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Photography by Yu Tsai/Getty Images

Fire Bird!

by By Sam Wasson | CS magazine | February 6, 2011

Mila Kunis sits down in the back booth of an L.A. diner and starts talking. “I have to buy an iPad for my friend’s birthday,” she says. “But I hate the mall. The mall frightens me.” It’s a slow, soggy day in the San Fernando Valley, but listening to Kunis, 27, you’d think you were in Times Square. Like a professional New Yorker—which she is not—Kunis talks fast, orders quickly and switches from subject to subject without changing gears.

She moved with the same swiftness on the set of her latest, Oscar-buzzed movie, Black Swan, which was shot in just under two months. “There was no time or money,” she explains. “You got to do your job and get out. That’s it. We were broke.”

The film, which stars Kunis and Natalie Portman as rival ballerinas locked in the cold heat of Swan Lake, portrays the body-punishing, cutthroat world of professional ballet. Kunis, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and was getting full-court Oscar press at the time of our interview, says she endured three months of seven-days-a-week training to prepare for the role.

“Teaching me how to dance was like teaching a child. I had no dance,” she says. “I would get to the studio at 7am and get on the bike for an hour. After that, we’d do weights for an hour to try to drop my shoulders like a ballerina’s. If need be, I’d go to physical therapy down the hall and then I’d work on my jumps. That’s about two and a half hours. Then I did barre for 45 minutes. Then about three hours of dancing where they’d try to teach me how to walk and move like a ballerina, but really it was to help me lose weight and to build up my stomach muscles so I could get en pointe without breaking my ankle. Once, I dislocated my shoulder and tore my calf.” She takes a breath, maybe her first all afternoon. “I’d get home at around 4pm and just soak in the tub for hours.”

When filming began, Kunis, whose natural weight is around 117 pounds, got all the way down to 95. “You’re always hungry,” she says. “I was on a five-meal-a-day diet of 1,200 calories. I could eat anything that fit into the palm of my hand. That’s it.” If she wanted wine she’d have to forfeit a meal. “It was hell. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Luckily for us, she won’t have to, as Kunis seems to be basking in the white-hot spotlight of celebrity these days. Still, for the 27-year-old actress, it’s the research and preparation that keeps her engaged. “There are so many great experiences this industry provides,” she says. “There’s so much ugliness, too. But truth be told, how often can you lose 20 pounds, get en pointe and work with brilliant people?” She shrugs at the utter obviousness of it and then laughs quietly to herself, as if her good fortune were a secret she was revealing for the first time.

It’s fun to watch so much fun. In fact, talking with Kunis is such an easygoing breeze, you’d think you’d come across the all-time greatest girl next door. But facing that burnished skin and those gleaming, seraglio eyes, you’d swear next door was an opium den in 14th-century Constantinople. Or even a little farther north—more specifically, her birthplace of Chernivtsi, a small city in southwest Ukraine. “Kids just ran wild. We’d wander off into the backyard of our friends’ houses and parents would call each other and say, ‘Where’s my kid?’ ‘Oh, she’s in our backyard playing with our chickens.’”

In 1991, Kunis’ parents packed up and left Communist Russia for America to give 7-year-old Mila and her brother a chance at a future. Los Angeles was where a favorite uncle lived. But to get there, they’d have to leave everything. With no jobs waiting for them, no belongings and only $250 in their pockets, the family (which included three grandparents) moved into a two-bedroom apartment near West Hollywood. The very next morning, as her father sought out work painting houses, delivering pizzas—anything, really—Mila had her first day of American school. She didn’t speak a single word of English.

It was decided that Beverly Hills Studios, which Mila’s parents had heard about on the radio, might be a good place for her to learn the language. “It was advertised as a fun place for kids to meet other kids. But when we got there, we found out it was an acting class. I think it was, like, $250 for six hours on a Saturday,” Kunis recalls. “My dad was like, ‘We don’t have this money.’ So I said to my mom, ‘I really want to do this,’ and she was like, ‘Do you even know what this is?’ and I was like, ‘No.’” Something in her gut told Mrs. Kunis to write the check, and today, 20 years and almost two dozen movies later, her daughter is one of the most-talked-about young actresses in America.

Kunis soon landed a Barbie commercial and a few print ads, which gave way to TV appearances (Walker, Texas Ranger, 7th Heaven), which gave way to low-profile movie appearances (Krippendorf’s Tribe). In 1998, at 14, she was cast in That ’70s Show, one of the longest-running sitcoms on Fox. And yet, despite her early success, Kunis says that “it wasn’t until I was 20 that I thought, ‘I’m going to make a career out of this.’ To me, a career was a diploma that said, ‘This is who you are.’”

So, she kept going to school. But school wasn’t going for her. “I went to Fairfax High and I never got invited to a dance and I couldn’t go to my prom because I couldn’t get time off. My studio teacher’s son went to Harvard-Westlake and I begged him to take me to his school dance so I would know what it was like. The poor guy was forced to take me to a dance that was on a boat in the f**king Marina. It was fancy. The kids had Ferraris. That was the only dance I ever went to. It was awful.”

Her dance card may have been bare, but her acting career continued to flourish. In 1999, Seth MacFarlane, creator of the Emmy Award-winning animated TV comedy The Family Guy, cast Kunis as the voice of Meg Griffin—the beleaguered daughter of a dysfunctional Rhode Island clan. To her shock, people started laughing. A lot. “I don’t think I’m very funny,” she says, giggling. “I’m always a little taken aback when people say I’m great at comedy. I really don’t find myself to be funny.”

But filmmaker Judd Apatow disagreed. “I auditioned for Knocked Up,” Kunis says, “and I couldn’t do it and Judd was like, ‘I promise you we’re going to work together.’” In 2007, he cast Kunis in director Nicholas Stoller’s romantic comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. She lived in Hawaii for three months during filming. Excited? She was terrified. Watching Russell Brand, Jason Segel and Jonah Hill glide so effortlessly through the improvised scenes convinced her they were the funny ones. And then Kunis began to settle in. “Every day after work we’d sit at the pool bar and I was like, ‘I can’t believe what came out of my mouth.’” A million feet of film later, she began to trust.

“When I first saw Sarah Marshall she sizzled off the screen,” says Black Swan director Aronofsky. “At the same time she was crisp and fresh and unexpected. On the set of Black Swan, she was a dream and a delight. A perfect collaborator.” But it wasn’t always easy. Kunis and Portman practically lived underground, backstage, in cold, cement-block rooms without windows or fresh air. “What you saw was exactly what we shot in. We were miserable,” Kunis says, adding that Aronofsky “would send us photos of grotesque dancers’ feet—truly disgusting feet. When Nat and I bruised our feet or had calluses, we would send him photos and be like, ‘Are you proud?’ and he would reply, ‘Yes.’”

To keep themselves going, Kunis and Portman steered the conversation away from work, and the gray world around them, whenever they could. Flea market shopping was a major savior. So were Project Runway and Top Chef. “I love television,” Kunis admits. “I watch way too much TV.” It has been ever thus. As a little girl, new to American language and culture, TV was a safe way for Kunis to absorb the world around her. “The first shows I remember watching in the states were Three’s Company, I Love Lucy and Cheers.” At the age of 9, her favorite actors were Lucille Ball, and—wait for it—George Wendt. “I thought Norm was the funniest guy alive,” she says.

Kunis still remains close with her family. Her brother works as a scientist (“wears a lab coat and everything!”) in San Diego; her father is a cab driver and her mother works at a Rite Aid. “My parents are still together after 38 years. They probably hate each other, but I don’t think they can live without each other,” Kunis says. “My mom and I go away for two days and after 24 hours she says, ‘I genuinely miss your dad.’”

Her parents still live nearby, too—but no longer in the room down that hall. The two-bedroom apartment near West Hollywood has been replaced by a house on Laurel Canyon where Kunis lives with her dogs: Shorty, a Beagle-Corgi-Dachshund mix, and Audrey, an English Bulldog named after Audrey Hepburn.
What about your private life?

“I hang out with my friends and family.”


“I cook a lot. Pork loin, pork chops, steak, tenderloin. Oh, and herring! I’ve loved herring my whole life. I like it pickled; I like it smoked; I like it with sour cream.”

What about Macaulay Culkin? (The two had been an item since 2002, but reports of their breakup were racing through the blogosphere the very next week after this interview.)

“I won’t answer personal questions, so move on.”

Is he still in the picture?

In a single scoop, she slips a piece of bacon into her mouth, slides an arm through her trench coat and leans forward. There’s a pause. “I’m trying to save you time here.”

Speaking in crackled, almost confidential whispers, Kunis is as appealingly sly as she is in Black Swan. Not sneaky-sly, but fun-sly. Like someone who just figured out how to win and wants you to be there. Whoever decided to pair her with Justin Timberlake in her upcoming romantic comedy, Friends with Benefits, should get some kind of award. Is there an Oscar for casting? Somehow, Kunis and Timberlake, with or without benefits, make immediate sense—you could imagine them getting a big kick out of each other. “Justin and I play best friends who decide to be friends with benefits,” Kunis explains. “There wasn’t one day on set when I wasn’t on the floor, crying-laughing. Justin always thought it was funny that I would be on the phone with my parents, speaking Russian, and randomly breaking out into English.”

Kunis’ unjacketed arm goes through the remaining sleeve and she looks out the window onto the street. It’s still gloomy out. “I hate the mall,” she says again.
Walking to her car, she stops short of offering a hug. “Paparazzi,” she mutters. And just as quickly, she gets into her Range Rover and drives off.