Mila Kunis is refreshingly unpretentious when it comes to talking about her craft, which is perhaps befitting of an actress who, until relatively recently, was best known for her eight-year run as louche hottie Jackie Burkhart on the self-consciously middle-brow sitcom That ’70s Show. But since the series ended in 2006, Kunis has turned most of her attention to making movies—and has, in turn, been a part of some films that have garnered attention. Her theatrical breakthrough was her very grown-up, Golden Globe-nominated performance in Darren Aronofsky’s gothic-horror film Black Swan (2010), as a manipulative aspiring prima ballerina who gleefully exacerbates the psychological descent of her unhinged rival, played by Natalie Portman (whose own work in Black Swan earned her both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Actress). But the list of other films that she has been involved in over the past several years is long and eclectic, ranging from comedies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) with Jason Segel, Date Night (2010) with Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and Friends With Benefits with Justin Timberlake, to action-adventure movies such as Max Payne (2008) with Mark Wahlberg (based on the video game), and The Book of Eli (2010) with Denzel Washington. For the past 12 years, Kunis has also voiced the character of Meg Griffin on Seth MacFarlane’s critically acclaimed animated series Family Guy, and recently teamed once again with both MacFarlane and Wahlberg for Ted, which co-stars a CGI teddy bear and was released earlier this summer.
Thomas Leroy, the sadistic ballet director played by Vincent Cassel in Black Swan, could have been describing Kunis herself when he says of her character in the film, Lily, “Watch the way she moves – imprecise, but . . . Effortless. She’s not faking it.” On screen, Kunis is difficult to miss, with her luminous doe eyes and dark, hesitant beauty. But it’s the accessibility and naturalism that she brings to her performances—whether she’s working on a raunchy romantic comedy, a hyperreal action flick, a dark melodrama, or alongside a lascivious talking teddy bear—that is a big part of her appeal. Kunis’s choices since That ’70s Show ended haven’t been monumental—they’ve been solid and unostentatious, the work of an actress well aware of the fact that she herself is a work-in-progress. But they’ve also been bold, a mixed bag of films and roles that, if anything, have been marked by her refusal to be reduced to a type as she finds out who she is and what she wants to become.
Born in Chernivtsi, in a part of the former Soviet Union that is now Ukraine, Kunis relocated to Los Angeles with her family when she was 7 years old, and soon after, her parents enrolled her in drama classes to help her overcome her shyness. By the age of 9, she was working professionally. But her big break came when, at 14, she was cast alongside Ashton Kutcher, Topher Grace, Laura Prepon, Wilmer Valderrama, and Danny Masterson in That ’70s Show. Kunis was the youngest of the pack, but with her razor-sharp comedic timing, instantly stood out as one of the brightest. She also became tabloid fodder when she began an eight-year relationship with once embattled, now reclusive former child actor Macaulay Culkin. (In early 2011, the couple announced that they had split.)
Within the last year, Kunis has completed two more films: Tar, which is based on the writings of the poet C.K. Williams, and Blood Ties, a crime-thriller with Marion Cotillard, Clive Owen, and Zoe Saldana, and directed by Guillaume Canet. She will next be seen in Oz: The Great and Powerful, Sam Raimi’s forthcoming prequel to The Wizard of Oz, which co-stars Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, and her interviewer here, James Franco (with whom she also appears in Tar). Franco, who was in New Orleans shooting the celebrities-at-the-apocalypse comedy The End of the World with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, recently caught up with the 29-year-old Kunis at home in L.A.
JAMES FRANCO: So a funny thing happened on this movie I’m doing down here in New Orleans that made me think of you. The movie is a comedy, but it’s kind of an outrageous one, and this actress—I won’t say who, but she had a smaller role in the film—walked off the movie in the middle of a scene.
MILA KUNIS: This is Seth [Rogen]‘s movie that you’re talking about?
FRANCO: Yeah. I’ll admit that the scene we were doing was pretty crazy. There’s not any nudity, but it is pretty outrageous. It’s not as if the scene wasn’t in the script, though. In any case, I didn’t see any of this go down, but I guess she basically went up to the directors, Seth and Evan [Goldberg], and said, “I don’t think I can do this.” She, by the way, didn’t have to do anything crazy in the scene. But what was going on around her was, I guess, too extreme for her. So Seth was like, “Well, what can we do to fix it?” And she said, “There’s nothing you can do to fix it. It’s just everything.” And he said, “Well, let’s just shoot it and I promise you can come to the editing room, and, if you don’t like what we’ve cut together, then we will not put it in the movie.” And she said, “No, that’s still not good. I just can’t do this. I can’t be here.” And he said, “Do you want to leave?” And she said, “Yeah, I’ve got to leave.”
FRANCO: Yeah, so she left. But what I’m really leading to is that my experience working with you has, in many ways, been the opposite of that.
KUNIS: I guess you could say that I have no shame. [laughs] I mean, if you think about all the stuff that you’ve made me do—just you alone, James . . .
FRANCO: We can get into that if you want.
KUNIS: We don’t have to get into details, but that poor girl would never be able to do a short with you. She would never be able to have fake blood thrown at her, with blood-sucking vampires and dildos being thrown everywhere.
FRANCO: At this point, we might need to explain that you and I worked together many times before. I’m sure that some people know that we did a Funny or Die video together, and then we did Date Night, and then we just acted together in Oz: The Great and Powerful, which was directed by Sam Raimi. But we’ve also done a bunch of side projects together. There is one that we did in a trailer with my hair-and-makeup person, Nana Fischer, that I don’t know if anybody will ever see. [both laugh] We did a feature called Tar—that one people will definitely see. And then there’s the one you’re referring to where you play a leather-clad, bow-and-arrow-wielding vampire killer, and let’s just say that there is lots of blood and gore.
KUNIS: Yes. That would not be okay for that girl. I, on the other hand, am game.
FRANCO: What I’d like to do is figure out why that is. First of all, do you think that it’s different for actresses than for actors—that women have to be more guarded about what they do and what they don’t do than men?
KUNIS: I do. I think that an actor is more likely to be forgiven in the public’s eye than an actress.
KUNIS: I don’t know. I think there will always be a double standard between males and females, so I think that an actress is more likely to protect her public persona, so to speak, than an actor would be. An actor goes crazy in a hotel room, gets trashed, throws a bench, breaks a window, and he is considered a rock star. An actress does that and she’s sent to rehab and is thought to have problems and issues and can’t get a job.
FRANCO: But what you’re talking about is off-screen behavior. What about on-screen behavior? Do you think that men and women are treated differently in terms of what they do on screen?
KUNIS: I think that it goes both ways. I think that when a person is insecure about who they are or who they want to be, then it translates on screen, and the choices they make are all about perception. If I’m not comfortable in my own skin or confident in who I am, then I’m going to pick parts based on how people are going to view them, not based on what I find challenging or entertaining. And I think that there are a lot of reasons to be insecure as an actress . . . But I don’t really have a perception issue. I’ve been pretty good about being who I am in the public’s eye. I don’t necessarily put on an act when I go on Jay Leno or dress differently in public than I do in private. I’d like to think I’m the same person, more or less. So when it comes to picking parts, I do make an effort to choose parts that I want to do, and not necessarily parts someone else wants me to do, or parts that someone else is going to respond to. I’ve said this before, but after That ’70s Show ended, I solely wanted do films that inspire me, and to work with people who make me better. I wanted to just surround myself with people who I think are better than I am, whether they’re actors or directors or producers, so that I could learn from them. And I think that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I think that if I hadn’t done it that way, then I would’ve just stunted myself.
FRANCO: Did you have to learn that? Or did it somehow click that you could do movies or take roles based on what you believed in rather than choosing roles that might be, quote-unquote, career choices?
KUNIS: Well, honestly, after doing a TV show for eight years and a cartoon for more than a decade, you are, financially speaking, in a very lucky position where you don’t have to work for the sake of working. And I decided to take advantage of that. I don’t live lavishly, so it’s not like I have 20 assistants and travel privately and shop every day. I actually live a very mediocre lifestyle. [laughs] So I decided to step back and do things not just for the sake of doing them, but because I believe in them and I want to do them.
FRANCO: So why do you feel secure doing things that other actresses might not feel secure doing?
KUNIS: Because I really have no shame, James. Let’s just call a spade a spade. I think that certain things are funny and certain things are okay to make fun of—including myself. I think that you have to laugh at the absurdity of this entire industry and the absurdity of what it is we do. If I didn’t, I’d go crazy.
FRANCO: How would you go crazy?
KUNIS: If all my eggs were in this basket and I had nothing else and I was just so enamored with it all . . . This industry can eat you alive. I think it feeds you a lot of bullshit and then spits you right back out, and then you get caught up in it because so much of it is perception and opinion. The fact that there is no right or wrong is what I think is maddening. I can think you’re a phenomenal actor, but the guy next door can think you’re a horrible actor, and neither of us is wrong and neither of us is right. It’s just a matter of opinion. And when your only source of happiness comes from that opinion, you go mad. So I think that you have to restrain yourself from googling your name and have other hobbies and desires and wants. I mean, you do a million things. You go to school, you write, you read, you blog.
FRANCO: Well, that was one of the main reasons that I did go back to school—that I needed something else. But for a while, this was all that I had, and it formed my sense of self-worth. As much as I could tell myself that it doesn’t matter what people said or if a movie bombed, for a while that was kind of my only way of gauging my self-worth.
KUNIS: Which is a horrible way to go through life. Of course, it’s easier said than done – it’s easier said than done at this very moment for me. But I feel like I consciously make an effort to remind myself of that-or at least I’m trying and making it a priority. So to answer the question as to why I do silly things: Because . . . Why not?
FRANCO: So with that kind of attitude must come a mechanism for dealing with criticism, because if you do put yourself out there and do things that are not safe, then you run the risk of being criticized for it. How do you deal with criticism?
KUNIS: [sighs] As cheesy as it sounds, you deal with it the best that you can. To be honest, I don’t deal with it well. I can’t tell you that I’m like, “Oh, I’m so great at dealing with it. It’s in one ear and out the other!” That would be complete and utter bullshit. But I take it for what it’s worth. Sometimes I let it get to me—I have internal dialogues with myself all day long. But, you know, people criticize a woman for everything—like, I get criticized for how my hair looks when I go grocery shopping or the fact that I don’t wear makeup when I get my nails done. Women get scrutinized all the time for the way they look. So if I can learn to deal with that, then I do believe I can learn to deal with people’s criticisms of my film choices.
FRANCO: You started acting at a really young age, right?
KUNIS: I was 9 years old when I started.
FRANCO: How did that happen?
KUNIS: I came to the States in 1991. I was around 7 and a half at the time. By the time I was in fourth grade, I spoke English pretty fluently, but, believe it or not, I was shy, and my parents wanted me to make some friends. They both worked all the time, and on the weekends my brother or my grandparents took care of me, so my parents were looking for an outlet for me, like art classes or karate, and on the radio it was advertised that there was a place for kids to meet other kids called Beverly Hills Studio. My parents took me there, and it ended up being a showcase. The people there were like, “Yeah, your kid’s got it!” Although, at that point, every kid has got it. They were like, “Write us a check and your kid will be a star.” So my dad was like, “Uh . . . yeah . . . No thanks. Good-bye.” And left. I don’t know why my mom did what she did—if you talk to her, she’ll say that she had a gut feeling—but she took out the checkbook and wrote a check for $400 for me to take acting classes. So I did, and two or three weeks go by, and Susan Curtis, who is my manager to this day, was driving by and saw a bunch of cute kids. She pulled in and was like, “I’m a talent manager,” and they’re like, “How fortuitous. We’re doing a showcase tomorrow at 6 p.m.” She was like, “I’ll be there.” So the short of it was that my parents told me, “Listen, we can’t afford this. We work full-time. We can’t do this. We’re so sorry. We don’t understand these auditions. We don’t get this.” But I did the showcase, and these agents and managers started to call, so my dad said, “Okay, this is your decision. If you want to do this, then you pick the person who you feel connected with the most.” So I picked Susan. She took me on my first audition the next day, and I ended up getting it. It was a Barbie commercial. That’s how it started.
FRANCO: So from the age of 9 until you were 15 and you started working on That ’70s Show, you were doing commercials and little roles in movies and stuff?
KUNIS: I did the pilot for ’70s when I was 14, so from 9 to 14 I probably did 20 commercials. The first movie I ever did was Piranha , which was the remake of Roger Corman’s Piranha . It was Soleil Moon Frye, William Katt played my dad, and there were evil fish everywhere. I was, like, 10 years old when I did that. Then I did a movie called Make a Wish, Molly , where I played a Mexican girl who was racist against a Russian Jew, but I didn’t get the Russian Jew part because they didn’t think I looked Russian or Jewish enough—and, mind you, I am both Russian and Jewish—so I was cast as the racist Mexican. Then I did a movie called Gia , which was the film that Angelina Jolie did for HBO. I did Baywatch, The John Larroquette Show. Any show on television I guest-starred on. I was that little kid.
FRANCO: How did it work? Did your mom and dad trade off driving you around to auditions? What was that life like? Did you go to auditions after school?
KUNIS: Yeah, you pretty much nailed it, except the part where my parents drove me around. As I said, my parents worked full-time. They needed to put food on the table for my brother and me, so there was no, “Honey, I’m going to take the day off from work.” My parents’ friends would drive me or my manager would drive me. But I always went to school. My parents’ biggest thing was that they just wanted me to graduate high school and go to college. They couldn’t fathom me acting for the rest of my life. They were like, “Listen, you can do this, but you have to stay in school and get straight As.” They were like the complete antithesis of stage parents. But I had such a great time doing commercials and things as a kid. My grandparents were on set with me all the time, and I loved that I got to hang out with them, so I will forever be grateful for that. But I just loved every minute of it.
FRANCO: Tell me about working on That ’70s Show. I started acting in high school, too, but only in the high school productions – not in the professional world. What was it like to be on a show like that for so long? What do you think you learned from that experience?
KUNIS: Oh, I learned a lot. I think I got really lucky with the people I was surrounded by on ’70s. Everybody was older than I was, but nobody dicked around. Nobody was an asshole. Nobody caused havoc or trouble. I was surrounded with positive influences. As weird as this may sound, you hear of stories now where everyone is in rehab twice over or drives recklessly or parties and comes to work hungover or whatever the issues are, but I never experienced that on ’70s. So I believe that 100 percent influenced me. I looked to these people and was like, “Well, they don’t do these things, so I don’t have to do them.” I never had to go through that period of angst where I was rebelling against this industry or my parents. And then, professionally speaking, I learned a lot about comedy. You make your mistakes, but you learn about jokes and punch lines. You also pick up horrible habits because it’s a multicamera sitcom. But I learned a lot about responsibility, about showing up to work, about respecting work, about respecting your co-workers. So I had a very safe place to go through my teens.
FRANCO: How would you feel now if you watched the first season of That ’70s Show?
KUNIS: Oh, I would fucking cringe. [Franco laughs] First of all, over the course of That ’70s Show, you can see me go through puberty, and who wants to watch that? No one should have that part of their life on record, and all of it is on record for me. So I will never be rewatching the first season of That ’70s Show—or the second or the third or the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth for that matter. I love that show and everything that I did on it, but I wouldn’t be able to watch it.
FRANCO: Let me just say, too, that the same year you guys made the pilot for That ’70s Show, I did a pilot for a show called 1973, which was meant to rival That ’70s Show. KUNIS: What?
FRANCO: Yeah. Ben Foster had a part in it. I played a character who was basically a precursor to my character in Pineapple Express . I had long hair and was kind of an older-brother stoner.
KUNIS: Oh, my god!
FRANCO: I think it was pretty bad. I might have even been cut out of the pilot. I never saw it. But I actually auditioned for That ’70s Show. I think Ashton [Kutcher] was at my audition. I was in a stairwell with a bunch of dudes. [Kunis laughs] Obviously I didn’t get it, and then my ’70s show didn’t get picked up.
KUNIS: But then the next year you did Freaks and Geeks.
FRANCO: Yeah. Allison Jones, the casting director who did the 1973 show, put me on Freaks and Geeks. But I don’t know what they would have done if that 1973 show went past one season. Would they have changed the title?
KUNIS: Maybe it would have become the 1974 show. They really limited themselves with the title.
FRANCO: Yeah. You mentioned some bad habits you picked up doing That ’70s Show. What would those be?
KUNIS: Well, when you do a four-camera sitcom, everything is a little schtickier. It’s not necessarily that you pick up bad habits, but there is just a very specific way of acting that you fall into on those kinds of multicamera shows, and you have to break those habits when you go in to do other things. But you’ve got to learn somehow. Every ounce of overacting, underacting, or whatever you want to call it, is all on video on that show. I think I experimented the whole time with like, “What if I do that?” Then I’d watch the show and be like, “God, that sucked. I will never do that again.”
FRANCO: So you were on this network show, but for a good portion of it, you were also going to Fairfax High. How did that work?
KUNIS: Well, I was going to LACES, which is the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, when I was in ninth grade and did the pilot. But when the show got picked up, they were like, “So . . . You’re getting kicked out because we can’t deal with your schedule. Too many absences.” So I transferred to Fairfax High School. I didn’t want to be home-schooled. For my parents, I wanted to graduate on a stage with everyone else. So I was like, “Look, I can’t go to class when I’m working. It’s impossible. But on my hiatuses I will come to school. I have three teachers and I have other tutors.” And the school was very supportive. The only class that I had to attend every day was biology when we were doing dissections. I would take an 8 a.m. bio class, dissect my animal, and then run to work.
FRANCO: I know that you’ve known a lot of your close friends since you were a kid, so I assume that they were a good support group all through that time.
KUNIS: What’s funny about my group of friends is that none of us ever went to the same school. None of us lived in the same part of town. We all kind of split and had boyfriends all at different times. So the fact that we are as close as we are still is purely magical. But I can’t say that they were supportive or not supportive. They just didn’t care that I was on TV.
FRANCO: What about the other students at Fairfax?
KUNIS: They cared. That’s what made it uncomfortable.
FRANCO: It was uncomfortable?
KUNIS: Oh, it was horrible. First of all, you’re in school for a week out of the month at best. So you’re that girl from that show who never shows up to class. You don’t even have a name. That was awful. And then I think at, like, 16 or 17 I was on the cover of Stuff, which was a horrible thing to do because then you have these boys who assume that you look this way when you don’t.
FRANCO: It was airbrushed?
KUNIS: It was enhanced. So I showed up to class, you know, out of the shower and in sweatpants, which is the way I look when I show up to work at 6 a.m. and is not necessarily the way that I look when I walk out of the hair-and-makeup chair at 10 a.m. But I think for a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kid, that’s a hard thing to fully understand. It’s like, “Why are this girl’s tits not popping out and why does she have no makeup on?” [laughs] It’s uncomfortable.
FRANCO: But you must have been popular with the guys.
KUNIS: No, I wasn’t, because in real life I didn’t wear push-up bras. They were like, “You don’t look like you do in those pictures. This is false advertisement.” And I was like, “I know, tell me about it.” I don’t even think the boys spoke to me.
FRANCO: So you didn’t go to any dances or anything like that?
KUNIS: Nope. I never got asked out at Fairfax. My studio teacher Linda’s son Mike e-mailed me after there was an article where I was like, “My studio teacher had to beg her son to take me to a school formal.” He e-mailed me and was like, “I just wanted to point out that nobody forced me to take you out on a date.” I hadn’t spoken to this kid in, like, 10 years. So that was really nice. But I think that Linda did have to force him. I was in 12th grade, and I was like, “Look, I need to know what these school dances are like. Someone has to take me.” So she made her son take me to a school dance – at a school that I didn’t go to.
FRANCO: Which is funny because you were going to a real high school and having a weird time, but then you were playing a high-school student on the TV show.
KUNIS: You know, when you break it down like that, it does seem really manic.
FRANCO: I guess my high school experience was similar in that I didn’t go to my prom. My girlfriend at the time was a big drama freak and the drama students all went to this play festival in Ashland, Oregon, on the night of prom.
KUNIS: How fancy.
FRANCO: I went there instead, so I never went to my prom. But I did go to a prom in a Drew Barrymore movie, so that’s how I got my sense of what a prom was.
KUNIS: Well, then I went to prom two or three times on That ’70s Show.
FRANCO: Prom was probably cooler on That ’70s Show than it actually was at a real school. I bet we didn’t miss much. KUNIS: From what I hear, it sucked. But I’ve always wished that I could say it sucked because I actually went to prom. FRANCO: Tell me a little bit about this movie you did, Ted. There’s some character with my name in it, right?
KUNIS: There is an animal in the movie by the name of James Franco.
FRANCO: How do you think I should take that?
KUNIS: As a compliment!
FRANCO: Is that a compliment?
KUNIS: It’s a very cute, fuzzy little animal. You’re not the bear, but you’re pretty comparable.
FRANCO: My nickname when I was young was Teddy, so people would call me Teddy Bear.
KUNIS: Well, isn’t that serendipitous?
FRANCO: My mom still calls me Ted because my middle name is Edward.
KUNIS: As I said, you’re not the bear, but I think you should be very pleased with the animal of choice.
FRANCO: But why does it have my name?
KUNIS: If I could answer that question, I would, but I truly have no idea. It made me laugh when I first heard about it. I texted you, didn’t I?
FRANCO: Yeah, you were doing reshoots and you texted me. Tell me about Seth MacFarlane.
KUNIS: I love working with Seth. I think after doing Family Guy with him for 12 years, where you’re so reliant on him telling you about what’s happening, how he’s going to draw it, and the environment that he is going to put the character in, we’ve created a kind of shorthand. So when we went into doing Ted, we had an incredibly comfortable working relationship where within, like, two words I knew exactly what he wanted or needed. You know, it’s Seth MacFarlane humor, which I find funny—highbrow humor set in a lowbrow environment, is the best way I can describe it. It’s poop and fart jokes, but it has some heart.
FRANCO: But then one of the other main characters is a CG-animated bear. Do you think that working with an animated bear allows Seth to do some things that maybe he couldn’t do with an actor?
KUNIS: Absolutely. I think you can get away with so much more offensiveness when you’re operating behind a stuffed teddy bear or a cartoon or something that’s not real, because it’s forgiven. It’s like having a little kid in a movie curse – it’s funny because it’s not natural. You can’t get mad at a bear for being racist. You can’t get mad at a bear for being offensive. It’s not real.
FRANCO: Wait—the bear is racist?
KUNIS: No, the bear is not racist. I’m just saying, hypothetically, if the bear were to make a racial comment, it would be more likely to get a laugh than if a person on stage were to make a racial comment.
FRANCO: He’s a species-ist. He’s just against humans.
KUNIS: Yeah! [laughs] The bear is pretty offensive towards everybody.
FRANCO: I feel like you’ve accomplished a lot. You’ve done some great comedic roles, some great dramatic roles. You’ve gotten to work with some of the best people in the business in terms of both directors and actors. What do you think you want to do next? What do the next five years look like to you? Do you want to keep acting? Or do you see a future where you’re doing something else?
KUNIS: Listen, in five years I do hope to have a family, and, you know, who knows? I think in this industry people have such a short shelf life, truly, that I don’t know what I’m going to be in five years in regards to acting. I mean, I’d love to produce. I can’t form a sentence or write an e-mail, so I know I’m definitely not going to go and become a writer, but I would love to explore other facets of this industry, for sure. I’m dabbling in that a little bit right now and trying to kind of see what I like . . . But I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go into the James Franco business and just do shorts with you for the rest of my life. We’ll go traveling the world together and shooting. I’ve always been a big proponent of not working for the sake of working, because I don’t want to work for the rest of my life—I want to live. So I’d rather work to live than live to work.