The Black Swan star reveals how she turned an after-school hobby into a flourishing career.
The daughter of Russian parents who moved to LA when she was nine-years-old, Mila Kunis hardly had the usual upbringing. Swapping post-Soviet Russia for working-class America, she was pitched into the US public school system despite speaking barely a word of english. But what could have been a lost year became a transformative one when she signed up to after-school acting classes at the Beverly Hills Studios.
Commercials soon followed, and by the time she was 14 Kunis had talked her way into a role in a sitcom pilot despite being four years under the age limit. That ’70s Show threw a teenage girl into the spotlight, and she’s remained there, rooted, grounded, ever since. Eye-catching support roles in Apatow comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Denzel Washington action vehicle The Book of Eli saw her come to the attention of Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan represents Kunis’ true breakthrough, with an award for Best young Actor at the Venice film festival. LWLies caught up with Kunis recently to discuss her rise from TV starlet to Hollywood hot property.
LWLies: You started acting at nine and then it was five years until you landed That ’70s Show. I’m interested in a sense of how that five year gap unfolded. What was the reality of your life during that period? The graft and the sacrifices that you have to make.
Kunis: When you’re nine-years-old you don’t make sacrifices. I mean, I didn’t, I never did it as a career at nine. My family’s life wasn’t dependent on me doing this. So for me it was a hobby. But I ended up between nine and 15 doing, I think, 30 commercials.
But even then you hear that it’s a brutal world just to get those.
I didn’t get it. I had an amazing family. I will tell you, I was protected. I was incredibly well protected. Like, my parents worked full time, they didn’t want me to do this. Their constant thing was, ‘If you ever don’t want to do it, don’t do it.’ They were the opposite of everything you ever hear. I didn’t I have to go to school, I did commercials, it was fantastic, after school I had a hobby. I never thought anything of it, ever, ever, ever. It wasn’t like I was, ‘Oooh, look what I get to do!’ I didn’t understand what I was doing – I was just having fun.
There must be a point at which you put off the hobby and suddenly you get a sense of how serious it is.
I was 21 or 20-years-old when I changed, so it took a long time for me not to think of it as a hobby.
I decided to make it a career. But until I was 20 it was a hobby.
So even all the way through doing That ’70s Show?
Yeah, I went to public school. A normal school. It wasn’t posh. The opposite of posh. Not posh at all. Free school! I went to normal school with my best friend since I was nine-years-old who’s still my best friend. Nothing changed. Nothing changed.
So how do you get through five years of a popular TV show, when your life must have changed dramatically, and not see it as a career yet? There must be so many actresses out there who haven’t made it yet who would hate to hear you say that.
You know what, it wasn’t that… I was nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, okay? I had a lot of more important things to learn when I was nine to 14, for instance puberty and boys. It wasn’t… This was literally a hobby. Not that I didn’t care about it, not that I didn’t pursue it or study it. I did but it was like anything else, it wasn’t anything out of the norm. My parents never put weight on it, my family never made me feel any more special than just being a daughter would, you know what I mean? It never made a difference, it never made an impact. And so I never – call it naïve – I never understood that what I was doing was different.
So what clicked when you were 20?
Well, okay, so I started ’70s when I was 14 – when I did the pilot – and it ended when I was 22. I went to Fairfax High School, I went to college, I didn’t think that I was going to do anything else. This was going to end when my contract ended and then I was going to go ff and do whatever else. Then I think around 18, 19, 20 I realised that this is all I know how to do. I loved what I did and I was like, ‘I’m going to actually try to make a career out of it’. Because beforehand I did it for fun, and I still do it for fun, but I did it purely for fun. So when I made the decision that I was going to do this for my career, everything had to shift. Like, I had to think of it as a career so I had to make smarter choices, I had to separate myself from the industry. I don’t know… I think it was just something that I wanted to do.
A gig like The ’70s Show would be a dream thing for a young actress but how quickly do you start to think that you need to make the next step and get off it?
I think you always think that as an actor. You never want to do the same thing for a long time. I think the reason why anybody goes into this industry is because they want to do different things. So when you get as lucky as I was to be on a show for eight years, to do the same show for eight years gets really hard. You just get a little repetitive with it. When I decided to make it a career is when I decided to start making smart choices and actually try to move my way out of this genre and see what I can do. And if I failed then I failed, but at least I failed knowing that I tried.
How do you make that transition?
As much as you pick a path, you can say you pick a path but it doesn’t mean that path is going to stick. I can tell you when I was 20, ‘I’m gonna do this…’ It doesn’t mean this is going to happen because the industry is based on opinion so you have to ultimately fight and fight and fight and the sad thing is that someone else has to believe in you. I can fight and I can be great but it doesn’t mean I’m going to get hired. It all depends on the person hiring.
Is there anyway you can prepare yourself for the experience of this?
No. I don’t think you can prepare yourself for it because I think this industry has so much negativity in it, you can’t. The only thing I can say to prepare yourself is to not have your happiness be based on the industry. The only way you can actually succeed in trying is if your happiness is not based on your career.
Is that negativity something you’ve experienced first-hand?
I never had it to my face but I’m sure behind my back it’s happened plenty of times, but not to my face, no.
With The ’70s Show, what is the first point that you realised things had changed for you? Is it about a cheque dropping through the front door?
I’m going to give you an answer that I don’t think you’ll be satisfied with. I had amazing parents, I was raised poor. I didn’t know I was poor until I met a wealthy person. Money to me never mattered. It still doesn’t matter. That being said, I didn’t know how much I was earning. My parents kept me very protected, where I would go to school, I would go to work, I came home, I had to make my bed, I had to do the laundry, I had to do whatever my chores were for the day and then I got to go and play with my friends. My friends weren’t rich, my friends were not in the industry, my friends did not have pay cheques, so I lived my life the way they lived their life. So I never got that. Nothing changed for me. Nothing mentally changed. My family, where we lived is where my family lived – it wasn’t based on my pay cheque it was based on theirs. If I needed money, I asked my parents for money. I didn’t have my own money. So they took all the money, put it in the bank, put it in the bank, put it in the bank, didn’t touch a penny, they didn’t let me touch a penny. So when I turned 18 they were like, ‘Sit down and let us explain to you everything that has happened’. I was in shock. But I wasn’t in shock in the sense like, ‘I can’t believe no one ever told me this!’ I was like, ‘This is amazing! This is great!’ But it didn’t change anything. It didn’t make me go out and buy a mansion. It didn’t make me go off and buy a car.
Did you feel the weight of responsibility of it?
No. Because I think money is the root of all evil. I’m a firm believer that money is what makes people crazy.
Easy for you to say.
Absolutely, but I was poor and I thought the same. Like, okay… When I was born to the age of seven, my family was fine, we were pretty well off. When I moved to America, we were poor, like, really, really, really, really poor. I didn’t know I was poor. There was no difference because when I was little and my parents had money to when I was poor and my parents didn’t have money, nothing changed. My parents still loved me, they still gave me everything that a child needed, so I didn’t know what money bought. It made no difference to me. I’m not saying that I would want to get rid of all my money – I am so blessed. No, I couldn’t be anymore blessed, I think it’s fantastic to be able to go and buy anything that I want or eat anywhere that I want or not have to worry about where my next cheque is going to come from and have a roof over my head. I think it’s a blessing, I’m honoured by it. But it’s not where my happiness comes from.