Ashton Kutcher’s mischievous ways have made his production company, Katalyst Films, a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.
THE HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL opens in a few weeks, and the senior who’s starring in it gets arrested for breaking into the school to steal money from the vending machines. The administrators are all a twitter, wondering, Do we expel him? Keep him on detention until graduation? What about the play? Does the show go on?
That sounds like a story line ready-made for the show Miss Guided, the new series from Ashton Kutcher’s production company, Katalyst Films. The half-hour comedy, which debuted in March on ABC, follows a former übergeek who, all grown up, returns to her old high school as a guidance counselor. But the vending-machine episode is not fiction. It comes straight from Kutcher’s own high-school high jinks in the tiny farm town of Homestead, Iowa.
Christopher Ashton Kutcher -- as he was known then -- had already shaved his head to play the role of Daddy Warbucks in the school production of Annie, but his mischievous side got him into trouble. Real trouble. “I went to jail,” Kutcher says today. “It wasn’t like anyone really wanted to talk about it. My principal at the time, even though he was my girlfriend’s father, was more understanding than he had to be, and I was grateful for that. But I just had to suck it up.”
Of course, the sun did come out tomorrow for the Annie production, but Kutcher lost his role, his social standing at school, and his interest in pursuing an acting career. Instead, he enrolled as a biochemical-engineering major at the University of Iowa.
He hoped to one day find a cure for the viral infection that had caused his fraternal twin brother, Michael, to need an emergency heart transplant at age 13. (Michael eventually recovered from the illness.)
But fate had a different plan for Kutcher. Instead of Chris Kutcher, heart researcher, he became Ashton Kutcher, heartthrob, runway model, TV star, movie actor, and husband of Demi Moore. All of that, you may already know.
But what’s less discussed about Kutcher is the work he does behind the scenes with Katalyst Films. At Katalyst, Kutcher and his partner, Jason Goldberg, have channeled their inner pranksters into programming that has scored, and scored big, with the profitable youth market. Their first effort, Punk’d -- a cross between Candid Camera and The Jerky Boys’ crank callers -- staged elaborate pranks to dupe unsuspecting celebrities; it was an MTV staple for eight seasons. More recently, Katalyst produced Pop Fiction, a show that debuted in March on E!. It turns the tables by using celebrities like Paris Hilton to stage and promote fake events to “punk” media outlets.
Katalyst’s most successful show to date, Beauty and the Geek, continues to air not just in the United States but also in more than a dozen overseas markets. In Italy, it is known, fantastically enough, as The Doll and the Nerd. Later this year, a Katalyst-produced game show called Game Show in My Head will air on CBS. And more shows are likely to follow, as the company has multiple pilots and series in development and production at other networks.
Katalyst has also been a force behind Kutcher’s own big-screen appearances. It produced both The Butterfly Effect, Kutcher’s first major dramatic role, and Guess Who. But the company is more, Kutcher says, than just a “vanity project” for him, more than just a vehicle for landing him star turns of his own. He’s got a point. Earlier this year, Katalyst secured $10 million in venture capital funding to help finance future projects -- projects that may or may not star Kutcher. Though his wife, Demi Moore, once earned upward of $20 million a picture, $10 million is more than Kutcher has earned for any single role in his career.
All of that makes it impossible to dismiss Kutcher as just another pretty face -- another very pretty face -- in Hollywood or to consider him to be as vapid as the dumb guys he’s played, such as the clueless Michael Kelso on TV’s That ’70s Show and the best-forgotten Jesse Montgomery III from the big screen’s Dude, Where’s My Car? Kutcher, at age 30, has already accomplished as much offscreen as he has on it. And the self-admitted workaholic has more to do. He’s keeping the actor and producer sides of himself in close contact, too, appearing in a recurring role on Miss Guided as a muy guapo substitute Spanish teacher.
It’s no surprise, then, that when we caught up with Kutcher to talk about his roles as a businessman and an actor, as well as about his part in this month’s big-screen comedy What Happens in Vegas…, costarring Cameron Diaz, he was working on the set of yet another Katalyst production. Called Spread, it’s a romantic comedy that stars Anne Heche and, of course, Kutcher.
What was the catalyst for Katalyst Films? When you’re acting, you can act in only one thing at a time. When you’re producing, you can produce several things, at a greater rate. I guess I like that. Plus, I’ve spent my entire career going, I want to do what my boss is doing. My boss was always the producer.
Did your Kelso image make it difficult for you to be taken seriously when you first got into producing? I don’t think so. Once I sit and talk with people, I think they’re pretty clear that I’m an actor and it was a role I was playing. Maybe there was sort of a general assumption that I was “just an actor.” I don’t think it has as much to do with the role I played on That ’70s Show as it does with there having been, in history, a lot of vanity producing deals for actors, where it’s really a means to get actors to be in products for different studios. I think that was a bigger thing to overcome than any hindrance from the show I was in.
How would you describe your role at Katalyst? Jason [Goldberg] works on a lot more of the day-to-day stuff, because I go off and do a movie here and there. I think we’ve sort of split everything down the middle. I come up with much of the original content and help manage our teams. Jason does more of the “financial infrastructure of the company” type of thing. Together, he and I vet the content we have and work toward making it greater, and we really try to keep it on message. The biggest thing to us is that everything we do has a message of some sort.
Skeptics who look at programs like Punk’d and Beauty and the Geek might ask, “What’s your message there?” The idea of Punk’d is: When all hell is breaking loose, can you keep your cool? When everything around you is falling apart, are you going to be gracious? That came into play in every single episode we did. We only ever punked people we liked, people we appreciated and enjoyed. We were actually rooting for them to not flip out. I think that kept a little bit of heart in the show, even though it was quite raucous at times. With Beauty and the Geek, the message is clear. We all have insecurities in one way or another. When you put your thumb on the insecurity and try to go outside your comfort zone, you can find great things.
Pop Fiction is another candid-camera show. Why the focus on that format? It’s fun to shoot. You only get one take. There are no do-overs in reality TV, especially when it comes to a hidden camera. You do it once. You don’t get to pull the people back and say “Let’s do it again.” You have to get it right the first time. I think that sort of adrenaline rush and that kind of excitement about, “Here we go; they’re here” -- that kind of hyperawareness -- becomes addictive.
Your life is extremely well documented. Is there any candid-camera moment of yours that you wish had not been captured on film? I have my bad days and good days. There was someone who was trespassing, a photographer trespassing on my property. I went out and physically encouraged him to leave. He took a couple of photos of that. I think that, actually, for me, it’s good that it was documented, because it made me have to reassess my reactivity to the situation.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you as a producer? I’d always thought the producer had to do everything on a production. But a lot of times, producers only need to be there if there’s a problem, and then they need to go in and solve the problem. If there aren’t any problems, just get out of the way. That’s how I feel about it, and that approach seems to be working for us.
You’ve squeezed in a few acting projects between your production duties. Tell us about What Happens in Vegas… I read this thing, and I really wasn’t planning on doing a romantic comedy, or comedy at all. I was looking at a couple of dramatic pieces. When I read it, there was something about it that I got. First of all, it’s a blast and it’s hilarious. When you read a comedy that really makes you laugh out loud, you have to take a second look at it. And then when Cameron Diaz came on board, I was like, All right. Now there’s a funny person who’s also superhot who’s going to be in it. We sat down with the text and got to what the guts of it are, which is the idea of not being able to see what’s right in front of you. I can relate to that in some ways. A lot of times, you take the blessings you have in your life for granted.
For Spread, you’re acting and producing. How does that change your experience on the set? It doesn’t dramatically change your experience. The real difference is in preproduction. Great producers solve the problems before they happen. Then, once the film gets going, there’s not a whole lot to do.
In an interview that Demi Moore gave earlier this year, she mentioned that your family’s typical routine includes having dinner together at 6:30 p.m. Given your schedule lately, do you usually make it home in time for dinner? Most days. Even if I have to work more after dinner, I try to be there. If I’m shooting nights, it gets tough. Honestly, it’s been more like 7:30 p.m. recently, in light of my workload, but the essential part of a successful family is communication, and dinner is our best forum.
“A LOT OF TIMES, PRODUCERS ONLY NEED TO BE THERE IF THERE’S A PROBLEM, AND THEN THEY NEED TO GO IN AND SOLVE THE PROBLEM. IF THERE AREN’T ANY PROBLEMS, JUST GET OUT OF THE WAY.”
Many of Ashton Kutcher’s projects with his production company, Katalyst Films, have a semiautobiographical bent. Here’s the rundown.
Punk’d Kutcher’s sister, Tausha, used to punk him by putting makeup on him while he slept. He also made his share of crank calls as a teen -- à la the jerky boys -- and credits that as the inspiration for the show.
Beauty and the Geek A former Calvin Klein underwear model, Kutcher has claimed he was a geek in high school who didn’t have a girlfriend until his junior year. So he can likely relate to both the brainy geeks and the beauty queens who team up on challenges.
The Real Wedding Crashers Only six episodes aired of this reality-show spin-off of the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson movie, making it shorter lived than the paparazzi’s attempts to predict and crash Kutcher and Moore’s nuptials.
Adventures in Hollyhood This MTV reality series chronicles the fish-out-of-water experiences of the rap group Three 6 Mafia as the Memphis natives settle into Tinseltown life. Kutcher had a few hiccups initially in Hollywood, too, especially when he fulfilled his Iowa farmboy fantasy and bought a 40-ton monster truck to drive down Rodeo Drive.
Guess Who Kutcher made this loose comedic adaptation of the landmark 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner after people questioned the sincerity of his friendship with african-american record producer and artist Sean (P. Diddy) Combs.