Mila, motherhood and life with Ashton
Mila Kunis has grown from goofball child actress to one of Hollywood's more thoughtful role models. But the ladette hasn't entirely vanished. She talks to Stephanie Rafanelli about politics, paparazzi, and how her teen co-star Ashton Kutcher became her leading man
Mila Kunis and I are standing barefoot, back to back, in the kind of pristine, orchid-laden London hotel suite in which one should behave elegantly. "Look in the mirror!" she cries with a cackle. "How tall are you?" I tell her I've been clinging to the time I was erroneously measured at 5ft 4in. "Right, I'm five five." She claps her hands triumphantly. (We are both an inch shorter.)
Kunis is a vodka shot of a woman: compact, undiluted and deceptively potent. She is a refreshingly honest spirit, with a warp-speed-talking directness that leaves you feeling pleasantly giddy. When I ask her about a trip she took to Zambia in 2013 as an ambassador for the ethical gemstone company Gemfields, she machine-guns back in broad Los Angeleno, "I could talk and talk about it. But it's totally pretentious for me to say, 'Listen, Africa is so life-changing.' But their concept of happiness is so different from ours. As long as they have shelter, sunlight and some clean water: happiness. [In the West] we need heels and flats; a sweater and a scarf…" The list goes on.
Kunis is not one for paraphernalia. When moving about Hollywood with Ashton Kutcher, the father of her nine-month-old daughter, Wyatt Isabelle, she is rarely seen out of sweatpants. And she likes to travel light. "My husband and I always backpack through Europe," she says. "We were in Belgium recently, and we thought, 'Let's go straight to the airport and get on a flight to Spain.' We can just pick up and go."
Low maintenance is not a trait that is naturally associated with child stars. From the age of nine, Kunis, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, pursued the American acting dream. She was cast, at 14, as the precocious Jackie Burkhart on That '70s Show, a Fox sitcom about a gang of teenagers (Kutcher was one of her co-stars) during the Nixon-Ford presidential crossover. And since the age of 15 she has been the voice of Meg Griffin in Seth MacFarlane's cult animated lampoon Family Guy. But Kunis exhibits none of the collateral damage of adolescence in the spotlight; only her looks appear to be stuck in time. At 31, her eyes are still childishly oversized, as if drawn by a cartoonist's hand.
Her filmography bears an absence of strategic career moves. Predominantly a comic actress - her breakthrough film was Nicholas Stoller's Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008 - she has done videogame adaptations (Max Payne), rom-coms (Friends with Benefits) and the stoner comedy Ted, directed by MacFarlane, opposite a flatulent, bong-smoking teddy bear. (Kunis is what some call a 'ladette': "I like fart jokes, for sure.")
Since her acclaimed supporting turn in Darren Aronofsky's dark psychological ballet thriller Black Swan (2010), for which she won a Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination, there has been no obvious scramble for the kind of roles that might bestow on her the gravitas of 'serious actress' status. Her subsequent noteworthy films have been Sam Raimi's Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, in 2013, playing the Wicked Witch of the West, and this year's sci-fi Jupiter Ascending. She seems relatively unbothered by the latter's disastrous reviews. "I don't live to work; I work to live," she says with a shrug. "I never took my career too seriously before. After becoming a mum, I definitely don't."
Motherhood has also heightened her social consciousness. The face of Gemfields since 2012, she collaborated on an emerald 'motherhood ring' to coincide with the birth of her daughter, with proceeds going to a new maternity clinic at a health centre in Nkana, Zambia. "That was really important to me," she says, as is "believing in a brand".
She visited the company's emerald mine in Kagem to check out its ethical claims, which include a reduction in the use of harmful chemicals and an underground mineshaft to reduce environmental impact; and transparency from mine to market to ensure conflict-free gems.
"I went there thinking, 'Well, they are only as transparent as they want you to see they are,'" she says. "So I talked to all the employees. They give their workers contracts; in Zambia that was unheard of." Kunis was so impressed she is now fronting a new film campaign, directed by the fashion photographer Jeff Burton, to promote the company's rubies after the acquisition of newly discovered deposits in Montepuez, Mozambique. Its prohibition of the use of child labour was crucial. "My husband's foundation in the States, Thorn, is against child [exploitation]. After having my own child, it puts it all into perspective. The idea of her at the age of nine having bleeding sores and working 20 hours a day for pennies… It's pure slavery."
Kunis is a news junkie. She tells me, she read a study in the New York Times suggesting that, based on increased extinction rates of animal species, the human race could die off within 200 years. "My child could live to 100, so my child's daughter could be among the last living humans. That's scary." She worries for her daughter's future in such a troubled America, but hopes that she will grow up under a female president: Hillary Clinton had just scored a 75 per cent approval rating in the Democrat leadership polls. "I would love her to have a woman [in the White House], to think, 'If there's a woman president, what is there that I can't do?'"
Often, politically minded actors shy away from declarations in interviews. Not Kunis. "I'm a Democrat. My husband is a Democrat. I'm not one of those who voted for Obama and then said, 'He didn't do me right so now I'm off the Obama ship.' I stand by him to this day. He's implemented health care. It's not perfect, but it's beginning the process."
Isn't she disappointed by his failure to make headway on gun laws? "I will say this: we have a gun at the house. But would I give it to my daughter as a gift at 15? No. I can take a gun apart and put it back together blindfolded." She underwent weapons training for both Max Payne and Jupiter Ascending. "My child shouldn't be as well trained as us, nor should she know there is a weapon in the house - ever. But I respect the gun. My husband grew up in Iowa, and is from a hunting family. He's worked with rifles his whole life."
I'm surprised by this, but also aware of what Kunis has had to deal with. A few weeks earlier, Stuart Lynn Dunn, who was convicted of stalking her in 2011, had briefly escaped from a psychiatric facility in California. "I probably wouldn't have the gun if I didn't have stalkers or people constantly trying to break into my house," she says wryly.
Kunis is less animated on the Ukrainian crisis; she does not identify as strongly with her homeland. "But do I feel that that country is in need of dire help? Yes. Putin is a very strong-willed human being who is gathering more power, and that's scary." Kunis does seem wholly Americanised; I wonder if she feels a fully naturalised citizen or still an outsider? "I'm not sure I know what feeling American means," she responds quickly.
Mila Kunis was seven years old when she came to America in 1991, 10 months before the break-up of the Soviet Union. She was born in Chernivtsi, now part of western Ukraine, into a Jewish-Russian middle-class family. Her mother, Elvira, was a physics teacher and her father, Mark, a mechanical engineer; she has a brother, Michael, who is seven years older. With an uncertain future ahead, and anti-semitism on the rise, the family fled to California, as part of the bureaucratic Russian lottery system with the maximum allowance of $250 in their pockets.
They moved to the heart of West Hollywood. "We got off the plane at night. The next morning, my brother and I went to school, and my mum and dad went looking for a job." Kunis was enrolled in second grade without knowing a word of English. "I don't remember second or third grade. I blocked it out entirely. I think there is a part of your brain that shuts down to preserve itself to deal with intense situations as a child. My parents say I cried a lot."
Was she bullied? "I'm a Russian Jew!" she shrieks, hands in the air. "There's so much material. But was I bullied any more than an average kid? No. Nothing that my parents weren't, 'Suck it and go back to school' about. Back then, it was just, 'You're ugly.' 'No! You're ugly.' And you'd go home. Now kids go home and they are still interacting with their peers online. It's a constant barrage."
She shared a bedroom with Michael, who looked after her while her parents worked. Her mother shifted boxes at a supermarket, and her father drove a taxi, ending up running his own fleet. By 1993, the family had bought a condo. "I don't think I saw my dad for those two years. I don't think he ever slept."
Life was on the up for the Kunises. But their daughter was shy, and looking for an after-school activity that might develop her confidence, they took her to acting classes at the Beverly Studio at the age of nine. A month later she was signed by Susan Curtis, who is still her business partner and manager.
On her very first audition, for a Barbie doll commercial, Kunis landed the role. There followed small parts in Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, and Gia, a biopic of the model Gia Carangi. At 14, she auditioned for That '70s Show and despite Fox's over-18s policy on the show she was cast as the youngest member (Kunis told them she would be turning 18, but did not specify when).
For the next four years, Kunis juggled her filming schedule and classes at Fairfax High School. Her mother and father were "the antithesis of stage parents", and permitted her to act only if she gained straight As. Nor was she indulged; she fought bitterly for a mobile phone and a car. "My parents never took a penny from me. So whatever I earned just stayed locked up in a bank account until I was 18. It didn't matter how much money I was making, they were poor, thus I was poor. When I finally looked at my bank account I screamed, 'What?'"
She credits her parents and That '70s Show, which she worked on for eight seasons, for keeping her on the straight and narrow. "I was [there from age] 14 to 22. I could've gone in either direction. But nobody did drugs or was an alcoholic. [My older co-stars] said, 'Drugs are stupid.' And I'd be like, 'Oh yeah, drugs are really dumb.'" Did she ever do anything rebellious? "Nobody's perfect. We did some dumb shit. Ours just wasn't for the world to see. We didn't have social media or crazy paparazzi then."
She says she 'reminisces' about '70s, as she calls it. It was, after all, where she got to know Kutcher, with whom she had her first proper kiss (admittedly on screen). The friends harboured crushes on each other but ended up in other long-term relationships: Kutcher with Demi Moore, and Kunis with Macaulay Culkin. They eventually got together in 2013 when they found each other single again, and were engaged after Kunis became pregnant the following February. It's all rather romantic. I ask if she is intending to sit Wyatt down with the box sets for posterity. She laughs. "'Mummy and Daddy worked together for eight years. This is how they met each other. Let's look at it, honey.' We were even each other's prom dates on the show."
The birth of their baby and speculation over clandestine nuptials have made their union irresistible to tabloid appetites. "I think when you are a young actor couple you are screwed. It got to a stage where I couldn't leave the house. I love what I do, but the reality is that my privacy is gone. I'm not complaining, I just don't like the idea that my child can't go to the park with her mother. And if she does, then I have to trail a shitload of paparazzi with me."
As a result, Kunis has been exploring other areas of the industry, which will allow her to work from home. Last year, in a deal with ABC studios, she set up Orchard Farm Productions. "Oh my God, my poor household is crazy. I also have a brilliant husband who works day and night." Kutcher is not only an actor, but a reality TV producer, investor in Skype, Airbnb and Foursquare, tech guru and founder of the 'positive news' site A Plus.
Will they be at loggerheads about their daughter's social media use? "I'm not against technology, if you educate your kids on the ramifications. 'Go ahead, post beautiful photos of yourself, maybe don't post any nude ones.'" (Kunis was one of several celebrities whose emails were hacked in 2011.) Even Kutcher, a Twitter pioneer and the first to have one million followers, wisely handed over his account for his management team to vet in 2011. These days, his tweets have become more family-focused; his recent campaign #BeTheChange called for gender-neutral baby-changing facilities. "My husband is an incredibly hands-on dad. When my child was born, I was breast-feeding and he said, 'That's your connection, I want to change every diaper.' When we're in public, if it's a pee-pee diaper you can change her at the table, but if it's a poo-poo diaper you don't want to affect the people eating. So he's like, 'Err, I guess I'm going to the ladies' room to do it.'"
After this charming anecdote, her publicist calls time. Reluctantly I reach to turn off my dictaphone but Kunis keeps on going. A few minutes later we are on to the Kutchers' coordinated dress sense. "For Hallowe'en, we do family outfits. It makes everyone go crazy." Wicked Witch of the West? "No! Last year I dressed [my daughter] as a pig. I went as a pig. And my husband went as a pig." She lets out a guttural laugh. Like a good vodka, Kunis leaves you wanting more.
The Gemfields ruby film www.gemfields.co.uk