In 2003, not long before he vaulted to fame as Ryan Howard on NBC’s “The Office,” a then-unknown B.J. Novak landed his first major break when Ashton Kutcher cast him on his MTV celebrity-prank show “Punk’d.”
“That show was great acting training because you had one take, you had to be really convincing and funny and the other person didn’t know you’re acting,” says Novak, who, as Kutcher’s accomplice, wreaked hidden-camera havoc on the likes of Missy Elliott, Usher and Hillary Duff. “It’s still the most fun job I’ve ever had.”
Cut to today and Novak has now returned the favor in his feature writing-directing debut, “Vengeance,” giving actor-turned-tech-investor-and-activist Kutcher the first meaty big-screen role he’s had in nearly a decade.
A sharply comic neo-noir aimed squarely at the zeitgeist, “Vengeance,” which hits theaters Friday, stars Novak as Ben Manalowitz, a pretentious New York writer who travels to rural West Texas to make a true-crime podcast investigating the overdose death of a former romantic hookup. There, Ben meets Kutcher’s Quentin Sellers, a record producer and self-styled cowboy philosopher who charms Ben with his perceptive musings about social media, storytelling and the deepening divide between red and blue America — before things take a darker turn.
On a recent evening in downtown Los Angeles, The Times spoke with Novak, 42, and Kutcher, 44, about their improbably intertwining career paths, the perils of social media and bridging the country’s cultural rift.
B.J., what was going on in your career when you got cast on “Punk’d”?
Novak: I was trying to make it as a stand-up, and after about a year straight of bombing and open-mics, I started getting some traction. I got a general meeting at MTV and it led to an audition at “Punk’d.” Like, I want to explain to the younger generation how big MTV was at that point — it was really the mecca of cool, and “Punk’d” was the hottest show going at the time. I really couldn’t believe it.
Ashton, what do you remember about casting B.J.?
Kutcher: We must have auditioned 100-plus people for that second season, and when we saw B.J. we went, “I think we’ve got our guy.” His first sketch was Hillary Duff getting her driver’s permit and he was the driving instructor. I remember watching it unfold and B.J. just had it. From there, he went on this run that was just gold.
Novak: “Punk’d” really is why I got the job on ”The Office.” [Executive producer] Greg Daniels was interested in me as an actor and writer, but it was a tough sell. So we showed the network a script I had written and my tape from “Punk’d,” and that’s what convinced them.
[To Kutcher] I remember later I saw you at a party at [talent manager] Guy Oseary’s house and you bellowed across the room, “You’re welcome!” Like, for my career.
Kutcher: Did I really do that? I’m such an a—. That’s the kind of thing that my wife [Mila Kunis] is now like, “Shut the f— up. Stop.”
Novak: I thought it was funny. I knew the sense of humor you were going for.
All these years later, what made you think Ashton would be right for the part of Quentin Sellers?
Novak: I wrote the part in my mind for Peter Sellers. So I really wrote it for someone that didn’t exist and needed to surprise people. I thought, “Well, people think they know Ashton but they’ve never seen this side of him onscreen: the intellectual powerhouse, the producer, the analytical side, the dramatic side.” I thought this could be the lightning bolt that the movie needs to turn on its head.
Ashton, it’s been almost a decade since you’ve had this substantial a role in a film. What made you want to sign on?
Kutcher: I’ve been running a big investment fund, investing in early-stage startup technology for like the last 15 years, and I was at a place, between that and running our nonprofit, where I kind of just lost the fun in acting. Then this script came and it really embodied what I felt was the state of America right now, with one perspective on the coasts and another perspective in the middle of the country and both sides vilifying one another. I thought it was really beautiful.
Then I was ready to come and shoot the film, and I got sort of an early signal from Davos that this COVID thing was like a real thing.
Novak: Listen to this secret agent.
Kutcher: My friend at Davos was like, “Batten down the hatches. Go home. Don’t leave.” I called B.J. and I said, “Are you guys shutting down production?”
Novak: We were in the middle of a red state. It was pretty far from Davos. I was like, “COVID-19? This guy spends too much time in tech. No, of course we’re still shooting.” Then, of course, the day before he was going to shoot the whole world shut down and we had to shut down for seven months.
The character of Ben initially has a condescending attitude toward Quentin, assuming he is going to be a kind of rube. Ashton, having originally come from Iowa and moved to L.A., did that sort of attitude resonate with you?
Kutcher: There’s absolutely an urban condescension towards people in rural communities. Growing up in Iowa, I watched people move from the city into the country and think that they could just farm. We’d just laugh, like it was “City Slickers.” They didn’t know how to care for the cattle. They didn’t know how to fix a fence.
Now having lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, I can see the other side. That’s what’s exciting about the movie: B.J.’s character traverses through that arc, where his instantaneous assumptions and judgments start to come to clarity once he has care and mercy for the humanity of the people in those scenarios.
B.J., you’ve talked about how writing this character was a way of calling yourself out for some of your flaws. How so?
Novak: I had those blind spots and that shallowness and ambition. I was someone who wanted maybe to talk more than listen, who wanted to tell a great story more than he wanted to find a great story or tell someone else’s story that needed to be told. It was hard to show the sides of myself I don’t like. It’s also hard to be earnest about finding some good in people and even in yourself. Putting all of that into the character was a challenge, but I’m glad I didn’t just go for the easy choices.
The movie comments on social media and the sometimes deceptive or unhealthy way that people curate their personas online. Ashton, as the first person ever to amass 1 million Twitter followers and someone who’s spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, how has your own thinking about social media evolved?
Kutcher: I think we spend a copious amount of time trying to dissect what social media means and whether or not it’s right. At a certain point, you’ve just got to accept that it is. I think it’s easy to sort of beat up social media for what it’s done. But then you look at various things that we would never be aware of — horrible atrocities that are happening around the world that we’re only aware of because of social media. So I think it’s a balancing act.
A friend of mine said to me, “Social media used to be a mirror for humanity, and now humanity is mirroring social media.” Which I think is a really interesting flip on it. Like now we’re imitating that which we see on social media, as opposed to social media just being a reflection of our existence.
Novak: Social media is a sign of what we are yearning for, and what we’re yearning for is a good thing. People want to share. You’re less lonely when you post a picture of your lunch because you friends see your lunch and it’s like you’re with your friends. When you want a lot of followers, you want to matter, you want your voice heard. These are all good things, and yet they somehow push us further apart. I do believe that all the forces that drive us to social media are good things. But it’s an optical illusion, and we need to figure out what to do with that energy instead.
Kutcher: The brilliance of B.J.’s writing is that every character has a point and they’re making a salient argument from their perspective. We’re all witnessing how fractured the country is on a daily basis, but the beauty of what he did is he showed somebody that took the time to listen. And if we all just take the time to listen, maybe we’ll all understand each other a little bit more. Then maybe we can actually have a conversation about why we have different perspectives, and maybe come to a negotiated solution.
Do you worry that we could be past that point, that people are too dug into their own reality bubbles to hear each other?
Kutcher: No, past that point was when we had a civil war. We’re not past that point. [Laughs] My guy from Davos says we’re not past that point.
Novak: I think everyone’s worried. People have different perspectives on what should be talked about in art and in public. But I think that we talk too much about politics, despite the stakes never having been higher. And if we talked more about real life and the TV show we saw or the sports we were watching with our family, we’d realize that we’re all living pretty similar lives and have pretty similar hopes and fears.
You know, sometimes I have thought if Neil Armstrong landed on the moon today, would he have had pressure to say something about President Nixon? Aren’t you glad he didn’t? Like sometimes you’ve just got to all look at a guy on the moon and say, “Wow.” I’d like us to do that more. We need some more wows.
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