Ashton Kutcher: I was "terrified" to play Steve Jobs

No, you haven't been punk'd: The star of "Jobs" talks science, spirituality and his risky role as Apple's founder

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 13, 2013 11:12PM (EDT)

Ashton Kutcher        (AP/Dan Hallman)
Ashton Kutcher (AP/Dan Hallman)

I met Ashton Kutcher on an unseasonably cool August morning in New York. He was wearing a sweater in his hotel room, and as I was digging my audio recorder out of my bag I made a lame, small-talk joke about how maybe the Republicans were right about global warming. That got his attention.

“They’re not,” he said. “They’re really, definitely not.” That launched a wide-ranging conversation about science, technology, philosophy and the challenges of playing the title character in Joshua Michael Stern’s biopic “Jobs,” the highest-profile and highest-risk dramatic role of Kutcher’s career. People who know Kutcher had told me he was an intelligent and reflective guy and, indeed, in person he bears almost no resemblance to the wisecracking comedian who sells cameras on TV or stars in the post-Charlie Sheen “Two and a Half Men.” Unlike most interview subjects – whether they’re movie stars, attorneys or scientists – he speaks in carefully composed and grammatical sentences, with almost no “um” or “you know” intrusions. The transcript below has barely been edited.

Kutcher knows perfectly well he’ll be subjected to a certain level of abuse for playing a historical figure as significant as Steve Jobs so soon after the latter’s death. “Jobs” is undeniably a mixed bag as a movie. Cinematically it feels rushed and unimaginative, relying far too much on montage and period pop music to tell the complicated story of Apple’s genesis and early years, and sticking closely to the accepted perception of its subject as a driven and demanding genius with an impenetrable shell. (The story ends in 2001, after Jobs' return to the company and just before its rapid 21st-century iPod/iPhone/iPad ascent.) But its portrayal of early Silicon Valley culture is highly entertaining, and there are several strong supporting actors playing well-known figures in the Jobs story, including Josh Gad (as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak), Dermot Mulroney (as Mike Markkula, Apple’s first investor), Matthew Modine (as John Sculley, the CEO Jobs hired who later forced him out) and J.K. Simmons (as board chairman Arthur Rock, Jobs’ arch-nemesis). This isn’t a great film, but it’s effective storytelling.

In my view, some of the dismissive reviews of Kutcher’s performance are wildly off the mark. He captures Jobs’ stooped, intense body language, his febrile and almost angry intelligence, and the sense that Jobs had a kind of personality defect that made him an expert motivator and also made him immune to the demands and responsibilities of ordinary friendship. Then again, I’ve never doubted Kutcher’s prowess or potential as a dramatic actor, not after seeing him play a ruthless Hollywood gigolo in David Mackenzie’s black comedy “Spread,” a commercial failure but a terrific film. I think he’s often been pigeonholed – or pigeonholed himself – as the romantic male lead, when his real talents point in other directions.

At age 35, Kutcher remains a TV star who has had only middling success on the big screen. Whether his long-term future lies in movies or in his other ventures – producing for TV, investing in technology start-ups and various philanthropic campaigns – remains to be seen. (In all likelihood, he is the only person to have appeared on VH1’s list of Hottest Hotties and Fast Company’s list of Most Innovative Companies.) Kutcher clearly wants to push his acting career in new directions, if the public will let him get past the era of “Punk’d” and his tabloid-friendly marriage to Demi Moore, 15 years his senior. Moore and Kutcher are apparently still hashing out divorce terms, and he is now reportedly dating Mila Kunis. But I didn’t ask him about any of that stuff; we were too busy talking about global warming and the soulfulness of technology.

Just so you know, I was only kidding about the Republicans and global warming. I actually believe in climate change.

Scientifically, it's really climate extremism. That’s probably how we should phrase it. It will get colder than it's ever gotten and it'll also get warmer than it's ever gotten. You know, there's some interesting things we could do about climate change, but we don't do them. Hopefully, at some point people will -- I think everybody waits until they see people dying, and then they go, “Oh, we should do something about this!” Even then sometimes it's not enough, Syria being an example of that. Yeah, it's crazy -- the world's kind of messed up!

Almost every day I wonder whether it’s too late, whether our grandkids will inherit a world that’s even worth living in.

There's hope. There’s a great book by Peter Diamandis called "Abundance" that gives us some hope. And the hope is largely dependent on Moore's Law, and the exponential growth of tools that can provide solutions to a lot of these problems. There's some things we could do, like with global warming where we can spray aerosol into the atmosphere to make clouds brighter, which would reflect a little bit more of the sun and that would cool the earth a little bit. That's just one example. But yeah, there are some big problems out there.

How did you evaluate the risks involved in playing someone as well known as Steve Jobs? I mean, I’m delighted you did it, but the potential for failure, or even disaster, is pretty high.

Well, you have to create your opportunities. I take the best roles that I get offered. I have the good fortune that I have my television show that pays me very well. I don't really have to worry about making money from the films I do, so I can make strictly artistic choices. Which is a great liberty to have, and I now have that. This particular role was a perfect convergence of my interests and my craft. I love technology; I do a lot of work in early-stage angel investing in technology companies. I work with a lot of entrepreneurs, and I find them to be some of the most inspiring people in the world. So to play someone that came from that humble beginning to be the guy that was running the most profitable company in the history of the world was pretty cool.

I thought it was a great opportunity, and I also knew it was going to come with a lot of judgment and a lot of ridicule and a lot of pressure to get it right. I have a lot of friends who were friends with Steve or worked with Steve, and so I felt the added pressure of that. But most of the good things I've ever done have actually come from taking on things that terrified me. When you're scared, it's a pretty good indication that there's growth behind that door. I had relative confidence in my ability to play the role in an entertaining way, but I didn't know whether or not I could play it in a way that felt really, truly authentic. I'm not a great impersonator of people, so I had to do a lot of work to figure out where he was coming from and work from the inside out with the character.

You probably couldn’t afford to think about this when you were making the movie, but there are so many living people who knew this guy. His friends, his colleagues, his family members, his enemies and competitors – there are so many people who will be eager to see this and pick it apart.

Well, thankfully a lot of them have seen it. We showed the film to the original Macintosh team, or at least to about 20 people who were on the original Mac team, a lot of people who are in the film. After the film they said, "If those exact scenes didn't happen, something like that happened a hundred times." A couple of people came up to me and said, "Thank you for giving us two more hours of Steve." So I think we passed that sniff test. You know, the way I approached it was with the desire to honor the legacy of a man that I admired, but to treat him as a man. He was a human and he was flawed. It's really easy to turn these guys into heroes, and I think over time the tales about people like this get taller, the good ones and the bad ones.

There was a great divide of admiration and hate that existed with this character, which I thought was one of the most interesting things about him. A guy that treated his employees the way he did, and who had a 95 percent approval rating by his employees. I looked at him and I went, you know, this guy's like one of those old-school football coaches who berates his players and tells them that they're crap and ultimately makes them better. I think that's the kind of person he was. People knew that, being in his presence, he wasn't going to hold his punches, but he was going to drive you to get the best out of you on behalf of the ultimate goal. I think we represented that.

Well, speaking about his treatment of others, the movie shows Jobs making the decision not to offer stock options to some of the guys who were in that garage with him in Los Altos, building the Apple I. Some of those guys, like Steve Wozniak and Rod Holt, got founder’s stock, and some of them were just employees. How did you understand that ruthlessness?

I think Steve had a specific opinion on entitlement. He felt like he worked really hard to get what he got, and I don't think he was very fond of people who wait for the world to give them something. He expressed that across a myriad of things. When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is, this is your life and you've got to live inside this life. But life can be broader than that once you realize that you can build it, you can create your own things. But he also knew the sacrifice and the work that it took to actually do that. In the same way that he motivated other people to go out and earn it and build it, he felt like if you didn't, then you didn't deserve to get it.

Let’s take Daniel Kottke, for example. He left Apple when it was about five or six employees, went back to school and got a music degree at Columbia, and only came back to Apple once they were already on a trajectory to success. Should he get stock? I don't know -- they don't tell that story in the movie, but I was able to justify it really quickly once I did a little investigation about this guy, who's probably the loudest guy about not getting stock from the company.

I don't think those were easy decisions to make. I don't know that it ultimately was the right decision. But it was a decision he felt like he had to make at that time, and I can't judge the character I was playing. I have a lot of people who have contributed to success in my life in various ways, and I try to compensate those people for that. But I don't know the exact dynamics of that situation. Steve Wozniak was a founder, and he got his stock. The other people were employees, to him [Jobs].

Did you personally have to go to school on the technology and engineering aspect of this story, to make it feel authentic? When you look at the motherboard and components of the Apple I, do you know what they are?

Yeah -- I mean, I was a biochemical engineering student [at the University of Iowa], so I know somewhat how computers work. I know what an ALU is, I know what RAM and ROM are, I know how an integrated circuit works. I have a relatively decent understanding of that type of stuff. I went to school a little bit, just to get a little bit of a broader understanding. I did study a lot of design stuff. The thing about Steve was, he wasn't -- he needed Woz. He couldn't have built what Woz built. In fact, when Steve got hired at Atari [in the mid-‘70s], the reason he got hired was because they knew he knew Woz. Also, they knew that Steve was creative and inventive and a hard worker and would do something great, but, you know, I've talked to Nolan Bushnell about it, and they definitely knew he knew Woz. Steve had a myriad of people like that who were around him, because he made them better. He asked them the questions that actually drove them to be better.

He was more like a philosopher -- he knew a lot about a lot, and he was able to look at the big picture and oversee the big picture, oversee and reiterate the vision, keep people focused on the vision. He knew a lot, but he also had the ability in some cases to not know a lot, which is what allowed him to make things really simple. He was like the master of the topic sentence; he could take really complicated things and make them very simple and easy. Sometimes the engineers who are building these things are so smart, they go, "Well, it's obvious how it works!" And then you go, yeah, to you. But it's not obvious to the guy who's afraid to even approach this piece of technology. Steve had a broad enough understanding that he was almost like the philosopher that was able to hone those things in. On top of that, he had enough art and design sense that he was able to make things beautiful.

You do talk about Jobs’ art and design sensibility, his commitment to building things that were beautiful. That’s allied to his interest in spirituality, which is an issue you don’t really get into. Wasn’t part of his genius the insight that technology had aspects that were not quantifiable, aspects that were not about usefulness or functionality in the narrow sense?

If I get down to the core of what I think made this guy tick -- and I've talked to [Jobs biographer] Walter Isaacson about this and I think we concur -- I think Steve was rejected by his birth parents, or so he saw it, and then history repeated itself and he was rejected by the very company that he created. There was a real scar that he had from that, and the way he sought love was by creating a product that people accepted and didn't reject, a product that people loved. By them loving the product, they in turn loved him. I think that was his drive with the products that he created.

When the first Macintosh came out and they called it a "dumb beige box" or something like this, he was crushed. I talked to Alan Kay [who invented Apple’s GUI, or graphical user interface], and he told me that Steve was really, really devastated by that. Alan said to him, "Steve, you finally created a computer that was good enough for people to criticize." But for Steve that was a rejection of him again, and his pursuit of perfection in the products that he created was a driver to be loved.

And, you know, I think that his spiritual pursuit was in large part connected to that same wound. When the people who are supposed to biologically love you don't love you, you have to pursue a value of self that is strong enough to endure. I think that his spiritual pursuit was in relation to that, the elimination of ego and the elimination of self. I think that was probably projected into his product, and some of the singular focus of the products that he created, where you can only actually run one application at a time. Some of the intuitive design sense, where it almost knew what you wanted. He wanted to make something that -- when he saw the GUI that Alan Kay created, and the mouse, and he thought, oh, you can just push it, it knows what you want and it was just beyond your fingertips. That was a tangible part of his life, creating something that can't reject you.

Let me ask you about your career and how much you are deliberately changing course with this role and this movie. When you did “Spread,” playing a dramatic character in a movie that went into some dark places, and it didn’t connect, did you conclude that people don’t want to see you do that? Do your fans only want you to be funny?

Yeah, I did a couple movies in a row like that. I did a movie called “Personal Effects” that was a pretty dramatic character and dramatic role, a quiet guy. And then “Spread.” You kind of just have to follow your instincts on this stuff, and keep pursuing roles and characters that you find challenging and entertaining. I've actually learned a lot about how to take feedback, and I've learned it really from social media. You know, the audience generally wants more of what they have. People are readily passionate about judging you based on what you haven't done yet. If you have a focus and a vision and a drive and you want to create something, you just have to go do it. You can't listen to a lot of people. I think feedback's great once you create something, to get an understanding of what you can do better. But you can't let the feedback deter your vision. Sometimes you make stuff that people get, and people feel resonance to, and sometimes you make stuff that people don't. And that's art.

How much do you see Steve Jobs as a personal inspiration or a role, and how much is he a cautionary example – like, an example of what not to do?

In every way I see Steve as a personal inspiration. I have a similar interest in technology and art. I had a similar experience when I was 19, traveling the world and seeing the world in a different way. I dropped out of college. I've taken half the courses at Yale and MIT online, just sitting and watching videos and kind of dropping in on classes, if you will. I like to build things and create things and solve big problems, and I appreciate efficiencies and creating efficiencies. I try to take the things I admire about Steve Jobs on, and I try to learn from the things that I don't admire about Steve Jobs. But I think ultimately I recognize him as the Leonardo da Vinci of our day, and if you don't admire that, or appreciate it, I think you're taking a lot for granted.

"Jobs" opens nationwide this week.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir