Ashton Kutcher + Natalie Portman = true luv 4ever? The unusual pair star in No Strings Attached as two twentysomethings fumbling their "friends with benefits" situation. Boxoffice spoke to Portman and Kutcher at the recent Los Angeles press day for No Strings Attached, where the duo discussed the challenges of finding common ground—and sometimes, a median height—in this unconventional romantic comedy.
Natalie, you had over a year of intense physical preparation for Black Swan. Did that affect you at all on this movie?
Natalie Portman: You're like, 'How did you get fat so quickly?' It was pretty great. It was like a palate cleanser after all of that really discipline and focus, a very serious kind of set to a really playful, fun [one.] Obviously everyone is still very professional on this movie, but there's an improvisational feel all the time and everyone is there to play. It was a really great atmosphere and I didn't have to workout because I was like, she's a doctor—they don't have time!
You were also an executive producer on this film. How do you balance that with being in the movie?
Portman: Well, it was a really exciting process to get to be involved for the first time so early, working with Liz [Meriwether] and Ivan [Reitman]. I came on a couple of years I think before the project. So to get to sort of watch their process and to get to talk to them about the script, they were definitely controlling that process, but it was fun to be included in the evolution of the script and seeing how it changed and why it changed, to have Ivan's expertise in pacing and figuring out [storytelling issues] like at the end there needs to be more movement because in the original script that was written it was sort of a contained scene at the end. He said, 'No. We have to get them moving, on the road.' To learn those things through the process was really exciting.
Do you guys think that friendship can survive sex?
Ashton Kutcher: I wouldn't know. I haven't been fortunate enough to try one of those relationships out. I really think that whoever you're with ultimately needs to be your friend. So all the really successful, happy relationships that I know of, the people that are together are friends anyway. And I don't know that sex always has to have feelings, but I think that friendship always does. So if you're friends you're going to have feelings of some sort, some layer, some level of a deeper feeling. I don't know that it's completely possible.
This is Natalie's first rom-com. So, Ashton, did you try to make an easier time for her or did you tease her mercilessly?
Kutcher: I learned more from Natalie in one day of being on set together than I can ever possibly teach her in a billion years. She may not have done a rom-com before, but she's done so much work on so many different levels. I even watch Garden State or something like that's comedic in and of itself, but is also true and specific organic performances. I don't know that there's anything I can really teach her.
Did he tease you at all?
Portman: He would always tease me, like, 'Are you wearing flats again? Really?'
Kutcher: It was mostly height jokes and then she would get very much upset with me. She looks like my child when we stand next to each other. I asked if she could reach the pedals in the car one day. That didn't go over very well.
Natalie, did you create a back story for this character, something for how she got to this point?
Portman: Absolutely, but a lot of it was provided to me in Liz's script which was really wonderful about sort of having this incredible loss early on and not really wanting to be the sort of pillar for her family and not wanting to get hurt. Also, I think that most women know someone like this if they're not like this themselves. They know what happens, that thing that leads you to a point where you're not even looking for intimacy anymore. You're just looking for the physical side of it and not the emotional side of it. Something breaks a little bit before you get to that point. It's not just a way that you're born.
Can you guys comment on the sexual content of the movie and how sex is portrayed in the film?
Portman: Obviously, it is really prevalent in our country and I think that's part of what the movie addresses. We have so much sex in our media that's disassociated from emotions. We have so much separation between feeling, the emotional and the physical side of sex. They really do belong together.
Kutcher: I think there's so much that's not said about sex in our country. And I do a lot of work on human trafficking and I connect a lot with girls that come up and end up in this trade, if you will, and partially about a lack of education about sex in the country. I think that sometimes we get to make films that sort of open things up and making things that people can talk about. One of the things that I find really interesting in looking at this, and I don't want to veer off on a weird human trafficking thing, but one of the interesting things, especially for women, in the sex education process in schools, the one thing that they teach about is how to get pregnant and how to not get pregnant. But they don't really talk about sex as a point of pleasure for women. The male orgasm is just right there and readily available to learn about because it's actually a part of the reproductive cycle, but a female orgasm isn't really talked about in the education system. Therefore part of that, as a spin off, creates a place where women aren't empowered around their own sexuality and around their own sexual selves. So from a purely entertainment point of view, to create a movie with a female lead that is empowered with her own sexuality I think is a really powerful thing. I think if we can give teenage people something to think about from a sex perspective I would say that it would be to start opening up a conversation where women are empowered with their own sexual experiences from an educational level as well as an entertainment level.
Portman: That was good. All the girls are like, 'Yes, yes, Ashton. You're totally right.'
The first sex scene was pretty unflinching in this film. Can you talk about that experience and can you talk about shooting it?
Portman: Well, being horizontal gave the only opportunity for a tight two shot because if we're standing up you can't fit us in.
Kutcher: Unless you're on boxes.
Portman: Yeah. But I think the nice thing was that we did the scene pretty deep into the shoot so we had already a comfortable sort of relationship—as comfortable as you can be in that scenario.
Kutcher: I think you're always waiting, wondering when the word cut is going to be said when you're doing those scenes. You're there and you're doing the scene and you're like, 'Okay. Are they going to call cut? How far are we taking this? Are they going to call cut?' It was sort of technical, too. Ivan would come back and say, 'I think you need to orgasm sooner.' So you're male machismo is like, 'No, no, no. It would take me much longer than this.' I'm sure that every actor says it, but it's always very technical because you're trying to show each other's faces and yet stay in the moment. So it's always slightly more complicated than it is in real life.
How difficult was it to get through those scenes? Do either of you have specific parameters about what you will or won't do, even if it's just to get through them?
Portman: I'm pretty immature, so I think I get pretty embarrassed easily. I would check out once in a while certain shots to make sure that I felt okay because sometimes once you see it, like, there was one of the panties coming off that we did and after I watched I was like, 'Oh, that's not bad,' because it was really quick and it wasn't lingering on anything that I felt modest about. So I checked a little. You do sort of go the opposite direction between takes, like, 'So, what are you doing this weekend,' like totally benign conversation between to make it a little normal.
Kutcher: I just start by apologizing. You sort of try to set some ground rules and apologize for them. Someone told me, and I'm not sure who the actor was—I think it was Sir Lawrence Olivier that said...I always use Sir Lawrence Olivier. When in doubt use Sir Lawrence Olivier. I think he said something to the affect of, like, 'I apologize if I get aroused and I apologize if I do not get aroused,' and you have to say it with the accent. But there's sort of always that kind of awkward state of, like, 'Is this okay. Is that okay?' Then in between its like, 'Let's act like nothing happened,' and then you see how good of an actor you are.
Natalie, you've been through awards seasons before. What's your method for getting through it and do you enjoy the process?
Portman: It's a big honor to have people be excited about a movie that you make. That's the one thing that you want, for an audience to connect to the thing that you make. So it's always really exciting to have that feeling. I think the best experience so far is that we got to do a roundtable with all the actresses and it's so rare to get to sit with other actresses of all generations, people who are just starting out and people who have been doing it for thirty years and hear everyone's experiences, hear what it's like for people to be mothers and actresses. I wished that it wasn't on camera, but it was the coolest thing. I was like, 'If I could just get this experience that's the best prize of anything,' to get to hangout with these other women that I admire.
What would a Best Actress Award mean to you?
Portman: I think it's obviously a big honor. The company in which it puts you even to be mentioned among these other women is a huge honor and a huge compliment. So it's just an extremely flattering thing to be in, meaningful just to be among these other people that I respect and admire.
You've taken on some pretty eclectic projects recently. Is this by accident or design?
Portman: Well, you have heard that the apocalypse is coming, right? 2012. The Mayan calendar. I thought that I would get it all in right before. It was a great opportunity to get to do a lot of different things in a year. I feel like I learned so much from doing all these different types of movies and back to back because you bring the research and the seriousness and the discipline of doing a drama into something like Thor and you bring the humor and the improvisational attitude from something like Your Highness into Black Swan. It was really kind of a lucky order because I did Your Highness and then Black Swan and then Thor and then No Strings. So it was really interesting. I feel bad for boring people with my face for a while, but in terms of as an actress it was really an exciting thing to get to work on all of these things almost back to back.
Ashton and Natalie, how are you both similar and different from your characters in your beliefs on romance and intimacy?
Portman: I always find it a little scary to say that I'm like a character. I was excited because the character I thought was written really specifically and I knew who she was as soon as I read her. I think you always need to be able to relate to your character, but that doesn't necessarily mean...you have to understand why they do what they do, but you don't actually have to be like that yourself. I don't think you identify your own personality with it. That's hard for me to answer. But I mean, look, we're both in committed relationships, if that helps.
Kutcher: Yeah. I think my character in some ways comes from privilege and then he's trying to validate his own self and his career and I think sort of all the elements, the relationship with the father, but I think you always find personal threads that you can relate to like coming off of a really bad breakup and where that leads you from a relationship position. Like, 'I don't want to be involved. I don't want to have a relationship. I'm done with relationships.' So I think there are things like that you find you can relate to, that you plug into, that you can connect to as a person. I think that my character is really lucky to find someone in the other character that connects them. So I think I have that in common with my character.