PORTMAN AND KUTCHER IN NO STRINGS ATTACHED. FILM STILL COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT
The recipe for a good romantic comedy is: (1) a witty script; (2) good actors with chemistry; (3) a director who understands comedy. Although the kind of formulaic romcoms that lack all of the above are as ubiquitous as Sundance swag, this weekend’s box-office winner, No Strings Attached, actually meets all three criteria.
A script as biting as it is sparkling, by first-time (i.e., cliché-free) screenwriter, Elizabeth Meriwether: check. Natalie Portman (not Katherine Heigl): check. Veteran comedy director Ivan Reitman (who produced Animal House and directed Ghostbusters): check.
No Strings Attached is the story of two friends with benefits (which was the film’s working title), the twist being that it’s Portman, not co-star Ashton Kutcher, avoiding love. Meriwether understands that beneath Portman’s noncommittal bravado lies considerable fear, and Reitman understands the difference between ribald and gross-out humor. The result is a sharp, often laugh-out-loud comedy with edge and heart. Portman and Kutcher spoke recently about romance, comedy and the ins and outs of sex scenes.
Kutcher (who is married to Demi Moore) was asked about the most romantic thing he had ever done. “I think that romance coincides with effort, so you can fall flat on your face, but as long as you’re making great effort, I think it comes off as romantic,” he said. “It can be something as simple as if you’re someone who doesn’t cook, you make a meal. Or anything that has a little bit of vulnerability in it and requires great effort. So I think for me, I’m a little bit of a workaholic, and I was in a different country. I had one day off, and I flew from that country just to see someone for an hour and then turned around and went back.”When asked what he taught Portman (a romcom neophyte) about romantic comedies, Kutcher was modest: “I’ve learned more from Natalie in one day of being on the set together than I could ever possibly teach her in a billion years! She may not have done a romcom before, but she’s done so much work on so many different levels of, like Garden State, that’s comedic in and of itself.”
Their first sex scene was shot close-up and quite candidly. Portman, who had done a graphic scene with Kutcher’s That 70’s Show co-star, Mila Kunis, in Black Swan, said of Kutcher, “We did that scene pretty deep into the shoot, so we had already had a comfortable sort of relationship and the respect and…” Kutcher interrupted her: “I was wearing sweatpants,” he said with a laugh. “I was not!” said Portman.
“I think you’re sort of always waiting, wondering when the word ‘cut’ is going to be said when you’re doing a scene,” said Kutcher. “So Ivan comes back in, he’s like, ‘I think you need to orgasm sooner.’ So you’re trying to, you know, your male machismo is like, ‘No, no, no, it’s gonna take me much longer than this!'” he said, laughing. “I’m sure every actor says it’s very technical, because you’re trying to show each other’s faces, but yet, stay in the moment. So it’s always more complicated than it is in real life.”
Portman added, “I’m pretty immature, so I get embarrassed easily. You do sort of go in the opposite direction between takes. Like, ‘What are you doing this weekend,’ you know, just totally benign conversation in between takes to make it a little normal.”
“I just start by apologizing, the first night, you try to set ground rules. I think it was Sir Laurence Olivier who said, something to the effect of, ‘I apologize if I get aroused and I apologize if I do not get aroused,'” laughed Kutcher. “There’s that awkward state of, ‘Is this okay,’ and then in between it’s, ‘Let’s act like nothing happened,’ and then you see how good of an actor you really are!”
Kutcher teased Portman on-set about their height difference: “She would get very upset with me. She looks like my child when we stand next to each other. I asked her if she could reach the pedals in the car one day. That didn’t go over very well.”
Portman described going from Black Swan to No Strings Attached as “like a palate cleanser after all of that really disciplined, focus, very serious set to a really playful fun set. And I didn’t have to work out, ’cause she’s a doctor, so they don’t have time!”
Portman was also a producer on the film, and said she was fascinated by observing “Ivan’s expertise of pacing and figuring out, oh, at the end there needs to be more movement, because in the original script it was sort of a contained scene at the end. He’s like, ‘No we have to get them moving on the road.’ To learn those things through the process was really exciting.”
As for upcoming projects, Kutcher said, “I’m getting ready to reunite with Gary Marshall on a New Year’s Eve project that’s not a sequel, but somewhat of a follow up to the Valentine’s Day movie that we did together.” Portman, who is expecting her first child, probably her first Oscar, and also has Thor and Your Highness due out this year joked that, “Well you have heard the Apocalypse is coming, right? 2012, Mayan calendar, thought I’d get it all in right before.”