Ashton Kutcher, Natalie Portman, Ivan Reitman and Liz Meriwether Untangle ‘No Strings Attached’
hollywoodnews.com: As unexpected as the combination of Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman may be, their new film “No Strings Attached” offers a fun, breezy balance between Kutcher’s mainstream sensibilities and Portman’s actorly integrity: the two play lifelong acquaintances who fall into a “friends with benefits” situation that tests their mutual resistance to something a little deeper. Ivan Reitman directed the film from a script from newcomer Liz Meriwether; Hollywood News spoke to Meriwether, Reitman, Portman and Kutcher at the recent Los Angeles press day for “No Strings Attached,” where the foursome offered some insights into how the cast and filmmakers came together to create this irreverent and funny new romantic comedy.
Hollywood News: Natalie, you had over a year of intense physical prep for ‘Black Swan’. Did that preparation 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 – 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.’
Hollywood News: Ashton, what’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done for someone?
Ashton Kutcher: Oh, man. Why do I always get these? It’s really hard to say. The most romantic thing for someone. I think that romance sort of coincides with effort. So you can fall flat on your face, but as long as you’re making a great effort I think it comes off as romantic. So it can be something as simple as, like, if you’re someone who doesn’t cook you can make a meal. It’s anything that has a little bit of vulnerability in it and requires great effort. So I think for me I’m a little bit of a workaholic and I was in another country and I had one day off. I flew from that different country just to see someone for an hour and turned around and went back. So it was probably that.
Hollywood News: Natalie, 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, 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.
Hollywood News: Do you guys think that friendship can survive sex?
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.
Hollywood News: 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 teacher 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.
Hollywood News: 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.
Hollywood News: 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.
Hollywood News: When you wrote the script did you write it with Valentine’s Day in mind?
Ivan Reitman: Really this is a studio decision on what the most benign date is for a particular movie. They said, ‘How about January 21st?’ I said, ‘Why? Do people go to the movies on January 21st?’ ‘Yeah, it’s great.’ So that’s why we’re here. Look, this movie has been in development for a good three years. Two years where the three of us have been working and then Ashton got involved about a year ago. You don’t think about release dates. You just think about how you make a great movie and then you have to fight all the perceptions of Hollywood in terms of what’s a good movie to make and just try to get a movie going.
Hollywood News: Thanks for having safe sex in the movie. It’s really important in a movie about sex. Can you guys comment on the prevalence of sex and how it’s being portrayed in the media?
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. Yes, condoms were fake used in the fake sex scenes in this movie.
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.’
Hollywood News: Ivan, this seems like the first real relationship comedy you’ve done. Any challenge for tackling this type of drama?
Reitman: It was a pleasure. Making this film was a pleasure. I think I got lost in making science fiction movies for a while. I think there’s something about the power of a movie like ‘Ghostbusters’ that sort of twists one’s head a little bit, and I started to realize when I was looking back at the films that I’d made that really so many of them had science fiction elements to them, even a movie like ‘Dave’ about a doppelganger, that it’s possible that two men, one of whom is the president of the United States and the other guy gets to take over or ‘Twins’. ‘Twins’ is really a science fiction movie. When I started working with Liz on this thing I just loved the words. I loved the situations. I loved the comfort of being able to direct really fine actors in rooms where they just talked to each other and I really wanted to do that again. I think it’s possibly even watching my son do that in his films. It sort of reawakened me to the real pleasure that a filmmaker can get from that. So I thank him for that. I suddenly had this extraordinary screenplay and I was able to find these wonderful actors, starting with Natalie and Ashton. It’s a very naturalistic comedy that’s, yes, raunchy and funny and it’s broad at times, but it’s really real people talking to each other about real things. I found that sort of very exciting to do and very satisfying.
Hollywood News: There are so many funny moments in this for you, Natalie. How much of what you did was improvised?
Portman: I have to say that Liz wrote ninety nine percent of what you see onscreen. Everything is really there in the script. It was really a very funny script, always. I think that’s what always carried us through, but there were certain times for me. I don’t know about other scenes, but for me I think the most was the pumpkin night, probably, when I was just screaming at the girls. We had a lot of pumpkin related jokes that were going on for a very long time.
Reitman: Improvisation is really just a directing tool. It’s a writing tool. It’s not so much that the actors get to say whatever they want, whatever pops into their head. It’s an opportunity to write the last draft of the screenplay as you’re working on it. You do a lot of takes, you do a lot of coverage and the actual locations, the actual props, the real performers doing the scenes informs new ideas. Ideas are coming from everywhere. Liz was on the set all the time. We had very smart producers and the actors were very smart about their own characters. These opportunities come up and it’s sort of my job as a director to say, ‘That really works, do that,’ encourage that and then other times discourage things that I think take away from the spirit of the scene or the focus of a particular character.
Hollywood News: The first sex scene was pretty unflinching in this film. Can you talk about that experience and can you talk about shooting it?
Reitman: I didn’t want to do anything particularly romantic and filmic. I was more interested in…we tease their relationship for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film’s preamble and here’s this first moment that these two characters are going to be together. This is a movie that really starts with them having sex and then seeing what that relationship is going to evolve like and I just really believed in their chemistry. I believe that you can see it right here, just watching them, and it’s very evident in the film. I thought, ‘Well, I have something really powerful here.’ They’re clearly exciting to look at together and in every form there’s something lovely about it and I just made it easy. I thought there was something much more powerful about watching really close their facial expressions than trying to go for anything else. By just sitting on it for a while and letting it go a little longer than maybe is comfortable would sort of give it the power that it deserves.
Portman: Also, 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 – or 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.
Hollywood News: So much about this movie is about sex. Do the two of you have perimeters about that, do you have to look at the rushes afterwards or the dailies and how you do approach those scenes and get through them? Is it still embarrassing?
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.
Hollywood News: Natalie, you’ve been through awards seasons before. What’s your method for getting through it and do you enjoy the process? And Ivan, do you have any inspirations to direct an episode of ‘Glee’ having sort of done it here?
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.
Reitman: I’d love to do a musical actually. My background is in musical. I have a bachelors in music. I thought that I was going to be a composer long ago when I first started. So it was amazingly fun to do those two routines in the film. They were shot very quickly. We did them all in a day and they’re really quite elaborate and they originally went on longer. But it took you out of the film to hold onto it much longer, but maybe one day it’s something that I’d like to do.
Hollywood News: Natalie, you’ve done this for so long and have done such great work. Can you talk about what a Best Actress Award would 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.
Hollywood News: You’ve got some pretty eclectic stuff that you’re doing lately. Is this by accident or design and how do you feel about all of this?
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.
Hollywood News: Why do you think that people are so interested in stories about relationships right now?
Liz Meriwether: I think it’s sort of the way that relationships come together these days. I think in a lot of romantic comedies it ends with a kiss, and I feel like in modern day relationships, and maybe just my own experience, it starts with a kiss and then all sort of falls apart and then comes together. You’re texting. You’re wondering what’s going on. There’s no [?]. There’s no labels. I think that’s what really is going on right now. I think a lot of the romantic comedies need to catch up with what’s actually happening. Ours is the best.
Reitman: Look, we started working on this, as I said, a good three years ago. It seems to be in the zeitgeist and over my career which has spanned all kinds of odd shifts I’ve sort of made it a point to sort of pay attention to that. It seemed like so much of romantic relationships today have to do with where the people are not in the same room. Whether it’s texting or emailing or Facebooking there’s a kind of distance between the participants. I think it’s sort of shifted the energy of that first romantic meeting, where it’s quicker, perhaps more desperate, more energetic in a whole different way and it’s resulted in a situation where people seem to be sometimes more comfortable having a sexual relationship than an emotional one. It seems to be the way that things have generated. I think that’s certainly a fitting subject matter for a film, particularly a comedic film.
Hollywood News: Ivan, how familiar were you going into this with Lil’ Wayne and his beverage of choice – Purple Drank? What other generational things did you pick up from Liz and possibly even your kids?
Reitman: Certainly this is not my generation. I’m of the Baby Boom generation and we thought that we invented free love starting with the summer of love. It’s interesting how things have evolved. Liz Meriwether was very important in this process and I thought that it was very important for me to keep my mind and my ears open and my eyes as much as possible. I’ve never personally had a Purple Drank. But it sure sounded funny and it sounded right and it seems to be a perfect way to put Kevin Klein in the hospital.
Hollywood News: This film is rated R. If you’ve got the R rating why not go for more of that in the film?
Kutcher: We made an honest movie, and unfortunately if you make an honest movie today it’s rated R. It is. It really is.
Reitman: Particularly for language and ideas. This is really not necessarily about how much nakedness or even sex there is in the film. I think audiences aren’t even particularly interested in that. I think if people want to see pure sex they have the internet and extraordinary things are available. Its meant to be an honest comedy about sexuality and the great part of it is that it means the subject matter almost by definition is going to get you an R now even if there wasn’t a curse word in the film. But we all use curse words an enormous amount it seems now, particularly people in their twenties.
Hollywood News: You talked about developing this film for the past three years. How do you know that something like that is going to still work? How do you gage that?
Reitman: That’s the cliché about how hard comedy is to make, and then of course no one pays much attention to it at a certain moment in the year. But the fact is reengaging all the time. You’re reevaluating all the time. The script and the piece that you’re working on is not a static thing. It evolves. You get ideas. The hardest thing for everyone, for the writer, for the director and certainly for the actors is not to panic when they’re doing a certain line for the tenth time because everything ceases to be funny after it’s been repeated. The real trick for me as a director is to make sure that people don’t start pushing because the harder you push as a perform there less funny it becomes. There’s a tendency to start to look for extraneous ways to make something really by nature already funny, but not funny to you as a performer any longer, to try to refresh that. So there are various tricks about it, but comedy is a very delicate business, especially comedies that sort of attempt to do things in an honest way and in a very naturalistic way the way that ‘No Strings Attached’ is.
Meriwether: That was some of the wonderful things about working with Ivan because he’s obviously created some of the best comedies that have ever been made and he just really knows comedy and he really knows what he’s doing. He knows. He knows.
Hollywood News: 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.
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