Thank God. For a moment there I thought that Ashton Kutcher was going to beat the living crap out of me. The truth is, he probably could. For his latest film, The Guardian, he has become, to use his word, "built". "I'm the fittest I've ever been in my life" he says, "I started training for the movie before I knew I had the role, I was training for about eight months. Demi [Moore, Kutcher's wife] went through a similar training program for GI Jane, and she said to me, "Just go all out". So I did. I feel like when you're doing a film the idea is that you do all the work before you get there. Everything that you're going to do in a scene, everything that you're going to have to do physically, you have to have the work already done before you get there, because there's going to be enough problems once you get there that you're gong to have to solve. If you haven't already figured out what you're going to do you're not going to... win." Kutcher's speech is dogged with these kinds of pauses, Kutcher-isms almost, as he flails around for a suitable expression. His tweed suit, complete with waistcoat, is a far cry from the slacker garb in which he became famous on That 70s Show and which saw him launched onto the big screen in the cultural trainwreck which was "Dude...Where's my Car?" Today, as he name checks Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, one thing is abundantly clear. Ashton Kutcher is trying very, very hard to be taken seriously.
The film itself puts Kutcher in a more serious role than he has typically been seen in before. Kutcher plays a Rescue Swimmer, one of an elite Coast Guard team whose job is to rescue people from the most dangerous conditions the sea can whip up. While Kutcher was keen to get the role, it did present one major initial worry for him. "I hate the water. Hate it. I didn't like taking a bath really, never mind swimming" So if one good thing came of this film, at least it improved Ashton Kutcher's personal hygiene by getting him back in the water.
Removing his overpowering personal odour and cleansing his stinking pores was not the only way in which the role benefited his friends. "I was on holiday recently with Demi and some English friends of ours, and this guy – we call him ..'Dickie Doc..', he..'s like 80 and a doctor, anyway, he..'s been drinking all day and then he decides to go for a swim. He gets about 10 feet from the boat and then starts going under, so I dove in and brought him in. I wouldn..'t have been so quick to get in the water before we did this film.
"The Guardian" also helped Kutcher kick the rabid nicotine monkey from off his back. "It's hard to smoke and swim at the same time" admits Kutcher, smiling, "But seriously, it is difficult when you finish a length of the pool and you're thinking about a cigarette when what you really need is oxygen. I suppose I traded the nicotine for the oxygen. I read this book by a guy called Alan Carr, "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking", and it really worked for me – I enjoyed it because I got to keep smoking while I read it. The last page was like ..'Smoke your last cigarette now..' – so I did."
His co-star in "The Guardian" is Kevin Costner, a man who could perhaps be forgiven for not wanting to go back in the water after the now infamous debacle that was Waterworld. Kutcher is passionately defensive of an actor whom he says he "reveres", "What's interesting about "Waterworld" is that it actually made some $200 million, it was actually a financial success. But because it didn't perform well domestically in the United States it's assumed it didn't do well for him. I even assumed that myself."
"The movie Field of Dreams was filmed in Iowa, and so I grew up with a cornfield in my back yard, and I always thought baseball players were going to walk out of it. The mantra "if you build it they will come.." becomes a way of life. I'm very fortunate to have met a lot of my acting heroes, those people that you get to sit in little dark rooms and watch on a little box. They really become your heroes, they become your teachers and your team-mates. They're your bodyguards, or your authoritative figure. Now Kevin is my friend."
"It's hard, you could probably name on the fingers of maybe one hand the number of people who've been able to have a successful career for as long as Kevin has. You look up to those people when you..'re trying to do the same." "Dances With Wolves is one film he won an Oscar for as a director, I think it won seven Oscars, and if you're a young actor and you don't respect that I think you're kind of ignorant in some ways."
Unfortunately for Kutcher, and Costner, it is difficult to imagine "The Guardian" troubling the Oscar committee. The film is a by-numbers action film, modeling itself on genre-defining films such as "Top Gun", but offering little new on the tried and tested formula. In defence of the film, it is at least positive to the formula taken out of a conflict-fuelled, war-time scenario, and Kutcher explains that this is one of the things that drew him to the film. "I liked the fact that the film focuses on a branch of the military that they train to save lives, not to take them. I think that that's a noble thing." Kutcher is perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, expressing the influence of director Andrew Davis when he says this. Davis, who describes himself as a "good leftist", talks of his time learning his trade at the infamous Democratic convention of 1968. However, while making heroes out of life savers should be applauded, some of the politics of the film itself are questionable, particularly the way in which it seems to apologise for the debacle that was the US Government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina. In one scene of the film, a character talks about their training allowing them to be "so successful during Katrina". While the disaster certainly shot the Rescue Divers to a prominence that they had not enjoyed before, painting the disaster as a success in any terms seems controversial. Work on the film had in fact started well before Katrina happened, but it is impossible now to view the film outside of that context. With this in mind it is perhaps surprising that there is a merely token effort at racial diversity. Kutcher's 'team' in the film is made up of one black male, one mixed race female, one white female and about ten white males. Watching from Britain, the film seems to be at heart an all-American tale which one would expect the average cinema-going deep-south bible-belter to be proud.
Cliché-ridden and painfully over-sentimental, 'The Guardian' cannot be taken too seriously. Taken on its own terms, the film is a partial success, but it has little to distinguish it from generic Hollywood blockbusters. Firstly amongst the problems, is the not inconsiderable obstacle that Kutcher is.. how can I put this?.. not the most convincing of actors. While his star quality and charisma is not to be doubted, at crucial points in the film Kutcher is asked to convey what he calls his "emotional revealment", another Kutcher-ism, but his anger comes off as little more than petulance. Tellingly, he says he felt nerves shooting that scene, particularly during the constant re-shooting that Andrew Davis demanded. Kutcher says that it was at those points that Costner's mentorship was most useful. "Kevin took me to one side and said, "There's only one difference between me and you. I'm more confident because I'm more relaxed, and I'm more relaxed because I've been doing this for a lot longer than you have. Don't try to do anything, and you'll do everything."
While Kutcher is earnest and eager to be liked in person, he doesn't seem to have too much trouble playing a character so conceited that he has a "2" tattooed on his back so that "The other guy knows what position hes going to finish." Kutcher will no doubt continue to make big budget films for some time to come, but he thinks that 'The Guardian' will be his calling card to more serious roles, I fear that he may be severely dissapointed.
So finally, the one thing everyone must wonder while in the vicinity of Kutcher: Are we about to get Punk'd? "I don't guarantee immunity, when I'm working with someone I'm not going to break that trust that you have to have. You have to be able to look across to the person that you're working with and trust them, and trust that they're going to give it everything they've got. I can't break that trust in my work. So if they do I hope that they know while we're working together that nothing will happen." "When you're hanging from the wires you have all this concrete, if something's going wrong you don't want the guy going 'are you punking me?' 'No, you're really going to die!'. You don't want to get caught in that situation, so I would never do that." "But now we're finished...who knows?"