How Did Mila Kunis Become the Breakout Former Star of That ’70s Show?


Mila Kunis

Some things in life defy explanation, and one of the great mysteries of my early days in Buenos Aires was why That ’70s Show was on TV several times a day. I’d written a story on Topher Grace for People magazine pegged to the sitcom’s 1998 debut, and I’d swooned over Ashton Kutcher when he showed up at a post-Grammys party in Los Angeles a few years later, but somehow, I’d never gotten around to watching a single episode of the show, nor had I even considered it, until after I moved to Buenos Aires, and my Spanish teacher Demian dropped the bomb that it was his favorite TV show. I’m all for ’70s-inspired fashion, and a lot of the music still rings my bell, but when the recreation of the decade focuses so heavily on kitsch (unlike Happy Days, whose ’50s setting was always more matter of fact), I lose interest. Easy, boring target. (Yawn.)

“Say it isn’t so!” I must have thought to myself, and probably said it out loud. But I respected Demian’s taste. At the time, That ’70s Show aired several times a day on the Sony Channel, my favorite South American network, which runs U.S. programs in English (subtitled in Spanish), so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t exactly become hooked, but because it was sandwiched between My Wife and Kids and Seinfeld, I became a regular viewer by default. It’s not just that the show rarely made me laugh, but I couldn’t understand what anyone in Argentina could possibly get out of a sitcom that skewered something so Americana as 1970s Midwest culture, especially when the “jokes” didn’t translate in tact.

I never solved that particular mystery, but I’ve moved on anyway. While watching Natalie Portman pull feathers out of her skin as she goes bonkers over her ballerina competitor, played by Mila Kunis, in the Black Swan trailer, I wondered to myself, when did Kunis become the former cast member of That ’70s Show most likely to morph into a well-respected film actor?

Wasn’t that supposed to be Topher Grace, the nominal star of the show? Though Ashton Kutcher stole his spotlight early on, Grace’s film career started off strong with a role as the drug addict who dragged down Michael Douglas’s daughter in Traffic. He slowly began to build a big-screen resume, peaking in 2004 with leading roles in P.S. (as Laura Linney’s love interest) and In Good Company (with Dennis Quaid and Scarlett Johannson), and then not resurfacing until three years later when he landed a villain gig in Spider-Man 3. His work since has continued to be sporadic, in effect cancelling out his mid-decade momentum. If he really wants to be a film star, he’s going to have to work more often and in higher-quality fluff than Valentine’s Day and Predators.

Meanwhile, Ashton Kutcher married well (to Demi Moore) and became a mid-level box-office draw. Unfortunately, as Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock well know (but Jennifer Aniston apparently has yet to discover), there should be more to a solid film career than featherweight comedies. When the most immortal title on your resume is Dude, Where’s My Car?, you know something is amiss. Even Katherine Heigl, Kutcher’s Killers costar, has Knocked Up to boost her B-level filmography.

And then there is Mila Kunis. I’m not sure what it was about her annoying That ’70s Show character or anything she’d done before this year that impressed director Darren Aronofsky to the point of casting her as Natalie Portman’s nemesis in Black Swan. She recently won the Mastroianni Prize for best emerging actor at the Venice Film Festival; her name and “Oscar nomination” are sharing space in the same sentences (a first for any That ’70s Show cast member); and her onscreen lesbian sex scene with Portman will no doubt be the talk of Oscar season when the film opens on December 1. Add to that a cameo with James Franco in Date Night and a role opposite Justin Timberlake in the 2011 romantic comedy Friends with Benefits, and suddenly, Kunis is on the brink of becoming the next former sitcom star to transition successfully into film.

Debra Messing must be green with envy.

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