by Zoe Stagg
photography by Alison Dyer
Mila Kunis is wildly excited about the election. So excited that when I mentioned I had just been watching the debate, she said, “Oh no! Is that on?” Then I hear her over her shoulder to her boyfriend, telling him to turn it on. I tell her I don’t mind if she watches it while we talk but she demurs. Then she launches into the most rapid-fire, clever, sincere, lovely discussions, covering everything from stem cells to fart jokes, that I’ve ever had the pleasure of having. It’s the versatility one might expect from an actress who’s played some of the most all-American girls, from Jackie on That ‘70s Show to Meg on Family Guy. Part spitfire, part cotton candy, part clown, it’s a carnival of conversation at a racecar pace. Wasting no time, she delves into the good stuff right away.
“This is the first year that I’ve been really excited about politics, and I want to learn absolutely everything I can.” It might be the field of choices that’s inspired her, if not necessarily the platform it’s perched on. “I think the word ‘change’ has been overused. I’d just like to see us have a government that’s smart and who listens to and cares about the people in our country.” Does this mean she thinks the current government is less than caring? ”Look I’m just going to say it. I didn’t vote for George Bush. But I don’t blame the people who did. A lot of smart people believed him and didn’t know he’d turn out the way he did.” She continues, “I think after 9/11 we were all scared and ready to believe whatever. Then when we didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction and we didn’t find Osama, I wish there had been some flexibility or a reassessment.” Like most of us, her concern centers on Iraq. “I don’t know if the answer is a cold pull-out in a week, but I hope that whoever is president is smart enough and surrounds himself with smart enough people to make that decision.”
Her sharp political perspective could be the wisdom of someone exposed to a jarring change at age seven. “We left my hometown and went to Moscow on our way to America. I came from such a small town and I was so sheltered. I had never seen anyone on TV or in real life that wasn’t white. When we got to Moscow, I saw a man who was standing guard and he was black. I had never seen anyone who was black before and I just burst into tears. I thought he was burnt. And this is at 7 years old mind you. Luckily he was nice enough that he was able to explain to me in Russian that some people look differently. He was so nice and patient to do that.”
Hers is not just your average story of moving because your dad got a new job. Its complexity and her subsequent ability to adapt truly shaped her person. “When we moved here, we told people we were just moving down the street. It’s hard to explain, but we’re Jewish so if we’d moved to Israel it would have been different. But moving to the States was something we had to do in secret.” She was the heartbreaking, quintessential new girl. “I got to L.A. on a Tuesday and by Wednesday I was in elementary school. I’ve blocked out whole parts of second grade because everything was so new and foreign to me. It was like being deaf and blind suddenly at 7 years old. I didn’t understand anything that I was seeing or anything that I was hearing.” A raw pang every new kid can feel, multiplied a thousand times. “I cried everyday. I’d come home everyday crying and my mom was my absolute rock. I relied on her. I had no idea that meanwhile she was crying herself to sleep every night.”
The story of her journey from the Ukraine to the United States rests on the strong wills (and backs) of her parents. “My parents were fine in Russia, absolutely fine. Then they uprooted themselves not at 20, not at 30, but at 40!” She marvels at the notion. “They came here so that my brother and I could have more.” She considers this potential burden of her parents’ expectation a real gift. “In 1991, you could only come with $250. Now you can wire all of your money and bring it with you but then you couldn’t. Nothing transfers. Your degrees, nothing.” It was a completely fresh start for her whole family. Though she might be living the American Dream now, it wasn’t an easy journey.
“My parents really had to start from scratch,” she says. Mila’s parents had both been professionals in the Ukraine. In their new life, her “dad painted fences, houses, he drove a cab, and eventually bought a cab, and built his own business. My mom started out as a checker at RiteAid and worked her way up to manager. But they always put food on the table for my brother and I.” Though life was tough, it wasn’t unhappy. “We were poor. But I didn’t even know that we were until I was faced with someone who had things. I was so spoiled with love that I didn’t even miss things.” Her love and admiration are palpable. “My parents are the strongest people I know. They gave me the greatest gift of strength and perspective. People say they look up to their parents or that their parents are their heroes. Mine really are.”
Mila’s family strength extends to the scientific. Her brother and both parents pursue the empirical, stemming back to their lives in the Ukraine. “They’d both been scientists and had to come here and start over,” she says. Since science is close to both her life and the current political climate, what does she think about claims that there’s currently a “war on science” being waged from the White House? “I don’t know if I’d use the words ‘war on science’ because they seem really strong. But I do know that we’ve cut funding for research in areas like stem cells and the space program and things that will move us forward as a country.” Though she stops short of the word “war,” she continues, “It’s like we’re censoring science by starving it of funding. My friend’s father is a scientist at UCLA where a lot of their research is government funded. I know that when Bush took office his funding got cut and he lost his job.” She grimaces at the notion of this regression. “I’m just ready to be moving forward instead of backward.”
Now splitting her time between coasts with the added bonus of a New York born-and-bred boyfriend, Mila’s had her share of Big Apple moments. I can hear her grin as she recounts, “my favorite New York moment! I had just started dating my boyfriend, and we were down on the Lower East Side, at like Houston and Broadway, and we walked all the way to my place at like 54th and 7th. It was pouring down rain and from one until three in the morning we walked the entire city. Through Washington Square Park and Union Square and we felt like we were the only people left in the city.” She delights in the memory. “It’s my most perfect New York experience.”
As we hang up and I send her back to her boyfriend, I tell her to enjoy the replay of the debate. She says, “I’ve got it pulled up on YouTube right now!” Well, whomever Mila Kunis casts her ballot for in November, you can be sure it will be a well thought through decision.