Is Ashton Kutcher a dim pretty-boy?
That’s what people wonder. He’s played dim pretty-boys to such perfection in television and film — starting with Michael Kelso, the oft-stoned, naive but likable character he portrayed for seven seasons on “That ’70s Show” — that the line between fantasy and reality starts to blur.
Then there’s the whole Demi Moore thing. Is there something beside his fabulous good looks that made a 40-year-old movie star with three kids and a quiet home life in Idaho fall for and marry a kid 15 years her junior? A kid who, at the time, was still doing the all-night Los Angeles party scene and reveling in the perks that came with his first taste of fame?
So when Kutcher, now 28, rolled into Washington this month for the premiere of “The Guardian” — which opens Friday — it was intriguing to meet him, up close and personal, the afternoon before his big red-carpet appearance at the Uptown Theatre drew legions of shrieking female gawkers and tied up rush-hour traffic something fierce.
And, as far as first impressions go, he can be something of an endearing goofball.
“Let me get it for you,” he says, jumping up from the chair in his hotel suite and heading to a room-service table covered with beverages. “I want to be a good host.”
He puts ice in a glass after a bit of wrestling with the tongs — “Why do they make you use these things, anyway?” he wonders aloud — and then starts pouring a Diet Coke for his guest.
Pouring it all over the place, that is — the soda bubbling up over the rim, running down the glass and over his fingers.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he says, his laugh infectious. “See, this is what happens when I try to be a host!”
Improvising, he puts a napkin on a saucer, places the dripping glass precariously on top and presents the whole mess with a flourish.
“Okay, so you have a doily,” he says, before laughing and collapsing back in his chair.
And then, over the next 45 minutes, he proceeds to talk about his production company, his forward-thinking Internet development deal, his onetime plans to study biochemical engineering at MIT, and how his MTV show “Punk’d” is, he hopes, more a study of human nature than it is “Candid Camera” with celebrities.
He also tells a dark story about a big mistake in his adolescence — the time when he landed in jail and learned the difference between pulling a prank and being just plain stupid.
And that doesn’t even touch on Dolce, the successful Hollywood restaurant hot spot he invested in; or the deal he just signed with MTV to produce a reality series following Oscar-winning rappers Three 6 Mafia.
Leading man?“When you invent a character, then you have to struggle to change people’s perceptions of you, because it comes with a preconceived notion,” Kutcher says. “But I think Olivier said that a wealthy man can always play a beggar, but a beggar can never play a wealthy man ... I think you’re kind of always trying to move on. You try to push it and you wait for people to sort of catch up to you.”
Touchstone Films is gambling that audiences will catch up to the idea of Ashton Kutcher as leading man in a drama (his only previous dramatic performance, in “The Butterfly Effect,” was No. 1 its opening weekend at the box office but was critically panned). Not only leading man, but action hero. In “The Guardian,” Kutcher plays Jake Fischer, the top trainee at the Coast Guard’s elite “A-School” for rescue swimmers; Kevin Costner co-stars as an instructor.
Kutcher wanted in on this movie for 3 ½ years, but it wasn’t until director Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive,” “Collateral Damage”) and Costner signed on that the project got the green light. And even then, he had to talk his way into the part. So he went to breakfast with Davis, who wanted to figure out why the studio seemed hesitant to sign this particular guy. Davis says he was immediately wowed.
“First of all, he’s a great-looking kid,” Davis says. “But he was very committed to doing it right and making it real. And he’s very smart. He’s going to be hugely in demand. He’s going to have a huge career, this kid.”
The next hurdle, Davis says, was convincing Costner the relationship would work, because “I think all Kevin knew about the guy was the ‘That ’70s Show’ character and the fact that he was married to a big movie star.”
Costner confirms all this. His wife, who loves the celebrity magazines, had filled him in on Kutcher’s very public personal life, and he’d caught several episodes of the sitcom. And what he saw, he says, was an actor playing a very difficult part very well.
“It’s not easy to do comedy and it’s not easy to do the good-looking buffoon, because we’ve seen people try to do that all the time and fail,” Costner says, pointing to John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter” as an example of someone who did it brilliantly. “It’s very hard in this world to think that people are diminishing you because you play a vain, kind of goofy character, so to speak,” he continues. “If that’s how you’re going to look at Ashton, then you’re probably going to think that I came in second place at the U.S. Open based on ‘Tin Cup.’”
Being JakeMore than anything, what’s striking about Kutcher is how at ease he is, how little outside perceptions affect him. He’s funny and self-deprecating and wholly realistic.
“Look, it was a stretch,” he says of the decision to cast him. “I know that. I think that’s uncomfortable for anyone.”
Part of the stretch was the physical nature of the role. In order to be believable as a top-notch swimmer, Kutcher put himself through eight months of personal boot camp, adding more than 10 pounds of muscle to his frame and swimming laps weighted down with heavy equipment. He also gave up smoking.
By the time he showed up for a 10-day training session run by Coast Guard instructors, pretty much everyone was blown away by how conditioned he was. “Ashton, he was a stud,” says co-star Peter Gail.
Once filming started, though, the real challenge for Kutcher was the character development. He wanted to play the part, he says, because “there is something about what these guys do and how they go about doing it. It was magnetic.” But what, exactly, made his character the aloof elitist he had become? On a flight to Elizabeth City, N.C., to film on location, Kutcher confided in Costner that he was concerned because Jake’s back story had yet to be determined in the script.
“We were in the last-minute grind and I was thinking, who is this guy and where is he from?” Kutcher says.
He knew something traumatic had to have happened to his character, so he decided to take a page from his own life and use it — not as a specific model, but as his motivation.
He decided to act from an experience he had at 18 — to relive the fallout from the one night when he really was a bonehead.
The early yearsBorn Christopher Ashton Kutcher (he was known as Chris until his modeling career took off), Kutcher has an older sister as well as a twin brother, Michael, who was born with health problems and had a heart transplant at age 13. He grew up in tiny Homestead, Iowa, population approximately 100. His parents were both factory workers — dad Larry at General Mills, and mom Diane at Procter & Gamble. They divorced when he was 14, but he remains close to both of them.
He also formed a friendship with his high school principal, Tom McDonald, and dated the daughter of McDonald’s live-in girlfriend.
“He could be silly, but Chris was a brilliant young man,” says McDonald, who felt Kutcher was a lot like he had been in high school. “He would act goofy dumb and we’d just have fun.”
Most of Kutcher’s antics were harmless. But there was one big exception. “I was 18 and I was a really good student and a good kid, and didn’t get in trouble, and then I broke into my high school,” Kutcher says matter-of-factly.
He broke in with a cousin in the middle of the night. His line for years has been that they were trying to steal a test. But McDonald says there were accusations of trying to break into vending machines to steal cash — and Kutcher now admits that it was about money.
Anyway, they set off a silent alarm and Kutcher was caught trying to get away. He spent the night in jail, and eventually was convicted of third-degree burglary and sentenced to 180 hours of community service and three years’ probation (his record was later expunged). At the time, he had been anticipating acceptances to both MIT and Purdue to study engineering. He had been a football player, a star in school plays, a well-liked, popular guy everyone expected to be one of the town’s success stories.
And suddenly he was the town outcast.
“You’d walk down the street and feel people looking at you like, ‘Oh, that’s the kid that broke into the high school,’ “ he says. “Then my girlfriend broke up with me. Then I lost my college scholarships and got kicked out of the National Honor Society and the choir and the play. That was sort of my relationship with my town.
“If you’re that kid, now you’re marked. That’s who you are. I wasn’t stealing money from the school, I was stealing from them. They pay the tax dollars and that money is what provides things for the school, so I wasn’t breaking into the school, I was breaking into their home; I was turning my back on everyone. Which is — you know, you’re not thinking that when it’s 1 in the morning and you and your cousin are [fooling] around after a kegger, going ‘What can we do? What would be fun?’ “
Looking back, Kutcher calls the experience “the best thing that could ever have happened to me.
“Getting in trouble, learning a life lesson — it straightened me out pretty quick,” he says.
At the time, though, he was miserable. He was banned from the prom and other activities, McDonald says, but allowed to graduate — and did so in the top five of his class.
He wound up at the University of Iowa, and at 19 entered a “Fresh Faces of Iowa” modeling competition on a whim — the big prize was at trip to New York City, and he’d never been to the East Coast — and won. Once he got to New York (“I had to get permission from the judge,” he says, referring to the terms of his probation), he realized he could actually get work as a model and make some decent money, so he decided to stay, and chucked the whole engineering thing. Back home, people thought he was pretty much nuts.
“They thought I was making a pretty foolish choice, and they’ve since sort of told me that,” he says. “And, in some ways, I probably was making a foolish choice. But most of the great things in the world come from really illogical decisions.”
Like his marriage. “Absolutely 100 percent illogical” is how he describes his decision to get involved with Demi Moore in the spring of 2003. (They wed last September.)
“Well,” he says, “I was 25 years old. I’m hosting ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I’m on the cover of Rolling Stone. I’ve got the number one movie in America [‘Just Married’]. Let’s tie myself down! Let me really get tied down, right now!”
He leans in with a look that’s part amusement, part self-satisfaction.
“I don’t think, for most people, that would be a logical decision. And for me, it definitely wasn’t a logical decision. But it’s a decision that I couldn’t help making.”
And what was it about Moore that led him to give up all that youthful freedom and studly potential to become a twenty-something husband with three stepdaughters?
“When you find it,” he says, “you’ll know.”
Devil’s advocateAs Ashton Kutcher sees it, life is good these days.
“I’ve already achieved more than I ever expected,” he says, spreading out his arms. “Anything else is a bonus.”
In addition to “The Guardian,” Kutcher has a second movie opening Friday: In “Open Season,” an animated film, he’s Elliot, the wisecracking mule deer who serves as companion to a lost grizzly bear. He also has a cameo role this fall in Emilio Estevez’s film “Bobby,” about the assassination of Robert Kennedy. (Stoned again in that one, this time on LSD.)
“He is a leading man, make no mistake,” Costner says. “How he develops, I think, will be based on the scripts he chooses. Because he’ll be known for the movies then, and not for being Ashton.”
But Ashton is already a Hollywood commodity — he’s produced two of his own movies and has a strong relationship with MTV, which developed his popular show “Punk’d” and is working with him on other projects as well.
“He’s really articulate and very smart and completely collaborative,” says Rod Aissa, senior vice president for talent and series development at MTV. “It’s nice that the world is catching up to what he’s always been.”
On the surface, “Punk’d” seems like a practical joke writ large, a realization of the public desire to capture celebrities “as they really are.”
Not so, Kutcher says. “Punk’d,” he explains, is about exploring human nature. And while having a successful “punk” is the goal, what he really loves is when he fails.
Take, for example, his favorite episode, involving Seattle Seahawks tailback Shaun Alexander. (Spoiler alert: It hasn’t aired yet. Skip ahead to avoid finding out what happens.) Kutcher followed him to a charity event and set up a joke that both a) had Alexander dealing with a snotty kid who claimed soccer players were better than football players and b) switched the $5,000 check that was to be donated in Alexander’s name for a $500,000 check.
Alexander, in response, promised to hook the kid up with a soccer star he knew. And, on the spot, agreed to cover the extra $495,000.
“Think about that!” Kutcher raves. “Everybody’s jerk reaction when something bad happens is to flip out on somebody else, lose their cool or whatever it is,” Kutcher says, “and I’m really so honestly impressed with anyone who goes, ‘Okay, this is happening. Let me be generous in this situation. Let me be generous when somebody’s taking my dignity or slashing my ego or taking my car or burning my house down or stealing my dogs or blaming me for something I didn’t do. Let me be generous in this moment.’”
A photographer arrives, starts snapping pictures. The publicist is anxious. Everything is behind schedule. Kutcher’s due on the red carpet in just over an hour.
“I’ve gotta go rub elbows with politicians tonight,” Kutcher says, clearly not thrilled. “I’m really uncomfortable being in the same city as George Bush. Is he in town right now?”
His publicist tries to ward off any talk of politics, but Kutcher’s not listening. He points out that Bruce Willis (Moore’s ex) has offered a $1 million bounty on Osama bin Laden. Given the widespread global anger toward the United States over the Iraq war, he says he feels Washington probably isn’t a safe place, especially when the president is here. He starts talking about Shiites and Sunnis; the United States and its relationship with Saudi Arabia. But it’s all coming back to his original point — there are haters on both sides.
“You’re safer having a beer with Osama bin Laden than being in this town right now,” he says.
The publicist is now apoplectic. She’s talking about calls from CNN, blow-up quotes, all the potential damage control that might come her way.
Kutcher just smiles that slow, sexy grin. He knows exactly what he’s just done. And he’s perfectly okay with it.
In fact, just for good measure, he says it again.