Interview: Portman and Kutcher on No Strings Attached

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In No Strings Attached, Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play a couple trying to be sex buddies without forming a real attachment. Portman’s Emma is a doctor with no time for a real relationship and some serious commitment issues. Kutcher’s Adam is the son of a famous actor (Kevin Klein) who is trying to make a name for himself on his own, writing for a “Glee”-style TV show. The film is directed by Ivan Reitman, who recently gave us the latest scoop on Ghostbusters. We got a chance to be part of a press conference for the film and hear what Kutcher, Portman, Reitman and writer Elizabeth Meriwether had to say about friends with benefits, women and sexuality in film and a sex scene that is…rather unforgettable.

Q: Natalie, you had over a year of rigorous training for “Black Swan.” How did you make such a quick turnaround for this movie?
Natalie Portman: You’re like, how did you get fat so quickly? [laughs] It was pretty great. It was like a palate cleanser after all of that really disciplined, focused, serious kind of set to a really playful, fun… I mean, obviously everyone is still professional on this kind of movie, but there is an improvisational feel all the time, and everyone is there to play. It was a really great atmosphere. And I didn’t have to work out because I was like, she’s a doctor so they don’t have time. [laughs]

Q: You were a producer on this movie. How did you balance your roles as a producer and an actor?
Portman: Well, it was a really exciting process to get to be involved for the first time so early, working with Liz and Ivan. I came on a couple years before the project to get to sort of watch their process and get to talk to them about the script. They were definitely controlling that process, but it was fun to be included in the sort of evolution of the script and seeing how it changed and why it changed, and to have Ivan’s expertise in pacing and figuring out, oh, at the end there needs to be more movement, because in the original script that Liz wrote, it was sort of a contained scene at the end. And he was like, no, we have to get them moving on the road. And to learn those things in the process was really exciting.

Q: Ashton and Natalie, do you think friendship can survive sex without feelings?
Ashton Kutcher: I wouldn’t know. [laughter from Portman] I haven’t been fortunate enough to try one of those relationships out. [laughs] You know, I really think whoever you’re with ultimately needs to be your friend. All the really happy, successful 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 friendship always does. And so, if you’re friends, you’re going to have feelings of some sort. Some layer or some level of a deeper feeling. So I don’t know that it’s completely possible.

Q: Ashton, this is Natalie’s first rom-com. So did you help her or did you just tease her mercilessly? How did that work?
Kutcher: How did that work? No, I learned more from Natalie in like one day on set than I could ever possibly teach 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 watched “Garden State” or something like that, and that is comedic in and of itself, but it’s a true, organic performance, and I don’t know that there is anything I can really teach her.
Portman: Well, that’s really sweet, but you did all the time…

Q: But did he tease you?
Portman: Tease me? Well, he teased me all the time. He’s always like, “Are you wearing flats again?” [laughter] “Really?”
Kutcher: It was mostly height jokes. And she would get very upset with me. She looks like my child. I asked her if she could reach the pedals in the car one day. That didn’t go over very well. [laughs]

Q: Natalie, did you create any backstory for this character to find out 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 having this incredible loss early on, and wanting to be this sort of pillar for her family and not wanting to get hurt. And also I had… I think most women know someone like this if they’re not like this themselves. They know what happens 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, without the emotional side. Something breaks a little bit before you get to that point. It’s not just a way that you’re born.

Q: Ivan, this is the first real romantic comedy you’ve done… and the first one that’s kind of adult, raunchy, stuff like that. I wanted to know, what was the challenge in tackling this type of genre for you… and was it a conscious effort to look for something outside the scifi genre?
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 is something in the power of something like “Ghostbusters” that twists one’s head a little bit, and I suddenly realized, looking back at the films I had made, that really, so many of them had a science fiction element to them, even a movie like “Dave” about a doppelganger, that it’s possible to have two… one of whom is the President of the United States, and the other guy gets to take over, and “Twins” is really a science fiction movie… when I started working with Liz on this thing, I just loved the words. I loved the comfort of being able to direct really fine actors in rooms where they just talk to each other. [laughs] And I really wanted to do that again. I think it’s possibly even sort of watching my son do that in his film sort of re-awakened me to the real pleasure that a filmmaker can get from that. So I thank him for that. And I had, suddenly, this extraordinary screenplay. I was able to find these wonderful actors, starting with Natalie and Ashton who could do this sort of naturalistic comedy. Yes, it’s raunchy and it’s funny and it’s broad at times, but it’s really real people talking to each other about real things, and I found that sort of very exciting to do and very satisfying.

Q: The first sex scene is pretty unflinching. Can you us about shooting it and Ivan, why did you decide to shoot it in a pretty static two, close-up and very realistic?
Reitman: Well, I didn’t want to do anything particularly romantic and filmic. I was sort of more interested in… you know, we tease their relationship in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film’s preamble. And here is this first moment that these two characters are going to be together. This is a movie that really starts with them having sex, and seeing what that relationship is going to evolve like, and I just really believed in their chemistry. 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 are clearly very exciting to look at together in every form, and there is something lovely about it. It made it easy. I just thought, there was something much more powerful about watching really close, their facial expressions than trying to go for anything else. And by just sitting on it for a while, and letting it go on a little longer than is comfortable, would sort of give it the power that it deserves.
Portman: And also, being horizontal gave the only opportunity for a tight two shot, because if we’re standing up…you know. [laughter] You can’t fit us in.
Kutcher: Unless you’re on boxes.
Portman: You know the nice thing was that we were…we did the scene pretty deep into the shoot, so we already had a comfortable sort of… as comfortable as you can be in that sort of scenario in that relationship. And the respect.
Kutcher: I was wearing sweatpants. [laughter]
Portman: I was not. [laughter]
Kutcher: I think you’re sort of always waiting, wondering when the word “cut” is going to be said [laughs] when you’re doing a scene like that. You’re there and you’re doing that scene and you’re like, okay when are they going to call cut? Are they going to call cut? How far are we taking this? It was sort of technical too. Ivan comes back in and is like, “I think you need to orgasm sooner.” [laughter] You know? So you’re trying to… your male machismo is like, no, no, it would take me much longer than this! [laughs] You know, I’m sure every actor says this, but it’s always very technical because you’re like, trying to show each other’s faces, yet stay in the moment, so it’s always slightly more complicated than it is in real life.

Q: How did you handle doing the sex scenes? Did you have to look at the rushes or the dailies? When you’re actually making those scenes, do you talk about completely different things? Is it embarrassing still?
Portman: I’m pretty immature, so I get pretty embarrassed still. [laughs] But yeah, you… I would like, check out once in a while, certain shots to make sure 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 it I was like, oh that’s not bad, because it was really quick. It wasn’t like, lingering on anything that I felt, you know, modest about or anything. I checked a little. You do sort of go the opposite direction between takes. Oh, what are you doing this weekend? Like, totally benign conversation between to make it a little normal.
Kutcher: I just start by apologizing. It’s like… you sort of try to set some ground rules and apologize for like… I think somebody told me, and I’m not sure who the actor was. I think it was Sir Laurence Olivier who said it, but… I always use Sir Laurence. When in doubt, use Sir Laurence Olivier. [laughs] I think he said something to the effect of, “I apologize if I get aroused and I apologized if I do not get aroused.” [laughter] And you have to say it with the accent if you do it. But there is sort of always this awkward state of, is this okay, is that okay? And then in between it’s like, just, let’s act like nothing happened. And then you see how good of an actor you really are.

Q: “No Strings Attached” is the first in a spate of a couple of movies and a TV show about casual relationships. Why do you think that this is a subject that people are interested in telling stories about?
Elizabeth Meriwether: I think it’s sort of the way that relationships come together these days, and I think in a lot of romantic comedies, it ends with a kiss. You know? And I feel like in modern day relationships, and just my own experience, [laughs] it starts with a kiss and it all sort of falls apart, it comes together, and you’re texting, you’re wondering what’s going on, there are no definitions, no labels, and I think that’s really what’s going on right now. And I think a lot of romantic comedies need to catch up with what’s happening.
Reitman: Look, we started working on this… a good three years ago. It seemed to be in the zeitgeist. Over my career, which has spanned all kinds of shifts, I’ve sort of made it a point to try to pay attention to that. And it seemed like, so much of romantic relationships today happen when the people are not in the same room. Whether it’s texting or emailing or Facebooking, there is a kind of distance between the participants. And 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. 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 things have generated. It’s certainly a fitting subject matter for a film, particularly a comedic film.

No Strings Attached opens in theaters on January 21st.