I instantly knew I wanted to work with her.”
But it took an unorthodox effort to strike a deal. Conflicting schedules delayed a rendezvous, so the web-junkie actress suggested a meeting via iChat (the instant messaging service she also uses to keep in touch with Segel and Hill). After a transcontinental video session, Aronofsky sent her the script for Black Swan. He offered her the part over IM a few meetings later. Kunis, still visibly surprised by the outcome, remembers their exchange: “Hey.” “Hey. Do you want to do this?” “Video chat? “No, the movie.” “If you just offered me the movie, I think you need to get on video chat and offer it to me.”
Aronofsky complied and Kunis took the part.
Black Swan is a psychological thriller set in the ruthless world of ballet in New York City. To prepare, Kunis endured a punishing ballerina boot camp for more than two months, practicing seven days a week, five hours each day. “I just skipped about 10 years of ballerina training and started as if I’m a professional,” she says, laughing. “Every day, I tore the ligaments in my calves and I would think, What am I doing to myself?”
Kunis plays Lilly, the unhinged and possibly sadistic yin to the yang of Nina, her uptight rival played by close friend Natalie Portman. “It’s like a real-life version of the third act of Swan Lake,” she says, treading carefully around plot secrets. “I just feel like such a douche because I can’t talk about it. It’s not even that big of a deal. It’s a fucking movie. It’s not like I’m saving the world.”
Talk drifts to online chatter of a rumored sex scene with Portman, something she’s also weary of discussing. Surely, she understands why the rumor has fans in a tizzy. Kunis’ black nail-polished fingers hit the table in a cascade of taps. “Sure,” she says, with a roll of her eyes. “It’s two girls making out, and guys have a thing for that. And Nat is like every guy’s dream. She’s a nerd’s idea of heaven. The whole thing is silly, but I can see why people care.”
Mila Kunis moved to California from the Ukraine when she was 7 years old. She spoke no English, but contrary to tales on the Internet, she did not learn the language by watching episodes of The Price Is Right. (“It was a totally cute story when I was 14,” she says. “It’s not so funny and cute now that I’m 26.”) In the Eastern Bloc, her parents were engineers. In America, her mother was, and still is, a manager at Rite Aid. Her father is a cab driver. Their goal was for Mila and her older brother Mike to go to college. “That was not optional,” she says. “It was what I was going to do.” But with a recurring role on a hit TV show, Kunis found herself too busy for school, and after taking a summer course at UCLA, she put her education on hold. “It’s not to say that I’ll never graduate,” she says. “It’s just that college wasn’t for me.”
After That ’70s Show ended, Kunis found herself second-guessing a career that most struggling actors would kill for. “I didn’t come to L.A. to become a famous actress. I lived in L.A. and I was an actress, and it was just like, Who am I? I loved what I did, but I didn’t like the judgment that came with it,” she says. “It took me until I was 21 to realize that this is what I was going to do. I finally decided I’m not going to be embarrassed to write ‘actress’ on my medical forms.” And why should she be embarrassed? This January, Kunis co-stars alongside two serious thespians in The Book of Eli, an apocalyptic allegory directed by the Hughes brothers. The film’s title card reads: Denzel Washington. Gary Oldman. Mila Kunis. “It’s like, which one doesn’t belong?” she jokes.
When I compare Eli to Max Payne, the monochromatic noir procedural in which Kunis played opposite Mark Wahlberg, she says, now only half-joking, “I’m pretty sure you just shattered Denzel’s heart.” When I persist about the similarities—a monosyllabic lone warrior waltzes into town and kills everyone and everything around him in slow motion—she stops me. “In Max Payne, everyone’s super powerful and everyone shoots everyone,” she says. “This is all about survival.”
Thanks to co-star Gary Oldman, filming the movie wasn’t such a test of endurance. Kunis has collaborated with some of today’s great clowns: in addition to the Marshall men, she has worked with Seth MacFarlane on his animated series Family Guy, voicing human piñata Meg Griffin for eight seasons; Mike Judge, the blue-collar messiah who directed her in the misunderstood Extract; and Steve Carrell and Tina Fey in the upcoming comedy Date Night, in which she briefly appears as a stripper married to James Franco (“I made Steve break character!” she says, beaming). But it was Oldman of all people, the English actor famous for his noxious onscreen personae, who made her laugh most. “He has a sick, British sense of humor,” she says. “Some of the funniest people on the planet aren’t necessarily funny when you yell ‘cut.’ When they’re not working, they don’t want to think about being funny.”
Even when Kunis isn’t on set, she’s working. Today, her packed schedule included ballet rehearsal, physical therapy, acupuncture, fitness training, meetings and an interview. When discussing life off-camera, she latches onto safe topics such as her TV habits and her obsession with video games. (“I love Grand Theft Auto,” she says, “but I can’t get past the level where I have to drop my hooker off.”)
Kunis is obsessively protective of her privacy. When she says, “He’s the love of my life,” she’s talking about Shorty, her mutt who, along with bulldog Audrey, makes up her entourage when she’s at home in L.A. (It’s only a seven-minute drive from her house to her parents’ place.) But Kunis spends some of the year in New York, her East Village apartment just a few blocks from our table, because, as she coyly puts it, “I started dating a New Yorker.”
That New Yorker is Macaulay Culkin, the 29-year-old actor whose appearances in the Home Alone franchise made him the most bankable child star since Shirley Temple. If it weren’t for a handful of freak paparazzi shots, Kunis would have pulled off the impossible by concealing her long-term, live-in Hollywood romance. “I don’t remember being single,” she says, pulling her right knee up to her chest. “I love coming home, taking a bath and having a glass of wine. I love my life.”
Though Kunis has, in her own way, settled down, she isn’t quite ready to settle down. On the subject of marriage, she doesn’t sound like the product of such doting parents. “Not to say that I don’t believe in it, but it’s just not something that’s important to me.” Unprovoked, she continues. “But I will have children. I’m too selfish to have them now, but when I do, I don’t feel like I need to be married. I need to have a person in my life who will care for me and my children—nothing else.” Is Culkin that guy? “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she coolly replies.
With her biological clock on pause, Kunis remains fiercely devoted to her craft. “I don’t know that I could do Shakespeare, but I don’t know that I couldn’t. It’s like ballet. Did I ever think I could get en pointe and be a prima ballerina? No. But, give me two months,” Kunis says. “I will work my ass off and do everything in my power to get it done.”
Photography by David Roemer. Styling by Anda & Masha.