The interview starts going south from the first question, when I make the mistake of asking Mila Kunis how she’s feeling.
She does not take this well.
Now, in most interviews, this question would normally just be a polite bit of throat-clearing. But here there’s a bit of genuine added concern on my part as she is pregnant.
As the only reason I know that is because she recently talked about it on “Ellen” — and on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and at length for “Marie Claire” magazine — asking “How are you feeling?” doesn’t seem like a breach of personal or journalistic etiquette.
But the gates come down immediately. “I don’t talk about that for publication,” she says coldly.
And — we’re off.
It turns into a pretty bumpy ride, too, as every question I ask over the next 25 minutes seems to strike her as either dull, insulting or burdened by some sort of agenda. Halfway through, I begin to wonder: She is engaged to Ashton Kutcher, after all. Am I being punked?
Or, as I suspect still later, is she in a bad mood because this is day the explicit pregnancy details from that “Marie Claire” interview came out? And that Gawker.com quickly excerpted the rawest ones, making sure to get Kutcher’s name, hers, and the word “vagina” in the headline?
Ah, far more probable.
But right now we both have a job to do — Kunis to promote her latest indie film, “Third Person,” and me to write a profile of a 30-year-old actress who has turned in some surprisingly strong and emotional performances on screen, and has an equally vivid story of her own.
And so, we awkwardly set to it.
In Kunis’ new movie, separate stories about lies and loss bounce off each other, like pinballs. In one, Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde are locked in a hot but unhealthy affair; in another Kunis and James Franco are warriors in a bitter custody battle. Director Paul Haggis has said he’d wanted Kunis for the Wilde part, but she asked for the other.
“When I read it originally, he gave the script to both Olivia and I, and luckily we both wanted to do the opposite part,” Kunis corrects. “I thought it would be interesting to play this girl who is going through heartache but just wants to blend in, not be noticed.”
Is it just the way the release dates bunched up, I ask, or does this movie signal a career shift? Because “Third Person” is her third film this year — after “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn” and “Blood Ties” — made outside the usual Hollywood system. Is she looking harder for indie roles?
“Not really, because in the middle of all that I still did `Oz (the Great and Powerful)’ and I still did `Jupiter Ascending,’ so that sort of destroys your assumption,” she says.
But I wasn’t assuming that, I say. I had actually started out by asking if it was just a function of release dates, or…
“It’s not like I go, `I’m going to do a tentpole movie now,’” she says. “You gravitate toward different things, different times.”
OK, I think, as I can feel her growing even more impatient. Let’s try gravitating towards something else ourselves, like some of her earlier successes, or how she got into acting, or the dramatic story of her early childhood.
It’s a somewhat harrowing tale she’s recounted before — born in the U.S.S.R., subject to that state’s anti-Semitism, Kunis came here with her parents at the age of 7, not speaking a word of English. It was so alienating, she once told the Los Angeles Times, that she has no memory of that first year beyond “I cried every day.”
But she won’t talk about that now.
“I’ve talked about me moving to America in a hundred interviews,” she says. “It’s the most mundane subject possible, it’s like everyone’s immigrant story. It was much harder for my 13-year-old brother, it was much harder for my parents.”
And does she have any family left behind in Ukraine?
Well, I say, actually that’s probably good, given the situation there at the moment. Does she…
“No,” she interrupts. “I know what your next question is so let’s just skip it. You’re going to ask me what I think about what’s going on now in Ukraine. Just because I lived there until I was seven doesn’t mean I identify with Ukraine.”
“It just seems weird to do an interview about ‘Third Person’ and then it becomes about Ukraine, and that’s the headline,” she says. “I do interviews and they seem like they’re supposed to be one thing, and the writer has an idea, and then they become something else.”
Kunis with now-fiance, then-costar Ashton Kutcher, in TV's 'That '70s Show'
I explain that I don’t just want to talk about one movie but about her career, and her childhood and her opinions on different things. We can talk about anything she wants to. For example, what was the pull towards drama? What led to her starting acting classes at 9, and what did she get out of it?
“Honestly asking a nine-year-old why, who knows?” she says. “It was just a fun thing to do. Other kids take karate, art, gymnastics and I happened to take acting classes, it was just fun. There was nothing else to it. I don’t know if that’s the answer you’re fishing for.”
I start to tell her that I’m not fishing for any particular answer but I stop. I’m not sure she’s actually hearing what I’m saying at this point.
The subject of “That ‘70s Show” — a part she first auditioned for at 14, lying about her age – brings only a quick “Yeah, it was great. Listen, I went to public high school, I did the show, I loved it. It was eight years of my life, I’ve got nothing bad to say about it.”
When I try to compliment her on a string of movies — not just “Third Person,” but “The Most Dangerous Man in Brooklyn” and “Blood Ties” and of course “Black Swan” — that have shown her taking on meatier roles, new challenges, she takes it as an insult.
“I hate when people ask me this question,” she says. “People have this misconception that comedy’s easy… I’m always looking for challenges and I find a lot of things to be challenging. It can be the director, the producer, a lot of things. I just want to work with people more talented than I am that I can learn from.”
OK, well certainly one challenge was “Jupiter Ascending,” the latest bit of wild eye-candy sci-fi mythology from the Wachowski siblings. The film was originally going to be released next month; it’s since been delayed until February of next year.
“It’s a fun movie,” Kunis says, finally warming a couple of degrees. “It’s really just that, a fun movie – action-drama, light comedy, sci-fi mixed with a little humor. I thought the special effects were incredible.”
The rumor, though, was that they were the problem.
“Maybe somehow I blinked,” she says. “I probably didn’t catch everything; the film has around 2000 effects. I thought they were great but that’s what makes (the Wachowskis) so amazing; they’re very specific about what they see, and what they want people to see, and obviously there were some shots in it that weren’t up to their standards.”
After that picture, though, and the baby — the due date remains a secret — the actress says she’s going to play things by ear.
“I’m sent a lot of scripts and before they’re sent to me they go to a lot of other people,” she says frankly. “What I get changes all the time. After ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ all they wanted me for were romantic comedies. After ‘Black Swan,’ now, you know, we want you to do dance movies.”
Really? Producers saw you in “Black Swan” and that was their whole takeaway?
“I’m being sarcastic,” she says. “But I’m not a genre snob, I’ll read anything. A lot of what you choose is where you are in your life right now, that’s what you gravitate towards. It’s not like Oh, I want to do a horror film, or I want to stay away from this.”
She’s also been trying to generate her own projects.
“Not directing — no, no, no,” she says. “I’m not ready to direct, nor do I write — I can’t form a sentence, so no writing or directing. I love producing, putting packages together. (My company) is really looking at female-driven comedies, female-driven dramas. Not that we’re anti-men, but that’s the one thing we seem to have gravitated towards... But it’s crazy. It’s a constant battle. A female-driven movie will make a lot of money but then to get the next one made? It never gets any easier.”
This interview has gotten marginally easier, at last — at least, she hasn’t called any of my questions annoying, predictable or clueless in the last five minutes. Unfortunately just as things are going a little more smoothly, they’re about to end.
And that, of course, is one of the problems with this format — I get anywhere from half-an-hour to an hour with a person, usually in a featureless hotel room, sometimes over the phone, and out of that, two strangers with somewhat opposite aims try to construct a conversation.
So maybe that’s at play here. Or maybe Kunis is ticked off at all reporters in general, after seeing that Gawker post. Hell, maybe she just picked up the phone after an awful bout of morning sickness (not that I’d risk offending her by asking).
And to be fair, it could all be me. Certainly in the past she’s given a number of great interviews to other writers where, instead of seeming brusque or bored, she seemed candid and involved. So, signing off, I tell her I’m sorry this one seemed to upset her so much.
“No, no, it was a good interview!” she says brightly.
Can I say again what a truly wonderful actress I think Mila Kunis is?