NOT THAT LONG AGO, ASHTON KUTCHER was stoned in Iowa. This is a condition distinct from that of his character Kelso on That '70s Show, who is customarily stoned in Wisconsin, or even his character Jesse in Dude, Where's My Car?, who, in a daring variation on a theme, is stoned in an unidentified state that looks a lot like California.
For Kutcher, being stoned in Iowa in 1996 meant sitting in a basement, listening to the Prodigy and White Zombie, grooving on the black-light posters. One night in such an environment, with nothing to go on except his altered consciousness, Kutcher declared that one day he would go on a date with Jennifer Aniston. When challenged by a friend, he bet a thousand dollars on the proposition.
"I was obsessed with her," says Kutcher. "That photo of her with crossed legs from ROLLING STONE was my screen saver on my computer through college."
Five years later, Kutcher, by then a successful young sitcom actor living in Hollywood, attended a party for the movie Moulin Rouge. He remembers, "I feel this presence, and it's Brad Pitt walking in the room. Dude, he does have a presence." A studio executive introduced Kutcher to Pitt; Kutcher promptly asked him if he could have permission to take his wife on a date. Pitt, unsurprisingly, just stared at him. Kutcher didn't tempt Aniston to cheat or even obtain her phone number, but he insists, "I'll never have to pay that bet off. I'll go to my death still saying I'm going to take out Jennifer Aniston."
This is life as Ashton Kutcher: He didn't get Jennifer Aniston, but he did get out of the Iowa basement. After five years on That '70s Show, whose season finale on May 14th will see the cast graduate, finally, from high school, Kutcher's film career is still on the launching pad. So he created another TV show, Punk'd, a hit for MTV that features Kutcher orchestrating practical jokes on other celebrities while the hidden cameras roll. The show punk'd Justin Timberlake by convincing him that all his possessions were being confiscated for back taxes and punk'd Eliza Dushku by making her believe that she was about to get busted for shoplifting.
The idea for Punk'd came out of Kutcher's inferiority complex. When he's in a room with other famous people, Kutcher doesn't feel like he belongs. He says, "I feel like the butler, like I should be serving people and not sitting at the table. That's why I like doing Punk'd — I get to meet all these celebrities." Kutcher, 25, has shaggy good looks, an unusually broad forehead and a talent for playing genial morons. Oh — and he's a former model. This means that if most members of the American public have thought about his personality at all, they assume he's a sweet but dim guy who walks around in a cloud of marijuana smoke.
In fact, Kutcher is the hardest-working prankster in Hollywood; he stopped smoking weed five years ago because he wanted to get more done. "His work ethic is sickening; it's out of control," says Jason Goldberg, the co-creator of Punk'd. Kutcher is doing two TV shows simultaneously, developing a slate of movies and periodically hitting the town — although Kutcher says he always ends up talking business. He sleeps approximately five hours a night.
"I would prefer people have low expectations of me," Kutcher says. "I think that's an advantage."
ASHTON KUTCHER LIVES AT THE END of a hilly Los Angeles cul-de-sac. In the driveway, there's a Land Rover, a vintage Chevy El Camino truck and a Jet Ski. I ring the doorbell at 3 P.M. sharp on a Friday. The door opens to reveal a six-foot-three man with dark skin, dreadlocks and a white wrestling mask covering his face. This is not what I expected.
"Hi. I'm Mr. Wrestling No. 3," he says. "Come on upstairs."
I follow him into a small office, wondering whether I have the right house, looking around for hidden cameras that might be recording this scene for Punk'd. "We had a crazy, crazy party last night," says Mr. Wrestling No. 3. "There were midgets, there were some fat chicks in the pool."
Mr. Wrestling No. 3 takes a seat behind the desk, where he talks about his plans for dominating the WWE. Kutcher has said that the goal of Punk'd is to get the victims to cry or throw a punch; I decide to enjoy the ride. I ask Mr. Wrestling No. 3 what his signature move is.
"The jackknife power bong," he says.
"What are you doing?" Kutcher is standing in the doorway of the office, wearing pinstripe pants and no shirt. Apparently, this was a freelance prank. A few minutes later, Kutcher has put on a shirt and Mr. Wrestling No. 3 has removed his mask, revealing T.J. Jefferson, Kutcher's roommate and personal assistant. There are no hidden cameras today. Kutcher tells me about a successful prank he pulled the day before in Las Vegas: He punk'd Pink, making her think that she was getting busted because her boyfriend had been running a motorcycle chop shop. "She was losing her shit," says a pleased Kutcher.
Have any of the celebrities put through the Punk'd emotional wringer sought revenge on Kutcher?
He grins. "You can't bullshit a bullshitter."
"Everyone's gunning for Ashton now," Goldberg tells me later on. "If we were going to get him, it would have to be the most elaborate bit: ten snipers breaking through his windows with ropes and double-barreled shotguns. And it wouldn't work if he was alone — he knows too much about where the hidden cameras are set up. He'd have to have a girl in bed with him."
As Kutcher gives me the guided tour of the house — pool, tennis court, a dog named Mr. Bojangles — he tells me about the last time heavy-duty firepower paid a visit to his property. That was when he brought home President George W. Bush's twin daughters, and the Secret Service came along for the ride.
About a year and a half ago, Kutcher went to a Nike party with some friends. When his friend Matt spotted Jenna and Barbara Bush, Matt graphically described his amorous intent, oblivious to the glares of the Secret Service agents: "I'd fucking nail the shit out of that bitch!"
My God, he was not shutting up," says Kutcher. Nevertheless, Ashton met the twins, who asked what he was doing after the party. Everyone ended up going back to Kutcher's house, although he insisted the Secret Service stay outside. "So we're hanging out," Kutcher says. "The Bushes were underage-drinking at my house. When I checked outside, one of the Secret Service guys asked me if they'd be spending the night. I said no. And then I go upstairs to see another friend and I can smell the green waiting out under his door. I open the door, and there he is smoking out the Bush twins on his hookah."
The next morning, Kutcher picked up his phone — and didn't get a dial tone. He assumes that ever since the Bushes' visit, the Secret Service has had his phone tapped.
Kutcher is a gracious host, talking a mile a minute, doing imitations of Jim Morrison and Axl Rose, chain-smoking cigarettes. He shows me his fridge, filled with Mountain Dew, SoBe, Miller and bottled Starbucks — provided free because the manufacturers hope to get their names mentioned in an article like this. He says, "The best thing about being famous is the free shit. And not waiting in line. The worst? It doesn't bother me so much when people come up to me, it's the anticipatory staring."
When Kutcher moved into his house, there were mirrors on practically every surface, making it look like a set from Scarface. He's been remodeling, so the walls now hold memorabilia relating to The Shawshank Redemption (his top movie) and Walter Payton (his top running back). Kutcher built the deck himself. He painted the brick floor with the help often friends, providing free promo beer in return for their labor.
Kutcher's carpentry skills were honed in Iowa, where he worked with his dad renovating houses. (Other Kutcher jobs included sweeping cereal dust at the Cheerios factory and skinning deer for the butcher.) Christopher Ashton Kutcher was born February 7th, 1978. He has an older sister, Tausha, and a fraternal twin brother, Michael. "Michael is more serious," their father, Larry, says. "He's in the banking industry. Whereas Ashton is more freewheeling." The family lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and later on in Homestead, population 100, small enough that Kutcher and his friends didn't bother ditching school because there was nowhere to go.
Kutcher's mom, Diane, worked on the Head & Shoulders assembly line for Procter & Gamble, while his dad worked on the Fruit Roll-Ups line for General Mills, so the family was well-stocked with both soap and cereal. The Kutchers were big on teasing and giving each other nicknames, a family tradition that continues. "My newest one is Big Balls," Kutcher says ruefully.
He was fourteen when his parents divorced, which left him remarkably unscarred; his dad moved two houses down the street. "My parents are so cool," he says. "They couldn't have handled it better."
The seeds of Kutcher's overachieving were planted in high school. He was that guy whose photo is on every page of the yearbook: choir, science club, thespian society, National Honor Society, wrestling, track, football. For the undermanned football team, Kutcher says he was in every single play in every single game for three years, except one — that was the down after he was kicked in the stomach and threw up on the field. In those three years, his Clippers won two games. "No matter how many times we got beat," Kutcher says, "we just wanted to freaking win. It just made us work harder."
He did school plays, including a lead in To Kill a Mockingbird, but spent more time on non-Hollywood hobbies such as hunting ("You sit there freezing your ass off, shaking like a dog shitting razor blades") and racing snowmobiles ("I hit an ice shelf in a whiteout and went, like, eighty yards in the air"). When his pals wanted to throw a party, they'd find a remote cornfield, bring a couple of kegs and light a bonfire.
When Kutcher was eighteen, he and his cousin broke into the high school. Their mission: steal a test for the cousin. "I was really good at picking locks, but we didn't realize there was a silent alarm in the library." After the cops showed up, there was a high-speed chase on foot, which ended with their arrest. Kutcher spent the night in jail (his stepfather declined to bail him out), was convicted of third-degree burglary, had to do 180 hours of community service and was on probation for three years. His record was just recently expunged — which means that since he's no longer a felon, he can finally vote.
Kutcher went down the road to the University of Iowa, where he joined a fraternity ("Delta Chi, riding high") and majored in biochemical engineering. When he was thirteen, his twin, Michael, had contracted cardiomyopathy, a chronic disorder of the heart muscle that can be fatal; by virtue of a last-minute heart transplant, Michael survived. Kutcher wanted to become a geneticist so he could work on finding a cure.
"So I knew what a double helix was," he recalls, "and I had an inkling about RNA regulation, but so much I didn't know. I couldn't isolate three codons. So you study, you learn something every day, and you engrave it on your synapses. But I wasn't doing it for me, I was doing it for my family."
Halfway through his sophomore year, Kutcher was taking a study break in a bar when a modeling agent spotted him and persuaded him to enter the Fresh Faces of Iowa contest, which he won. Kutcher convinced his parents he could always come back to school if modeling didn't work out, got permission from his probation officer and moved to New York. His agency there already had a Christopher on their roster, so Kutcher started using his middle name, Ashton. He worked in fashion for about a year, doing a billboard campaign for Calvin Klein and (after the probation officer OK'd it) runway work in Italy and Paris. He especially savored the women's shows, where he could walk a few models down the runway and then hang out backstage, pretending he wasn't ogling the supermodels changing clothes.
In 1998, NBC flew Kutcher out to Hollywood for an audition and promptly offered him a role in Wind on Water, a cowboy-surfer drama starring Bo Derek. His agent had also told him about Fox's That '70s Show (then called Teenage Wasteland); Kutcher auditioned for that as well, telling the creators he needed a decision by 3:45 P.M., because he had to give NBC an answer at 4 P.M. So on his first day in Los Angeles, Kutcher was offered two jobs, and he picked the right one.
"The first five episodes of That'70s Show, I was convinced I was going to be fired, because I was terrible," he says. He was so green in the ways of show business, he didn't know that most pilots never make it on the air and that most new TV shows are quickly canceled. "I thought, "Why would you make something that you don't intend to keep on the air?" he says.
Five seasons later, those '70s Show kids are finally graduating from high school. "I'm glad they're not 90210-ing us," Kutcher says. "We'd all have full beards soon." Kutcher's character, Kelso, remains as fuddle-brained as ever. Kutcher explains the secret of his masterful portrayal: "The key is not to play stupid. You can feel for a naive person because it's not his fault, but you have no sympathy for a stupid person."
Kutcher says his '70s Show castmates are his best friends. "We hang out bullshitting for five days out of the week, and somehow on Friday we scrape together this show," he says. Kutcher rarely, however, watches the finished show. "I just move onto the next one," he says. "But sometimes T.J. will be watching it and I'll join him, and then I'll laugh at my own jokes and feel guilty about it. My guilty pleasure is watching me."
THE NEXT DAY, KUTCHER FLIES to New York to begin rehearsals for hosting Saturday Night Live, a lifelong dream for him. When I meet him at his room in the Four Seasons, he's on the phone, settling his dinner tab from the night before in L.A. It's more than $4,000 — he and P. Diddy went out with six friends, and the spending got a bit extravagant. Puffy told Kutcher that they should start a modern Rat Pack and promptly claimed the nickname Frank for himself (as if he didn't have enough names already); Kutcher had to settle for Dean. But Frank wouldn't tell Dean where they were meeting until an hour before dinner; presumably Puff didn't want to get punk'd.
One perk of rolling with Puffy: The show doesn't start until he gets there. Kutcher says Justin Timberlake and N.E.R.D. delayed going on until he arrived at the club. "Me and Frank got onstage," he says. "I was in hype-man mode. I had already been yelling and hollering, so my voice was nice and scratchy, with a DMX vibe."
After the show, 200 people went back to Kutcher's house, where they partied and cleaned out the fridge of promo beverages. As soon as everyone arrived, at 3:30 A.M., Kutcher went to bed. He says, "It freaks me out to have people I don't know in my home. I said, 'I am not taking responsibility.' When I got up at eight, I went downstairs, and there were two random girls eating pasta at my kitchen table."
American Airlines lost Kutcher's luggage, which means he's wearing what he flew in: white karate pants and a vintage Lenny Wilkens basketball jersey. I've brought along a six-pack of beer. The caps don't twist off, so Kutcher pops them open with a TV remote. "I can open a beer with anything," he boasts. "You live in Iowa, you've got to be resourceful." It seems like a good time to talk about his love life.
"I get really giddy and stupid with girls," Kutcher says. "Women, that's my vice. I love the company of women. I fall in love superfast, and I'll want to spend the next week together, twenty-four hours a day. I will drop everything when it's starting, and that's stupid. If you're not going to take a week off on a regular basis, don't do it in the beginning."
Kutcher lost his virginity when he was fifteen, in the Iowa woods. "Who does it in the woods?" he says, unable to believe his youthful folly. "There's sticks jabbing at people. I barely knew the girl, but I had to be deflowered. She barely got her pants down before we were done, but I made it up to her the second time."
Kutcher has an unrequited crush on Cameron Diaz and swears that he had a shot at Nicole Kidman. His collaborator Jason Goldberg says that he first met Kutcher at a birthday party for Goldberg's wife, actress Soleil Moon Frye (the one-time Punky Brewster). "I've never seen anyone with as much charisma," Goldberg says. "But he was hitting on my wife. That was my first taste of Ashton."
Kutcher's most recent relationship was with Brittany Murphy (8 Mile). They were co-stars in Just Married — a surprise hit earlier this year — but didn't start dating until after the film wrapped. That way, work and play wouldn't mix. "I wouldn't recommend dating co-workers, in any profession," he warns. "It's not smart. At all." Kutcher forgot, however, that they would still have to promote the movie together.
"It's a bummer situation when you're [mutually] ending a relationship because you don't see the future in it," Kutcher adds quietly. He says he and Murphy are still on good terms and that he learned enormous amounts about acting just by working with her. "She's one of the most beautiful people I've met in my life, and I'm blessed to have had so much of her company," Kutcher says. "I'd rather not talk about it. If it were six months from now, I would, but I don't want her to read this and feel bad."
THE LONGEST-RUNNING PUBLIC crush on Kutcher originates not with his co-stars but with Dan Savage, syndicated sex-advice columnist. He has called Kutcher "the most beautiful man on television today," and repeatedly mentioned his fantasy scenario of Brad Pitt coming on Kutcher's face. When a reader asked Savage who his guests would be at a dinner-and-sex party, Savage picked three political columnists for the meal, but for the orgy it was the lead singer of the Catheters, someone on the Swedish World Cup soccer team and Kutcher.
Kutcher misread that column and is unbothered by being the object of Savage's fantasies. He just doesn't like being thought of as a bimbo. "I sent him an e-mail, saying, 'Hi, this is Ashton Kutcher and I appreciate that I could be invited to your party to look at, but I don't think it's very bright of you to assume I wouldn't be able to carry on a conversation about meaningful world events.' "
Kutcher says that Savage wrote back, but that he didn't believe it was actually Kutcher who had sent the e-mail.
KUTCHER AND I SHARE A CAB DOWNTOWN; he's meeting some old friends from his modeling days. The cabby hears our conversation about residuals and figures out that Kutcher is an actor.
"Have you been in any movies?" the cabby asks.
"Not good ones!" Kutcher replies cheerfully.
Indeed, Kutcher's checkered résumé includes such fare as the dull western Texas Rangers. His first film credit was "College Kid" in Reindeer Games; Kutcher had two scenes (in one, he's being beaten up by Ben Affleck). Coming up is My Boss's Daughter, a comedy he made with Tara Reid three years ago. "I don't want to look at it, I don't want other people to see it," Kutcher says. "I feel like I'm a much better actor now. I'm very self-critical. I don't really like anything I've ever done."
Kutcher was pleased by the success of Dude, Where's My Car? but felt that the final version "was not necessarily the script or the movie that I shot." Specifically, he felt that removing explicit references to the leads' constant search for pot turned them into giggling morons, rather than stoners, and hurt the comedy. A sequel has been proposed — Seriously, Dude, Where's My Car? — but Kutcher says the notion scares him and he has only "limited interest."
Kutcher's comic timing is keen, but his dramatic abilities remain unproven. He tells casting directors, "Don't judge me by the parts I haven't played yet." He also asks them if he got the part as soon as his audition ends, but that's just him being pushy.
Kutcher is developing some other films for himself, including a football movie and a remake of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, where, in a reversal, Bernie Mac would play the father and Kutcher would play his daughter's lover. He's also producing and starring in a science-fiction drama called The Butterfly Effect, due next year. "I have lots of fun at work," Kutcher says. "People say I'm going to burn out, but you burn out doing things you don't want to do."
Kutcher's goals for Punk'd? "I want to blow up a car or a house," he says. How would he punk President Bush? He ponders the challenge. "I would get Saddam Hussein look-alikes and have them hang around the White House. I'd inform the entire Cabinet, then I'd have Saddam walk into the Oval Office, turn around and walk out." Dick Cheney would play the straight man, telling Bush that Hussein wasn't around and that maybe Bush should sleep a bit more. "Then I'd make Cheney leave and have Saddam knock on the window." Kutcher pictures the scene, smiles and gives the scenario his ultimate accolade: "Bush would lose his shit."