There are a lot of ways to punch your ticket to Hollywood. The venerable casting-couch route. Chiseled, McDreamy-like good looks. Or perhaps a tight sweater and a fateful stop at a Sunset Boulevard soda-fountain counter, a la Lana Turner. For Steven Kutcher, the game changer was much less glamorous: Ten thousand or so male southern African desert locusts — schistocerca gregaria, to be exact. And flats of rye grass. Lots of rye grass.
A little bit creepy? Oh, definitely. But fortunately for Kutcher, entomologist to the stars, his bravura performance as chief locust nanny and on-set consultant for Exorcist II: The Heretic, killed the room back in 1976. And to paraphrase a guy named Humphrey Bogart, what followed was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with directors and stars alike.
Kutcher doesn’t talk to the animals, but he sure can induce insects to do amazing things. As such, this bug whisperer has parlayed a nerdy fascination with insects into an unlikely and lucrative Hollywood career, rubbing elbows with stars like Richard Burton, Bette Midler and John Goodman, and directors like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Sam Raimi.
“I’m both a scientist and an artist,” Kutcher says, explaining his unorthodox rise from community-college biology teacher to insect-acting maestro. “I was probably the first entomologist to work in films, focusing on insects — nothing else.
“I think of myself as a bug wrangler, a consultant,” he continues. “I’m not the cheap guy who trains dogs and chickens and happens to have a tarantula. I’m the guy who has a tarantula and gets the shot.”
Since 1976, Kutcher has worked on more than 100 feature films, as well as numerous commercials, music videos and made-for-TV movies. Sometimes he works behind the scenes, like when he fed granola to thousands of darkling beetles that bedded down in his living room for several weeks, waiting to make their acting debut in 1987’s Prince of Darkness, or when he fed rye grass to the Exorcist II locusts during their six-month stay in cages in a Warner Bros. studio. No fava beans and a nice Chianti for these low-level extras.
But Kutcher’s work really shines when the cameras roll: The spider that bites Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in Spider-Man. The carpenter ants that cover Sigourney Weaver in Copycat. The bees that swarm Matt Damon in We Bought a Zoo. The giant mosquitoes in Jurassic Park. The spider that walks four feet and slips into a slipper in the cult classic Arachnophobia. The cockroach that emerges from a shoe, walks up a bag of Cheetos and then onto a magazine in Race the Sun. Ready for their close-ups, Mr. DeMille? You bet — thanks to Kutcher.