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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008

ENTERTAINMENT SPOTLIGHT

Kutcher gets lucky — in Vegas and in life

From zero to hero, Hollywood heart-throb Ashton Kutcher tells The Japan Times how he accidentally ended up with such a swell life


Special to The Japan Times

Model turned actor and TV producer Ashton Kutcher is the first to admit he's a very lucky man. In the mid-1990s he auditioned for several U.S. TV series before joining "That '70s Show," which in 1998 launched his career as a nationally known face.

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Laid-back lover: Ashton Kutcher beds down for success in "What Happens in Vegas."

Kutcher gambled by departing "That '70s Show" in 2005, before its run had ended. How many TV stars have prematurely exited TV success, hoping to capture even greater success as movie stars, but failed? The list includes Farrah Fawcett, David Caruso and many, many others — but not Ashton Kutcher.

Of course he didn't become a nationally — and internationally — known name until he hooked up with older woman and former movie superstar Demi Moore in 2003. As a rising screen star, Ashton had struck a sexy nerve with the youth audience. He often topped polls of who was currently hot or sexy, though his movies such as "Coming Soon" (1999), "Reindeer Games" (2000) and "Down To You" (also 2000) weren't big hits and at first he was cast in supporting roles. But the media ate up the story of his dating, and engagement with, Moore, whose own career had sustained a boost in the late 1980s with her previous marriage to screen icon Bruce Willis.

"I think the media was, like, stumped that I was friends with the whole family," Kutcher reflects. "Like, mostly that Demi's ex-husband and I were friends. But Bruce is a cool guy. He loved Demi, that's the point. I never subscribed to that unquestioned idea that when a marriage ends, the wife and the husband are automatically some kind of enemies and never see each other again except, like, where their kids are concerned."

Kutcher is also close to his three stepdaughters, Tallulah, Rumer and Scout. He admits, "It's a real friendship. It's not necessarily what people expect. Like, I'm not like some surrogate dad or stepdad. Cos for one thing, we're not so far apart in ages."

The marriage, his first, is Moore's third. Has he long since gotten used to the constant questions about the age difference between Mr. and Mrs.?

"What changed it was when we got married," he says. "I don't think most people really believed the whole thing was on the level till we did really get married."

Several columnists charged in print that the relationship was merely for publicity: to boost Kutcher's stock as a relative newcomer, and to give Moore a publicity comeback and a chic image as a still-attractive actress with her own fast-rising toy-boy.

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Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz in "What Happens in Vegas" HIROMI YOSHI PHOTO

But Kutcher insists that the marriage is working out "just fine. Like, marriage is the most ordinary thing. We all know that. We've all seen our parents' marriages and stuff like that. Once you're married, it doesn't change very much. Maybe the thing it changes the most isn't about the two people in the marriage, but how outsiders look at the marriage, at the two people involved. Cos then they know there's a certain level of commitment."

Now Kutcher is proving lucky again, costarring in a hit romantic comedy opposite one of Hollywood's biggest box-office actresses, Cameron Diaz (naturally, he's second-billed), released in Japan on Aug. 16. The film is "What Happens in Vegas" and the plot is rather formulaic, with Kutcher and Diaz playing strangers who wake up after a heavy night in Vegas to discover they've got married, but audiences enjoy it (a poll by Audience Studies indicates it has a high percentage of repeat viewers among young moviegoers). H e's definitely come a long way for a boy from Iowa who was so desperate for money while attending college that he sold his own blood.

He was born Christopher Ashton Kutcher (the last name is of Bohemian origin; he claims to be part Native American too) in Cedar rapids, Iowa, in 1978. His father worked at General Mills, his mother at Proctor & Gamble. Kutcher's family includes an older sister, Tausha, who has a daughter, and a fraternal (and thus nonidentical) twin brother named Michael who was born with a heart defect. Ashton has a physical defect of his own: two webbed, or fused, toes on his left foot.

Nicknamed Ash, the boy grew up in Homestead, Iowa, and went to college for a while, temporarily majoring in biochemical engineering (perhaps hard to believe, considering his less than cerebral screen image). For a time, Kutcher worked in a General Mills factory sweeping Cheerios cereal dust from the floor. He reportedly served probation and community service after breaking in to his high school with his cousin in an attempt to steal money, and has said that when he was 13, he contemplated commiting suicide so that Michael could have his healthy heart.

In 1997 he won the Fresh faces of Iowa modeling contest, which led him to New York City.

The youth, who was called "blandly handsome" by Mademoiselle magazine, became a Calvin Klein model and did TV commercials for companies such as Pizza Hut. Did he take quickly to this new career?

"I took quickly to the money, yeah." After a pause, he explains, "It does get boring, just being on display. There's not much creativity in stuff like that, but it's a great living, and it beats the hell out of working in a factory. Or really most anywhere else."

Initially, like most models, Kutcher was simply looking to make a good living and perhaps achieve a certain measure of fame. He did TV appearances, student films and eventually motion pictures, acting in such titles as "Reindeer Games" and "Dude, Where's My Car?" (2000). The liaison with Moore shifted him into a higher gear of moviemaking, plus in 2003 he became involved in coproducing television shows such as 2007's "The Real Wedding Crashers" and (since 2003) hidden-camera prank show "Punk'd," which he and friend Jason Goldberg created.

Kutcher says, "Just producing, like being an executive producer, being really involved in putting on interesting stuff on TV, that's great. Even if I wasn't acting besides. I mean, that's a whole career itself. But I like acting too. I think acting was like a natural extension from modeling, cos it's partly about your looks, but you also get to use your voice and talent and body language and everything." 'W hat Happens in Vegas" is the actor's biggest screen achievement to date. A film with Diaz has to account for her supersized salary (she was the second actress to earn $20 million, after Julia Roberts, for "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" in 2003; and last year she earned a reported $50 million).

When asked how it was to work with Diaz, Kutcher offers without hesitation, "Cameron likes to have fun. And she's a pro. She knows a lot more about cameras and angles and scripts than you'd ever think. She started out as a model too, and she told me some really wild stories. Stuff like how naive she was when she started out, cos models don't get taken very seriously, and there's so little to do in modeling, so doing a movie is a whole different ball game. . . . We had a great time, and it was fun to see the change that the script called for (from rivals to lovers), cos it changed for us too (as the costars went from strangers to 'good friends'), and it was like a natural transition."

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Ashton Kutcher

He is referring to the basic plot of their movie, in which their characters find themselves unintentionally married after a bewildering night of debauchery. Also, his character, Jack Fuller, hit the jackpot on a slot machine after playing Diaz's character's 25 cents. The pair keep trying to upstage each other, but of course their antagonism and scheming eventually turns to affection, then love, and they become a happily married couple. The picture was written by Dana Fox and directed by Tom Vaughan.

What did Kutcher think of the script?

"The thing with scripts is, unless, like, it's from some famous play or Shakespeare or whatever, it's not something you can't change. The script was good from the get-go. But a movie's not just about a blueprint, which is all most scripts are — I know that by now. The director can improve things, and the writer can be on-set and be improving his own work, and you have to, like, factor in what the actors bring to it. Not just the chemistry, which I think is really terrific between Cam and me, but all the little touches and moves and the backgrounds and other actors and characters, plus the action and the effects, the jokes, the whole atmosphere — like, Vegas is Fun City, you know, so this movie had a lot going for it from the get-go."

Did Moore, now aged 45, become at all jealous of her husband's "terrific" chemistry with blonde bombshell Diaz (who, now 35, was the older woman in her former relationship with singer Justin Timberlake, previously involved with like-aged Britney Spears)?

Kutcher laughs. "No way. Course not. Demi's the biggest pro there is. She was acting since she was a kid. I've learned so much from her. And from Bruce too.

"If I succeed, then Demi succeeds. And if she succeeds, then I succeed, cos that's what marriage is really supposed to mean."

On a nighttime TV talk show a few years ago, Ashton raised eyebrows when he announced that he had shaved one of his legs, so that when he was in bed alone it felt "like sleeping with a woman" when he rubbed his own legs together. But he states that their schedules actually don't keep the married couple apart that much (Moore works less often than he does.)

Did Kutcher expect "What Happens in Vegas" to be a hit? and did he take on the movie — and costarring with Diaz — as a strategic career move (since he has often been described as very ambitious and deliberate in his career planning)?

"I figure it this way," he says slowly. "It's a time of recession, right? OK, so the big movies besides the blockbusters and the franchises are comedies. Comedy is in. Serious stuff, that's always risky. And someday I want to try more of that stuff, like even Shakespeare maybe. so I figured if it has Cameron in it, the movie's not gonna flop, especially not if it's not something serious or one of those chick flicks. Cos that's risky too — guys don't usually go to those.

"And my character, he's someone everybody can identify with, and you don't have to be young to identify. He's like an Everyman. And if it's a big hit, we can have the two of us going on, moving on, from Vegas to . . . like, anywhere. You pick the location, you get the same team to do a terrific script and gags and romance and sexy stuff, and . . . it could become a franchise, and sure, I'd work with Cam again. Any time, man." A lthough he enjoys comedies, romantic or otherwise, Kutcher admits that he gets "taken more seriously" in noncomedies such as "The Butterfly Effect" (2004), in which he played a character who blocks out harmful memories and finds a supernatural way to change his life. "Comedy can be pretty successful," he explains. "But critics and your peers rate you higher when you do more serious or moody stuff."

Does Kutcher ever miss his rural upbringing, what with the pressures and urbanity of being a movie star and a TV producer?

"One thing I liked right away about New York was how you get all kinds of, uh, environments. You can be in a city situation, and not too many minutes later, you're in the country or in some kind of, like, rural environment. (As if you are) back east, or in California, anywhere. You can helicopter your way out of town, you don't have to drive and be stuck in traffic for an hour just leaving town. that's from money, man, that's what it can do. I respect money, and I try not to misuse it, but sometimes you're just kind of surprised or shocked at the . . . the sheer numbers, the figures, you know, the amount of money that gets thrown around in this business.

"When I was modeling, it was, like, so amazing to me, what models made. Even more with the top ones, and the most, even, with the top female models, cos for sure they earn more than the male models do, even the top guys.

"But I also want to give back, you know, return something. Cos like you said, I've been lucky. Damn lucky, I don't deny it."

Kutcher also likes to have fun. He is known for playing practical jokes — as in his series "Punk'd" — and for eating out and treating numerous friends to noisy, generous meals at well-known restaurants. Lately, he has grown a beard and mustache as his face has grown a little wider from extra weight.

"Demi hates that," he half-jokes. "She's, like, always on a kind of diet, and I can lose the weight real easy when it comes time to shoot. But I love good food, and when I'm with friends and we're partying, what am I gonna do? Watch everybody else eat? I'm not that good of a host!"

As an example of Kutcher's charitable activity, he and Moore recently attended the Chrysalis Butterfly Ball in Los Angeles, an evening that raised money for Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping economically disadvantaged and homeless people become self-sufficient through employment opportunities.

"I think homelessness is one of the big curses of our time," says Kutcher. "Sometimes you ask yourself how can it even exist in a rich country. But it's there, and there's so much of it, and it seems to be increasing, and Chrysalis is one group that's really doing something about it. I wish politicians would say more about homelessness and do more about it, but I guess they figure homeless people don't vote very much."

Ashton brings up an incident that occurred while he was on location in Bucharest. Kutcher and company were shooting a late-night scene at a hotel and making a lot of noise. One hotel guest went downstairs to register his complaint, then punctuated it by taking an orange and aiming it at Kutcher's forehead. "Right above the eyes!" Ashton recalls. "I got Punk'd I guess. Maybe I sort of had it coming."

How does Ashton feel about turning 30?

"Demi says I shouldn't sweat it, it's nothing. Save up my worries and tsuris (Yiddish for anxiety) for 40 . . . "

Does the actor feel that maturing will bring him better roles and perhaps lessen his appeal to teenagers?

"You know, I never minded much being a teenybopper idol. Like, that was as good a fan base as any. Only, I wanted to move on. And I did. But yeah, in my 30s I should be playing husbands and even dads more often. And fewer kids, college guys, all that sort of stuff."

Kutcher's very active production company is called Katalyst films, and besides his upcoming movies — the drama "Personal Effects" and the comedy "Spread" (not via his company, and not for discussion yet) — he's recently developed a new TV series for the E! television network called "Pop Fiction," aimed at tricking the tabloids and paparazzi. With the cooperation of his celebrity friends, Kutcher circulates phony stories, then sits back to tally how many media outlets are fooled into printing them.

"These magazines take people's lives and create mini soap operas out of them, operating off not very good reporting," he says.

"Look at us. It's been reported that I'm adopting a baby, or that I'm not; that Demi and I have issues in our marriage; that we're either pregnant, or we're not. A kajillion things, and it's all a game of commerce."

One the other hand, a game — or career — of commerce is the lucky and highly remunerative route that Ashton Kutcher has been traveling for the decade since he was just a homeboy back in Iowa. What happened in Homestead isn't what usually happens in New York, Hollywood or Las Vegas . . .

"What Happens in Vegas" opens Aug. 16.


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