The American Dream (girl)

Image about Mila Kunis

By the time you read this, you will likely have Halloween plans. Or maybe you’re finalizing them now. Or maybe you’re going to just sit at home, like many of us, and hand out mini Snickers. By most accounts, this would be normal. What’s not normal is planning your Halloween by July, which is exactly what Mila Kunis has done.

The actress, whose first name is short for Milena, and I are speaking on a sweltering day in midsummer, a day so steamy I can’t imagine contemplating ghosts and jack-o’- lanterns or inhaling my kids’ candy stashes, which I would inevitably regret doing the next morning. But Halloween might just be Kunis’s favorite day of the year, so of course she has plans, she tells me, as if this were the most normal thing in the world.

“You have no idea what Halloween is in my family,” she says. “We do murder-mystery dinners at our house with a group of 10 to 20 people. It’s been a ritual for the past couple of years. Our parents come, but they don’t always participate; they think it’s crazy. We make a whole feast of food, and you dress up in your character … ”

“So it’s like Clue?” I ask.

“It is exactly, because we love Clue,” she says. “We think Clue is amazing. So it’s very similar to Clue. And [there are] different ways of playing the games, but it takes about four hours. And you know, we have mai tais and Ghoulish Goulash and crazy, stupid food, and we just sit around and play murder-mystery games.”

“Goulash?” I interrupt again.

“Yes, Martha Stewart’s recipe. I’ll make it, or my boyfriend or my mom will. And the house is decorated — there are, like, fog machines everywhere,” she continues, words rushing out over themselves. “And we have a Halloween tree. We start decorating in September!”

Image about Mila KunisEven though it’s months away, Kunis can’t stop talking about this holiday, one that most of us gave up in mid-adolescence. Her effervescence is palpable, and suddenly, I want in on the party, even though I haven’t dressed up for Halloween since I donned a regrettable biker-chick outfit in college.

When I hang up the phone, I realize that Kunis’s Halloween anecdote, if you pay close attention, reveals just about everything you need to know about her:

• The “we” in the story is Kunis and her boyfriend of six years, Macaulay Culkin, of Home Alone fame. She refers to him often during the interview but never by name.

  • That she doesn’t shill for their relationship conveys how much she guards her privacy.
  • The house where she and Culkin host the party is just down the street from that of her Ukrainian parents, who brought seven-year-old Kunis and her older brother to the United States to live some 18 years ago.
  • Her Halloween planning — both whimsical and precise — reflects the impression you’re left with after chatting with the star: She is that effortless blend of funny and bitingly smart.
  • The life she leads — robust, informed, a celebration of everything her parents hoped for when they came to the States — is the epitome of what our nation makes possible.

“Yeah,” she concurs at one point during our chat. “It’s 100 percent the American dream.”

TO understand how far Kunis has come, you have to rewind a bit to see where she’s been. She’s hesitant to exploit her parents’ background — “That’s their story, not mine,” she says — but she just as quickly concedes that it’s impossible to ignore how much their history has shaped her. “What my family went through in 1991 when we came to the States absolutely molded me into the person I am today,” she says.

Indeed, the mere fact that her life is the way it is today — with her hosting elaborate Halloween parties, tucked away in her Los Angeles home with her famous boyfriend, and poised to become an even bigger star than she already is with this month’s Max Payne — is somewhat of a small miracle.

“No parent — no adult — whom I’ve met who is Russian came here for themselves,” acknowledges Kunis. “They only came for their children. We were really well off, but we left everything behind because at that time, we were only allowed to come to the States with $250.” Her parents took odd jobs to pay the bills — her mother, a former teacher in the Ukraine, worked behind the counter at a drugstore; her father, previously a mechanical engineer, did everything from sell toilets to deliver pizzas — while Kunis went about the task of assimilating as best she could.

“I had my first hamburger,” she remembers. “I’d never had soda before in my life. I’d never had a Coca-Cola — I had only had juice and water. I’d never seen anybody of color or any ethnicity. I grew up in a town where all I saw were white people. Just white people; blond and brunette, but not even a redhead. I met my first African- American. I met my first Asian person. I saw palm trees …”

She pauses and then, trying to sum up the experience, says, “The opening statement of my essay for my college application was, ‘Imagine being blind and deaf at the age of seven.’ ”

Kunis means this only half metaphorically. She didn’t speak a word of English when her family immigrated. In fact, she says she’s blocked the second grade from her memory because the experience was so difficult. “If I talk to my parents, [they say that] I cried every day. I remember my mom telling me that my grandmother would come to school with me and bring kids chocolate to try to make them be friends with me. If a seven-year-old can go through a sort of depression, that’s probably what I went through for a year. But because I was so young, I was able to get out of it very fast.”

By the third grade, Kunis spoke English well enough to fit in. This was thanks in part to Bob Barker on The Price Is Right, whose manner of speaking helped her hone her language skills. By the fourth grade, she was fluent. (That she now does flawless voice-over work on Family Guy and Robot Chicken is all the more remarkable.)

That same year, her life shifted in another dramatic way. Her father enrolled her in acting classes. “To keep me preoccupied,” she says. “I talked a lot and had a lot of energy. My parents never wanted me to do this. They never pushed me, even when I was working. They were like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ”

In that very first acting class, Kunis met the woman who remains her manager to this day. “My parents told her, ‘Listen, we can’t afford head shots; we can’t afford anything. We can’t take her to auditions because we work full-time. And we can’t do this and we can’t do that.’ For one reason or another, being the crazy woman that she is, [my manager] said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll fix everything,’ and she did. I ended up getting the first thing I went out for, which was a Barbie commercial. All my parents said was, ‘You can do whatever you want to do as long as you get A’s and stay in school.’ ”

Barbie commercials were just the launching pad. At 14, Kunis auditioned for That ’70s Show. Actors had to be at least 18 to be eligible for casting. She omitted the truth to the casting directors (lied is such a strong word), declaring that she’d be 18 on her birthday but neglecting to specify which year. Though they eventually picked up on the fib, the producers still thought Kunis was the best fit for the brash, sassy, and sexy role of Jackie. Over the next eight years, Kunis grew up in front of the eyes of millions.

But while we watched her on TV week after week, we know surprisingly little about her personal life. It’s no accident. “Every ounce of me tries not to be in the public eye,” she says. “My private life is superimportant to my family and me, and it’s not something that I want to ever jeopardize. But you know what? Everybody makes mistakes, whether you’re famous or not. I’ve made mistakes. It’s just that I think I’m better at making them in private.”

IN last April’s megahit Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kunis managed an unthinkable feat — stealing the movie out from under the feet of Judd Apatow’s veteran band of comic players. This month, she tackles a very different kind of role, headlining Max Payne — based on the video game of the same name — opposite megastar Mark Wahlberg. “It’s slightly intentional,” she says of how she’s navigated her way through Hollywood. “I’m not Julia Roberts, with offers being thrown my way left and right, so you fight for the projects you think are right for you. I wanted to do Max Payne because after Sarah Marshall, working with Judd [Apatow] and Jonah [Hill] and Jason [Segel] and [director] Nick [Stoller] and everybody, how are you going to go make another comedy after that? When Max Payne came along, I was super-stoked to end up doing something where I got to kill people.” That’s right: As if the male population of the world didn’t need another reason to drool, in Payne, Kunis plays a billy-club-carrying tough chick.

So does Kunis fancy herself the next female action star, à la Jennifer Garner in Alias? “I wish,” she says. “I’m not out of shape per se, but no, I’m not in Jennifer Garner shape. But it was really fun to be a [tough] chick. The problem became being [tough] in five-inch heels. It’s not quite the same as kicking [butt] in sneakers. Your balance is off, and all of a sudden, you feel like an idiot walking up stairs. I’m barely coordinated on my two feet as it is, let alone with a 10-pound gun, a two-pound coat, and five-inch heels.

“I hope I pulled it off,” she says.

Even if she doesn’t (doubtful), I suspect she’ll still land on her feet, five-inch stilettos or not. That’s what’s remarkable about Kunis and her story. Not that it’s been a charmed life, or even a moderately easy one, but that as she makes her way through it — from the Ukraine to L.A., from unknown to celebrity — her foundation hasn’t shifted. She still keeps her family close, she proves herself loyal and asks the same in return from others, and she works hard and doesn’t take the life she’s earned for granted. Most importantly, she’s smart enough to trust herself and her instincts as she goes.

In an industry in which so much is measured by superficial, ephemeral factors, Kunis has chosen to live her life by her own measures of success. And that, truly, is the American dream her parents hoped for.

Wellington New Zealand Peter Jackson Adrien Brody

Oscar winner Adrien Brody battles amnesia in The Jacket, fights a giant ape in King Kong, and takes down bacon-and-banana pancakes in New Zealand.

This month, Adrien Brody stars in The Jacket, a George Clooney-produced drama about an amnesiac Gulf War veteran who returns home to Vermont. But when Brody phones me from a time zone 19 hours ahead of my own, he’s not calling from Vermont, but rather New Zealand, the faraway land the New York-born and Broadway-bred actor dreamed of as a child. He was there to film the December release King Kong, also starring Naomi Watts and Jack Black and directed by Lord of the Rings wizard and native New Zealander Peter Jackson.

Chasing a giant ape for 12 hours a day, five days a week doesn’t give a guy a lot of downtime, but Brody filled his breaks with all the best that Wellington, Queenstown, and the lush hinterlands in between have to offer. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his director, and, more importantly, unofficial guide, was none other than Jackson.

“I’ve always wanted to come here,” says Brody. “New Zealand always seemed like the other end of the earth to me. Like as far away as you could go would be New Zealand.”

After a career that began as a six-year-old dwarf in a summer camp production of Snow White and culminated when he became the youngest male actor ever to win an Oscar in the Leading Actor category (for his performance in 2002’s The Pianist), Brody snagged the role of Jack Driscoll, the former fighter pilot who tracks the great ape and his gorgeous captive (played by Watts). And before he knew it, he was on his way to the land he once dreamed about.

King Kong, Peter Jackson, and New Zealand, huh? That’s a powerful combination.

Wellington New Zealand Peter Jackson Adrien Brody
First of all, King Kong is one of the greatest­ fables and epic stories you can tell, and ­Peter is a genius, to put it mildly.

Where have you been filming?

In Wellington, in a town called Miramar. It’s a sea town 10 minutes outside of the city center. Peter has a house here, and the movie studio is here, but it’s more of a residential area.

Where have they put you up?

I’m camping out in [a movie trailer in] a parking lot at the moment, but technically I’m staying in Wellington. I have done some traveling since I’ve been here, though, mostly inland, farther north. South becomes colder, because it’s actually toward the South Pole. I’ve also been up north to a region called Martinborough. I stayed up there in a cottage, and Peter Jackson has a lovely home up there, too, where he’s building a castle with a moat. It’s a fantastic place to go.

Before we get too far off course, tell us more about Wellington, where you are now.

Well, it’s windy. But it’s actually a lovely place, where you’re pretty much surrounded by water and the bay. The city itself is quite small, but the surrounding areas are very reminiscent of the hills up in northern California, like Marin County near San Francisco and the Bay Area climate and some of the architecture. Kind of a cross between that and Hawaii.

Any place you regularly frequent in the city?

Yeah, the Chocolate Fish, which is a great outdoor/indoor cafe. They have great breakfast fare, including bacon-and-banana pancakes, which are basically a tower of pancakes with a layer of sliced banana in between a layer of bacon, a layer of pancake, another layer of banana, another layer of pancake, etc. They have bacon-and-banana pancakes everywhere in New Zealand.

What about other restaurants? Where have you eaten?

Chow is a good Asian restaurant. It’s simple as far as interior and just your basic Asian fusion dishes. The same owners run a bar called Motel that operates later on at night. You basically go through the restaurant and up the stairs and you’re in an area that’s kind of hidden and has dim lights and a cool bar and lounge area. Another cool place to eat and drink is the Matterhorn. It’s a happening weekend nightspot. There’s another great restaurant down the block from me called The White House. It’s more upscale and romantic.

What kind of food do they serve?

I don’t know how to describe it. It isn’t necessarily Italian and isn’t necessarily mainstream. They have fantastic mushroom risotto and lamb dishes. New Zealand is known for great lamb. There are a lot of them here, that’s for sure. New Zealand has a lot of space, and I guess the lamb is fresher because there’s so much land. The Logan Brown is another pretty cool restaurant. They have a bar with an aquarium built into it, so when you’re sitting at the bar, you’re looking into an aquarium. There are a lot of cool cafes in Wellington. Cuba Street is the main street in the center of town, and a lot of young people go there to hang out. It’s pretty much a walking street. It’s kind of closed off, so it has cafes and little stores on both sides.

What other landmarks have you come to know in Wellington?

There’s a fault line nearby. I believe Miramar was born from a major earthquake in the 1800s. The edge of town where we’re at, and where the studio is, was basically a swamp and where a new land was born some 100 years ago. They actually had an earthquake while we were here, but it wasn’t very noticeable.

Are there any sights you always go to when you’re visiting a new place?

I always like to check out the museums and get a sense of the culture. I know they usually have things about the indigenous people. In Wellington, there’s Te Papa, The Museum of New Zealand. It’s a lovely place. They have a lot of stuff about the local culture, and a natural history section as well. I’ve also been to the zoo here. I’m not normally a fan of zoos, because the animals often don’t have enough space. But for the most part, the animals here are happy and have space to roam around. They’ve got an especially good chimp section that I’ve been checking out.

That makes sense, considering the movie you’re doing.

Yeah. Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is King Kong in this movie. Andy’s gone to Rwanda to study the gorillas in the wild, but I was recently in Sydney, and I got a pass to go in the morning before the zoo opened, when they fed the silverback gorilla there. The Wellington Zoo doesn’t have a gorilla population, but they do have a decent array of animals. It’s just a nice, kind of meandering zoo.

What else are you doing with your time off? Any shopping?

Yeah. There’s the Sheepskin Warehouse, between Miramar and Wellington. It’s basically just a warehouse with everything from sheepskin boots to Murano wool, which is kind of a blend. It’s a good spot, a good place for gifts. I don’t wear much sheepskin, but they do make nice boots. I also went to this fantastic chocolate shop up north, about an hour and a half from Wellington. It’s in a neighboring town called Greytown, near Martinborough, and it’s called Schoc. They have every kind of rare spiced chocolate and all kinds of exotic things.

You’ve talked about the food, but what about the wine you can get? New Zealand is famous for its wine.

There are several wine regions, but Martinborough is an area that you can actually go to and have wine tastings, which I did. You roll up into Martinborough and there will be vineyards with signs out saying they’re open for tasting. I bought an interesting sparkling wine at one of them. I don’t remember where it was from, but it was quite nice. I like the Hawkes Bay region. There’s a wine from there called Gunn Estate. It’s pretty inexpensive, but quite good. It’s a Cabernet/Merlot. Someone brought it around and I had a bottle of it, and I’ve bought a bottle of it since.

What about beyond Wellington and Martinborough? Where else have you gone?

Queenstown. It’s lush, it’s green, it’s awe-

inspiring. There are places you can go backpacking there and you don’t need a lot of money. There’s every kind of adventure you can imagine there: trail riding, mountain biking, sky diving, cliff jumping, bungee jumping, lugeing, you name it. Some of The Lord of the Rings was shot in Queenstown. Peter Jackson and his production company, Camperdown Studios, did it. When I was in Queenstown, there were moments when I felt like it was something out of The Lord of the Rings.

Explain, please.

Not only is Queenstown probably one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever come across, it’s like something from another planet. It has the most jagged mountaintops and snowcaps, and yet at the base of them are these beautiful bodies of water. It’s just amazing. The easiest way to describe it is if you got in a car and drove, you’d come across every kind of terrain imaginable. And there’s an immense sheep population. There are more sheep than people. So you’ll come across wonderful farmlands with sheep and cattle and you’ll end up at beautiful coastlines and hilly valley regions. It’s about an hour’s plane ride or a long ferry ride and drive from Auckland, which you fly into. I don’t know Auckland, but I hear it’s a pretty cool city.

You mentioned quite a few outdoor activ­ities. Have you done any of the stuff you talked about?

I did a bit down on the south island, where there are all kinds of crazy activities to do. I don’t know if I can discuss it, though, because I’m not supposed to be doing certain things, so I don’t want to incriminate myself. There are some things [contractually] I shouldn’t be doing.

Any great hotel experiences?

Yeah, we stayed at a lovely cottage called the Rose Cottage. It’s a little country house in between Martinborough and Greytown. It’s very inexpensive, not more than a few hundred dollars for the house. I will probably go back again at some point. I also had a wonderful time in Martinborough at a French restaurant called The French Bistro, a quaint little place run by a husband and wife named Jim and Wendy Campbell. I got to know them. The food and wine were fantastic, but they were the highlight. I showed up at The French Bistro one day after it had closed, and the owners cooked my girlfriend and me a lovely dinner with drinks and stuff off the menu. They were just incredibly generous and ended up joining us and dining with us. I brought a bottle of champagne and we all had a lovely time.

It sounds like Peter Jackson was a pretty generous host as well. What was it like having him as your guide?

Pretty great. Jack Black and I and Peter’s son were sitting in the back of Peter’s car being driven around all the south island. We had a wonderful time.