MILA KUNIS Range Finder
With a scope that extends from dark fantasy to tender rom-com, a ravishing ingenue blossoms into a leading lady
by LESLIE GORNSTEIN / photographs by RUVEN AFANADOR / styling by HAYLEY ATKIN
“It can’t be her!” Natalie Portman begs during a pique of envy in Black Swan. The “her” in question is prima frenemy Mila Kunis—she of the smoky cocktail-olive eyes and reckless pirouettes that send the cavaliers of the New York City Ballet grabbing for their barre. It’s an understandable freakout on Portman’s part. No one, not even Portman’s driven ballerina, can resist Kunis’ considerable seductive charms.
Resisting Kunis is proving to be just as futile offscreen. In the wake of her standout performance in Black Swan, Kunis has arrived atop many an A-list director’s casting wish list (among them, Easy A’s Will Gluck, who just directed Kunis in next summer’s rom-com Friends with Benefits). Elite fashion photographers are beckoning, eager to strap the wispy five-foot-three Ukrainian-born actress into rib-crushing couture for their highfalutin magazine spreads. And her breathtaking presence in designer attire is lighting up red carpets throughout the 2011 awards season.
This is clearly a defining time for the 27-year-old—the point at which the ingenue has become, well, the swan.
For his part, Swan director Darren Aronofsky, who spent 10 years developing the film, fell under Kunis’ spell after only a handful of meetings via video chat. “It was the first movie I didn’t have to audition for,” she recalls. “I was absolutely shocked. But I never questioned Darren about why he cast me. I didn’t want him second-guessing it.”
Aronofsky remembers being “blown away” when he first saw Kunis on the big screen. The gig was Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the 2008 Judd Apatow comedy in which, critics generally agree, Kunis—as Rachel, a quick-witted hotel receptionist who likes her shirts buttoned low and her drinks straight up—stole right out from under Jason Segel and Kristen Bell.
“I just thought, Who is that girl?” Aronofsky recalls. “So charming and beautiful and sexy and smart and clever. There was so much going on.”
It isn’t just Kunis’ breezy sexuality that has the attention of the suits—though the crackling love scene she and Portman share in Black Swan has earned both plenty of ink. Her eyes dart around the New York ballet scene, hungrily drinking it in even as she flouts its stuffy mores.
It’s a rare ability for a star to impart both levity and a sense of danger to a single role—sometimes even a single line. “Did you have some sort of lezzie wet dream about me?” she quizzes Portman with equal parts pity and triumph. “Was I good?”
“A less secure performer in Kunis’ position might shun another comedy, lest the Hollywood gods come down from the hills and strip her of her hard-won status as a serious emoter.”
That complex package has not been lost on directors. Aronofsky calls it Kunis’ “sense of freedom, her looseness,” combined with a drive to deliver whatever the part needs. “She’ll try anything,” he says. Even in the midst of Swan’s most intense moments, the actress was “very, very playful—really willing to experiment.”
At first glance, Kunis’ next project looks like a return to old form. The decidedly un-arty Benefits is a sex comedy costarring popster slash actor Justin Timberlake. Kunis essentially grew up in comedy, auditioning for That ’70s Show at age 14 and costarring with Ashton Kutcher, Topher Grace and Laura Prepon for the next eight years. Post ’70s, she graduated with honors to the big screen, landing key roles in the comedies Marshall, Mike Judge’s Extract and Date Night, as well as the postapocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli, with Denzel Washington.
A less secure performer in Kunis’ position might shun another comedy, lest the Hollywood gods come down from the hills and strip her of her hard-won status as a serious emoter. But she refuses to see humorous films as an inferior art form. The mere idea sends her off on a mini-screed in defense of laughs.
“I love doing comedies,” she says emphatically. “They’re just as hard, if not harder, to make work, compared with a drama. You work 17 hours a day, and you have to try to make things different and funny and relatable onscreen all at the same time. To find one that’s timeless is hard, because something you think is funny now won’t necessarily translate as something funny a year from now.”
And while other actresses might obsess over the number of laugh lines they get, Kunis is more concerned with the overall tone and rhythm that a filmmaker sets. “I saw Easy A and thought Will had an amazing comedic voice,” Kunis says. “And I do believe you need to have a voice in comedy.”
Gluck wrote the female lead for Friends with Benefits with Kunis in mind and, once she had signed on, insisted she help develop the character. That’s not a common offer around here, even for actors on a vertical trajectory. “She’s very smart about her movies,” he says. “Her notes were very un-actorlike: Will this emotion work here; will this reaction work there—not typical minuscule notes about a line or something.”
What’s even more telling about Kunis’ return to comedy: She didn’t have to do it—or do Black Swan. Royalties from That ’70s Show have essentially insulated her from financial hardship for the foreseeable future, she says. So whenever she takes a role now, it’s because she truly wants it.
At this point, on the cusp of superstardom and in the shadow of an amicable split from Macaulay Culkin, her boyfriend of eight years, Kunis has no other projects in the pipeline, preferring for now to jeté from interview to interview in support of Black Swan. And that’s fine with her. “I know people say this all the time, but it’s true: I don’t ever want to work for the sake of working,” Kunis says. “I was very lucky to have a show for eight years. Now I can sit back and think about what I want.”
Perhaps she’ll let the Industry seduce her for a change.