The actress Mila Kunis is famous for being an impressively game interview. For GQ, she cooked up a fish oil-vinegar-vodka-wine home remedy; her chat with a terrified BBC reporter was frank and funny, and justly "went viral." But to a New Jersey Star-Ledger writer, she's cold and awkward because she won't dish about Ukraine.
Star-Ledger writer Stephen Whitty interviewed Kunis by phone about her new film "Third Person," and found the experience to be, as he said, "a pretty bumpy ride." He goes on to suggest that Kunis is unwilling to cooperate with his line of questioning because of her pregnancy. Yeah, it's that kind of piece.
The thing gets off on the wrong foot when Kunis "coldly" declines to discuss her pregnancy, but other than that she's forthcoming. In response to a question about a number of indie films the actress has made and whether she's set out to make smaller films, Kunis said, "Not really, because in the middle of all that I still did 'Oz [the Great and Powerful]’ and I still did 'Jupiter Ascending,’ so that sort of destroys your assumption ... It’s not like I go, 'I’m going to do a tentpole movie now. You gravitate toward different things, different times." Whitty characterizes this response as "impatient" -- but it reads in print fairly straightforwardly as the beginning of an explanation about how Kunis handles her career, aching for a follow-up. Instead, Whitty pivots to asking about what he calls "a somewhat harrowing tale she's recounting before," the actress's upbringing in the USSR.
Kunis notes that "I've talked about me moving to America in a hundred interviews. It's the most mundane subject possible, it's like everyone's interview story." Consider Kunis' position here: If she keeps recounting a story that's already been told, she'll be perceived as belaboring her experience, seeming to capitalize upon it or minimize the struggles of those immigrants far less fortunate than she. Kunis reveals herself to be a savvy operator whose response to a question about the current crisis in Ukraine is among the most straightforward and sophisticated I've ever seen from a celebrity:
"It just seems weird to do an interview about ‘Third Person’ and then it becomes about Ukraine, and that’s the headline. I do interviews and they seem like they’re supposed to be one thing, and the writer has an idea, and then they become something else."
Kunis, by all evidence available, did here what most celebrities won't and failed to place many publicist-enforced restrictions upon the interview. Whitty is free to ask the questions he likes (which is how it should be, but rarely is), and she answers in plain English the hazards a celebrity like her faces were she to answer a question about Ukraine, or about what she sees as a misconception about her career.
Saying, "I hate when people ask me this question," in response to an inquiry about Kunis' past roles isn't rudeness for rudeness' sake, especially given that she goes on to explain why (because of a "misconception that comedy's easy). It's candor of a sort one doesn't usually find at a junket. Whitty, perpetually inserting himself into the story to comment on exactly how he perceives her answers moment-by-moment, thinks he's doing savvy criticism of the celebrity-junket complex. But it's Kunis who's doing that.
There's a strong undercurrent in this piece of frank sexism; Whitty suggests that Kunis may be stonewalling him because of "an awful bout of morning sickness (not that I'd risk offending her by asking)." What a gentleman! And, indeed, the genre of piece that condemns the celebrity-industrial complex for a journalist's own failure to capitalize upon opportunities tends to place young women in its sights. Consider the New Yorker's Anthony Lane failing to get anything out of Scarlett Johansson but observations about her radiance and complaints about her publicist's presence, as though the flack was to blame for his failure to produce anything more than a description of his fantasies. Or a Toronto Star piece about a Selena Gomez junket in which Gomez gets a side-eye for not having a snappy answer to "So how is the new music different from the old music?" Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but female stars seem like particularly easy targets for pieces "pulling back the curtain" on celebrity journalism.
Unlike Johansson and Gomez, though, Kunis spoke frankly. The fact is, she's getting treated in the Huffington Post, The Wrap, and Us Weekly as awkward and brusque when, by all appearances, she answered each question as best she could and explained herself before Whitty pivoted to the next thing. This is, indeed, a work of meta-journalism, but not in the way Whitty thinks -- it's about how easy it is to paint a person trying in a way very few celebrities do to articulate what is difficult about the interview experience, and getting talked over.